Israel's Underground War for Liberation

A book review

Bruce Hoffman,

Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 2015, pp. 618


On May 15, 1948, the day the British Mandate rule over Palestine was terminated, a last White Paper statement of policy was issued, prepared jointly by the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office in London.  The authors noted that “the ending of thirty years of British rule in Palestine…provides a fitting occasion for a brief review of its history and of the policy pursued by His Majesty's Government.”  Divided into six sections dealing with the origin and nature of Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, the country’s development, the obstacles which “frustrated the efforts of His Majesty’s Government to establish self-governing institutions” and the “problem” that was referred to the United Nations, the official published British explanation for quitting the Mandate is found in this paragraph towards the end: 

“His Majesty's Government had now striven for twenty-seven years without success to reconcile Jews and Arabs and to prepare the people of Palestine for self-government….84,000 troops, who received no cooperation from the Jewish community, had proved insufficient to maintain law and order in the face of a campaign of terrorism waged by highly organized Jewish forces equipped with all the weapons of the modern infantryman. Since the war, 338 British subjects had been killed in Palestine, while the military forces there had cost the British taxpayer 100 million pounds...It was equally clear that, in view of His Majesty's Government's decision not to enforce the partition of Palestine against the declared wishes of the majority of its inhabitants, the continued presence there of British troops and officials could no longer be justified.

In these circumstances His Majesty's Government decided to bring to an end their Mandate and to prepare for the earliest possible withdrawal from Palestine of all British forces.”

Despite the fact that Bruce Hoffman seems either to have overlooked this document (although on p. 415 quotes historian William Louis has noting in 1984 that “one-tenth of the armed forces of the entire British Empire” were dealing with the conflict in Palestine), deciding not to include the 1948 White Paper in his sources, or to have ignored its findings, his book, nonetheless, provides the reader with manifold examples of who those "extremists" were, what those "highly organized Jewish forces" planned and did and who exactly killed over 300 British security personnel, the ultimate, but surely not the sole, reason for convincing the British to throw in the towel.  Those “brigands and bandits” of who spoke Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on January 31, 1947 in his famous “this squalid war” speech are placed within their historical, ideological and political context that should put an end, finally, to the decades-long exclusion of right-wing Zionism and its approaches, campaigns and achievements.

“Anonymous Soldiers” brilliantly and lucidly re-creates the crucial period in the establishment of Israel from documents, memoirs and other sources when Zionism’s militia forces, first formed as defense units and then as urban guerrilla undergrounds, became the primary cutting edge in Israel’s liberation from foreign rule in addition to reclaiming the soil and ingathering the exiles.  Hoffman chronicles the three decades of growing anticolonial unrest that culminated in the end of British rule and the UN recommendation, rejected by the Arabs, to create two separate states.

The book tells in riveting, and in previously unknown details, the story of how Britain, in the twilight of empire, struggled and ultimately failed to reconcile competing Arab and Jewish demands and uprisings as was its responsibility, delegated to it by the League of Nations. Bruce Hoffman, America’s leading expert on terrorism, shines new light on the bombing of the King David Hotel, the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo, the leadership of Menachem Begin, the life and death of Abraham Stern, and much else. Above all, Hoffman shows exactly how the underdog “anonymous soldiers” of the Irgun and Lehi defeated the British and set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the creation of the formidable nation-state of Israel.

This is a towering accomplishment of research and narrative, but not without errors, and a book that is essential to anyone wishing to understand not just the origins of modern-day Israel or the current situation in the Middle East, but also the methodology of terrorism. Drawing on previously untapped archival resources in London, Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem, Bruce Hoffman has written one of the most detailed and sustained accounts of a terrorist and counter-terrorist campaign that may ever have been seen, and in doing so has cast light on one of the most decisive world events in recent history. This will be the definitive account of the struggle for Israel for years to come.

Academic objective treatment of Jewish violence to achieve national freedom has not been lacking.  Since the 1970s, books based on documents rather than biases have appeared including John Bowyer Bell’s 1976 “Terror Out of Zion”, “The Palestine Triangle: The struggle for the Holy Land, 1935-48” published in 1979 by Nicholas Bethell, “The British Army and Jewish Insurgency in Palestine, 1945-47” by David A. Charters in 1989 and more recently, the 2003 “Blood in Zion: How the Jewish Guerrillas Drove the British Out of Palestine” by Saul Zadka and Patrick Bishop’s 2014 “The Reckoning: How the Killing of One Man Changed the Face of the Promised Land”, published probably after Hoffman’s book had gone to print as well as the 2014 two-volume “Palestine in Turmoil” by Monty Penkower.

Joseph Nedava’s “Who Expelled the British from Palestine?”, a 1988 study based on official British and Jewish Agency documents, which systematically proved than the crucial and central role was that of the fighting undergrounds is also not included in the bibliography.

One difficulty I found in the book’s overview is the lack of any real treatment of the aspect of the intellectual development of the forces that would create lethal fighting units, both to protect and defend the growing Jewish community in Mandate Palestine and then to attack Britain as an “foreign occupant” and an “oppressive regime” in the 1940s.  Just as one cannot truly grasp the IRA’s 1916 “Easter Rising” without the insight into the writings of Padraig Pearse and W.B. Yeats, for example, not to deal with what accompanied the bombs and bullets - the literary and cultural output, the poems, songs and plays, the language revival, the glorification of a past and such within Zionism and, in particular Revisionist Zionism, is inadequate.  A simple political retelling of the events and persons is very insufficient.  National liberation is not just the operations of armed undergrounds.  Fighters willing to ascend the gallows singing the Zionist anthem of HaTikva, as did do 12 members of the Irgun and Lehi, are instilled with value-driven conceptualizations of their role in history.

Hoffman does not include any discussion of the spirit of the revolt against what was seen, eventually, by all the three armed militias, to have become after the May 1939 White Paper an oppressive regime.  Strangely, the activities of the Brit HaBiryonim quasi-underground protest group led by Abba Achimeir, Yehoshua Yeiven and Uri Tzvi Greenberg and their subsequent ‘Maximalist’ faction (on p. 26 he mistakenly attributes the term to Jabotinsky) in the early 1930s is absent.  One cannot understand the armed insurrection of the 1940s without the poetry of Avraham Stern (his anthem, “Unknown Soldiers”, is quoted on p. 96 but that is its sole extent), Yonatan Ratosh and, of course, Jabotinsky himself. Albeit briefly, at least ‘Izz al-Din al-Qassam’s ideology is analyzed, including a talisman he had hid in his turban.  An underground is powered not only by oppression but first by a spirit, a spirit of love of country and people, a spirit of a desire to be free.

This theme of the underlying cultural element has received an excellent treatment in Colin Shindler’s recent Cambridge University Press’ “The Rise of the Israeli Right”, his fourth volume on Zionism’s rightwing in the past century.  Hoffman devotes less than 100 pages to the 20 years leading up to the cataclysmic breaking-point between Great Britain and Zionism, the May 1939 White Paper with almost 400 from 1939 until September 1947.  That abrupt end, although his book opens with the last High Commissioner’s departure from Jerusalem on May 14, 1948, allows Hoffman to both avoid the responses of the undergrounds to the Arab threat that began in earnest immediately after the UN’s November 29, 1947 Partition Plan vote and to the continued attacks on British personnel and installations until May 1948.  Why he chose to do so is not adequately explained and, in my opinion, unfortunate.

Another difficulty is that Hoffman, at times, loses sight of the Irgun and Lehi fundamental ideological outlook as distinct from tactical actions within the political landscape of the Yishuv.  This is most evident in his treatment of the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo in November 1944.  He correctly points out that “the Yishuv suffered a far greater penalty…the loss of what was likely to be an immediate and favorable decision on the mandate’s future [i.e., a partition plan – YM]”.  However, a partition plan was not on Lehi’s agenda nor that of the Irgun.  From the establishment’s viewpoint, the assassination was a problem.  But what problem?  He quotes Chaim Weizmann, p. 194, that “the harm done…was…in providing our enemies with a convenient excuse…to justify their course…”.

In late 1944, the existence of concentration camps and the industrial mass murders were well known for two years.  The Jewish Agency had been battling the restrictions of the 1939 White Paper for five years.  If anything, they could have exploited the assassination to prod the Allied powers and even England itself (in fact, Ben-Tzion Netanyahu and Peter Bergson, separately, were doing just that but not the Jewish Agency) but Weizmann and friends were too involved in the moral aspect of Zionism’s struggle for an independent state as if violence stained.  In Ireland, in Poland and 168 years earlier, in America, people took up arms to gain their freedom but that example was too extreme for Weizmann. Here Hoffman could have been critical of the official Zionist position in the light of his own findings regarding ‘Zionist terrorism’.

In this connection, a major lacunae in Hoffman’s research can be found on p. 321 where he notes that in the summer of 1946, MI5 believed that France’s active assistance to all three undergrounds stemmed from “the support…Britain had given Lebanese and Syrian nationalist movements”.  As Meir Zamir has proven, based on diplomatic documents, the British had actually gone one critical step further.

In two scholarly articles published in 2010, Zamir proves de Gaulle's accusations that Britain secretly engineered the expulsion of France from the Levant and discloses that Britain was behind the Hashemite schemes to integrate Syria in a Greater Syria as per a secret agreement from May 29 1945.  In a 2008 article, Zamir proves that in August 1944 “the British government gave its representatives in the Middle East the go-ahead to implement Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Said's ‘Fertile Crescent Plan’. This entailed forming Greater Syria by integrating Syria with Transjordan, Palestine and Lebanon. At a later stage, Greater Syria would be united in a federation with Iraq. The Christian minorities in Lebanon and the Jews in Palestine would enjoy autonomy.”  In essence, “Churchill and Eden finally accepted the approach of their representatives in the Middle East and adopted a strategy congruent with the surging force of pan-Arabism…Britain had to oust France from the Levant, violate its commitments to the Zionist movement just when the scale of the Holocaust in Europe was becoming apparent…”.

A further step undertaken by British Intelligence officers in 1947, as Zamir published in 2014, was their active encouragement of an Arab invasion of the soon-to-be Jewish state which would result in Lebanon annexing “the Western Galilee up to Shavei Zion; Syria the northeastern part of the Galilee and part of its southern region; Egypt part of the cake; and Transjordan will swallow up the rest”.  Zamir’s publications are not to be found in Hoffman’s bibliography.

Was the assassination, now in hindsight, harmful to the Zionist cause?  Was Churchill really on the verge of proposing a new partition plan or was he about to perfidiously dissolve the Zionist dream?  Did Lehi even "by accident" confound a British betrayal that would have led to the untold deaths of many in the Yishuv?

Regarding his sources, while many of the books consulted are in the Hebrew, and while many other historians of the period rely very little on the Hebrew, Hoffman, or his research assistants, seemed to be have been unable to fully mine the wealth of information contained in the Hebrew literature.  He thus fails his readers with much material being denied them from senior commanders of all the undergrounds including Yitzhak Sadeh, Yigal Alon, Yitzhak Rabin, Shmuel Tamir, Nahum Slonim, Nechemia Ben-Tor, Matti Shmulevitz, Yaakov Banai, Moshe Svorai and a score others. 

And there are English memoirs such as Epitaph for an Army of Peacekeepers: The British Army in Palestine, 1945-1948 by George Webb and Forgotten Conscripts Prelude to Palestine's Struggle for Survival by Eric Lowe not included. Nor are novels such as

The existence of three different underground organizations was not without its clashes, ideologically, politically, tactically or ethical. I was surprised there is no real discussion of the issue of “purity of arms” which sought to portray the Hagana and the Palmach as morally superior to the Irgun and Lehi dissident groups.  A close reading would have revealed that in a few instances, the Hagana and Palmach engaged in practices the dissidents, the Irgun especially, would never have engaged.  It was Palmach members who, after receiving a short course in anatomy at a Kupat Holim, surgically removed the penis of an Arab rapist in the Bet Shean area in 1943. The two castrators were Yochai Bin-Nun, later Chief Naval Commander and Amos Horev, eventually the President of the Technion. A song, “Sirasnucha Ya Muhammed” was composed to mark the event. 

On March 28, 1947, Mordechai Berger, a traffic policeman in the Palestine Police Force, married and a father, was beaten to death at the corner of Arlosorov and Ben-Yehudah Streets in Tel Aviv with iron pipes, mistakenly suspected of informing on the Haganah. The Haganah district commander, Nachum Ziv-Av, was reprimanded and removed from his position but in 1948 was appointed the Tel Aviv Police Commandant.

Parallel to Irgun and Lehi operations at the King David Hotel, Deir Yassin and others, the establishment undergrounds engaged in similar actions. The Hagana blew up a hotel, the Semiramis in Jerusalem, killing civilians; the Palmach assassinated a police officer, William H. Bruce, on October 17, 1946 in Jerusalem for harsh treatment he meted out to Palmach members arrested at Birya and also blew up a dozen or so houses of the Arab village of Sassa in February 1948 killing over 60 civilians. In mid-December 1947, the Palmach attacked the village of al-Khisas, near the Lebanese border, and later that month, Balad al-Sheikh, outside of Haifa, resulting in scores of dead.

The self-righteousness attitude of the ‘official’ militias continued well into the period of the state, affecting the educational system whereby the actions and ideology of the Irgun and Lehi were almost non-existent in the history texts of the schools. To the extent that they were included, the Irgun and Lehi were objects of disdain whereas the questionable actions in pre-state days of the Haganah and Palmach were kept out of the public eye for decades.

Hoffman’s last sentence relays the factoid that when US troops invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Begin’s memoir, The Revolt, was found in an al-Qaeda library.  In one of J. Bower Bell’s books on the IRA, he recalls that whereas Raziel and Stern copied from IRA literature in the late 1930s for the Irgun newsletter, when he visited an IRA commander, sure enough, The Revolt was on the shelf.  Good ideas and tactics surely are shared, not only among national liberation fighters.

Hoffman’s conclusion is that it is “indisputable” that the Irgun was successful in its campaign, one that “significantly” hastened and “profoundly” affected the British government’s decision on whether to continue to fight in Mandate Palestine or yield up the Mandate. The Irgun’s strategy was “innovative” and its political front groups were “particularly successful”.  Would that Israelis learn what Hoffman learned.

Notwithstanding my critical observations, "Anonymous Soldiers" will be the benchmark for students of the use of military-style operations in the field of national liberation studies.


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 Appendix of Errors of Omission and Commission


A reviewer, of course, must deal with what is in a book but, given the importance of the author as a scholar, the importance of the subject as well as the need for a fact-based history, I list below additional matters which I found to be problematic I found while reading the book and with which I disagree with Hoffman:

p. 9 – Jabotinsky was appointed head of Jerusalem’s self-defense unit by the Zionist Commission in the fall of 1919, the precursor of the Hagana, and not asked by the various members “to serve as their commander”.

p. 17 – As Hebert Samuel was the first High Commissioner, to write “not for the first time, a high commissioner had learned…” is contradictory. It was the first time.

p. 26 – applying the term “maximalist” to Jabotinsky in 1928 is wrong.  It was the term that Abba Achimeir and his own faction first employed publicly in August 1932 to describe their Zionist approach as opposed to ordinary “revisionism”.

p. 27 – the building of an “iron wall”, suggested by Jabotinsky in his 1923 article was not intended to be a physical wall as could be understood.

p. 67 – Jamal al-Husseini was not the Mufti’s brother but his cousin from both his father and his mother.

p. 81 – If the Irgunist bomber made his way through Haifa’s market “on the evening of July 6” at “6:00” there are two problems. The first is that a market is empty in the evening and secondly, the time should have been 18:00. Obviously, a morning six AM was the hour.

p. 88 – The claim that in October 1938 “no one who was not an Arab dared venture” inside Jerusalem’s Old City is exaggerated.  Jews continued to live in the Jewish Quarter and other sections, although many became refugees and Jews continued to walk to the Western Wall.

p. 90 – It would have be proper to note that the Arabs, apartheid-like, refused even to sit together with the Jewish delegation at the St. James Conference forcing British officials to run up and down the two different floors.

p. 93 – given that the new program adopted by the Jewish Agency’s new program in response to the 1939 White Paper, Hoffman could have noted that its measures justified Jabotinsky’s politics for the past decade and more and that of the Irgun at the time.

p. 94 – the raid of the Special Squads on “a Bedouin village near Haifa” in 1939 actually was a private revenge action taken two years after Yosef Bruck was murdered in ambush near the ‘Small Sachna’, today Ein Chaim, when the killer Muhamad Awad was located and shot in the back by Haim Levkov after taken prisoner. As the Irgun was accused of “immoral” actions, such as these, it is important to know that the leftist Hagana engaged in similar activities. Levkov became a most senior Palmach commander.

p. 103 – claiming that Avraham Stern was a “womanizer” is an accusation that should have been proven rather than simply referred to unreservedly. Roni, his wife, was his companion since 1928, with whom he composed the anthem “Anonymous Soldiers” and they married in January 1936.  On the other hand, to claim he was a “devout Jew” (p. 105) is a bit exaggerated. 

p. 105 – that Hoffman does not provide more details of Stern’s “Plan of the 40,000” is unfortunate as it involved Polish government negotiations, secret dealings kept from Jabotinsky and a dangerous threat to the unity of the Betar youth movement in Poland, the largest human reservoir of the combatants.

p. 106 – the date of the first communique of the newly-founded Stern Group was actually not on September 3, 1940. At the beginning of July, Stern and the Irgun both published announcements carrying the same number 112. Stern’s communique informed that as of 2 Sivan (July 8) he had assumed command and that the Irgun had returned to its raison d’etre to wage war for Israel’s freedom, this as opposed to the actual Irgun’s policy of a ceasefire during England’s war against Nazi Germany.  In any case, the communique Hoffman notes was published on the eve of Rosh Hashana which fell on October 3, 1940. The September date is a month off.

p. 122 – Menachem Begin was not kept in a labor camp in “Siberia”. Pechora is located west of and near the northern Ural Mountains. Siberia, in a strict geographical sense, extends eastwards from the Ural Mountains.  This needs be corrected at Jerusalem’s Begin Heritage Museum, as well.

p. 123 – this would have been the proper place to discuss the Am Lochem initiative, an attempt to unite all three underground groups which existed from the summer of 1943 until January 1944. The group planned a kidnapping of High Commissioner Harold MacMichael in November that year but the action was cancelled. A leading member was Yigal Horowitz, later a cabinet member in Begin’s first government. The future move of various Palmach members into Lehi can be traced to this period.

p. 126 – Hoffman quotes from “American intelligence reports” for the first time here and refers to this source repeatedly throughout.  It is unfortunate he has not identified the person. Was it CIA? Was he fed material by the Jewish Agency or was he independent?

p. 151 – a more complete source for Tom Wilkin is Ram Oren’s 2006 Yamim Adumin (Red Days), not listed by Hoffman.

p. 154 – Hoffman quotes, uncritically, John Shaw’s characterization of the Jewish Agency’s youth education program as “unpleasantly reminiscent of Hitler Youth”. An analysis of whether Shaw was, at the very least, providing his Minister with outlandish claims should have been provided.

p. 162 – “Hakim was Sephardim” is awkward. He was Sephardi.

pp. 162-178 – in all his treatment of the Moyne assassination by the Lehi, Hoffman avoids any discussion of the suggested anti-Semitic remarks made by Edward Guinness and treated even by non-Irgun/Lehi sympathizer Bernard Wasserstein in his “The Jews of Europe” and also found in the Wikipedia entry on Moyne. Two other works by Wasserstein on Moyne are included in the bibliography.  A 2014 academic study by Hannah Dailey, “The History and Memory of the Assassination of Lord Moyne” notes Moyne’s “speech in the House of Lords on 9 June 1942, when he had spoken of the ‘purity’ of the Arab race and had denigrated the attempts of the ‘mixed’ Jewish race to establish control over Palestine…”.

p. 187 – Teddy Kollek’s cover name was “Scorpion”, not Snake.

p. 223 – the discussion on the American-Anglo Commission of Inquiry of autumn 1945 ignores any, if at all, Zionist behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

p. 245 – quoting contemporary British sources, Hoffman informs the reader that at the beginning of 1946, “some 460 Palmach fighters had been lent (sic!) to the Irgun” and that the Irgun was the recipient of a 300,000 pound sterling grant from the Haganah.  To quote such an impossible reality without comment is astounding on the part of a historian seemingly well-versed in the subject of Jewish underground groups in the Palestine Mandate at the time.  If this was the level of British intelligence, Hoffman could have pointed out how incapable they were of knowing the enemy.

p. 255 – in noting the arrest of thirty Irgunists in early April 1946, that one of them was Eitan Livni, the Irgun’s chief of operations, quite a significant matter, is missing. Livni’s memoir is included in the bibliography.

p. 265 – Dr. Israel Scheib (Eldad), in his 1944 attempt to escape arrest, fell while descending from a window of an apartment where a pupil of his lived via a rainwater drain, not from the school’s roof, as Eldad relates in his memoir “First Tithe” which, strangely, is not in the bibliography.

p. 274 – to my thinking, to describe Moshe Shertok as championing the “extremist wing” of the Jewish Agency even in June 1946 is to misinterpret his character.  The establishment of the United Resistance Movement was a mainstream decision and in any case, the faction most championing the armed attacks were the “activist” wing.

p. 291 – Begin suggested an attack on the King David Hotel on May 15, 1946, not in April, as attested to by the biographer of Moshe Sneh, Eli Shaltiel, in his book published in 2000. Another book missing is Yosef Evron’s 2001 study of Amichai “Gidi” Paglin which was published in an English translation in 2009 as “One Chasing a Thousand”.  These are crucial sources for the period and their lacking is evident on p. 294 where Hoffman writes “allegedly” and supposedly” to describe Sneh’s failure to inform Begin of his resignation as Haganah commander prior to the operation’s launch on July 22.

p. 316 – If, indeed, the Irgun “boasted that Begin himself was screened but escaped detection because of the quality of his false papers” during Operation Shark, Begin himself describes in his The Revolt, p. 228, how he hid in a secret behind the wall compartment for three days.

p. 324-325 – did indeed the money raised by the Bergson groups go to the Irgun? All of it? There’s a back-story here of which Hoffman knows not, or avoids or thinks not relevant to his book.

p. 328 – It was on September 8, 1946 that the Irgun blew up only the signal box on a bridge leading to the Haifa’s Shell Oil refinery.

p. 335 – to describe Peter Bergson’s organizations and members as “his ilk” is quite improper and an objective historian should not be employing such language.  And the same observation applies to his use of “gratuitous” on p. 457 regarding the mining of the ground under the hanged body of Sergeant Martin.

p. 342 – the British most certainly did not “thwart” the Irgun’s attack on the Jerusalem rail station. The Palestine Post’s October 31 headline reads: “Railway station blown up. Three killed; fourteen injured”.

p. 404 – the two hand grenades delivered to Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani on death row in Jerusalem’s Central Prison did not come from the Irgun but were fashioned by the Lehi’s Eliezer Ben-Ami inside the jail.

p. 455-456 – Aryeh Eshel’s important history of the hanging of the two sergeants published in Hebrew as “Gallows in Netanya” in 1990 is not sourced.

p. 484 – the internationalization of Arab Palestinian terrorism developed way before the 1960s and 1970s, as Hoffman would have it. Already in 1936, Fawzi al-Qawuqji, born in Tripoli, Lebanon, was a commander of an anti-Zionist gang of marauders. He came back to fight at Mishmar Hanegev in early 1948.

p. 611 – the Saison has an entry on p. 34 according to the index. But there is no mention of the anti-dissident campaign on that page.  Moreover, when the Saison is discussed, beginning on p. 188, it is seemingly dropped on the reader with no explanation or background.  The reader does not know that preparations for the Saison, including a training course for Palmach members, was underway in September, some 6 weeks before the assassination of Lord Moyne, the supposed trigger for the cooperation of the Jewish Agency and the British CID.