Books: Killing Yair

A new book presents the hunt for the Jewish underground during the British Mandate as a game of cat and mouse.

Avraham Stern (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Avraham Stern
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In January 1942, Jewish residents of Mandate Palestine awoke to hear a call to arms.
“Hebrew youth! Do you want the nation to be redeemed? Do you wish for the conquest of the homeland? Are you ready to lay down your life for the resurrection of the Hebrew kingdom?” It was an announcement by Avraham “Yair” Stern, the leader of a small, breakaway underground Jewish militant group that opposed British rule.
A month later Stern was dead, shot in a raid by British police commander Geoffrey Morton.
Patrick Bishop, a popular military historian, seeks to get to the bottom of the Morton-Stern tryst in The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land. For him, it seems like the ultimate detective story – the British hunt for a dangerous criminal and terrorist. When Stern was dead, “for the British, a dangerous enemy had been taken out of the frame and a difficult case closed. For the Jews, a gangster whose activities had brought shame on the community had been eliminated.”
According to Bishop, the action of killing Stern in a small Tel Aviv apartment in 1942 had deep reverberations.
The Reckoning presents the contest between Morton and Stern as two individuals who collided in Palestine. Both were born in 1907. Morton was 30 when he was first posted to Haifa; a longtime veteran of the police in England and then Egypt, he was considered a competent but unremarkable officer. His first task in British Palestine was to help suppress the Arab revolt that broke out in 1936. In his line of duty, before killing members of the Stern Group, he didn’t seem especially zealous or bloodthirsty; he had killed only one man, a notorious Arab gangster, in a gunfight.
Stern was the opposite of the imposing colonial policeman. An intellectual who fancied himself a revolutionary, he was from Suwalki, 240 kilometers northeast of Warsaw. “Stern stood out from the start,” writes Bishop. “He was a show-off with a compulsion to perform.” He enjoyed theater and had a slightly dark complexion that set him apart from his Polish Jewish brethren.
At the Hebrew University he was a Hebrew literature student, but he was drawn to politics. “He could find positive attributes even in Mussolini, Stalin and Franco.
In time, he would come to believe he was a man of destiny himself,” continues Bishop. Recruited by David Raziel, he joined the Irgun Zva’i Leumi, the underground organization that would eventually be led by Menachem Begin, and presented itself as a more right-wing opposition to the British than the left-leaning and much larger Hagana.
A lot of this history is well-known to those who have studied the Mandate or have an interest in Revisionist Zionism – the ins and out of the conflict between the Mandatory authorities and Jews and Arabs; and the split between the Irgun, Stern Group and Hagana. Bishop narrates through the beginning of World War II and how David Ben-Gurion announced that the Zionists would support the British in the war, but oppose British immigration policies that were keeping Jewish refugees from fleeing to the Land of Israel.
The problem with any study of Stern and his friends is that despite their lofty goals and Stern’s apparent romantic image, it isn’t entirely clear what they accomplished. Some of their zeal for revenge is interesting and understandable.
For instance, in 1939, Irgun commander Benyamin Zeroni was captured by the British and tortured; one of the British tormentors was Ralph Cairns. The Irgun, and the men who would later become Sternists, sought revenge and blew up Cairns in Rehavia.
Some of the methods the British employed would later be put to use by Israel, such as administrative detention, and some of the emergency regulations used to suppress the Irgun and the Stern Group are in place today in the West Bank. Reading about Jews suffering at the end of these regulations may make readers question their necessity in suppressing Palestinian violence. Bishop doesn’t touch this issue, as he is interested in a straightforward whodunit.
When Stern left the Irgun, he found himself with a small band of followers and no resources. His men set about robbing banks. “Stern picked his own roles – poet, dreamer, lover, international wheeler-dealer. The greatest of these was that of ‘Yair.’ Yair was the man he wanted to be, a feared and fearless warrior,” notes Bishop His men certainly were feared; they rigged complex bombs and killed Jews who worked for the British as well as British police without remorse. But the reader can’t help but wonder whether the story of the hunt for Stern is overblown. The real operations of his gang were carried out after his death, such as the assassination of Lord Moyne in Egypt and the killing of British police commander Tom Wilkin.
Yair Stern styled himself a revolutionary, but perhaps history has allowed him too many liberties in wearing this guise.
Either way, Bishop’s book is interesting and exciting reading. ■