Shedding light on the underground

The Stern Group’s bravest acts – or its most dastardly ones – were carried out after its leader was shot in February 1942.

'Stern: The Man and His Gang' 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
'Stern: The Man and His Gang' 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the morning of February 12, 1942, British Mandate policemen led by Asst.- Supt. Geoffrey Morton set off for a suspicious address on Mizrahi Street in what is now Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. At the apartment, they conducted a routine search until they came to a closet. A policeman thrust his hand in and found a person hiding there. Out came Abraham 'Yair' Stern (Yair was Stern's nickname in his underground years), leader of the “Stern Gang,” a group that called itself the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel.
Stern was set upon a couch, and the other suspect who had been detained, Tova Svorai, was taken away. Minutes later, she heard shots from the apartment. Stern was dead.
One policeman claimed that “he suddenly dived under the gun of the policeman who was covering him and made a mad rush towards the open window.”
Shot down while “trying to escape,” the leader of the gang was gone and, presumed the police, so was the gang itself. But as Zev Golan illustrates in this well-written and thoroughly researched book, the activities of the group had only just begun.
Stern was born in Suwalki, Poland, in 1907. In 1926, he made his way to the Land of Israel. “I arrived full of hopes and reverentially touched this land, mother to the Jewish people, this land upon which I intended to build a new life,” the book quotes him as recalling.
He became a member of the nascent Hagana and enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He “was recognized as an exceptional student with a great academic future... while his professors imagined him one day heading the classics department, Stern had other ideas.” He joined the Irgun, a new organization that had emerged from Hagana dissidents, Betar activists and other disaffected Jews who had left the Hagana mainstream.
As we know now, the Irgun and its Revisionist Zionist supporters would go on to produce the political luminaries who run the country today.
Leaving behind his academic career, Stern became more political and eventually began writing articles for an Irgun newspaper called Masu’ot.
In 1940, he and some friends left the Irgun, with the view that it was not doing enough to push the British out of the country and found a Jewish state.
Stern’s organization became the most radical of those opposing British rule in Palestine. Golan notes that “like many revolutionary movements before it, it chose to appropriate funds from the enemy by robbing banks.”
The group also became interested in assassinations as a form of fighting the British, targeting British minister of state Oliver Lyttelton and British detectives.
The irony of it all was that the Stern Group’s greatest acts – or its more dastardly ones, depending on the view – came after Stern was gunned down in 1942. Its members pioneered brilliant prisoner escapes, assassinated Lord Moyne in broad daylight in Cairo and, in 1948, blew up a train carrying British troops, killing 28 soldiers. In all, the organization carried out some 200 attacks on the British. During the War of Independence, it was involved in the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte and the infamous killings of Arab villagers at Deir Yassin. For all this, the Stern Group earned a well-deserved reputation as a spoiler in Zionist affairs, a criminal terrorist organization, without scruples or principles.
Golan goes a long way toward trying to dispel this view. Even though the activities of Menachem Begin’s Irgun are well known today in Israel, the work of the Stern Group, its ideology and history, are obscure. This book is one of the few in English to articulate both the history of the organization and its ideology. “For Lehi [the acronym usually used for the Stern Group], sovereignty was not a solution but a goal, an expression of Jewish culture... it determined to fight a war to liberate the homeland from the foreigner,” the author writes.
The Stern Group’s fighters and leaders were an eclectic bunch. Yitzhak Shamir, later a prime minister, was a micromanager, an accountant and also a Hebrew University student.
Israel Eldad, father of Knesset member Arieh Eldad, was a thinker and writer.
A founder of the Greater Israel movement, he believed in absorbing the West Bank into Israel in the 1970s. By contrast, Nathan Yellin-Mor, a former Betar member, became a radical leftist and advocated the creation of a Palestinian state. His son was a founder of Peace Now. Joshua Cohen, another leader, became David Ben-Gurion’s bodyguard in the 1950s.
Golan’s excellent book is organized thematically, with chapters on the biography of Stern, the actions of his organization, short biographies of its members, and chapters on the ideology and historiography of the movement. This is a not a popular-history style of book, but a true labor of love devoted to compiling the historical record on this influential organization that helped shape the State of Israel.