Yair Stern’s timeless lessons

As we learned from the Lehi commander, strength is not only measured in weapons, equipment and manpower.

Avraham (Yair) Stern (photo credit: Courtesy. Avraham (Yair) Stern)
Avraham (Yair) Stern
(photo credit: Courtesy. Avraham (Yair) Stern)
The Middle East is in turmoil: a violent revolution in Tunisia, Lebanon on the verge of internal conflict and blood being spilled in Egyptian cities.
But I would like to step away from the sensational headlines of the present and go back almost seven decades. On Monday, on the 25th of Shvat, 1942 – 69 years ago – Avraham (Yair) Stern, the founder and first commander of the Lehi underground, was murdered in Tel Aviv by the British secret police.
At a time when Israeli society is waging a daily battle against the outrageous phenomenon of draftdodging and the unfair distribution of the national burden, Yair’s persona stands out as a beacon of dedication and self-sacrifice.
Stern, who immigrated to Palestine from Poland at 19 and was an outstanding student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was destined for academic greatness. But the obligation to win freedom for his people burned in his soul. He left the comfortable, promising life of research, and dedicated himself utterly to the struggle to force the British authorities out of the Land of Israel.
At 25 he wrote the song “Unknown Soldiers,” which became the Lehi anthem over the years. The song was inspired by the 1929 pogroms, during which 123 Jews were murdered by Arab rioters. The song is prophetic.
In 1932, 16 years before Israel would achieve its independence and years before the Hebrew underground had gained any momentum, with the British Empire at the height of its strength, Yair foresaw: “Enemies, spies and prison houses Will never be able stop us...
And if we fall in the streets and homes... Thousands of others will fill our places To protect and defend forever...
Like mortar shall we put together the cadaver building blocks The edifice of the homeland shall we raise.”
At such a young age, Yair understood what none of the Yishuv leaders was capable of internalizing: that a nation’s independence can only be attained through bitter struggle; that it was not enough to defend Jews from the murderousness of the Arabs, as those who led the Hagana at the time believed; that it was forbidden to cooperate with the British, even in their fight against Nazi Germany, as Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Irgun had decided; and that the Hebrew state would only rise from the battlefield, after the land had been conquered from foreign rule.
AT THAT time, very few people could identify with Yair’s vision. Britain was a vast empire that had imposed its rule over a quarter of the world’s population, across different continents, for hundreds of years. The challenge posed by Yair, a mere doctoral student of Latin literature, against “the empire on which the sun never sets,” was regarded by the overwhelming majority in the Yishuv as outlandish, unrealistic and extremely dangerous. Stern became the most wanted man in the Land of Israel.
The British were not the only ones hunting him intensely. Many of his fellow Jews, for whom he had risked his life, displayed open hostility to him and his organization. Intensifying this antagonism were tactical errors made by the Lehi, whose attacks on British governmental institutions at times also resulted in innocent Jewish casualties. The Hagana conducted a campaign against the “Stern Gang” – informing on it, and capturing and torturing its members. Yair felt the noose tightening around his neck. The isolation, excommunication and fear of being turned in threatened to bring about his end.
Yet Yair was able to look far beyond the operational difficulties, the limited number of fighters he had at his disposal and the small quantities of rifles and grenades in the underground’s weapons stores. Two souls coexisted in his personality, as he himself testified in one of the poems he left behind: “Yes, I am both a soldier and a poet! Today I write with a pen, tomorrow I will write with a sword Today I write in ink, tomorrow I will write in blood...”
A poet has an advantage over a regular leader. His spiritual side connects to history, to Jewish heritage and identity, and gives him unique faith and strength.
Such was Yair. He did not close his eyes to the organizational difficulties that inhibited the functioning of the underground. He was wise enough to realize that the British secret police would before long find him in one of the various hideouts to which he would disappear at night, with his small suitcase, carrying not a weapon but his handwritten poems. But Yair knew that his role in the rebirth of the Hebrew nation did not include fear and retreat. He accepted his fate peacefully, as a historic verdict from which freedom would grow and flourish.
Indeed, just six years after he was murdered in cold blood, the last British flag was lowered and the last British soldier boarded the ship that would take him back to his homeland. The State of Israel became a fact, though not without an additional bloody war of liberation against seven neighboring Arab countries.
The dramatic events now taking place to our north and our south make it clear to everyone that even today, 63 years after attaining independence, Israel needs to retain its full strength to insure its very existence.
As we learned from Yair, strength is not only measured in weapons, equipment and manpower.
First and foremost, strength is total commitment and willingness to sacrifice, great faith and historic recognition. I hope this truth will always guide our leaders, from all factions and worldviews.
The writer is a former Kadima minister.