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Most Zionist movements in Palestine suspended their armed struggle at the start of the second world war, judging that Nazi Germany’s determination to annihilate the Jews was a far bigger threat. At least 30,000 signed up for the British army, receiving training, security information and weapons, which later proved decisive in Israel’s invasion of Palestine 1948. But a fringe broke away under the leadership of a Polish-born romantic poet, Avraham Stern. Throughout the war, they ambushed British forces, even soliciting fascist and Nazi support for their campaign.
|Jewish state, haven for criminals|
Patrick Bishop sets out in detail the story of the British manhunt to root out “Herr” Stern and his small band of “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”, better known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi. As long as Stern’s men were perpetrating atrocities against Palestinians, the British continued to hold the ring. His terrorists sewed explosive vests and planted bombs in chocolate boxes and milk-churns in Arab cinemas, cafés and markets. When caught, they did spells in detention camps, often escaping with remarkable ease.
But when the Stern gang began turning those same tactics on British administrators and the Jewish “collaborators” who worked for them, booby-trapping their officers along Tel Aviv’s main drag, Dizengoff, and detonating gelignite under commanders’ cars, Britain’s chief of police in Palestine sought its “liquidation”. Encircled by Vichy forces in Lebanon and Syria, a Nazi-backed takeover in Iraq and Rommel’s forces advancing into Egypt, the British were loth to leave Axis sympathisers on the loose in Palestine. In February 1942 they began shooting Stern’s men on sight.
Netting them proved fairly simple. Within 17 days of the police chief’s order, Britain’s Criminal Investigation Department announced that 85 of an estimated 100 militants were in prison. Three had been killed, including the 34-year-old Stern. For all his paeans to violence, Stern cut a rather pathetic figure. Policemen found him in his underwear and slippers cowering unarmed in a wardrobe in a Tel Aviv garret. The local assistant superintendent, Geoffrey Morton, shot him dead.
As so often with counterinsurgencies, Britain won the battle but lost the war. Stern, writes Mr Bishop, proved far more formidable dead than alive. His flirtations with fascism as a student in interwar Florence were theatrical. He never fired a gun or set off a bomb. By the time of his death, most of his disciples had abandoned him. But his killing made him into a martyr. Other hardline Zionist currents which had sided with Britain went back to fighting it, confident that the allies could win the second world war without them. Armed with intimate knowledge of British bases, they blew up the waning empire’s warplanes, trains and headquarters in Palestine and the British embassy in Rome. Within five years, Britain had abandoned its mandate.
Perhaps Stern’s most potent legacy is to have been among the first Zionists to mix that dangerously romantic cocktail of religion and nationalism. Whereas most Zionist leaders were staunch secularists, Stern took only a Bible and his leather phylacteries as he fled from one hideout to the next. Biblical imagery peppers his love and war poems. He called for holy war and the building of a third temple, and espoused a Davidic kingdom rather than a democratic state. And he championed rejection of the prevailing superpower, even when it was a patron. A fringe discourse in the 1940s, Stern’s language is increasingly echoed by the activists on the religious right, Israel’s most potent grassroots force.