The Irgun is famous; Lehi – the other Jewish underground that fought the British in the 1940s – less so. With only 1,000 fighters, as opposed to the Irgun’s 5,000, Lehi is sometimes thought of as the Irgun’s “kid brother.”
Yet Lehi possesses a history of its own. Founded in 1940 by Abraham Stern, Lehi devoted itself to an uncompromising war against Great Britain. Unlike the Irgun, Lehi fought the British throughout World War II, and while the Irgun generally gave the British time to evacuate buildings before it blew them up, Lehi did not.
Lehi’s goals were no less radical than its deeds. In its 18 “Principles of Rebirth,” Lehi called for conquering all the land from the Nile to the Euphrates (the Irgun “only” called for conquering both banks of the Jordan), as well as rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash.
A new book by Zev Golan, Stern: The Man and his Gang (Yair Publishing), relates the history and ideology of this unusual group while also profiling some of its more famous members. Golan has authored five previous books and, from 1992-2003, directed the Israel office of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies.
The Jewish Press: For those unfamiliar with Lehi’s activities, can you recount some of the group’s more famous exploits?
Golan: Perhaps their most famous exploit, if you can call it that, is the assassination of Lord Moyne in Egypt. Lord Moyne was the highest British politician in the Middle East, and it was his decision not to save the Jews of Hungary. He said to the messenger who came to him with plans to save them, “What would I do with a million Jews? Where would I put them?”
Lehi didn’t know about that at the time – it was only revealed 15 years later – but Lehi did know that Lord Moyne was the highest British politician in the Middle East and responsible, therefore, for closing the gates of the homeland to Jews trying to get in [during the Holocaust]. So they assassinated him.
Another thing Lehi is famous for is its conduct in British courtrooms. Lehi’s fighters were the first to turn these courtrooms into a battlefield. Starting in 1944, when they were put on trial, they refused to recognize the court’s authority. Instead of claiming they were innocent, they said, “Yes, we carried arms, and we’re going to fight you and throw you out of the country.”
This changed the attitude of a lot of people in Eretz Yisrael in the 1940s from the idea that “We have to bow down to a foreign power” to “What are they doing in our country? We’re the descendants of King David; this was his country, and we have a right to be here – not them.”
What about Lehi’s assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte in September 1948?
That is perhaps Lehi’s second most famous action. It also was its last.
Bernadotte had been appointed by the UN to negotiate peace in Eretz Yisrael, and he decided to come with his own plan that he would force upon the parties. His plan took not only Yerushalayim but also large portions of the country that the UN had originally designated to be part of Israel, and gave them to the Arabs. He even wanted to ensure that no Jew of military age would enter the country, and intended to station agents at airports and seaports around the world for that purpose.
Lehi held a rally at which they said, “Leave the country, you’re not wanted here.” Bernadotte didn’t listen, so a group of Lehi members assassinated him. That ended the Bernadotte plan, but it also ended Lehi because Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion used the attack as an excuse to arrest most of its members.