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1,000 Jews Vs. The British Empire: The Story Of Lehi: An Interview with Historian Zev Golan

Historian Zev Golan

Historian Zev Golan

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.

In the book, you profile 13 leaders and members of Lehi, including a Chabad chassid, Moshe Segal. Can you talk about him?

I don’t know if he was Chabad at the time, but he certainly was afterwards. He set up the women’s seminary in Kfar Chabad and was its principal for several years in the 1950s. He also corresponded not only with the [seventh] Lubavitcher Rebbe but also with the one before that.

He was the leader of a religious underground called Brit Chashmonaim; he was a member of the Irgun high command before he joined Lehi; and he was also the first Jew to blow the shofar at the Kotel when the British made it illegal. He was arrested, and only when Rav Kook, the chief rabbi at the time, threatened a hunger strike did the British agree to release him.

Every year afterwards, young Jews went to the Kotel and blew the shofar, and Rav Segal often coordinated [this operation]. The shofars would be smuggled to the Kotel area without the British knowing, somebody would blow it, hand it off to somebody else – often a young woman, who would be searched less by the British – and then try to escape. This went on [from 1930] until 1947, and it made the Kotel an area that symbolized Jewish pride.

Many years later, in 1967, Rav Segal became the first Jew to return to the Old City as a resident. He rebuilt the Chabad synagogue with his own hands and continued to blow the shofar at the Kotel until his death in 1985. He died on Yom Kippur at night.

In the memoirs of Lehi leader Israel Eldad, which you translated and published in 2008, Eldad writes: “Between [Abraham Stern] and even the best among his opponents there still lay this tremendous difference in approach: They admitted we must fight in order to be free, and he said we must fight because we are free.” What did he mean by that?

Stern was, in his soul, a sovereign, free, proud Jew living in the Jewish state.  If I can return to an earlier question, Rav Segal told me that when he put the tallis over his head and blew the shofar at the Kotel he was living in a free Jewish state. There was a little area under that tallis where no non-Jew could tell him what to do in his homeland.

These people were free in their souls and that’s why they fought. They said, “Nobody can oppress us, nobody can tell us when to blow the shofar, nobody can tell us that we can’t bring our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted in Europe to live with us here.” Other Jews, even the best of them, looked around and said, “We’re oppressed, we want to be free. How can we best realize that goal?” When you start thinking like that, there’s a lot of room for political negotiation and machinations, or being docile because “it’s not the right time.”

You argue in the book that Lehi’s ideology, which you call Revolutionary Zionism, is still very much relevant in 2011. How so?

Revolutionary Zionism means that nothing competes with the importance of liberating and establishing Jewish sovereignty in the land – and in bringing redemption. So as long as the land – from the Nile to the Euphrates – is not liberated we have to liberate it. As long as the people are not living entirely in Eretz Yisrael, we have to bring them back to Eretz Yisrael. And as long as we don’t have the Temple, we have to build the Temple.

You also argue that the Lehi mindset has implications for 2011.

Well, for instance, the Jewish people and the Jewish state should not be dependent on other states. We need to be truly free and in charge of our own destiny. Therefore, we would not want foreign aid supporting Israel. We would not want foreign governments giving the Israeli government charity.  We would want Israel to stand on its own legs.

We also would not want Israel to turn to other countries and say: “Solve our problems for us, worry about Iran for us, worry about Hamas for us.” Rather, we would take care of our own problems and decide what our destiny is by ourselves.

You also mention a group in the book, the Zionist Freedom Alliance, which you write has adopted many of Abrahams Stern’s ideas. This group, among other things, opposes Israel’s security wall, which many right-wingers support. Why would an organization following in Stern’s tradition oppose this wall?

It’s dividing the homeland. Dividing the land or living behind a wall for protection is returning us to the ghetto. It’s not returning us to sovereignty in our land.

Lehi founder Abraham Stern

But many people argue that the wall saves Jewish lives.

Beating the enemy would also save Jewish lives.

Many of these ideas – inspired by Stern – sound “harsh” or “extreme” to many people, and yet you write in the book that Stern was a very calm and gentle person by nature.

It has been said that to see injustice and not scream or do anything is a crime. I met many Lehi members later in their lives. Rav Segal, for instance, was always calm. He never ever got angry. Stern is described by many as never raising his voice. He was a student of Latin and Greek literature in Hebrew University.

These people saw millions of Jews who were going to be killed or, later, who were actually being killed in Europe. They also saw their homeland being occupied by an enemy that was determined to let, or help, these Jews die. They also saw this enemy determined to imprison the Jewish people for years to come in the future. And so they were forced in their minds to become revolutionaries.

The alternative, as they saw it, was death – death for themselves, their relatives, and their nation.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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