If asked, “Who created the modern state of Israel?” most Jews would offer such names and institutions as David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizmann, the Jewish Agency, and the United Nations. A newly translated memoir, however, completely upends this popular perception.
In The First Tithe, Israel Eldad, who ran the underground Lehi movement (sometimes known as the Stern Group) together with future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and Nathan Yellin-Mor, argues that the British would never have left Palestine in 1948 had the Irgun (headed by Menachem Begin) and Lehi not forced them out. He also defends his group’s deadly terrorist tactics and unique Zionist vision, which included the building of the Third Temple.
After Israel’s founding, Eldad – who held a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Vienna – became a high-school teacher, but Ben-Gurion, fearing Eldad’s influence, ordered the Ministry of Education and Culture to fire him. Eldad continued writing ideological books and articles (he also translated most of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works into Hebrew) until his death in 1996. His son, Aryeh Eldad, currently serves in the Knesset.
To mark Yom Ha’atzmaut, The Jewish Press interviewed Zev Golan, who translated The First Tithe into English. Golan has authored three books in his own right and directed the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies in Jerusalem from 1992-2003.
The Jewish Press: Do you agree with Eldad’s take on Israel’s founding – that the Irgun and Lehi, not the Haganah or the Jewish Agency, are responsible for the British leaving Palestine?
Golan: Of course. It would be absurd to claim the British left Eretz Yisrael because of the Jewish Agency, which was cooperating with the British and asking them to stay and help them hunt the Underground.
They left because they were blown out of the country. When they left, they said that 84,000 British soldiers and policemen in the country couldn’t preserve law and order. And it wasn’t the Haganah and Jewish Agency that were blowing up their buildings. It was the Irgun and Lehi.
Very few history books tell the story in this manner.
Well, he who writes history determines what’s in the history books, and there’s no doubt that the Labor Party took control of Israel, wrote the history books, and wrote the Irgun and Lehi out of them.
People also often credit the UN vote of November 29, 1947 as instrumental in creating Israel. However, while many Jews in Palestine danced in the streets the night of November 29, Eldad walked around depressed. Why?
Eldad compares that night to the time when Israel danced around the Golden Calf and said, “This is the god who took you out of Egypt.” Here they were looking to the United Nations and saying, “This is the god who has given us the state,” and it wasn’t.
The people who created Israel were the people who sat in prison and the people who were shot or hanged by the British. The facts on the ground are that the British would have left even if the United Nations had not voted for a Jewish state.
Eldad also felt depressed that night because they were not celebrating the Jewish state that had been dreamt of for thousands of years and that he and others had been fighting for, but rather a truncated, shrunken Jewish state that would not have survived were it not for a miraculous war that followed.
Eldad writes of some fascinating encounters with Menachem Begin. One of them took place in June 1948, the day after the IDF, on Ben-Gurion’s orders, fired on the ammunition-laden Altalena ship, killing 16 Irgun fighters. Eldad and Begin discussed the possibility of the Irgun and Lehi founding an independent state in Jerusalem’s Old City. Can you speak about that meeting?
First, Eldad was friendly with Begin before they came to Eretz Yisrael – they escaped from Poland together when the Nazis invaded – and he was friendly with him afterward during the Underground years and later. But they did not view matters 100 percent the same way.
So, in ’48 with the Altalena ship, Begin said, “I won’t allow a civil war. If they shoot at us, we’re not going to shoot back.” And Eldad said, “We need to take power; we can’t let power stay in the hands of people who are shooting at us and killing Jews.”
Well, it’s a different way of looking at things. Eldad was a total and complete revolutionary, willing to go to the very end of that revolution, no matter how cruel or hard, in order to realize the complete Jewish redemption. Menachem Begin was not such a revolutionary; he was a soldier.
So if it had been up to Eldad, the Jews on the Altalena would have shot back?
Without a doubt. He would’ve shot back and made a move elsewhere to take power…
…and create a separate Jewish state in Jerusalem.
Right, that’s what he wanted to do. But at that point, not only was Begin not on his side in terms of strategy but neither really was Lehi, which had moved leftward.
Many would consider the thought of shooting back at fellow Jews to be horrific.
The horrific thought is not that Jews would shoot back at people trying to kill Jews and prevent the salvation of Israel. The horrific thought is that Jews would take that first shot at Jews whose only goal was to help Israel.
And if the Jews who are fighting to save the country announce in advance that they will not fight back if the government comes to kill them, why fight at all? If you announce that in advance, the other side really can get away with anything it wants. So Begin had lost as soon as he made that announcement. He was saying essentially, I don’t care if Ben-Gurion runs the country.
Now, if you believe that the argument over who runs the country is not that important and that both sides more or less want the same thing, then that’s an acceptable way of looking at things. But if you believe, as Eldad did then, that the people shooting at the Jews did not intend to save the country, indeed did not even want to set up the country, then you’re obligated to be willing to fight back. The Chashmonaim didn’t fight the Greeks; they fought the Jews, and we celebrate that victory today as the greatest Jewish victory for freedom in our history.
But why start a civil war when both sides really want the same thing?
If that’s your attitude, indeed you’re obligated not to start a civil war.
Were the Irgun and Lehi that different from the Jewish Agency that a civil war might have been necessary?
Lehi was fighting for a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates and the Irgun was fighting for a Jewish state that included Transjordan. Both of those organizations were fighting for a Jewish state with the capital in Jerusalem. In addition, Lehi was fighting for a Beit Hamikdash in the center of Jerusalem and to bring all the world’s Jews to Israel. In other words, complete redemption.
They both were fighting to prevent the British from staying in Eretz Yisrael, and Ben-Gurion according to them was doing the opposite. If you see Ben-Gurion as doing the opposite, what’s the point of turning power over to him?
What do you mean when you say Ben-Gurion was doing the opposite?
Eldad’s and Begin’s view was that the state as set up and accepted by the Labor movement could not survive. Now you can say in hindsight they were wrong, the state did survive. And since they were wrong, then not shooting back was a good thing because it prevented a civil war. But then you could also argue – there’s no way to answer this question – that had the Irgun and Lehi fought back, the masses would have supported them and the country would look not like it looks today, but a lot larger, more powerful, and not negotiating over whether we should give the Palestinians the cities of our fathers but rather whether they will give us more territory closer to the Nile.
All this is pretty critical of Ben-Gurion.
The First Tithe was written in 1949-1950. Eldad’s view of Ben-Gurion changed over the next four decades. I’m not saying he viewed Ben-Gurion as a hero, but he recognized later that Ben-Gurion did things that no one else did. He set up the Jewish state, built a Jewish army, and led the country. Nobody did that except him.
You mentioned Eldad’s vision of a Jewish state from the Nile to the Euphrates with a Temple in Jerusalem and all the world’s Jews living there. Did he really see this as a practical goal?
And if, hypothetically, Eldad had been in charge in 1948 and he received a state with smaller borders?
If he got smaller borders, the borders would have been used to expand.
In terms of aliyah, at least, it seems Eldad’s vision was no different from Ben-Gurion’s.
That’s completely wrong. When Ben-Gurion started negotiating with American Jews and taking their money, he stopped believing that all the Jews had to come to Israel. Eldad did not. The Bible says clearly that exile is a punishment and anywhere we go in the Diaspora we will suffer. Ultimately, according to Eldad, exile and Diaspora lead to one of two things: shmad or hashmada, assimilation or extermination.
You write in the introduction to The First Tithe that Eldad was instrumental in your own aliyah to Israel. Can you elaborate?
I read a booklet of his that said something I had never heard before, which was that the goal of Zionism was not the creation of a Jewish state but that the state was a tool to realize Zionism. As soon as I understood that we were not yet where we have to be and we have a road to travel to redemption, I moved to Israel.
And then when you met Eldad in Israel, you told him you were thinking of moving back to the States because of difficulties in finding a job and a home.
That’s true and that’s the wrong answer. Eldad told me that I’m here because I’m a Jew who’s come home and just like any person in his own country, you look for a job and a place to live and you move around until you find one. You don’t get up and leave the country.
In Eldad’s conception, after world Jewry makes aliyah and the Third Temple is rebuilt, what then?
The Temple is the place where we unite heaven and earth, and that’s almost a metaphysical point. To what exactly it leads I don’t know, but it’s the reunification of heaven and earth, the ladder in Jacob’s dream that unites heaven and earth, the kingdom of God on earth.
Was Eldad’s vision, then, essentially a religious one?
I’m not sure if Eldad would use that term. It wasn’t in fulfillment of commandment number two hundred and fifty something or other. But there’s no doubt that his vision of redemption is the biblical, prophetic and traditional view of redemption. Avraham Stern [Lehi’s founder] put the building of the Temple into the principles of the Stern Group and called it a recognition, a symbol, of redemption.
In The First Tithe Eldad criticizes Palestine’s chief rabbis, Isaac Herzog and Benzion Uziel, but highly praises – almost idolizes – Reb Aryeh Levin (subject of the book A Tzaddik in Our Time). Can you explain why?
I’d rather not make specific references. But I will say that a lot of the underground leaders and fighters were very disappointed at the apathy of religious leaders who left the field of Jewish redemption to others.
And that’s one of the reasons why Israel today has such a non-religious character: because religious Jews spent a lot of time fighting over soccer fields being open on Shabbos and how women should dress – which are both important – but then ignored the questions of how to get Jews out of Europe on the eve of World War II and how to get the British out of Eretz Yisrael who were locking the gates to the country.
There were rabbis of course who did concern themselves with what we could call “ultimacies,” matters of ultimate importance. One was Rabbi Kook and one was Rabbi Aryeh Levin. And there were many others. Eldad, as many of the other freedom fighters, had an incredible regard for these rabbis.
Was Eldad religious?
He was from a traditional home. I cannot testify as to whether he kept all the mitzvot; I was not in a position to see or know that. He didn’t wear a yarmulke, but his son, MK Aryeh Eldad, told a story in Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago of how his father would walk with him every Nissan to kasher all of the pots and pans in the house for Pesach. Well, if you want to say he’s not religious, what’s he doing kashering his pots and pans?
Can you translate Eldad’s philosophy into contemporary Israeli politics?
If the Jewish people are going to deal in small politics, negotiating with the non-Jews for our right to live, then we’re back in the shtetl. In order for us to survive, it’s not only useful but necessary that we have a strong, large Jewish state that does not shrink but rather gets larger, and the place for all the Jews in the world is in that state.
Another application concerns the Iranian threat. Many hope the world will take care of this threat. Eldad would say that the purpose of the Jewish state is that we take our destiny in our own hands. If we cannot resolve the Iranian nuclear threat on our own then perhaps this entire experiment of the Jewish state was pointless.
Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter.