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Israel: The Original Terrorist State

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tags: Israel, Palestine



Adam Kirsch is a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine and the author of Benjamin Disraeli, a biography in the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters book series.

Today, the phrase “Palestinian terrorism” immediately conjures up Arab violence against Jews—suicide bombings in buses or restaurants, Hamas rockets launched from the Gaza Strip. Seventy years ago, however, a reader who encountered those words in a headline would have thought of terrorism not against Jews but by them. From 1944 until 1947, Palestine witnessed a series of assassinations, abductions, and bombings, perpetrated by Jewish terrorists against the occupying British. During that period, some 140 British soldiers and policemen were killed, along with dozens of civilian bystanders. In the end, the terrorists got what they wanted, when Britain announced its intention to withdraw all its forces from Palestine and leave the fate of the country up to the fledgling United Nations.

“Does terrorism work?” asks Bruce Hoffman on the first page of Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, his riveting and deeply researched new history; and the answer, in this case, would seem to be yes. Of course, there were many factors leading to the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. The British Empire was on the decline everywhere, as the crushing economic toll of World War II forced Britain to curtail its overseas commitments. The Holocaust had created sympathy for the Zionist cause, above all in the United States, which kept up a continual pressure on Britain to admit Jewish refugees to Palestine. Most important of all, perhaps, the Jews of the Yishuv—the prestate settlement in Palestine—had created the infrastructure for a state, complete with an illegal but tacitly tolerated army, the Haganah.

Still, it is possible that none of these factors would have succeeded in winning Israel’s independence, if the Jewish campaign of terror hadn’t raised the cost of the British occupation so high. In writing Anonymous Soldiers, Hoffman made use of the previously classified archives of MI5, the British intelligence agency, and the book mostly tells the story of Palestine from the British point of view. As we read the memoranda and committee reports, the urgent telegrams from Jerusalem to London and the orders and reprimands that flowed back in return, we see something remarkable: the inner workings of a world power as it is utterly defeated by a few thousand determined militants.

Those militants belonged to two clandestine organizations, whose complex genealogy Hoffman explains in detail. Their story begins in 1929, when a series of Arab pogroms against Jews broke out across Palestine; altogether, 133 Jews were killed and more than 300 injured. These attacks made clear that the Yishuv needed an organized self-defense force, which it found in the Haganah (the Hebrew word means “defense”), an amateur volunteer group that was now put on official footing and greatly expanded. It was placed under the control of the Histadrut, the Jewish labor federation, which was the leading political institution in Jewish Palestine.

Within two years, however, a group of soldiers associated with the Revisionist Party—the more nationalistic and right-wing alternative to Labor Zionism led by Vladimir Jabotinsky—split from the Haganah over ideological and tactical differences. They became known as Haganah Bet, and “unlike the Haganah,” Hoffman writes, “the Haganah Bet did not see itself as a self-defense force.” Instead, it trained its recruits in offensive operations “including sabotage, bomb making, and hit-and-run attack—in other words, the core tactics of terrorism.” In 1937, after a new round of Arab attacks broke out across the country, much of the Haganah Bet returned to the original Haganah, whose policy insisted on havlaga or self-restraint. ...

Read entire article at Tablet Magazine


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