Season 2, Episode 28
Begin’s War Begins
Menachem Begin is one of the undisputed giants of Israeli history. An intellectual and a warrior, a leader both wise and fanatical, an Ashkenazi Jew who became a champion of the Mizrahi (Jews of Middle Eastern background), religious, Holocaust survivor, war-wager and peacemaker…. We meet him when he arrives in Palestine in the midst of World War Two, takes over the Irgun, and declares war against the British. He is a complicated man in a complicated time who yet sees things very clearly: Jewish lives are in grave peril, and we have to fight for them.
In 1940 the Irgun split in two. Not aggressive enough against the British for some of its fighters, a group of Irgun members formed their own militia in 1940, under the leadership of Avraham Stern. Like his fellow Revisionist Zionists, he believed that the only way to save Europe’s Jews was to bring them to Palestine; Jewish immigration and land purchases were the most important factor. But the British White Paper of 1939 made that impossible. That made Britain the real enemy of the Zionists — a foe worse, in his view, than Germany, whose fascist inclinations Stern admired (though not Hitler himself).
This breakaway group called themselves “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”: in Hebrew, Lehi, and also referred to as the Stern Gang. They pioneered the use of terrorism to wage a campaign of resistance against British rule in Palestine, which they justified as a necessary and even ethical act against a foreign occupier. But they didn’t have much success and earned the enmity of the Yishuv after killing multiple Jewish bystanders in their attacks. Stern was killed (or perhaps executed) during a British raid on his Tel Aviv apartment in 1942.
Still, the Lehi inspired a following for what they represented: a revolutionary movement for young Jews infuriated by British intransigence, and wanting to do something dramatic to save the Jews of Europe. Stern became a martyr and the Lehi continued on without him, later carrying out some of the most infamous terrorist attacks of this era.
Menachem Begin was born in Poland and his early experience of anti-Semitism and Jewish self-defense attracted him to Vladimir Jabotinsky and Revisionist Zionism — the aggressive, militant, right-wing side of the Zionist movement. Arrested by the Soviet police and sent to a labor camp in 1941, he was released to fight in the Polish Army, and his unit was sent to Palestine, where he found his way into the ranks of the Irgun. After leaving Poland, he never saw his family again: his parents and all but one sibling were murdered in the Holocaust.
Although he opposed the Haganah’s more conciliatory approach to the British, he also opposed the Lehi, whom he thought were cruel and strategically misguided. Begin didn’t think all British were the enemy, just the British Mandate. His goal was to use guerrilla tactics against the British mandate to achieve two goals: make them look incapable of providing basic security; and force them to impose harsh measures on the Jews, which would look bad in the court of public opinion at the same time as Jews were being murdered in Europe. These together would drive the British out of Palestine.
In February 1944, shortly after Begin assumed command, the Irgun announced the resumption of their revolt against the British. The Irgun bombed the physical manifestation of the White Paper — the British Mandate’s Immigration Department offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa. No one was killed, but the message was clear: Begin’s war against the British had begun.
Menachem Begin: one of the great leaders of Israel — underground fighter, Prime Minister, peacemaker, and champion of the Jewish People. The only Holocaust survivor to serve as Prime Minister, Begin was shaped by his early experiences with anti-Semitism and persecution in Europe, from Poland to the Soviet gulag. Taking over command of the Irgun in 1943, he waged a campaign of resistance — some say terrorism — against British rule in Palestine.
Avraham Stern: a 33 year-old Polish Jew, he saw himself as a romantic religious warrior who, through acts of terrorism, would galvanize Jews around the world to take up armed struggle against the British. Killed in a British raid in 1942, he is still today memorialized by the right-wing in Israel as an early Israeli hero. Though not much of a fighter, and having inflicted little damage on the British, his real impact was in inspiring his followers because of what he represented.
THE BIG IDEAS
Menachem Begin remembered two things from his childhood in Poland: “Jews being persecuted and the courage of the Jews.” Begin’s background informed his political worldview. Belonging to a generation of Revisionist Zionists who grew up with anti-Semitism and without the cosmopolitan experiences of other Zionist leaders, Begin was deeply committed to the primacy of Jewish self-defense as the highest ideal. He believed strongly in the necessity of fighting back against those deemed to oppress the Jews.
Against mounting frustration with the British White Paper, which prevented the rescue of Jews being murdered throughout Europe, factions of the Jewish self-defense organizations turned to acts of terrorism to attack the British. The Lehi emerged in the early 1940s under the charismatic leadership of Avraham Stern, to wage open war against the British to compel them to leave Palestine. The Lehi considered any and all British to be the enemy of the Jews and therefore legitimate targets. The Irgun adopted some of these tactics but limited their targets to the institutions of the British Mandate in Palestine. This began an era of increasingly brazen, spectacular, and deadly attacks that would eventually hasten the British departure from Palestine in 1948.
The Lehi robbed banks and kidnapped wealthy Jews for ransom in order to fund their terrorist activities, angering the Jewish community in Palestine.
When Begin vehemently disagreed with his mentor Jabotinsky’s take on the British in 1938, Jabotinsky said that Begin’s speech was a “creaky door: aggravating noise that served no purpose.”
In the early 1940s the Irgun had only four machine guns, sixty pistols, 150 grenades, and 800 pounds in hard cash.
© Jason Harris 2019