This is a review article by Dr. Thomas G. Mitchell of Patrick Bishop’s “The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land: A True Detective Story” (Harper, December 2014, 320 pp.). Mitchell’s most recent book, “Likud Leaders” (McFarland, 2015), features two chapters on Yitzhak Shamir, who succeeded Avraham Stern as the leader of Lehi (better known as the Stern Gang).
Like the Palestinians, Lehi adopted a no-compromise maximalist position on borders—from the Nile to the Euphrates—at a time when it could merely harass the British authorities in Palestine. And like the Palestinians’ unsavory foreign allies, Lehi attempted to forge alliances with Fascist Italy, then Nazi Germany, and finally the Soviet Union—all without success. Just as the Palestinian armed struggle has targeted many fellow Palestinians, Lehi ended up killing nearly as many Jews as Arabs and British, because members turned to robbing Jewish merchants in order to raise funds and they shot ordinary policemen on sight, many of whom were Jews.
Lehi emerged from activist elements of the Irgun who used terrorist attacks on Arab civilians as a counter to Arab terrorism during the Arab Revolt of the late 1930s. And just as the Palestinians commemorate their shaheeds (martyrs), starting with Imam Izz al-Din al-Qassem, who was killed by the British in November 1935, Lehi turned its founder Avraham Stern into a martyr by spreading the story that he had been murdered by British detectives when he was captured in February 1942.
This book is the story of Stern and the author’s search to learn the truth about his death. Stern was a charismatic figure who aroused intense loyalty from his immediate subordinates. It was by using Stern’s death as an example that Yitzhak Shamir was able to resurrect Lehi after his escape from prison six months after Stern’s death. Bishop decided to write the book because he claims that Stern’s death changed the history of the Middle East. In reality it was a mere historical footnote.
Stern died at age 35 after starting a premature insurrection against the British. His organization was crushed within weeks, with the vast majority either killed or captured and interned. Shamir managed to rebuild Lehi, which then relaunched its revolt against the British with an attempted assassination of the British High Commissioner in Palestine in August 1944 and the successful assassination of Lord Moyne, the senior British official in the Middle East, in Cairo in November 1944. But this was after Menachem Begin had already begun the Irgun’s revolt in February 1944. For the next four years, Lehi was the Irgun’s junior partner in the Revolt.
Lehi largely proved to be an ideological cul de sac: only two Lehi members emerged to become career politicians. Shamir became a member of Herut, Begin’s party, over two decades after he left Lehi, and went on to become head of the Likud and twice Israeli foreign minister and prime minister. But as a politician he was a disciple of Jabotinsky and Begin, not of Stern. The other politician was Lehi’s radio voice, Geula Cohen, who also joined Herut about the same time as Shamir did. Five years after being elected to the Knesset, she formed the Tehiya party in opposition to Begin’s return of the Sinai to Egypt in 1979. She was the star of Tehiya until it collapsed in 1992 after precipitating the election that the Right lost. But she had joined Lehi as a teenager the year after Stern was killed, so she never knew him personally.
If Lehi was politically a dead end why is it important to remember it today? The book illustrates the manner in which nationalist myths are formulated through ambiguity. Stern was killed under mysterious circumstances. Bishop was unable to unravel the definitive truth as to whether the killing was murder or justifiable homicide; he presents the contradictory evidence in the final two chapters of the book. The Hebrew Revolt needed martyrs and so it became murder.
Stern had many of the characteristics of the ideal martyr: matinee idol looks, fluency in both Greek and Latin in addition to Hebrew and Polish, and an aborted academic career as a classicist sacrificed for the cause of Zionism. Ironically he had been the protégé of pacifist Hebrew University head Rabbi Judah Magnes. This is something that we should bear in mind when we hear reports from Palestine and Israel of murders. How much is truth and how much is nationalist invention?
After Shamir became prime minister for the second time in 1986, there was much interest in Lehi in Israel and abroad with several books written on the murder of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in September 1948. I think that Stern and Lehi have by now received all the historical attention that they merit, but we could still use a full biography of Shamir in English, and a book on Geula Cohen and Tehiya.