What Did The Fighters For Israel’s Independence Want?
With the election of Menachem Begin as Israel’s prime minister in 1977 and the subsequent premiership of Yitzhak Shamir, US Jews were exposed to the stories of Zionism’s militant undergrounds on an entirely new level. However, if one wanted to read more about these organizations and their deeds, good literature on the subject was hard to find. More often than not, the only material available was limited to poorly translated memoirs.
Zev Golan, an expert on Israel’s pre-state underground Jewish militias, changed this situation with his book Free Jerusalem: Heroes, Heroines, and Rogues Who Created the State of Israel, published in 2003 by Devora. This made it an easy choice for Herut North America’s second Zionist History Book of the Month.
Free Jerusalem is the history of the early days of the Irgun (or Etzel), the LEHI (or Stern Group), the Haganah, and lesser known groups such as Abba Achimier’s Brit HaBirionim and Rabbi Moshe Zvi Segal’s Brit HaShmonaim. It was a valuable addition to the tragically small number of English language books available at the time on the history and ideas of these brave men who fought to create a modern Jewish State and remains a must read for those who want to understand them.
Golan chose the focus of his work carefully. Rather than write about the more famous episodes in the history of the Jewish undergrounds, he detailed the early days of the struggle against the British Mandatory authorities and Arab rioters. Included are the strong roles of Betar and Abba Achimier’s Brit HaBirionim in the launch of the first acts of opposition to British policies.
Although born in the US, Golan demonstrates complete mastery over his subject matter. Early in his professional career, Golan was the assistant curator at the Hall of Heroism Museum, the former Jerusalem Central Prison where many Irgunists and LEHI fighters were imprisoned by the British during their revolt. Later, Golan spent years interviewing the soldiers of the Irgun and LEHI and translating their memoirs and writings.
Of special interest in Free Jerusalem is the inclusion of an excerpt of Golan’s translation of the memoirs of Dr. Israel Eldad, First Tithe. Eldad, who died in 1996, was the chief propagandist and ideologue of the LEHI and a figure that remains largely unknown to American Jews. In 2012, the Jabotinsky Institute published Golan’s full translation of his book.
In addition to Israel Eldad and Achimier, Golan also introduces his readers to the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg. Greenberg had a profound influence on the commanders and fighters of the Irgun and LEHI and was later a winner of the Israel Prize.
Golan’s style is for the most part casual and the stories he tells are compelling. Most of these tales were never before available to English-speaking audiences. By and large, Golan glosses over the more well known events in the history the Irgun and the LEHI. Events such as the Acre prison jail break, the King David Hotel bombing, and the assassinations of Lord Moyne and Count Folke Bernadotte have been written about before and are not central to Golan’s narrative. Instead, Free Jerusalem gives the background of the organizations and the soldiers who formed the leadership and rank and file of the groups.
Golan examines the motivations and ideas of the fighters as well as the circumstances that led to the formation of their organizations from a fresh perspective. Readers are exposed to the underlying reasons for fighting as understood by the men themselves. At times, though, Golan seems more comfortable depicting the individual exploits of his subjects and exploring their character than engaging in lengthy explanations of the Irgun and LEHI’s revolutionary Zionist ideologies.
Free Jerusalem begins with an account of the attempts by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Joseph Trumpeldor, and others to defend Jewish lives and property during the anti-Jewish Arab riots of the 1920s. The stories of the origins of the Haganah, Irgun, and LEHI are told in an original and exciting manner. As Golan has said, “A teacher can be for or against what happened, but to make history boring — that is unforgivable.” At times Golan’s penchant for connecting the Land of Israel in the 1920s and 1930s to America’s Wild West seems strained. Golan’s comparisons of Trumpeldor to Davy Crockett and the battle of Tel Chai to the Alamo and his use of imagery taken from Westerns are all awkward and can be distracting.
Golan chooses to end his narrative with the period surrounding the assassination of Avraham “Yair” Stern by the British mandatory police in 1942. Many other accounts of the Jewish underground revolt against the British begin with Stern’s murder. Golan’s perspective is unique and aids in making Free Jerusalem interesting and original. The many illustrations, which include photographs, reproductions of wanted posters, and newspaper articles, enhance the book. There are many important improvements over the first edition of the book (published in 1998 by Sdan Press with the subtitle “The true story of the Jewish Zealots who fought the British Empire and Arab gangs in the wild frontier days of Israel”), which was not distributed in the United States when it was published.
Free Jerusalem should be read eagerly by anyone with an interest in the Jabotinsky movement, the history of the Irgun and LEHI, or the history of the Yishuv (pre-state Israel). More importantly, this book is a must for anyone seeking a better understanding of the Israeli-Arab conflict. The subjects of Golan’s book 80 and 100 years ago faced the same issues facing Jews in Israel today. In the face of Islamic Arab terrorism, the choice the soldiers of the Irgun and LEHI was to fight and to defend Jewish lives, property, and interests by any means necessary. Whatever your point of view, the lessons that can be learned from Free Jerusalem are valuable and especially applicable to today’s Middle East.
Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s US division. Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education. Herut’s website is https://herutna.org.