New book overreaches in analogizing pre-state Israel militant Zionists

The cover of “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947,” by Bruce Hoffman. Credit: Knopf.
The cover of “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947,” by Bruce Hoffman. Credit: Knopf.

In the recently published “Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947,” Bruce Hoffman raises a difficult question on the first page of the book: Does terrorism work? The rest of his book is an effort to answer that question, using the Irgun and the Stern Gang and their efforts to drive Britain out of Mandatory Palestine as the test case.

Hoffman’s answer is yes. He claims that these two pre-state militant Zionist groups groups deserve the credit for driving the British out of Palestine and for making a Jewish state possible, but his argument is not convincing to me—and even if it were, it is not necessarily transferable to other places and to other situations.

The Irgun and the Stern Gang were fighting against the British, who were first of all civilized people and, secondly, tired of bloodshed after the end of the Second World War, and, thirdly, understood that the problem of Palestine could not be resolved since both the Arabs and the Jews had irreconcilable goals. The same tactics do not work nearly as well when they are directed against Israelis, who feel that they have no other place to go and who will not yield to tactics that endanger civilians but have no real strategic or military value.

What makes Hoffman’s book significant is that it is based almost entirely on the previously classified archives of M15, the British intelligence service. He tells the story not from the point of view of the Irgun, the Jewish community, or the Arabs, but instead from the perspective of the British. What we learn as we read these documents from the archives is that the British were woefully undermanned in Palestine and that they were under ever-increasing moral pressure, from America and elsewhere, from people who felt that the Jews deserved a state of their own after the Holocaust.

What comes across in this book is the dilemma that faced the majority of the Jewish community in Palestine during the pre-state years. During the war, how could they fight the British when the Nazis were the greater enemy? And after the war, how could they maneuver between the Irgun and the Stern Gang and their excesses on the one hand, and their own instinctive resistance to betraying fellow Jews on the other? The more the British cracked down on the Irgun and the Stern Gang, the more the Jewish community rallied to the militant Zionists’ side. And the more that world opinion turned against the British for locking the gates of Palestine to the homeless refugees from Europe, the more the British tired of the whole place and yearned to go home.

No two political situations are ever exactly the same. Hoffman seems at times to consider today’s Islamic terrorists as the true disciples of the Jewish terrorists of earlier years, but the comparison is much too facile. The majority of the Jews of Palestine were open to partitioning the land back then, if only there were a counterpart that was open to the same solution on the other side. Years of fighting against zealous and fanatic terrorists have made many Israelis lose heart for such a simple solution. And even though copies of former Irgun commander and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s writings have been found here and there in terrorist camps, that does not mean that he is the role model and the guide to any of the terrorist groups of our time.

Therefore, by the end of this book, the question with which it began is still unanswered. We are all simply baffled by terrorists who behead captives, who set hostages on fire, who burn libraries and museums, and who violate all the canons of civilization that we value. To seek their source in the Irgun and the Stern Gang is to distort history and to confuse ourselves about the nature of the battle in which we are now engaged.

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947; by Bruce Hoffman; 620 pages; $35; Knopf (February 2015); ISBN-10: 0307594718; ISBN-13: 978-0307594716.

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