Destined to Fall

P a t r i c k B i s h o p
How the killing of one man changed the fate of the Promised Land
320pp. Collins. £20.

Avraham Stern was the leader of the “Stern Gang”, or Lehi, and one of the first people to raise the Zionist standard of revolt against the British in Mandatory Palestine. His group was inspired by Irish
Republicanism and the Narodnaya Volya in Tsarist Russia, which preached the assassination of officials. Stern was killed by British policemen in early 1942, but his successors eliminated officials such as Lord Moyne, the
British Resident Minister in Cairo in 1944, and the UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948. Some 48 per cent of all killings by the group, however, were those of fellow Jews who were thought to be working for British
intelligence. Its head of operations in the early 1940s was codenamed “Mikael” – after Michael Collins, the IRA icon – who later emerged as Yitzhak Shamir, the Prime Minister of Israel after 1983.

Following his emigration to Palestine in 1926, Stern found himself on the political periphery and soon joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi, which opposed David Ben-Gurion’s policy of self-restraint – no retaliation against Arab attacks. In 1940, the Irgun was faced with the choice of whether or not to collaborate with the British in fighting Nazism. The Irgun split, but Stern’s group regarded the British as the central enemy – not Germany. Stern rationalized that since the enemy of my enemy must be my friend, it was logical to approach Berlin for
assistance. His plan was to seek German aid in creating an army of Jews in occupied Europe and to bring them to Palestine to oust the British. This was no different from other anti-colonialist figures in Ireland, Egypt and India, who similarly sought aid for their national liberation struggles. At a time when the Holocaust
had hardly commenced, Stern believed that Hitler was simply another persecutor in the millennial parade of enemies of the Jews – and not a liquidator, ideologically committed to their total destruction. British detectives
regarded Stern and his followers as “Jewish Quislings”, a fifth column of Jews who were Rommel would bring them independence. bizarrely working for Nazi victory in the Middle East in the belief that Field Marshal
Stern’s approach was condemned by mainstream Zionists and even by the maximalist right-wing intelligentsia.

Patrick Bishop has researched his subject well – even paying a visit to Suwalki, Stern’s birthplace in Poland. The author has juxtaposed Stern’s story with that of his killer, Assistant Superintendent Geoffrey Morton of the Palestine Police. However, the ideological context is not as well fleshed out. For example, Stern’s 18 Principles of Renaissance – the central tract of the group is not mentioned. Unlike Menachem Begin, who saw him as a rival in pre-war Poland, Stern dismissed the possibility of negotiation. He labelled Vladimir Jabotinsky, regarded as the father of the Zionist Right, as “Hindenberg” – yesterday’s man.

Stern’s poetry, influenced by the Russian Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, exhibits a profound sense of messianism. Moreover, Stern may well have seen himself in the role of meshiah ben yosef, a catalytic messianic figure, destined to fall in battle so that another messianic figure, meshiah ben david, would
finally emerge, wage a successful struggle against the enemies of the Jews, and usher in a golden era of world peace.The author does not touch on this.

Yet it is important, because the most interesting part of the book is Bishop’s attempt to unravel the nature of Stern’s death. Did Morton shoot him while he was trying to escape? Or was it a premeditated act of murder to eliminate a dangerous foe? If Stern regarded himself as a messianic figure, then his death for the good of the cause should be considered. His poetry is suffused with the need for self-sacrifice and the embrace of death.

Stern’s demise was hardly noticed by the Jews of Palestine, but the remnant of his followers recast him as a martyr. They held Morton’s men responsible – “the murderous gang of the Palestine Gestapo”. The sinking of the unseaworthy Struma off Istanbul a few weeks later resulted in the deaths of nearly 800 Jews escaping Nazism. The British had refused to allow them into Palestine – for, among other reasons, a fear of Arab anger. This incident and others like it turned the Jews of Palestine against the British authorities. It also helped to
give birth to a mythological Stern. Patrick Bishop’s book is an attempt to reclaim the real one from the mists of time.

Times Literary Supplement 18 JULY 2014

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