Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

In Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947, the author is careful to state, near the end of the work, that “terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.” 

If that statement sums up the book, the lesson is a sobering one. Fighting terrorism is always depicted as a moral battle which a superior force is bound to win.  Yet in Hoffman’s historical examination of the right-wing Jewish terrorist groups the Irgun and Lehi and their struggle against British rule in Palestine, he makes a good case that terrorism, and violence generally, is the most effective means to solve intractable political problems.

Yet if we look at this phrase carefully, there are many caveats. There must be the “right conditions” in this case, a British administration in Palestine that was underfunded and demoralized, backed up by a financially bankrupt country depleted by two world wars.  There must be “the appropriate strategy and tactics” and as Hoffman shows, Lehi, and in particular the Irgun and its leader, Menachem Begin, knew how to hit the symbols of British control in Palestine for the maximizing demoralizing effect to the occupiers.  Then, terrorism may succeed “in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”  Here, 'some' is the operative world.  The Irgun and Lehi had grand designs for the Jewish state, and most of them were not realized.  The Irgun became a political party after independence, and did not have substantial power in the State of Israel until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. Yitzhak Shamir, the head of Lehi, did not have significant power in Israel in the 1980s

So, Hoffman leaves us with a disturbing vision.  We don’t want violence, especially terrorism, to achieve its goals, yet in the example of the Irgun and Lehi, Hoffman makes a good case that the departure of the British from Palestine in 1948 was if not caused, than at least hastened the end of British rule.  But much of the fault also lay with Great Britain.

Hoffman examines a trove of documents relating to the British government and the governance of the Palestine during the Mandate, and it is apparent that Britain fell far short in two key ways: 1. it failed to have a consist policy on Palestine regarding Zionism, and 2. In the face of the urban terrorism of the Irgun and Lehi, the British intelligence service, police and military were particularly inept.  They simply did not have the drive or creativity to fight effectively, and to fix Palestine, and we live with the legacy of their errors to this day.

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