‘Anonymous Soldiers’ looks at terrorism from another troubling angle


“Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947” by Bruce Hoffman (Knopf) offers an uncomfortable but crucial message: Terrorism works. And the book is all the more disturbing because the examples Hoffman considers are the Irgun and Lehi (perhaps better known as the “Stern Gang”), which he bluntly describes as “Jewish terrorist organizations.”

“(E)ven if terrorism’s power to dramatically change the course of history along the lines of the September 11, 2001, attacks has been mercifully infrequent,” Hoffman writes, “terrorism’s ability to act as a catalyst for wider conflagration or systemic political change appears historically undeniable.” 

To be sure, Hoffman concedes that the Zionist enterprise depended on far more than physical violence. “The struggle for Jewish statehood employed almost every means possible: diplomacy, negotiation, lobbying, civil disobedience, propaganda, information operations, armed resistance …” But he ends the sentence with the object of his current inquiry: “… and terrorist violence.”  

Working largely in the newly declassified archives of MI5, the British secret service and the Palestine Police Force, Hoffman has been able to view through British eyes such momentous acts of terrorism as the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944, the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946, and the kidnapping and hanging of two British sergeants in 1957.  

Britain created the problem in Palestine for itself, or so Hoffman argues, in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which favored “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” but also noted that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Despite the “benevolent prose and altruistic intent” of the diplomatic letter, history shows that Britain now faced the task of “navigating between two peoples’ historical, cultural, religious, and political claims to the same land.” By 1929, Arab violence against Jews was one of the “facts on the ground” that confronted the Zionist movement in Palestine.

Hoffman usefully points out that Arab violence was not purely spontaneous. A radical imam called al-Qassam — now the name of a rocket used by Hamas — preached a holy war to the Arabs of Palestine: “You must know that nothing will save us but our arms.” In 1936, a gang of his followers stopped and robbed a bus and murdered two of its Jewish passengers. A Jewish reprisal took the lives of two Arabs. As violence erupted yet again around Palestine, the British authorities declared a state of emergency. “The Arab Rebellion,” Hoffman writes, “had now begun.”

The question in the Yishuv, the Jewish community of Palestine, was whether Jews ought to answer Arab terrorism with terrorism of their own, an issue that divided the left-wing Labor Zionists from the right-wing Revisionists and resulted in two parallel Jewish defense forces, one called the Haganah and the other called the Haganah-Bet. The Labor Zionists embraced the doctrines of havlaga (self-restraint) and tohar ha-neshek (purity of arms), but the Revisionists insisted that the escalation of Arab violence called for new and more brutal tactics: “By blood and fire Judea fell,” was the slogan of the Irgun, “and by blood and fire Judea shall arise.”

Significantly, the Irgun commenced its operations with the bombing of an Arab cafe as an act of revenge for the killing of five Jewish farmers a couple of days earlier. “The shame of restraint has been removed,” declared David Raziel, the first commander of the Irgun. Indeed, Irgun violence grew steadily bolder and bloodier as the “Irgun launched a succession of shootings, bombings, road minings and various acts of sabotage and vandalism against British and Arab targets alike.” Against self-restraint and purity of arms, a new principle was announced: “A hitting fist must be answered by two hitting fists — a bomb explosion has to be replied with two bomb explosions.” 

As Hoffman shows in gripping detail, the emergence of the Irgun meant that the fighting front had divided into several lines of conflict. The Jewish Agency conducted a counterterrorism campaign of its own against the Irgun (and, later, the spin-off known as Lehi), and a Jewish civil war threatened to break out more than once. The British authorities sought to suppress both the Irgun and Lehi, as well as the Arab guerillas that operated in Palestine, and the Arabs set themselves against both the British and the Jews. “By the fall of 1938, Palestine was coming apart at the seams,” Hoffman writes.

“Anonymous Soldiers” can be seen as a corrective to the understatements and misstatements about the role of the Revisionist movement in the history of Zionism and, especially, the creation and defense of the Jewish state. Hoffman, a scholar who specializes in security studies at Georgetown University, succeeds in giving us an even-handed work of history that is, at the same time, a morally illuminating and challenging work about the role of violence in politics. But he also confronts us with the unsettling truth that sometimes, and especially when the adversary is a democracy that has lost its will to fight, terrorism will succeed.

“That Jewish terrorism played a salient role in helping to create and foster the sense of hopelessness and despair that … influenced the Labour government’s decision to leave Palestine is clear,” Hoffman concludes, although he insists that it was only one of many factors at work in the fateful decision.  

That’s not the end of the debate about terrorism, but “Anonymous Soldiers” is a good starting place, especially when we consider the price of not fighting terrorism. 

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