LEHI – “Stern Gang”

The goals of terror:

  • It demonstrates … against the true terrorist who hides behind his piles of papers and the laws he has legislated.
  • It is not directed against people, it is directed against representatives. Therefore it is effective.
  • If it also shakes the Yishuv from their complacency, good and well.

“Deir Yassin massacre was not only necessary, but without it the state of Israel could not have emerged.” Menachem Begin

Lehi, often known pejoratively as the Stern Gang, was a Zionist paramilitary organization founded by Avraham (“Yair”) Stern in Mandatory Palestine. Its avowed aim was to evict sythe British authorities from Palestine by resort to force, allowing unrestricted immigration of Jews and the formation of a Jewish state, a “new totalitarian Hebrew republic”. It was initially called the National Military Organization in Israel, upon being founded in August 1940, but was renamed Lehi one month later. It defined itself as a terrorist group.

Lehi split from the Irgun militant group in 1940 in order to continue fighting the British during World War II. Lehi initially sought an alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, offering to fight alongside them against the British in return for the transfer of all Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe to Palestine. Believing that Nazi Germany was a lesser enemy of the Jews than Britain, Lehi twice attempted to form an alliance with the Nazis. During World War II, it declared that it would establish a Jewish state based upon “nationalist and totalitarian principles”.

After Stern’s death in 1942, the new leadership of Lehi began to move it towards support for Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. In 1944, Lehi officially declared its support for National Bolshevism. It said that its National Bolshevism involved an amalgamation of left-wing and right-wing political elements – Stern said Lehi incorporated elements of both the left and the right – however this change was unpopular and Lehi began to lose support as a result.

Lehi and the Irgun were jointly responsible for the massacre in Deir Yassin. Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, British Minister Resident in the Middle East, and made many other attacks on the British in Palestine. On 29 May 1948, the government of Israel, having inducted its activist members into the Israel Defense Forces, formally disbanded Lehi, though some of its members carried out one more terrorist act, the assassination of Folke Bernadotte some months later, an act condemned by Bernadotte’s replacement as mediator, Ralph Bunche. After the assassination, the new Israeli government declared Lehi a terrorist organization, arresting and convicting some 200 members. Just before the first Israeli elections, a general amnesty to Lehi members was granted by the government, on 14 February 1949. In 1980, Israel instituted a military decoration, an “award for activity in the struggle for the establishment of Israel”, the Lehi ribbon. Former Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir became Prime Minister of Israel in 1983.

Lehi had three main goals:

  • To bring together all those interested in liberation (that is, those willing to join in active fighting against the British).
  • To appear before the world as the only active Jewish military organization.
  • To take over Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) by armed force.

An article titled “Terror” in the Lehi underground newspaper He Khazit (The Front ) argued as follows:

Neither Jewish ethics nor Jewish tradition can disqualify terrorism as a means of combat. We are very far from having any moral qualms as far as our national war goes. We have before us the command of the Torah, whose morality surpasses that of any other body of laws in the world: “Ye shall blot them out to the last man.”

But first and foremost, terrorism is for us a part of the political battle being conducted under the present circumstances, and it has a great part to play: speaking in a clear voice to the whole world, as well as to our wretched brethren outside this land, it proclaims our war against the occupier.

We are particularly far from this sort of hesitation in regard to an enemy whose moral perversion is admitted by all.

The article described the goals of terror:

  • It demonstrates … against the true terrorist who hides behind his piles of papers and the laws he has legislated.
  • It is not directed against people, it is directed against representatives. Therefore it is effective.
  • If it also shakes the Yishuv from their complacency, good and well.

Yitzhak Shamir, one of the three leaders of Lehi after Avraham Stern’s assassination, argued for the legitimacy of Lehi’s actions:

There are those who say that to kill [T.G.] Martin [a CID sergeant who had recognised Shamir in a lineup] is terrorism, but to attack an army camp is guerrilla warfare and to bomb civilians is professional warfare. But I think it is the same from the moral point of view. Is it better to drop an atomic bomb on a city than to kill a handful of persons? I don’t think so. But nobody says that President Truman was a terrorist. All the men we went for individually – Wilkin, Martin, MacMichael and others – were personally interested in succeeding in the fight against us.

So it was more efficient and more moral to go for selected targets. In any case, it was the only way we could operate, because we were so small. For us it was not a question of the professional honor of a soldier, it was the question of an idea, an aim that had to be achieved. We were aiming at a political goal. There are many examples of what we did to be found in the Bible – Gideon and Samson, for instance. This had an influence on our thinking. And we also learned from the history of other peoples who fought for their freedom – the Russian and Irish revolutionaries, Giuseppe Garibaldi and Josip Broz Tito.

Avraham Stern laid out the ideology of Lehi in the essay 18 Principles of Rebirth:

  1. THE NATION: The Jewish people is a covenanted people, the originator of monotheism, formulator of the prophetic teachings, standard bearer of human culture, guardian of glorious patrimony. The Jewish people is schooled in self-sacrifice and suffering; its vision, survivability and faith in redemption are indestructible.
  2. THE HOMELAND: The homeland in the Land of Israel within the borders delineated in the Bible (“To your descendants, I shall give this land, from the River of Egypt to the great Euphrates River.” Genesis 15:18) This is the land of the living, where the entire nation shall live in safety.
  3. THE NATION AND ITS LAND: Israel conquered the land with the sword. There it became a great nation and only there it will be reborn. Hence Israel alone has a right to that land. This is an absolute right. It has never expired and never will.
    1. Redemption of the land.
    2. Establishment of sovereignty.
    3. Revival of the nation.
      There is no sovereignty without the redemption of the land, and there is no national revival without sovereignty.
These are the goals of the organization during the period of war and conquest:
  1. EDUCATION: Educate the nation to love freedom and zealously guard Israel’s eternal patrimony. Inculcate the idea that the nation is master to its own fate. Revive the doctrine that “The sword and the book came bound together from heaven.” (Midrash Vayikra Rabba 35:8)
  2. UNITY: The unification of the entire nation around the banner of the Hebrew freedom movement. The use of the genius, status and resources of individuals and the channeling of the energy, devotion and revolutionary fervour of the masses for the war of liberation.
  3. PACTS: Make pacts with all those who are willing to help the struggle of the organization and provide direct support.
  4. FORCE: Consolidate and increase the fighting force in the homeland and in the Diaspora, in the underground and in the barracks, to become the Hebrew army of liberation with its flag, arms, and commanders.
  5. WAR: Constant war against those who stand in the way of fulfilling the goals.
  6. CONQUEST: The conquest of the homeland from foreign rule and its eternal possession.
These are the tasks of the movement during the period of sovereignty and redemption:
  1. SOVEREIGNTY: Renewal of Hebrew sovereignty over the redeemed land.
  2. RULE OF JUSTICE: The establishment of a social order in the spirit of Jewish morality and prophetic justice. Under such an order no one will go hungry or unemployed. All will live in harmony, mutual respect and friendship as an example to the world.
  3. REVIVING THE WILDERNESS: Build the ruins and revive the wilderness for mass immigration and population increase.
  4. ALIENS: Solve the problem of alien population [i.e. the Arab inhabitants of Palestine] by exchange of population.
  5. IN-GATHERING OF THE EXILES: Total in-gathering of the exiles to their sovereign state.
  6. POWER: The Hebrew nation shall become a first-rate military, political, cultural and economical entity in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean Sea.
  7. REVIVAL: The revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken language by the entire nation, the renewal of the historical and spiritual might of Israel. The purification of the national character in the fire of revival.
  8. THE TEMPLE: The building of the Third Temple as a symbol of the new era of total redemption.

In the early years of the state of Israel Lehi veterans could be found supporting nearly all political parties and some Lehi leaders founded a left-wing political party called the Fighters’ List with Natan Yellin-Mor as its head. The party took part in the elections in January 1949 and won a single parliamentary seat. A number of Lehi veterans established the Semitic Action movement in 1956 which sought the creation of a regional federation encompassing Israel and its Arab neighbors on the basis of an anti-colonialist alliance with other indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East.

Some writers have stated that Lehi’s true goals were the creation of a totalitarian state. Perlinger and Weinberg write that the organisation’s ideology placed “its world view in the quasi-fascist radical Right, which is characterised by xenophobia, a national egotism that completely subordinates the individual to the needs of the nation, anti-liberalism, total denial of democracy and a highly centralised government.” Perliger and Weinberg state that most Lehi members were admirers of the Italian Fascist movement.

Many Lehi combatants received professional training. Some attended the state military academy in Civitavecchia, in Fascist Italy. Others received military training from instructors of the Polish Armed Forces in 1938–1939. This training was conducted in Trochenbrod (Zofiówka) in Wołyń Voivodeship, Podębin near Łódź, and the forests around Andrychów. They were taught how to use explosives. One of them reported later: “Poles treated terrorism as a science. We have mastered mathematical principles of demolishing constructions made of concrete, iron, wood, bricks and dirt.”

The group was initially unsuccessful. Early attempts to raise funds through criminal activities, including a bank robbery in Tel Aviv in 1940 and another robbery on 9 January 1942 in which Jewish passers-by were killed, brought about the temporary collapse of the group. An attempt to assassinate the head of the British secret police in Lod in which three police personnel were killed, two Jewish and one British, elicited a severe response from the British and Jewish establishments who collaborated against Lehi.

Stern’s group was seen as a terrorist organisation by the British authorities, who instructed the Defence Security Office (the colonial branch of MI5) to track down its leaders. In 1942, Stern, after he was arrested, was shot dead in disputed circumstances by Inspector Geoffrey J. Morton of the CID. The arrest of several other members led momentarily to the group’s eclipse, until it was revived after the September 1942 escape of two of its leaders, Yitzhak Shamir and Eliyahu Giladi, aided by two other escapees Natan Yellin-Mor (Friedman) and Israel Eldad (Sheib). (Giladi was later killed by Lehi under circumstances that remain mysterious.) Shamir’s codename was “Michael”, a reference to one of Shamir’s heroes, Michael Collins. Lehi was guided by spiritual and philosophical leaders such as Uri Zvi Greenberg and Israel Eldad. After the killing of Giladi, the organization was led by a triumvirate of Eldad, Shamir, and Yellin-Mor.

According to a compilation by Nachman Ben-Yehuda, Lehi was responsible for 42 assassinations, more than twice as many as the Irgun and Haganah combined during the same period. Of those Lehi assassinations that Ben-Yehuda classified as political, more than half the victims were Jews.

In mid-1940, Stern became convinced that the Italians were interested in the establishment of a fascist Jewish state in Palestine. He conducted negotiations, he thought, with the Italians via an intermediary Moshe Rotstein, and drew up a document that became known as the “Jerusalem Agreement”. In exchange for Italy’s recognition of, and aid in obtaining, Jewish sovereignty over Palestine, Stern promised that Zionism would come under the aegis of Italian fascism, with Haifa as its base, and the Old City of Jerusalem under Vatican control, except for the Jewish quarter. In Heller’s words, Stern’s proposal would “turn the ‘Kingdom of Israel’ into a satellite of the Axis powers.”

Late in 1940, Lehi, having identified a common interest between the intentions of the new German order and Jewish national aspirations, proposed forming an alliance in World War II with Nazi Germany. It offered assistance in transferring the Jews of Europe to Palestine, in return for Germany’s help in expelling Britain from Mandatory Palestine.

Late in 1940, Lehi representative Naftali Lubenchik went to Beirut to meet German official Werner Otto von Hentig (who also was involved with the Haavara or Transfer Agreement, which had been transferring German Jews and their funds to Palestine since 1933). Lubenchik told von Hentig that Lehi had not yet revealed its full power and that they were capable of organizing a whole range of anti-British operations.

The organization offered cooperation in the following terms. Lehi would support sabotage and espionage operations in the Middle East and in eastern Europe anywhere where they had cells. Germany would recognize an independent Jewish state in Palestine/Eretz Israel, and all Jews leaving their homes in Europe, by their own will or because of government injunctions, could enter Palestine with no restriction of numbers.

Stern also proposed recruiting some 40,000 Jews from occupied Europe to invade Palestine with German support to oust the British.

On 11 January 1941, Vice Admiral Ralf von der Marwitz, the German Naval attaché in Turkey, filed a report (the “Ankara document”) conveying an offer by Lehi to “actively take part in the war on Germany’s side” in return for German support for “the establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich.”

According to Yellin-Mor:

Lubenchik did not take along any written memorandum for the German representatives. Had there been a need for one, he would have formulated it on the spot, since he was familiar with the episode of the Italian “intermediary” and with the numerous drafts connected with it. Apparently one of von Hentig’s secretaries noted down the essence of the proposal in his own words.

According to Joseph Heller, “The memorandum arising from their conversation is an entirely authentic document, on which the stamp of the ‘IZL in Israel’ is clearly embossed.”

Von der Marwitz delivered the offer, classified as secret, to the German Ambassador in Turkey and on 21 January 1941 it was sent to Berlin. There was never any response.

A second attempt to contact the Nazis was made at the end of 1941, but it was even less successful. The emissary Yellin-Mor was arrested in Syria before he could carry out his mission.

This proposed alliance with Nazi Germany cost Lehi and Stern much support. The Stern Gang also had links with, and support from, the Vichy France Sûreté’s Lebanese offices.

They adopted the tactics of groups such as the Socialist Revolutionaries and the Combat Organization of the Polish Socialist Party in Czarist Russia, and the Irish Republican Army. To this end, Lehi conducted small-scale operations such as individual assassinations of British officials (notable targets included Lord Moyne, CID detectives, and Jewish “collaborators”), and random shootings against soldiers and police officers. Another strategy, adopted in 1946, was to send bombs in the mail to British politicians. Other actions included sabotaging infrastructure targets: bridges, railroads, telephone and telegraph lines, and oil refineries, as well as the use of vehicle bombs against British military, police, and administrative targets. Lehi financed its operations from private donations, extortion, and bank robbery. Its campaign of violence lasted from 1944 to 1948. Initially conducted together with the Irgun, it included a six-month suspension to avoid being targeted by the Haganah during the Hunting Season, and later operated jointly with the Haganah and Irgun under the Jewish Resistance Movement. After the Jewish Resistance Movement was dissolved, it operated independently as part of the general Jewish insurgency in Palestine.

On 6 November 1944, Lehi assassinated Lord Moyne, the British Minister Resident in the Middle East, in Cairo. Moyne was the highest ranking British official in the region. Yitzhak Shamir claimed later that Moyne was assassinated because of his support for a Middle Eastern Arab Federation and anti-Semitic lectures in which Arabs were held to be racially superior to Jews. The assassination rocked the British government, and outraged Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister. The two assassins, Eliahu Bet-Zouri and Eliahu Hakim were captured and used their trial as a platform to make public their political propaganda. They were executed. In 1975 their bodies were returned to Israel and given a state funeral. In 1982, postage stamps were issued for 20 Olei Hagardom, including Bet-Zouri and Hakim, in a souvenir sheet called “Martyrs of the struggle for Israel’s independence.”

On 25 April 1946, a Lehi unit attacked a car park in Tel Aviv occupied by the British 6th Airborne Division. Under a barrage of heavy covering fire, Lehi fighters broke into the car park, shot soldiers they encountered at close range, stole rifles from arms racks, laid mines to cover the retreat, and withdrew. Seven soldiers were killed in the attack, which caused widespread outrage among the British security forces in Palestine. It resulted in retaliatory anti-Jewish violence by British troops and a punitive curfew imposed on Tel Aviv’s roads and a closure of places of entertainment in the city by the British Army.

On 12 January 1947, Lehi members drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa killing four and injuring 140, in what has been called ‘the world’s first true truck bomb’.

Following the bombing of the British embassy in Rome, October 1946, a series of operations against targets in the United Kingdom were launched. On 7 March 1947, Lehi’s only successful operation in Britain was carried out when a Lehi bomb severely damaged the British Colonial Club, a London recreational facility for soldiers and students from Britain’s colonies in Africa and the West Indies. On 15 April 1947 a bomb consisting of twenty-four sticks of explosives was planted in the Colonial Office, Whitehall. It failed to explode due to a fault in the timer. Five weeks later, on 22 May, five alleged Lehi members were arrested in Paris with bomb making material including explosives of the same type as found in London. On 2 June, two Lehi members, Betty Knouth and Yaakov Levstien, were arrested crossing from Belgium to France. Envelopes addressed to British officials, with detonators, batteries and a time fuse were found in one of Knouth’s suitcases. Knouth was sentenced to a year in prison, Levstien to eight months. The British Security Services identified Knouth as the person who planted the bomb in the Colonial Office. Shortly after their arrest, 21 letter bombs were intercepted addressed to senior British figures. The letters had been posted in Italy. The intended recipients included Bevin, Attlee, Churchill and Eden. Knouth aka Gilberte/Elizabeth Lazarus. Levstein was travelling as Jacob Elias; his fingerprints connected him to the deaths of several Palestine Policemen as well as an attempt on the life of the British High Commissioner. In 1973, Margaret Truman wrote that letter bombs were also posted to her father, U.S. President Harry S. Truman, in 1947. Former Lehi leader Yellin-Mor admitted that letter bombs had been sent to British targets but denied that any had been sent to Truman.

Shortly after the 1947 publication of The Last Days of Hitler, Lehi issued a death threat against the author, Hugh Trevor-Roper, for his portrayal of Hitler, feeling that Trevor-Roper had attempted to exonerate the German populace from responsibility.

During the lead-up to the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, Lehi mined the Cairo–Haifa train several times. On 29 February 1948, Lehi mined the train north of Rehovot, killing 28 British soldiers and wounding 35. On 31 March, Lehi mined the train near Binyamina, killing 40 civilians and wounding 60.

The conflict between Lehi and mainstream Jewish and subsequently Israeli organizations came to an end when Lehi was formally dissolved and integrated into the Israeli Defense Forces on 31 May 1948, its leaders getting amnesty from prosecution or reprisals as part of the integration.

Although Lehi had stopped operating nationally after May 1948, the group continued to function in Jerusalem. On 17 September 1948, Lehi assassinated UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte. The assassination was directed by Yehoshua Zettler and carried out by a four-man team led by Meshulam Makover. The fatal shots were fired by Yehoshua Cohen. The Security Council described the assassination as a “cowardly act which appears to have been committed by a criminal group of terrorists”.

Three days after the assassination, the Israeli government passed the Ordinance to Prevent Terrorism and declared Lehi to be a terrorist organization. Many Lehi members were arrested, including leaders Nathan Yellin-Mor and Matitiahu Schmulevitz who were arrested on 29 September. Eldad and Shamir managed to escape arrest. Yellin-Mor and Schmulevitz were charged with leadership of a terrorist organization and on 10 February 1949 were sentenced to 8 years and 5 years imprisonment, respectively. However the State (Temporary) Council soon announced a general amnesty for Lehi members and they were released.

Some of the Lehi leadership founded a left-wing political party called the Fighters’ List with the jailed Yellin-Mor as its head. The party took part in the elections in January 1949 and won one seat. Thanks to a general amnesty for Lehi members granted on 14 February 1949, Yellin-Mor was released from prison to take up his place in the Knesset. However, the party disbanded after failing to win a seat in the 1951 elections.

In 1956, some Lehi veterans established the Semitic Action movement, which sought the creation of a regional federation encompassing Israel and its Arab neighbors on the basis of an anti-colonialist alliance with other indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East.

Not all Lehi alumni gave up political violence after independence: former members were involved in the activities of the Kingdom of Israel militant group, the 1957 assassination of Rudolf Kastner, and likely the 1952 attempted assassination of David-Zvi Pinkas.

In 1980, Israel instituted the Lehi ribbon, red, black, grey, pale blue and white, which is awarded to former members of the Lehi underground who wished to carry it, “for military service towards the establishment of the S“Unknown Soldiers” anthem

The words and music of a song “Unknown Soldiers” (also translated “Anonymous Soldiers”) were written by Avraham Stern in 1932 during the early days of the Irgun. It became the Irgun’s anthem until the split with Lehi in 1940, after which it became the Lehi anthem.

A number of Lehi’s members went on to play important roles in Israel’s public life.

  • Geula Cohen, member of the Knesset
  • Israel Eldad, leader in the Israeli national camp
  • Boaz Evron, left-wing journalist
  • Maxim Ghilan, Israeli journalist, author and peace activist
  • Uri Zvi Greenberg
  • Amos Kenan, writer
  • Baruch Korff
  • Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli prime minister 1983–1984 and 1986–1992.
  • Shimon Tzabar
  • Natan Yellin-Mor, member of the Knesset 1949–1951, leftist advocate of peace with Arabs.

Peace is the beauty of life. It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth. Menachem Begin

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