Even by the standards of the seemingly endless cycle of violence that has plagued the Arab-Israeli conflict for more decades than most of us care to remember, the fanatical form of terrorism practised by the Stern gang has acquired a notoriety all of its own.
Named after Avraham Stern, the young Polish dandy with a penchant for poetry who became Palestine’s most wanted man during the troubled era of the British mandate in the Thirties and Forties, the Stern gang adopted uncompromising tactics, leading to it being ostracised even by the mainstream Zionist establishment.
By the mid-Thirties, Arab resentment against the mounting tide of Jewish immigrants arriving in Palestine to escape anti-Semitic persecution in Europe had boiled over into a full-scale revolt. Faced with unprovoked attacks by Arab mobs, the Jewish inhabitants concluded that they could not rely on the British authorities to protect their interests, and increasingly relied on the Haganah, the Jewish defence militia and forerunner of the modern Israeli army, to defend themselves.
But for more hardline Zionists, like the revisionist Ze’ev Jabotinsky, defending Jewish communities was not enough. Rejecting the softly, softly approach of David Ben-Gurion, the left-leaning head of the Jewish Agency, Jabotinsky argued the Jews should go on the offensive against the Arabs if they were to stand any chance of establishing a state of their own. Before long his slogan, “Jewish youth, learn to shoot”, had been adopted by more militant Jews, and the formation of the Irgun resulted in Jewish activists adopting the same tactics at the Arabs in their battle for survival.
And, as Patrick Bishop explains in The Reckoning, his well-told and well-researched re-examination of the Stern legend, the growing militancy of revisionist Jewish leaders soon put them on a collision course with the British security authorities, who had the thankless task of trying to maintain the peace between two communities that were hell-bent on terrorising each other.
But, as Bishop points out, it was not until Stern came on the scene that the more extreme members of the Jewish community decided to direct their campaign of terrorism against the British authorities, with devastating consequences. According to one of Stern’s early propaganda statements, the fundamental principle upon which they acted was that “the fate of the Jewish nation will be decided by Jewish armed force on the soil of the homeland”.
Stern and his followers believed the best way to achieve their goal was to terrorise the British into abandoning their mandate to administer Palestine, thereby leaving the territory free for the Zionists to establish their own state. Indeed, so committed was Stern to defeating the British that, with the outbreak of the Second World War, Stern and his Jewish accomplices even went so far as to try to negotiate an alliance with the Nazis, in the bizarre belief that, if the Germans defeated the British in the Middle East, they would support the creation of an independent Jewish state.
Stern’s extreme views soon resulted in his ostracism from Jewish society, with even the leaders of the Irgun declaring he was beyond the pale, and offering to assist British efforts to track him down. Isolated, but still determined to pursue his goals, Stern resorted to robbing Jewish banks to fund his activities, with the proceeds being used to buy guns and bomb-making equipment.
But, as Bishop explains in his thrilling narrative, Stern’s days were numbered the moment his group launched an assassination campaign against the British. His exploits, which resulted in the deaths of several British officers, led to Geoffrey Morton, a senior detective in the Criminal Investigations Department of the Palestine Police, making it his personal mission to track down Stern and eliminate him.
Morton, a career-minded policemen from Camberwell, in south London, had already achieved notoriety within Jewish underground circles for his efficiency in tracking down their cells, and his trigger-happy approach when it came to raiding their hideouts. Morton had been involved in the shooting of several Jewish suspects during such raids when the police received reliable intelligence about Stern’s hideout in Tel Aviv.
So it was almost inevitable that, when Morton and his well-armed group of Palestine Police raided the flat, the operation should end with Stern being shot dead by the British detective. In his official report of the incident, Morton claimed that Stern had been trying to escape when he shot him three times in the chest, killing him almost instantly. But in subsequent years other members of the police team have given differing accounts, suggesting that it might have been possible to take Stern alive.
Like the assiduous writer he is, Bishop concludes this excellent account of Stern’s exploits by examining these different versions, although he is unable to come to any firm conclusion. But the fact that Morton, who believed that Stern was personally responsible for the murder of some of his closest colleagues, felt there was insufficient evidence to put Stern on trial is perhaps the strongest indicator that the British policeman decided to implement his own form of summary justice.
Whatever the truth, most of the Jewish community in Palestine at the time believed Stern had been deliberately killed, particularly the more extreme activists like Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. These two future prime ministers of Israel would use Stern’s killing to justify their own uncompromising, and ultimately successful, efforts to drive the British out of Palestine, thereby laying the foundations for the establishment of the state of Israel.