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The Iron Wall

Lenni Brenner

The Iron Wall

11. The Revolt


The Split in the Irgun

When Begin arrived in Palestine in May 1942, he found his movement in total disarray. The split in the Irgun had not been healed. Avraham Stern and his followers, including Begin’s intimate friends, Nathan Yalin-Mor and Israel Scheib (Eldad), who had been able to escape to Palestine before the Baltic corridor had been completely shut off, continued to fight the British.

On 12 February 1942, the British police finally captured – and murdered – Stern and, by the time Begin arrived in the country, it appeared that the Stern organization was finished although, in fact, it later reorganized under a leadership triumverate of Yalin-Mor, Scheib (Eldad), and Yitzhak Shamir, who, years later, was to become Begin’s Foreign Minister, and then his successor as prime minister.

One may speculate as to whether Begin would have followed his two comrades into Stern’s camp, had he arrived earlier. However, given his simultaneous loyalty to Jabotinsky and his immense admiration for Stern, the question is impossible to answer. At any rate, by 1942, he saw no reason to join the apparently extinguished Sternists, and, in September, he was asked to take over as Betar’s Commissioner. In contrast to their Sternist rivals, the Revisionists were actively pro-British and had seen their strength diminished by military enlistments. The Irgun was effectively demobilized after its commander, David Raziel, had been killed in Iraq in May 1941, on a mission for the British against the revolutionary nationalist government of Rashid Ali el-Kilani, who had called in the Germans in a futile effort to rid his country of its British overlords.

Begin and the Irgun

Begin’s Palestinian political career got off to a very slow start as it proved impossible for him to combine his Betar activities with his duties as an English-language translator for the Polish army, first in Haifa, then in Jerusalem for their town commander. Even in Palestine the exile army’s leaders were still their old anti-Semitic selves, and many of their Jewish soldiers, particularly amongst the Zionists, had deserted in disgust. Begin, however, saw himself bound by his honour as a Betari not to betray his military oath, and would not desert.

In November 1942 both the WZO leadership and the Allies finally acknowledged that the Nazis were systematically exterminating European Jewry, and a group of Irgun activists in the US, upon hearing the confirmation of the catastrophe, had begun to mobilize American public opinion for an Allied rescue effort. [1] Inspired by their new-found ability to mobilize a significant element amongst American Jewry, they sent one of their number back to Palestine to revive the Irgun and start a revolt, utilizing Britain’s growing unpopularity, both in Palestine and the Diaspora, due to its unwillingness to do anything for the Jews in occupied Europe. Such a campaign required a new Irgun leader, with primarily political talents, which the then commander, Yaakov Meridor, certainly did not have. The boy orator of the Polish Betar, who had no prior conspiratorial experience, nor military training, was the preferred successor. Arye Ben-Eliazer, the emissary from America, came to the Poles with a proposition. He asked that Begin and four other Jews be sent to the US to rally support for their rescue campaign and an “independent”, i.e. an anti-Communist, post-war Poland. The commandant agreed, and discharged Begin. The proposal had been a ruse, but now, in December 1943, Begin was technically released from his oath, and free to assume the Irgun command.

The Irgun Revolt

On the morning of 1 February 1944, the public woke up to find a proclamation, To the Hebrew Nation in Zion, posted up on walls all over Jewish Palestine. The manifesto catalogued the manifold sins of the Allies, the British and the Arabs against the Jews of Holocaust Europe:

The British ... declared that there is no possibility of rescue operations in that they will “hamper the achievement of victory” ... The White Paper remains valid ... despite the treason of the Arabs and the loyalty of the Jews ... and despite the fact that, after the eradication of Hitlerism, there is no future for Jews among the nations of Europe, eaten up as they are by their hatred of Israel ... God of Israel, God of hosts, be our help. There is no retreat. Liberty or death! [2]

There was a surreal quality to the Irgun’s revolt. The entire force consisted of no more than a few dozen (at times less than two dozen) full-time fighters, and no more than a few hundred part-time supporters. Additionally, Begin understood that there was a real war on and that neither Jewish nor world opinion would have any sympathy for their efforts if they interfered with the final crushing of Nazism. Accordingly, the Irgun never attacked British military installations during the war, confining its military efforts to police stations and governmental offices. To minimize British casualties, advance warnings were given wherever possible so that civilians could be evacuated.

The revolt was immensely unpopular within the Yishuv. From the beginning, the Revisionist Party’s political structure had opposed the venture, and Begin had to sever the Irgun’s ties to them. On 6 November 1944, the Stern Gang assassinated Lord Moyne, the British High Commissioner for the Middle East, in Cairo. The WZO leadership, which had been told by Churchill that he would propose a post-war Zionist state, now saw their hopes for such largess vanish in the wake of the killing of Churchill’s personal friend, and Ben-Gurion determined on a campaign of co-operation with the British against the separatist movements. The labourites focused most of their attention on the Irgun, reasoning that the Sternists were incapable of committing more than an occasional outrage, whereas the much stronger Irgunists could be counted on to repeatedly attack British installations, each time arousing British and world hostility to the Zionist cause. The Haganah declared an open “Saison” on the Beginites.

Begin had financed the revolt, amongst other ways, by extorting money from Zionist businessmen, and organizing bogus robberies of Irgun supporters in the diamond industry, with the dealers getting their cash back from the insurance companies. [3] That soon came to a halt as the Haganah began to systematically kidnap known Irgunists. For the first time, torture – now a standard feature of the Zionist kit – was introduced into Palestinian politics. Begin makes the accusation in his Revolt:

The treatment of those kidnapped by the Haganah was grim ... there were cases of maltreatment at the hands of their fellow-Jewish captors ... True, we did not yet know of the use of “third degree”, but even the “first degree” was enough to infuriate us. [4]

The accusation has been substantiated by the well-known Israeli historian, Yehuda Bauer, in his From Diplomacy to Resistance:

Many ... members ... were interrogated and, in certain cases, even punished ... The Haganah sought to break their power of resistance by this affront to them. According to the statements of Saison operatives, the prisoners’ holding strength against Jewish interrogators – in contrast to their resistance to the English – was not great. The vast majority of those questioned supplied the Haganah with the needed facts. [5]

Under orders from Begin, the Irgunists did not retaliate against the Haganah. Begin was thinking ahead; he correctly reckoned that, after the war, the Haganah would itself rise up against the British, and he did not want to put blood between the two movements who, he knew, would have to co-operate in the future if there was ever to be a Zionist state. However, the combined weight of the British and the Haganah was overwhelming and the Irgun’s campaign became progressively weaker until the war ended in Europe, in May 1945, when the Irgun warned the public that it would again be attacking governmental buildings.

The Revolt in Retrospect

Given its self-imposed strictures, was there any rationality behind the Irgun’s wartime rebellion? The answer can only be a clear no. The British refusal to rescue European Jewry was the immediate excuse given in their initial proclamation but, it can be stated, with certainty, that the Irgun’s private war with Britain rescued no Jews. In fact it diverted attention from the Jews of Europe and permitted the WZO apparatus, in both Palestine and the US, as well as the British, to point a finger at the Irgun as crazy terrorists, thereby distracting the public from the reality that the Allies and the WZO were, each for their different reasons, indifferent to rescue. [6] At this late remove we can only speculate, but had the Irgun mobilized the Jews of Palestine for mass demonstrations calling for rescue, in conjunction with the work done in this regard by their American- based colleagues, it is possible that they could have played an important role in compelling the Allies to take action. In the event, Begin’s revolt did absolutely nothing to help the Jews in Europe in their hour of desperate need. In reality, the Holocaust had only been a handy rationale for a revolt and Begin, who had shouted the loudest in the pre-war period for the fantastic scheme to invade Palestine with the aid of the Polish anti-Semites, obliquely admits as much in his book:

Vladimir Jabotinsky ... said [everyone] had read the Bible and knew that once we Jews started coming back to Eretz Yisrael, our aim must be clear: that Eretz Yisrael should be ours again ... There is no doubt that even had there been no extermination ... a Jewish revolt in one form or another, would have been launched. [7]

Certainly it was post-war considerations that motivated the policy of non-retaliation during the Saison. Begin writes that they

were moved by faith, a profound faith that believed the day was not far distant when all the armed camps in Israel would stand and fight shoulder to shoulder. [8]

He knew then, and he knew when he penned these words, years later, after the war, that the Haganah and the Irgun could only be thought of as military allies after the end of the Holocaust.


1. Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators, pp.228-51.

2. Haber, Menahem Begin (uncorrected proof), pp.105-6.

3. Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p.325.

4. Begin, The Revolt, pp.147-8.

5. Bauer, p.325.

6. Brenner, op. cit.

7. Begin, p.39.

8. Ibid., p.152.

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