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|Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – Lehi|
|לח"י – לוחמי חרות ישראל|
Lohamei Herut Israel – Lehi
|Succeeded by||Fighters' List|
Kingdom of Israel (group)
Fascism (until 1942)
National Bolshevism (after 1944)
Anti-imperialism (after 1945)
|Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – Lehi|
|לח"י – לוחמי חרות ישראל|
Lohamei Herut Israel – Lehi
|Succeeded by||Fighters' List|
Kingdom of Israel (group)
Fascism (until 1942)
National Bolshevism (after 1944)
Anti-imperialism (after 1945)
Lehi (Hebrew pronunciation: [ˈleχi]; Hebrew: לח"י – לוחמי חרות ישראל Lohamei Herut Israel – Lehi, "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel – Lehi"), commonly referred to in English as the Stern Gang, was a militant Zionist group founded by Avraham ("Yair") Stern in the British Mandate of Palestine. Its avowed aim was to evict the 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.
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. On the belief 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 of 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 Tzahal, 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. Israel granted a general amnesty to Lehi members on 14 February 1949. In 1980, Israel instituted a military decoration in "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 was created in August 1940 by Avraham Stern. Stern had been a member of the Irgun (Irgun Tsvai Leumi – "National Military Organization") high command. Zeev Jabotinsky, then the Irgun's supreme commander, had decided that diplomacy and working with Britain would best serve the Zionist cause. World War II was in progress, and Britain was fighting Nazi Germany. The Irgun suspended its underground military activities against the British for the duration of the war.
Stern argued that the time for Zionist diplomacy was over and that it was time for armed struggle against the British. Like other Zionists, he objected to the White Paper of 1939, which restricted both Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in Palestine. For Stern, 'no difference existed between Hitler and Chamberlain, between Dachau or Buchenwald and sealing the gates of Eretz Israel.'
Stern wanted to open Palestine to all Jewish refugees from Europe, and considered this as by far the most important issue of the day. Britain would not allow this. Therefore, he concluded, the Yishuv (Jews of Palestine) should fight the British rather than support them in the war. When the Irgun made a truce with the British, Stern left the Irgun to form his own group, which he called Irgun Tsvai Leumi B'Yisrael ("National Military Organization in Israel"), later Lohamei Herut Israel ("Fighters for the Freedom of Israel").
Stern and his followers believed that dying for the 'foreign occupier' who was obstructing the creation of the Jewish State was useless. They differentiated between 'enemies of the Jewish people' (the British) and 'Jew haters' (the Nazis), believing that the former needed to be defeated and the latter manipulated.
In September 1940, the organization was officially named "Lehi".
In 1940, the idea of the Final Solution was still "unthinkable", and Stern believed that Hitler wanted to make Germany judenrein through emigration, as opposed to extermination. In December 1940, Lehi even contacted Germany with a proposal to aid German conquest in the Middle East in return for recognition of a Jewish state open to unlimited immigration.
Lehi had three main goals:
Lehi believed in its early years that its goals would be achieved by finding a strong international ally that would expel the British from Palestine, in return for Jewish military help; this would require the creation of a broad and organised military force "demonstrating its desire for freedom through military operations."
Lehi also referred to themselves as 'terrorists' and may have been one of the last organizations to do so.
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:
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:
Unlike the left-wing Haganah and right-wing Irgun, Lehi members were not a homogeneous collective with a single political, religious, or economic ideology. They were a combination of militants united by the goal of liberating the land of Israel from British rule. Most Lehi leaders defined their organization as an anti-imperialism movement and stated that their opposition to British colonial rule in Palestine was not based on a particular policy but rather on the presence of a foreign power over the homeland of the Jewish people. Avraham Stern defined the British Mandate as "foreign rule" regardless of British policies and took a radical position against such imperialism even if it were to be benevolent.
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.
Others counter these claims. They note that when Lehi founder Avraham Stern went to study in fascist Italy, he refused to join the Gruppo Universitario Fascista for foreign students, even though members got large reductions in tuition.[verification needed]
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.
Lehi adopted a non-socialist platform of Anti-Imperialist ideology. It viewed the continued British rule of Palestine as a violation of the Mandate's provision generally, and its restrictions on Jewish immigration to be an intolerable breach of international law. However they also targeted Jews whom they regarded as traitors, and during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War they joined in operations with the Haganah and Irgun against Arab targets, for example Deir Yassin.
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.
Lehi also rejected the authority of the Jewish Agency for Israel and related organizations, operating entirely on its own throughout nearly all of its existence.
Lehi prisoners captured by the British generally refused to present a defence when brought to trial. They would only read out statements in which they declared that the court, representing an occupying force, had no jurisdiction over them and therefore was illegal. For the same reason, Lehi prisoners refused to plead for amnesty, even when it was clear that this would have spared them the death penalty. In one case Moshe Barazani, a Lehi member, and Meir Feinstein, an Irgun member, committed suicide in prison with a grenade smuggled inside an orange so the British could not hang them.
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."
However, the "intermediary" Rotstein was in fact an agent of the Irgun, conducting a sting operation under the direction of the Irgun intelligence leader in Haifa, Israel Pritzker, in cooperation with the British. Secret British documents about the affair were uncovered by historian Eldad Harouvi (now director of the Palmach Archives) and confirmed by former Irgun intelligence officer Yitzhak Berman. When Rotstein's role later became clear, Lehi sentenced him to death and assigned Yaacov Eliav to kill him, but the assassination never took place. However, Pritzker was killed by Lehi in 1943.
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.
On the assumption that the destruction of Britain was the Germans' top objective, 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,
According to Joseph Heller,
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.
As a group that never had over a few hundred members, Lehi relied on audacious but small-scale operations to bring their message home. 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 assassinations of British soldiers and police officers and Jewish "collaborators." Another strategy, adopted in 1946, was to send bombs in the mail to many British politicians. Other actions included sabotaging infrastructure targets: bridges, railroads, and oil refineries. Lehi financed their operations from private donations, extortion, and bank robbery.
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."
Following the bombing of the British embassy in Rome, October 1946, a series of operations against targets in the United Kingdom were launched. 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 Yaacov 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. 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 soldiers and wounding 35. On 31 March, Lehi mined the train near Binyamina, killing 40 civilians and wounding 60.
One of the most widely known acts of Lehi was the attack on the Palestinian-Arab village of Deir Yassin.
In the months before the British evacuation from Palestine, the Arab League-sponsored Arab Liberation Army (ALA) occupied several strategic points along the road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cutting off supplies to the Jewish part of Jerusalem. One of these points was Deir Yassin. By March 1948, the road was cut off and Jewish Jerusalem was under siege. The Haganah launched Operation Nachshon to break the siege.
Then on 9 April 1948, about 120 Lehi and Irgun fighters, acting in cooperation with the Haganah, attacked and captured Deir Yassin. The attack was at night, the fighting was confused, and many civilian inhabitants of the village were killed. This action had great consequences for the war, and remains a cause celebre for Palestinians ever since.
Exactly what happened has never been established clearly. The Arab League reported a great massacre: 254 killed, with rape and lurid mutilations. Israeli investigations claimed the actual number of dead was between 100 and 120, and there were no mass rapes, but most of the dead were civilians, and admitted some were killed deliberately. Lehi and Irgun both denied an organized massacre. Accounts by Lehi veterans such as Ezra Yakhin note that many of the attackers were killed or wounded, assert that Arabs fired from every building and that Iraqi and Syrian soldiers were among the dead, and even that some Arab fighters dressed as women.
However, Jewish authorities, including Haganah, the Chief Rabbinate, the Jewish Agency, and David Ben-Gurion, also condemned the attack, lending credence to the charge of massacre. The Jewish Agency even sent a letter of condemnation, apology, and condolence to King Abdullah I of Jordan.
Both the Arab reports and Jewish responses had hidden motives: the Arab leaders wanted to encourage Palestinian Arabs to fight rather than surrender, to discredit the Zionists with international opinion, and to increase popular support in their countries for an invasion of Palestine. The Jewish leaders wanted to discredit Irgun and Lehi.
Ironically, the Arab reports backfired in one respect: frightened Palestinian Arabs did not surrender, but did not fight either – they fled, allowing Israel to gain much territory with little fighting and also without absorbing many Arabs.
Lehi similarly interpreted events at Deir Yassin as turning the tide of war in favor of the Jews. Lehi leader Israel Eldad later wrote in his memoirs from the underground period that "without Deir Yassin the State of Israel could never have been established."
The Deir Yassin story did not much sway international opinion. It did increase not only support but pressure on Arab governments to intervene, notably Abdullah of Jordan, who was now compelled to join the invasion of Palestine after Israel's declaration of independence on 14 May.
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 State of Israel".
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.
The [AMIKAM] Stern Gang – known in Hebrew as Lehi, an acronym for Israel Freedom Fighters – was the most militant of the pre-state underground groups.
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