The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1940-1949

By Caplan, Neil | The Middle East Journal, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1940-1949


Caplan, Neil, The Middle East Journal


1. Open Economy Macroeconomics (New York: Basic Books, 1980). Frank Cass Publishers, 1995. x + 299 pages. Notes to p. 347. Bibl. to p. 352. Index to p. 358. $47.50.

Reviewed by Neil Caplan

This condensation of a seminal 1989 Hebrew work offers English-speaking readers the fruits of Joseph Heller's study of the clandestine world of Israel's pre-state underground. The "Stern Gang" referred to a radical terrorist movement first known as "IZL in Israel" (a breakaway group from the larger Irgun Zvai Leumi, the military wing of the Revisionist Movement), headed by romantic Zionist ideologue Avraham ("Yair") Stern. A year after Yair's murder at the hands of his British police captors in February 1942, several of his followers reconstituted their organization, thereafter known in Hebrew as LEHILohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel).

Given the inherent conspiratorial nature of his outlaw subject, one must admire Heller's ability to gain access to so much documentary archival material, to extract useful reminiscences from interviews with cooperative former activists, and to assemble his evidence with a critical eye. The result is an erudite text, but not easy reading. While previous authors have highlighted the group's terrorist actions, they have paid scant attention to the subtleties of its ideological development. Heller quotes from many of LEHI's leaflets and from the private correspondence of its activists to produce a detailed and authentic description which takes us beyond the bravado of the often self-serving and unreliable accounts recorded in survivors' memoirs.

Heller believes that shifts in the organization's political orientation are best understood through an appreciation of the fact that Stem and his followers were the estranged disciples of Zeev Jabotinsky and the Revisionist Movement. Unlike their Revisionist mentors, Sternists defined "Britain" as the occupier of their homeland and the Hebrew nation's permanent "enemy." Nazi Germany was, to the Stem Gang, merely a transient "persecutor." In their search for an appropriate external ally, Stemists at first entertained the prospect of an alliance with Hitler or Mussolini before moving on, by the end of World War II, to seek the backing of the Soviet Union. In this last phase, LEHI portrayed itself as being part of the worldwide struggle against "Anglo-Saxon imperialism." One wonders whether, in view of its growing anti-Americanism, LEHI's efforts to gain public sympathy and set up support networks (for arms purchases, inter alia) in the United States deserve more attention than the passing mention Heller gives them.

Heller's portrayal of the Stern Gang's various ideological shifts is necessarily complex. In the author's analysis, the terms "national bolshevism" or "leftist chauvinism" reflect most accurately the group's basic ideology during its heyday. Readers may be struck by the eclectic variety of legends and heroes that inspired the fanatical dedication of the group's members. Heroic role-models were found both in the distant and recent Jewish past (with negative ones taken from the alleged cowardly behavior of the Jewish ghetto councils in Nazi-occupied Europe) and in dozens of "national liberation" struggles in 19th- and 20th-century Europe and Asia.

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