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A Bomb in the Archive

Lehi and their Practical Role Models


For most of us, trawling through files at archives combines two main feelings: excitement at what we may find in our search, and crippling back pain from hours hunched over desks. It was certainly extraordinary to feel a flush of fear upon pulling an item from an envelope in the National Archives in London.

The files I had been poring over detailed an attempted letter bombing campaign from 1947 by the militant Zionist group Lehi, referred to by British officials as the »Stern Gang« after their leader Avraham Stern. A Home Office report delineated the makeup and dangers posed by these explosive devices which had been sent to high profile political figures such as Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill, and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. Luckily, none of the bombs detonated. A further set of documents detailed the aftermath of a later parcel bomb sent to Staffordshire, including horrific autopsy photos of the single fatality in the case. It is easy then to imagine the fleeting moment of fear and shock when, from out of an unmarked envelope, I pulled one of the original Lehi letter bombs. It had, of course, been made safe.

Defused letter bomb. Source: The British National Archives, EF 5/12.
Defused letter bomb. Source: The British National Archives, EF 5/12.
Defused letter bomb. Source: The British National Archives, EF 5/12.
Defused letter bomb. Source: The British National Archives, EF 5/12.

Besides allowing me to dine out on the tale of finding a bomb in an archive for many months, the episode also elucidated the way in which these Zionist groups had consciously adopted the methods and tactics of other armed groups who had utilized terrorism. Although Avraham Stern and his followers sought to draw a link between their struggle against the British in Palestine and the historical Jewish resistance to Roman rule in first century Judea, there was very little that could be assimilated into Lehi’s operational repertoire from that ancient role model. Instead, there were more modern examples that proved a valuable source of inspiration and practical knowledge.

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Anarchist terrorism had been a constant source of anxiety and distress across Europe. Multiple attempts and more than a few successful assassinations targeted European leaders, from the bombing that killed Tsar Alexander II in 1881 to the murder of Spanish Prime Minister Antonio Cánovas del Castillo in 1897. In the Russian Empire especially, where Anarchist terror was at its apogee, Jews were overrepresented in Anarchist circles. Not only large cities such as Kyiv, Odessa, Vilna, Minsk and Moscow but even the smallest shtetls often hosted Jewish Anarchist groups comprising of anything from two to a dozen members. Across the Russian imperial periphery, Anarchist groups were often linked to ethno-separatist movements seeking national liberation, just as Lehi would claim to be doing in Palestine. It was into this political and cultural milieu that some of the most prominent strategists of Lehi – both under Stern and the triumvirate of Yitzhak Shamir, Nathan Yellin-Mor and Israel Eldad – were born and raised. Stories of Anarchist terrorism would have been a familiar part of these figures’ early years and offered a source of fascination and inspiration.

The triumvirate of Shamir, Yellin-Mor, and Eldad put Anarchist principles into practice on the operational level, recruiting members, acquiring weapons and explosives and arranging Lehi into hidden secret cells resembling those described by Sergey Nechayev, a close friend of Mikhail Bakunin. Lehi attacks were also deeply reminiscent of nineteenth and early twentieth century Anarchist attacks. Whereas Etzel, the more moderate Revisionist Zionist underground organization known in English as »Irgun«, mostly targeted the infrastructure of the British administration in Palestine, Lehi’s approach was to carry out bombings and assassinations against individual members of the ruling classes which closely resembled the Anarchist »propaganda of the deed«. The assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo in 1944 was the beginning of Lehi’s »propaganda of the deed« tactics which would culminate in the attempted targeting of British MPs in the British Isles – including with letter bombs, itself a popular method of assassination amongst nineteenth-century Anarchists.

Irish Republicanism offered another potent example of a group who had engaged in armed struggle and come out on top. The fact that Irish Republicans had won their freedom from the same British enemy Lehi now faced, added an extra appeal. For Stern, the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 offered a paradigm of how individual martyrdom could lead to a broad national revolution against colonial rule. While Irish forces managed to seize key areas of Dublin, they were quickly overwhelmed by the British, who ensured that the leadership of the rebellion was largely executed. Nevertheless, their actions triggered a wider armed resistance to British rule. Stern’s decision to translate into Hebrew parts of P. S. O’Hegarty’s book, The Victory of Sinn Féin, and concentrate on the Easter Rising of 1916 supports the argument that Stern was particularly interested in the idea of martyrdom as the way towards revolution and statehood.

While Stern certainly got the martyr’s death he had idealized in 1942, it came no nearer to bringing about a revolution. His successor Shamir, therefore, took a very different and much more practical message from the Irish exemplar. His adoption of the nom de guerre »Michael« after Michael Collins – the towering figure of Irish Republicanism and pioneer of guerrilla warfare – hints at his source of inspiration. Although this choice was later played off by Shamir as a mere curiosity, members of Lehi chose their aliases carefully to reflect their beliefs and ideological convictions. Stern, for example, had chosen »Yair« in reference to Elazar Ben-Yair, the zealot Judean leader at Masada – an expression of his profound belief in the power of martyrdom. By adopting the name Michael, Shamir was signposting his belief in the power of guerrilla tactics and the use of terror to drive the British out. He duly set about perfecting these terroristic methods. Indeed, many of Lehi’s attacks, and especially their bombs, resemble those fabricated by Irish revolutionaries in the early years of the twentieth century.

The letter bomb filed away in the National Archives is testament to the composite nature of not only Lehi’s ideology and thought – as previously observed by historians – but to their practical deeds too. Not satisfied with ideas alone, Lehi adopted the practices and methods of groups like Russian Anarchists and Irish Republicans in their own fight against the British. Groups engaged in terrorism often, by necessity, ape their predecessors. Despite attempts to present their predecessors as ancient Judeans fighting Roman occupation, Lehi’s real forerunners were European revolutionaries and nationalist fighters.

James A. S. Sunderland is a final year DPhil student at Merton College, University of Oxford, where his research focusses on the final years of British rule in Palestine and Yishuv–British relations. He also works on Irish–Zionist links and the history of Jewish sex work in Mandate Palestine | james.sunderland@merton.ox.ac.uk.

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