Bruce Hoffman, the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the United States Military Academy’s Combating Terrorism Center, uses the story of the Irgun as a test case. At a time when terrorism seems to have an increasing and devastating effect on the course of history, Hoffman’s opening question is riveting: “Does terrorism work?” His answer is that in contrast to what most governments claim, terrorists can attain at least some of their fundamental aims, provided they operate under “the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics.” Indeed less than two years after the attack on the King David, the British were gone and the State of Israel was in existence. This sequence of events is misleading, however. Terrorism may work, as Hoffman suggests in this thought-provoking book, but to prove his contention, more solid evidence is needed than the case of the Irgun in Palestine.
Hoffman writes skillfully, if somewhat repetitiously, describing numerous acts of terrorism in great detail and with apparent fascination for the drama they entail. Yet, notwithstanding his carefully formulated conclusions, one can hardly avoid the impression his book gives that Begin defeated the British Empire single-handedly. That is also the impression Begin conveys in his memoir “The Revolt.”
In reality, the Irgun was only part of the violent struggle against the British. A major role was played by the Haganah (Defense), which acted under the political responsibility of David Ben-Gurion, later Israel’s first prime minister. The Haganah smuggled into Palestine thousands of Jewish immigrants as well as large quantities of weapons, and it performed some spectacular acts of terrorism. Some of these acts were carried out in cooperation with Irgun, including the attack on the King David. Hoffman underestimates the role of the Haganah.
The question of who forced the British out of Palestine gained some importance in Israel’s early politics. The assumption was that those who had done more to get rid of them were now entitled to rule the country. As a result, early Israeli historiography tended to be quite biased politically, and rather sanctimonious. No one admitted acts of terrorism; all claimed to have acted as freedom fighters. The terrorists were the others. There was nothing that could irritate Begin more than having to explain to foreign visitors the difference between the actions of his Irgun and current Palestinian terrorism. According to Begin, the Irgun never intended to kill civilians. A plaque affixed to the fence of the King David informs the public even today that the Irgun gave the hotel ample warning and 25 minutes to evacuate the building. Hoffman is skeptical of that part of the story. Be that as it may, the Irgun respected, at most, the lives of British civilians. As Hoffman points out, the Irgun attacked numerous Arab buses, markets and cafes, causing dozens of casualties.
At the time when anti-British terrorism reached its height, between August 1945 and August 1947, fewer than 300 people were killed, including members of the security forces, terrorists and King David victims. A relatively low figure, as Hoffman points out. Indeed, terrorism’s effect on Britain’s actions, including the decision to leave Palestine entirely, was relatively insignificant. At times terrorism even damaged the Zionist interest, but that too was less significant than Hoffman maintains.
Thus on Nov. 6, 1944, two Jewish terrorists assassinated Lord Moyne, the British minister of state resident in the Middle East, based in Cairo. The assassins were members of another terrorist organization called Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, better known as Lehi or the Stern Gang. Among hundreds of terrorist incidents in Palestine, few can compare with the Moyne assassination in terms of significance, Hoffman states. Churchill, a close friend of Moyne, was just working on a partition plan, which according to Hoffman was intended to provide an early solution to the Palestine problem, even before the end of World War II. But as a result of Moyne’s assassination, Hoffman continues, Churchill dropped that project, and the Zionists may have lost an immediate and favorable decision on the future of Palestine. In reality, no peaceful partition of Palestine was ever possible, mostly because of the Arabs’ refusal to accept a Jewish state there — which Churchill must have known by then.
Arab terrorism against Jews had started much earlier and was aimed at making Palestine unlivable for the Jews and ungovernable for Britain. Begin also sought to drive out Britain by making it impossible to keep law and order in Palestine, but the Arabs had thrown the country into turmoil 10 years before. Consequently, as early as 1937, Britain came up with its first partition plan. The Arabs rejected the plan, which made it irrelevant. Realizing that the conflict between Arabs and Jews was unsolvable, Britain was ready to pull out, and delayed its final decision only because of the approaching war in Europe. One could easily claim then that it was not the Jews who forced Britain out of Palestine, but the Arabs. A broader view, however, shows that Britain let itself out.
Palestine had always been regarded in Britain mainly as a sentimental and religious symbol, rather than a real strategic asset. By the end of World War II, the time for such colonial luxury was over. Palestine was of no real value from the strategic point of view, stated the chancellor of the Exchequer, Hugh Dalton, adding: “You cannot in any case have a secure base on top of a wasps’ nest.” Begin was at most one such wasp. The Irgun’s terrorism obviously increased the cost of keeping Palestine, and so did the Haganah’s. But tormented by a series of social, political and psychological traumas, the British Empire was falling apart and about to abandon even the jewel in the crown: In comparison with India, Palestine was hardly more than an unostentatious back garden.
And most significant, there was the Holocaust. About 100,000 Jewish survivors were sitting in refugee camps; no one knew what to do with them, and no decent country wanted to take them in. Sending them off to Palestine was the easiest way to settle them, and in the eyes of many it was also the right and just thing to do. But Jewish mass immigration to Palestine inevitably meant war, and Britain was fed up with war. As one British official in Palestine wrote: “I want a rest from war and talk of war and above all from emotionalism and nationalism and all the isms!” Palestine belonged to the isms of the past.
The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947
By Bruce Hoffman
Illustrated. 618 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $35.