IRGUN: REVISIONIST ZIONISM, 1931-1948
By Gerry van Tonder
Pen and Sword, $22.95, 128 pages
This is an informative and dramatic account of the Irgun (“National Military Organization”), a leading dissident Jewish terrorist organization of the pre-1948 Israeli State. From the time of its formation in 1931 and its disbandment in September 1948 (several months after the declaration of Israeli independence in May of that year), the Irgun played an important role in the armed resistance to the British Mandatory Authority in Palestine, as well as in mounting retaliatory attacks against the hostile Palestinian Arab militias.
During the period of the Irgun’s operations, terrorism was employed as a warfare tactic by many national liberation movements, so this term did not have the derogatory connotation it later assumed.
For this reason, the Irgun, as a small underground force (reportedly less than 100 commanders and fighters) employed terrorism as its warfare tactic.
It is important to note that the Irgun was one of several Zionist insurgent organizations, with the much larger guerrilla organization, Hagana (“defense”), and its Palmach special forces, the primary Zionist underground military organizations employed by the mainstream Zionist leadership to bring about Israeli statehood.
Author Gerry van Tonder notes that the Irgun was established by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the founder of the Revisionist Zionist organization in 1925 in historical Palestine. Its largely secular, ideologically militant movement ultimately led to the formation of the Likud, currently Israel’s largest party.
Mr. van Tonder writes, “Commencing operations in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1931, the Irgun adopted a mainly protective role, while facilitating the ongoing immigration of Jews into Palestine. In 1936, Irgun guerrillas started attacking Arab targets, killing more than 250 by the end of the Second World War. The British White Paper of 1939 rejected the establishment of a Jewish nation and, as a direct consequence, Irgun fighters started targeting the British.”
Providing context for how the Irgun operated, the author also highlights the conflicts between the Irgun and the Hagana, which became so strongly opposed to the Irgun’s “acts of terror” that it launched “a combined operation, code-named Sezon — the Hunting Season — to neutralize the Irgun’s anti-British terror campaign” because the mainstream Zionist leadership believed that a political settlement with the British was possible, while the Revisionists “distrusted the British implicitly.”
Another source of conflict was the Irgun’s alleged role in assassinating Chaim Arlosoroff, a leading mainstream Zionist leader, at a Tel Aviv beach on June 16, 1933, although the identity of the shooter(s) has remained a mystery to this day.
In a major milestone for the Irgun, in early August 1940, while Jabotinsky was visiting the United States to build support for a Jewish army in Palestine, he died of a heart attack at the age of 59. Three years later, he was replaced by Menachem Begin, who joined the Irgun in Palestine in December 1942 and was appointed leader of its General Headquarters a year later.
Under Begin’s leadership, the Irgun was reorganized into an effective underground organization. Its combat structure consisted of four sections: Army of the Revolution (AR), primarily a reserve force; Shock Units (SU) and an Assault Force (AF), which formed the principal fighting units; and the Revolutionary Propaganda Force (RPF), which disseminated the organization’s messages via radio or flyers.
Much of the book focuses on the Irgun’s military operations, daring attacks that are described by the author in dramatic fashion (and illustrated by numerous photos), some of which have also become the subject of movies and documentaries, such as in a major subplot of “Exodus,” the 1960 epic Hollywood movie. The Irgun’s most notorious operation was the July 22, 1946, bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which had served as the administrative headquarters for the British civilian and military authorities in Palestine. Ninety-one people were killed and 46 were wounded in the attack.
The Irgun also experienced organizational splits, such as in July 1940 when Avraham Stern, an Irgun military commander, broke away to form Lehi (“Israel Freedom Fighters”), which was also known as Stern Gang. Stern was murdered in mid-February 1942, while under arrest by the British police in Tel Aviv. His legacy, the author writes, “fueled the Lehi’s revolutionary cause,” especially under its new leader (and also former Irgun member), Yitzhak Shamir, who ironically, later became Begin’s political partner and succeeded him as prime minister in 1983.
The conflict between the Hagana and Irgun continued into the early period of Israeli statehood. With the Hagana and Palmach now leading the country’s new Israel Defense Forces (IDF), when the Altalena, the Irgun-owned cargo vessel, departed from a French port loaded with a large amount of rifles, ammunition, as well as several hundred Irgun recruits, refused the IDF’s command to hand over its military materiel when it had dropped anchor off the Israeli coast, it was fired upon and sank, with six Irgun operatives killed and 18 wounded.
Fortunately, the Altalena incident did not prevent Begin and his Irgun colleagues from joining the Israeli political system, with many Irgun fighters becoming soldiers in the IDF, as well.
To understand the unique nature of the Irgun and its role, although secondary, in helping to bring about Israel’s independence, “Irgun: Revisionist Zionism, 1931-1948” is an indispensable and highly interesting account.
• Joshua Sinai is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on counterterrorism issues.