The Knesset event in Israel last month marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Avraham Stern was a highly significant event for several reasons. The participants, the subject, the timing and especially the headline-generating remarks from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert are all cause for reflection.
Stern, often remembered by his underground name, Yair, was a leader of the Irgun, also known as Etzel, and a
All addressed the gathering and honored Stern on his 65th yahrzeit, the 25th of Shevat.
member of its high command before he broke with it and created the organization that was to be eventually known as the LEHI (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel or FFI). The group was called the Stern Gang by the British; and its soldiers were hunted by the British and often by the Jewish Agency's establishment. LEHI was perhaps the first armed organization in the Middle East labeled as terrorists by Western newspapers and governments. This, even though the Arabs had been terrorizing Jewish communities in Hebron, Safed and Jerusalem in organized campaigns since the 1800s.
This unique Knesset observance brought together members of Likud, Kadima, United Torah Judaism and Moledet parties to commemorate Yair, his life and ultimate sacrifice. Stern was assassinated by British soldiers - specifically, shot in the back while handcuffed - after he was arrested in 1942. Prime Minister Olmert, the Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Aryeh Eldad of the National Union-National Religious Party's Moledet faction all addressed the gathering and honored Stern on his 65th yahrzeit, the 25th of Shevat.
The special Knesset session for Stern came just a day before the release of the results of the Israeli government's official inquiry into the 2006 War in Lebanon. After the release of the report, Eldad stated, "Today Ehud Olmert enters history as the most failed leader in Israel."
Eldad's criticism of Olmert must be noted in context. Eldad is the former Chief Medical Officer of the IDF, a medical doctor, a brigadier general in the reserves, a successful author and newspaper columnist, and a longtime university professor. In the previous Knesset, the sixteenth, he chaired the Knesset Ethics Committee. Eldad was both the originator and the organizer of the Stern event. Eldad's father is Dr. Israel Eldad, a member of the triumvirate that shared command of LEHI after Stern's assassination. Eldad's co-commanders were Yitzhak Shamir and Nathan (Friedman) Yellin-Mor.
Olmert, at the Stern event, stated: "There is something that doesn't leave me every time I think of this extraordinary man, and that is the terrible loneliness. Alone and solitary in hiding.... What did he think about? We will never know. How did he deal with it, waiting for the moment that the ruthless murderer would come? What did he hope and pray for?"
Yediot Ahronot commented on Olmert's remarks, stating: "Many parts of the prime minister's speech appeared to characterize his own feelings of loneliness, particularly one day before the release of the Winograd Report on the failures of the Second Lebanon War."
Olmert was wrong in saying that we will never know what Yair Stern thought about. On the contrary, we knew what Stern believed and what he thought. We know what he felt. We know what he prayed for. He told us. As Shamir has written, Stern was "the poet who wrote first with pen, then with sword." Yair left a body of poetry and ideological works that explain what he lived, fought and died for.
Stern would not have fought the War in Lebanon the way Olmert did in 2006. Stern would not have supported Ariel Sharon in his decision to retreat from Gaza and destroy the Jewish communities there. Stern would not arm a
As Shamir has written, Stern was "the poet who wrote first with pen, then with sword."
Palestinian police force. Stern would not allow Jew-hating invective to be freely preached from the mosques on the Jewish Temple Mount. One can scarcely imagine that Stern would have allowed the mosques to stand at all after 1967. And further, Stern would not allow foreign pressure or world opinion to delay his stopping of Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
What has caused this situation where a prime minister of Israel can state inaccurate things about a national hero such as Yair and there is almost no public outcry?
For the first thirty years of the State of Israel's existence, LEHI and, to a large extent, the Irgun, were deliberately written out of Israel's history books and distanced from official celebrations marking Israel's creation. Its veterans were marginalized by the establishment and were frequently the target of official discrimination by the Israeli government.
When Menachem Begin was prime minister he launched a rehabilitation of the treatment by scholars and the establishment of the Irgun and LEHI. Similarly, Yitzhak Shamir, when he was prime minister, worked on correcting Israel's history and paying proper respect to the heroes of the pre-state underground and their remarkable accomplishments. Shamir's focus in this regard was skewed. While Begin was able to transform the Irgun into the Herut party and keep his movement intact, LEHI did not undergo a successful move to politics.
LEHI was always a complicated organization during its war against the British. Once the state was established, LEHI's fragile alliance between its secular and religious wings, and anti-imperialist leftist and right-wing nationalist elements, was broken and erupted into a full-blown split. Israel Eldad led the nationalist wing and Nathan Friedman Yellin-Mor, who had been political head of the triumvirate, led the leftist wing. LEHI never recovered from the split. There was no LEHI left to preserve LEHI's history, ideas or protect the group's legacy.
Shamir had been the LEHI's operational commander and, unable to find a career outside of the underground, he eventually he joined the Mossad. Upon retirement from the intelligence service he joined Begin's Herut party. Israel Eldad, who had been LEHI's chief ideologist and propagandist, had been banned for many years from teaching in Israel's universities by Ben-Gurion himself. Eldad busied himself with producing a journal called Sulam, which academics have called "the most important intellectual periodical of the Right at the time," and other publishing projects. Eldad did not concentrate on preserving LEHI's history. Instead, he dedicated himself to inculcating the next generation with Stern's ideas. Yellin-Mor, meanwhile, fully broke with Yair's legacy and became an outspoken advocate for territorial compromise.
In 2001, several colleagues and I decided to create a website called www.SaveIsrael.com in order to publish, preserve and encourage the study of the English translations of the works of Stern, Jabotinsky, Dr. Israel Eldad, Rabbi Moshe Segal and many other LEHI and Irgun heroes. We received early encouragement from Dr. Arieh Eldad.
Yair's message is one of hope, of strength and of courageous action.
Arieh Eldad has done his father, Israel Eldad, and LEHI veterans and martyrs, a great service by sponsoring a Knesset memorial for Yair. Hopefully, he helped to open many young minds in Israel to explore the valiant deeds and inspiring words of LEHI. Let LEHI's ideas - poetic, fearless in the face of seemingly impossible odds, and reminiscent of the heroes of the times of our Prophets - be restored in the hearts and minds of the People of Israel.
Stern described the 1930s as having "nights that are dark with despair" in his underground anthem titled "Unknown Soldiers". The prospect of a nuclear Iran, and an Israeli political leadership that is prepared to hand over Jerusalem and the lands of the Tanach to its sworn enemies - enemies who work every day to destroy Israel - is enough to cause despair just as dark. Yair's message is one of hope, of strength and of courageous action; and there is no better message for Israel in these times.