Dr. Yisrael Eldad, spiritual hero of the LEHI movement
Dr. Yisrael Eldad, spiritual hero of the LEHI movement

At the recent funeral of Geula Cohen, the veteran Israeli politician and journalist who was well-known for her years as a member of the pre-State Zionist militia LEHI (the Stern Group), President Rivlin stated that Geula Cohen was “the shofar – the ram’s horn – of the Messiah, the ram’s horn of the underground movement.”  

Geula Cohen, however, had a longtime association with Dr. Israel Eldad, who worked with her on LEHI’s underground radio station, Eldad wrote much of broadcaster Cohen's radio scripts and later they collaborated on Eldad's publication, created after Israel's independence.  

In Cohen's book Woman Of Violence (later known as The Voice Of Valor) she wrote: "it was Eldad who, in article, essay, and poem, chiseled on the walls of stone the gospel of war. And these stones pierced hearts, coursed through veins, and emboldened men to fight."

Who wasl Dr. Israel Eldad? Who were the heroes of LEHI?

For much of his life (he died in 1996 at 86) Eldad was best described as a public intellectual. His ideas were accessible to the general public in that he wrote books, edited journals, and wrote opinion columns for Israel’s major newspapers. He was also comfortable in lecturing to university students.

Eldad bridged the chasm between disparate worlds. A product of pre-World War II yeshivot, he had mastered Chumash, Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, Rabbinic thought and Jewish history. But he also had a modern education and was a leading scholar on the thought of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. And throughout his life he was “in the arena” with the battle scars to prove it.

No ivory tower intellectual, Eldad was one of three commanders of the underground organization known as LEHI (the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) who shared the leadership after the 1942 assassination of Avraham “Yair” Stern by the British Mandate police. (Another was Yitzhak Shamir who would become Prime Minister of Israel.)

Born Israel Scheib in Poland, Eldad graduated from the Vienna Rabbinical Seminary and received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Vienna. He joined the Betar, the Zionist youth organization founded by Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and worked as a teacher. At the Betar World Conference in Warsaw in 1938 Eldad publicly clashed with Jabotinsky during a debate following Menachem Begin’s proposal to call for an immediate armed revolt against the British Mandate.

Jabotinsky opposed this at the time. Eldad later said of the episode, “Begin’s speech made him what he became. Jabotinsky was a legend! A towering figure. Opposing Jabotinsky was not like opposing someone like Shimon Peres! Yet here was Begin, proving himself strong enough to get up and speak against Jabotinsky.“

The confrontation with Jabotinsky also made Eldad “what he became.” Yair Stern arranged to meet Eldad after he spoke at the conference. Gerold Frank wrote in his book The Deed, “From this time on, the rebellious Eldad was aligned with the rebellious Stern.” After leaving Warsaw, Dr. Eldad and his wife shared an apartment with Begin and his wife in Vilna. In his autobiographical book White Nights, Begin recalls playing chess with Eldad when the Soviet NKVD came to arrest him.

In March 1941 Eldad arrived in Mandatory Palestine and promptly joined Stern’s organization. In 1944, while attempting to escape arrest by the British, Eldad was badly injured and captured. After two years of imprisonment he escaped and resumed his underground activities. Throughout LEHI’s revolt against the British, Eldad was its ideological mentor, editor of its underground newspapers and its chief propagandist.

Geula Cohen was also arrested by the British for her underground activity and she, too, escaped.

After the emergence of the State of Israel, Dr. Eldad continued to focus on ideology. In 1949 he began publication of the journal Sulam (Ladder) which Geula Cohen wrote for. Over the next fifteen years (it ceased publication in 1964) Sulam provided a unique perspective on the destiny of the Jewish State and its cultural and social problems. Like William F. Buckley in National Review, Eldad provided those with an alternative vision to the Labor political consensus with a distinctive publication to nurture their writing talents and share ideas.

In 1950, David Ben-Gurion, acting in his role as Minister of Defense, ordered that Eldad be banned from teaching in government schools. Eventually he would hold positions on the faculties of the Technion and Beersheba University.
In 1950, David Ben-Gurion, acting in his role as Minister of Defense, ordered that Eldad be banned from teaching in government schools. Even after having won a Supreme Court case he could not find a teaching position. He found work as an editor for the publishing arm of Mossad HaRav Kook in Jerusalem. Eventually he would hold positions on the faculties of the Technion and Beersheba University.

Eldad wrote in a variety of forums. He published a volume of memoirs about his experiences in the underground entitled Maaser Rishon (The First Tithe) in 1950. An English edition of First Tithe translated by Zev Golan was published in 2008 and is available through Amazon. Eldad wrote a well-regarded series of historical and philosophical studies on the Bible.

He also produced Jerusalem Chronicles: News of the Past (known in Israel as Divrei HaYamim), a fascinating and innovative history of Israel and the Jewish People utilizing a daily newspaper format. His best known book remains The Jewish Revolution (1971, re-issued by Gefen in 2007). Eldad became a frequent columnist for Haaretz and Yediot Aharonot.. Many English translations of his essays can be found on www.SaveIsrael.com.

Perhaps the most concise statement of Eldad’s philosophy by Eldad himself is in his 1961 booklet Israel, The Road to Full Redemption. In it Eldad wrote: “There is a special prayer recited at Hanukkah and Purim ‘on account of the miracles.’ In this prayer we thank G-d for putting many in the hands of the few. This refers, of course, to the victory of the few Jews over the vast gentile armies who exceeded us numerically. Yet it is equally possible to speak of the victory of the few, in the midst of the Jewish People itself, over the many unbelievers among us.”

After Eldad’s death in 1996 Benjamin Netanyahu issued an official statement calling Eldad the “spiritual father of the Hebrew revolution, who prepared generations of fighters toward the realization of and dedication to the love of the people and the land.” Official tributes to Eldad have included the issuance of an Israeli postal stamp in November 2002 and the renaming of a Jerusalem street in his honor. Perhaps most notably Kfar Eldad, a Judean town south of Jerusalem, now bears his name.

Today some know Eldad as the father of former Member of Knesset Dr. Arieh Eldad, himself a man of remarkable accomplishments.  

Among the Zionist leaders that Eldad was most closely associated with in his life—Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Uri Tzvi Greenberg, Menachem Begin, Abba Achimieir, and Avraham Stern—only Eldad still does not have a memorial center/museum  in Israel dedicated to preserving his memory and advancing his ideas. This is surprising given that websites have been created to republish his articles and essays, several books by and about him have been released in Hebrew and English and many Zionist activists identify publicly with Eldad’s ideas. An example of the continuing influence of his thought is the popularity of a Passover Haggadah based on Eldad’s writings published in 2009. Entitled Tonight We Leave Egypt, it was the subject of a special Knesset ceremony when President Rivlin was the Knesset Speaker and said “This year I will conduct the Seder from this Haggadah.”

Let us hope that President Rivlin will take the death of Geula Cohen as an opportunity to do more to make sure that the Israeli education system dedicates more resources to teaching the history of the LEHI. 

Moshe Phillips is national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division and a candidate on the Herut slate in the 2020 World Zionist Congress's US elections; Herut is an international movement for Zionist pride and education and is dedicated to the ideals of pre-World War Two Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky. Herut's website is https://herutna.org/