It's not too often that the release of a new book of poems that are over 80 years old can be seen as a transformative moment in the American Jewish community. It can be argued that this happened in June.
The Complete and Translated Poetic Works of Avraham Stern published by Yishai Edberg is the first book of English translations of history's key Zionist revolutionary.
For decades Israel’s left-leaning academic establishment, as well as Jewish educators in the United States, successfully fought to minimize the impact the Stern's LEHI group, and the Irgun underground Stern had originally fought in, had on London’s decision to end the British Mandate. It’s only in the last 20 years or so that English speaking readers have been able to really learn the details about LEHI’s story.
Avraham Stern (Yair) was the founder and leader of the Stern Group (maligned by the British as the Stern Gang). After Stern's 1942 assassination by British detectives In Tel Aviv his soldiers later formed the LEHI (Fighters For the Freedom of Israel.)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was a member of the LEHI's three man high command after Stern's assassination. In 1998 he wrote in Haaretz about Stern stating:
"Those who revere his memory know a great deal about Yair Avraham Stern, who in the 1940s established the underground LEHI movement to fight against the British regime in Palestine. Yair --as his friends knew him-- believed that only the expulsion of the British from the Land of Israel would enable the Jewish People to establish an independent Jewish state, and he foresaw that this goal could only be achieved by force. However, his admirers knew little about the "other" Yair: Yair the poet."
Edberg's translation brings Stern's distinctive poetic voice to English. No easy task.
The book has a nearly 20 page introduction that provides an overview of Stern's story and that of the LEHI. This section is not without superficial flaws but is engaging and thought-provoking.
The balance of the book contains over 50 poems with extensive explanatory footnotes. In his footnotes Edberg demonstrates how Stern repurposed lines from Jewish liturgy and verses from Tanach to inspire young Jews to take action on behalf of the cause of Zionism. What's more, the footnotes also offer historic background and other information that shed light on Stern's ideas. Before this publication, only one of Stern's poems was readily available in a complete translation.
What's so surprising about The Complete and Translated Poetic Works of Avraham Stern is that the man behind the book is still an undergrad student in America; one may have well expected the book to be the work of a professional academic or at least a post-graduate researcher.
But that is not the case here. Edberg graduated high school in 2020.
And his young age is fitting. The Zionist freedom fighters of the LEHI and Irgun were often teens and that a young writer/translator/publisher has taken the initiative to share this work and this history with his generation should be a cause for both celebration and, perhaps more importantly, introspection from Zionists who are older than Edberg.
All Zionists can and should do more to make the history of our movement come alive in a compelling, contemporary way. Edberg has shown us the way. He challenges us to think differently in the best Zionist tradition of Herzl and Jabotinsky.
Edberg writes "It was not Lord Balfour or President (Oswaldo) Aranha, not Ben-Gurion, or Jabotinsky but Avraham Stern and his compatriots who created the State of Israel ..."
There was a time that the people around the world, even those who viciously opposed the establishment of Israel, were fascinated by the audacity and success of the fighting Zionist revolutionaries of the 1940s and understood it was the LEHI that was responsible for the rebirth of Jewish political independence in our homeland after nearly 2,000 years.
Witness what Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography "Right after the war, the Jews' Haganah mediating body stepped up the longtime negotiations with the British. But this time, the Stern gang was shooting the British. And this time the British acquiesced and helped them to wrest Palestine away from the Arabs, the rightful owners, and then the Jews set up Israel, their own country-the one thing that every race of man in the world respects, and understands."
Moviemaker Spike Lee helped to make sure that Malcolm X's place in history was made indelible. We should pray that Edberg's work is the start of the same happening for Avraham Stern in our time. Every young Jew should know who Stern was and what he lived and was martyred for.
Elie Wiesel once wrote that "My deepest regret is that I was not in Eretz Yisrael during the years of the revolution when I would have joined the LEHI."
Edberg was not animated to bring this work to life by a belief that Stern's words simply needed to be simply made accessible for posterity. The underlying theme in the book's introduction is that Stern's life, ideas, and poetry should be a source of inspiration to us today to defend Israel and work to make it all it can and should be.
In Edberg's own words, "Stern’s spirit of freedom, pride, and sacrifice birthed the Jewish Insurgency and eventually its State, and, now in English, may well spark a revolution in the hearts and minds of the English-speaking Jewish world." He is right. And, Edberg is not alone. Other young Jews are reconnecting with the stories and ideas of Stern, Jabotinsky, Rav Kook, and other Zionist giants of the last century.
This has not occurred in a vacuum.
It seems apparent that Edberg's introduction is profoundly impacted by the works of Zionist historian Zev Golan. Golan is the author of the 2003 book Free Jerusalem: Heroes, Heroines and Rogues Who Created the State of Israel (Devora Publishing), which is available in English and should not be missed by those who want to know more about the various Zionist fighting undergrounds that were active before Israel was a modern state. For a deep dive into LEHI's story in English 2011's Stern: The Man and His Gang also by Golan, is a must read.
The Complete and Translated Poetic Works of Avraham Stern is available in softcover through Amazon:
Moshe Phillips is a commentator on Jewish affairs. He was a U.S. delegate to the 38th World Zionist Congress in 2020. The views expressed are his own.