History and Mythmaking: A Response

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May 2, 2011
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Dan Heller

In his essay, Yisrael Medad takes to task Labor-Zionist leaders who dominated the early decades of Israeli politics for actively suppressing the Israeli public’s memory of the Irgun and Lehi’s role in the military struggle for the creation of the Jewish state. The battle over the place of these groups in the national memory of Israelis was just one front in a larger war waged since the mid-1920s between Labor Zionists, who were at the helm of the Haganah, and the Revisionist Zionist movement — from which Lehi and the Irgun emerged — over the ideologies and tactics that would bring about a Jewish state in Palestine. Although their disagreements were many — Revisionists, for example, vehemently rejected the socialism of Labor Zionists, who in turn claimed that the Revisionist movement’s economic policies and authoritarian style were fascist — it was their debates between the First and Second World War about the efficacy of armed conflict for creating a Jewish state that proved the most incendiary. During the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, Labor Zionist leaders promoted a policy of havlaga (restraint) against Arab attacks, while members of the Irgun launched reprisals that targeted Arab civilians.

Between 1944 and 1948, relations between the Haganah, the Irgun, and Lehi changed both frequently and dramatically. In 1944, when the Irgun declared an armed revolt against the British, the Haganah, which had relied on the British army for much of its training and ammunition, confiscated the weapons of Irgun members, interrogated them, and turned several of them over to the British police. With the end of the Second World War, however, the Haganah began to attack British targets as well. In the first stage of the Arab-Israeli war (November 1947-May 1948), the three organizations were on working terms and occasionally coordinated attacks. By June 1948, however, once the Haganah had transformed into the Israel Defense Forces, its leaders insisted that Irgun and Lehi units disband. When the Irgun refused to give over a weapons shipment from France on the ship the Altalena, the IDF opened fire; nineteen men — of which sixteen were Irgun members — were killed, and Irgun cells were dispersed among IDF units.

It is against this backdrop that leaders of the Israeli left and right fought for decades over the legacies of their respective underground movements. Recent scholarship supports Medad’s claim that Labor Zionist politicians, as well as historians sympathetic to them, wrote the Irgun and Lehi out of the historical narrative. Ultimately, however, the Lehi and Irgun gradually became integrated into Israel’s public culture of commemoration and in turn, gained public recognition and legitimacy.

Historians by and large agree with Medad’s claim that the methods of the Irgun and Lehi played a decisive role in Britain’s withdrawal from Palestine. Few, however, argue, as Medad does, that without armed attacks against the British, the State of Israel would never have come into being. They point to a host of other factors that played significant roles in leading the British to give up the mandate. These factors include the worldwide surge of sympathy for the Zionist cause in the wake of the Holocaust; the abysmal financial state of the British government, which was also dismantling other imperial holdings; and the pressure of Washington on the British, who believed that American goodwill and finances would prove vital in the coming Cold War. They avoid Medad’s claim for methodological reasons as well. One of the most difficult tasks of historians who attempt to situate their work between myth and counter-myth is to refrain from engaging in the very speculation that supports political mythmaking in the first place. At its best, the historical enterprise relies solely upon evidence, rather than imagination.

Medad’s essay sits uneasily between history and mythmaking for yet another reason. Not unlike the Labor Zionist political mythmakers he critiques, Medad is using historical evidence, above and beyond all else, to justify and sanctify political attitudes and behaviors of the past. As Medad himself points out at the end of his essay, the purpose of his historical inquiry is to “justify the armed resistance of the Irgun and Lehi as a war for liberation from foreign rule” and, in so doing, to reject claims that the Irgun and Lehi were terrorist organizations. This goal influences the framework of the essay to the point that crucial features of the historical record are omitted. By focusing on the British, Medad echoes the attempts of the Irgun and Lehi to frame acts of violence as a battle for national liberation against an imperial ruler. This model casts Jews as the local “native” population, and conveniently ignores Palestine’s Arab population, which as late as 1948, constituted the country’s majority. Nor does the essay ever expand upon why the Irgun and Lehi were considered terrorist organizations in the first place. Arab civilians, not British military personnel, were the chief victims of the Irgun and Lehi. These attacks consisted primarily of setting off bombs in buses, restaurants, markets, and other public spaces. The question of how the Irgun, Lehi, and Haganah saw the role of violence against Arabs in the creation of the Jewish state — a question that loomed over Zionist leaders during the 1930s and beyond — remains, deliberately, untouched.

Yisrael Medad responds on shma.com.

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Dan Heller is a doctoral candidate in Stanford University’s history department. He is currently writing a dissertation on the history of the Betar youth movement in Poland.

1 Comment

  1. Yisrael Medad’s Response

    Dan Heller’s comment on my article is, in the main, fair but several elements need to be further clarified. True, the Hagana “began to attack British targets” at the end of World War Two but it need be recalled that already in the summer of 1939 following the publication of a White Paper that was termed “treacherous” by David Ben-Gurion the Hagana had attacked British targets such as the Sinbad II on August 9. Therefore, the renewal of armed operations was, in fact, an acknowledgement that Menachem Begin’s orientation was the correct one and the historical question is: what would have happened had the organized Yishuv either joined the Irgun’s revolt, and the Lechi campaign which began even earlier, or engaged in its own independent non-“terrorist” warfare? Would more Jews been saved? More Jews entered the Mandate? Would independence been achieved earlier perhaps?

    In noting that “the Irgun refused to give over a weapons shipment” which arrived on the Altalena, Heller should have specified that actually there was an agreement between the Irgun and the Ministry of Defense headed by Ben-Gurion. However, it was violated by Ben-Gurion who backtracked on the terms reached over a series of meetings between Irgun representatives and ministry officials. And there were no “Irgun cells”. The Irgun had its members enlist in the IDF. With Jerusalem remaining outside the state’s borders, all three underground groups maintained there their independent status.

    As for Heller’s insistence that my claim that without the armed resistance operations of the Irgun and Lechi Israel would not come into being should not be argued, he is wrong. I quoted the British source, the May 15, 1948 White paper, which stated clearly that the central but not sole cause for the British withdrawal was the “terrorism” by the Jews. I did not “imagine” that statement as Heller insinuates. Moreover, if Heller rejects the Jews as the “local native population” then there truly is an unbridgeable gulf between his historical framework and mine. Yes, the Irgun and Lechi also waged a counter-terror terror fight against Arabs who were killing and raping Jews, destroying their property and attempting to prevent the UN recommendation, and earlier League of Nations decision, to establish a Jewish state. So, too, did the Hagana and Palmach which Heller conveniently ignores. The Hotel Semiramis bombing, the Sassa village raid and Ein Zeitun massacres of Arab civilians, some of many, seem to have eluded Heller chronicles. That, Mr. Heller, is playing with history and reveals much of your own ideology.
    Yisrael Medad

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    Yisrael Medad
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