1942: Avraham Stern, a strange bedfellow

On this date in 1942, Zionist freedom-fighter — or was he a terrorist? — Avraham Stern was captured by British colonial authorities and summarily executed.

Stern, as pictured on a 1978 Israeli stamp.

Born in 1907 in a part of eastern Poland then in Russian hands, Stern immigrated to British Palestine in 1925 and became an adherent of Revisionist Zionism — a maximalist strain of the fermenting Jewish homeland movement.

Various threads and factions within the Zionist movement pursued different territorial and political goals with different strategies; Stern was among the most militant foes of anything with the whiff of collaboration with the British. When the armed underground movement Irgun opted in 1940 to suspend attacks against British targets during World War II, Stern created a splinter organization with a programme of continuing anti-British violence.

The “Stern gang,” as imperial authorities knew it, had its reasons — controversial enough that some more moderate Jewish elements were happy to help the British hunt it, but reasons with their own logic, premised on the notion that London was the fundamental enemy of Jewish national interests while Berlin, for all its anti-Semitism, was not.

Between those two lay the room for wartime collaboration with Hitler against Britain with the object of establishing a Jewish state in the Levant open to unlimited immigration from a Reich eager to be rid of its Jews. In one fell swoop, it would solve Germany’s “Jewish question,”* realize Zionist state-building aspirations, and disrupt the Nazis’ wartime enemy. Stern, who had cultivated an affinity for fascism while studying in Italy and pitched a similar bargain to Mussolini, offered a pact with the devil: “the establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich.”

Berlin never took up the offer. Stern himself would have only a year to live, and his tiny splinter group didn’t get very far off the ground during it, carrying out a few murders and trying to raise money through crime. A high-profile bank robbery in January of 1942 that left several Brits and Jews dead brought down an intense manhunt that caught up with Stern on this day. He was handcuffed and shot on the spot.

His organization would come into its own after his death under leadership that included future Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, carrying out a campaign of assassinations in the mid-40’s as Palestine slid towards the civil war that would give birth to Israel. In that incarnation, it valorized its creator:

He was a lion, and the cravings of the foxes were foreign to him. He was an eagle who did not know how to fly low … He was not of those who live and die, like all human beings. He was a Prometheus, one who appears but once over many generations. (Source)

That valorization has been contested but nonetheless lasting. The Knesset, just days ago as of this writing, voted laurels for Stern’s hundredth birthday. There’s almost no apolitical way to write his story, and given Israel’s persistence as a flashpoint — and its own ironic inheritance of a rebellious subject population reminiscent of pre-1948 Palestinian Jews — the radicalism of his words, deeds and persona invite debate.

Books about the Stern gang in the founding of Israel

There’s a fascinating first-person apologia from a former member of the Stern gang here.

Stern also dabbled as a poet, and wrote this anthem to the struggle with his wife:

Part of the Themed Set: Unruly Britannia.

* Germany itself was tarrying with “faraway Jewish homeland” plans at this time, specifically considering relocating European Jewry to Madagascar. The Final Solution would be implemented later, once these proved unavailing. Stern, for his part, also expected the Axis to win the war.

On this day..