Israel’s Leading Anti-British Independence Fighter Saw Palestinians as Brothers in Arms

Israel’s Leading Anti-British Independence Fighter Saw Palestinians as Brothers in Arms

By Joshua Tartakovsky, 2 May 2017 (ו’ באייר ה’תשע”ז, יום העצמאות)

I just finished reading “Fighters for the Freedom of Israel: People, Ideas, Deeds” by Nathan Yellin Mor.

Yellin Mor, was born as Natan Friedman in Grodno (Belarus) in 1913. He was one of the trio leading the Stern Gang also known as the Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (Lehi). After World War II broke out, Yellin Mor managed to escape via Soviet-occupied Poland, then Istanbul, and then Syria and Lebanon, all the way to British-mandate Palestine.

Yellin Mor became a close colleague and disciple of Avraham Stern (Yair) who was born in Poland. Yair believed that British imperialism in Palestine was the biggest threat to Jewish sovereignty and independence and therefore must be opposed by all means. His dream was preparing a Jewish army to overthrow the British and to this end he received much needed support and training from Polish army officers. Yair believed that while Nazi Germany was an enemy, the British were occupiers, preventing even the possibility of independence or minimal sovereignty. And without minimal independence, how can one be anything but a subject, a slave, a colony? How can one save others elsewhere (Jews in Europe, for example), if one is not even free?

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(Yellin Mor’s book cover)

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Nathan Yellin Mor [picture from the book’s cover].

While the mainstream Haganah and even the Irgun, opposed terrorism against the British Mandate in Palestine and sought close collaboration with the British, drafting in large numbers to the British Army to face the fascist enemy in Europe, Lehi saw its goal and destiny in opposing British colonialism at home. This was especially in light of the fact that the British were preventing the arrival of large numbers of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe who were seeking to save their lives.

The British responded to Lehi’s terror tactics by arresting en masse many Lehi members. In turn, a new directive was founded. Lehi members were not to surrender, since they would be useless in prison and unable to fight. Instead, they were to resist. Lehi members walked the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with handguns hidden in their clothes. Upon every attempt of an arrest or inspection, they returned fire against the British soldiers.

Lehi’s goal for the Jewish people in Palestine was to see themselves as free people under a foreign occupation. To liberate their minds, first and foremost, whatever the price.

The Lehi targeted the British occupation head-on. British soldiers and police were attacked and killed, whether they were in coffee houses, cinemas, or in check-points or patrols. Lehi believed that only if the British suffer personal hits, only if British mothers know their children would not be safe, only if the British find their occupation to be intolerable, would they eventually be forced to leave.

Meanwhile, the mainstream Zionist leadership, which Yellin Moor in his book referred two or three times as “the Zionists” with disdain, opposed Lehi’s actions, claiming they placed in doubt a future Israeli state as the Jews may be seen as not mature enough as worthy of independence and full sovereignty. They constantly sought to convince the British to take the Balfour Declaration seriously, while the British themselves just pulled their legs, and postponed decision-making, while not revealing any intentions to leave.

Following the murder of Yair, Lehi’s founder and leader, by British police in his home after he was discovered in hiding and following his arrest, Yellin Mor became one of the trio (the other two were Yitzchak Shamir – the future prime minister of Israel- and Israel Eldad) to lead the Lehi. Shamir was in charge of organizing operations, Eldad was in charge of propaganda and laying out the philosophical background, and Yellin Mor was in charge of international operations and foreign relations, as well as operations.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, Lehi, or as it was known among Palestinians as Jamaat Stern (the Stern Assembly) was viewed with great admiration among many Palestinians, who saw the British presence as a natural enemy.

Lehi fighters not only managed to escape from the Laturn prison (an operation Yellin Moor participated in) but also later on went on to carry out very successful attacks against the British, which ranged from ambushes to bombs, and culminated in the execution of the British minister of state, Lord Moyne, in Cairo in November 1944.

From the start, Yellin Moor explained that Lehi fighters never sought to target civilians in purpose as a deliberate action, but when they were around a British target, the operation had to be carried out anyway, since  there is no other way liberation can be won.

But in the assassination of Lord Moyne, Lehi went one step further. First, it killed a representative of the British empire outside of Palestine, therefore marking the anti-imperialist struggle. Second, it did its out most to ensure that no Egyptians will be killed in the operation or during subsequent cross-fire since it saw the Egyptians as fellow victims of British imperialism and was hoping the executioners will be tried in Egyptian courts. Indeed, the two assassins were caught precisely since they did not fire back at a Egyptian policeman. Thirdly, it opted for an assassination of an high-ranking British official, therefore expressing their lack of fear in turning the British Mandate into a personal issue.

Many Egyptians were ecstatic in their support of Lehi. The two assassins,  Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri were hanged by the British in Cairo after they proudly stood by their action until the last moment and as their dignity drew international support. Indeed, further down the road, Lehi’s letter of request for partnership and solidarity with the Arab nations against the British, was published in full by a leading Egyptian newspaper.

To clarify, whereas the leading and largest Zionist groups, saw the Arabs as an enemy and the British as a friendly western force that could be won over to their side by persuasion, Lehi post-Yair saw the Palestinians and Arabs as brothers and the British as unacceptable imperialists.

Indeed, Geula Cohen, a leading Lehi female fighter, managed to escape the Bethlehem prison, only after two Palestinian sympathizers who were also cousins, went on to engage in a bloody fist-fight, thereby distracting the British guards and making it possible for Cohen to escape. The two cousins were tortured later by the British but refused to confess their quarrel was carried out for less than obvious motives.

From the start, Lehi opposed the division of the land into two states, (and indeed the Swedish diplomat, Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated by Lehi in 1948 due to his suggestions that Jerusalem pass to international supervision). While Yellin Mor reveals honestly that he did not have a clear plan of what to do with the Palestinians after the British left, he says he saw them as victims of British imperialism and as fellow indigenous people of the land. Lehi pamphlets published in 1947 and 1948 reached out to Palestinians as brothers and asked them not to engage in a civil war against the Jews (which was, Yellin Mor explains, precisely what the British were hoping for), and saw the future of the two people as a common one. These declarations were signed not only by Yellin Mor, but also by Eldad who moved to the right after Israel was founded.  Yellin Mor explains that at the same time, the vision of the mainstream Zionist leadership at the time was to opt for a two state solution and to see the Palestinians as an enemy. He feared for a prolonged non-ending bloodbath that will take place as a result of the division of the land and the anti-Arab mindset of the Zionist leadership (as indeed took place).

In the Deir Yassin episode, several hundred Palestinians were killed by Lehi, drawing wide concern. Yellin Mor claims that civilians were not targeted intentionally but in the course of the cross-fire and after the Jewish attackers came under heavy fire,  they responded harshly and fought back by throwing grenades into every house they entered. If mass killing was the goal, he asks, why were cars with loud speakers sent to the area prior to the operation, warning residents of the impeding invasion? Lehi saw the need for retaliation following Arab attacks but did not view the Arabs with disdain to begin with. But the British who supported Zionism to begin with, went on to support the Palestinians in the traditional Divide and Conquer strategy. British officials went on to train and arm Palestinian fighters right before their departure, and even sent cars with explosives to the Jewish-run Palestine Post building.

Lehi also had a leaning to socialism that became clear towards the end of its existence. While in 1948, Lehi called for a nationalization of the national resources, equal distribution and fraternity among the Semitic peoples of the region, after Israel was founded, Labour Zionism led by David Ben Gurion set the tone. Jews and Arabs became bitter enemies and a cycle of violence ensued that did not end to this day.

Yellin Mor did not hesitate to form international alliances against the British. He sought to form contact with fascist and Nazi forces, and went on to receive significant support from the Soviet Union. Bulgarian communist leaders were indeed very impressed with Lehi’s assassination of Lord Moyne, (Yellin Mor recalls that they asked representatives of the Palestinian Communist party why they did not carry the action themselves). Stalin went on to support the young state of Israel in the crucial UN vote, while the Soviets were skeptical of Ben Gurion as the worse kind of social-democrat, they nevertheless supported the creation of the state of Israel, and arms were channeled to Jewish fighters. At the same time, while Soviet support for Israel was unwavering, US was not enthusiastic about supporting Israel and went back-and-fourth, explains Yellin Mor.

Following the creation of the State of Israel, Yellin Mor became bitterly disapointed with the fact that Israel went on to align itself with the western colonial powers, and did not integrate into the region. Instead, he supported a confederation with all Arab state in the Middle East.

Whatever one may think of Yellin Mor, he was a brilliant strategist and probably one of the central engines behind the expulsion of the British forces from Palestine. Lehi’s actions, unlike those of the Haganah or Irgun, were highly influential in inflicting heavy blows on the British despite the small numbers of the former.

Sadly Yellin Mor’s book nevertheless has not been translated into English yet, and while Lehi enjoyed enthusiastic support from Jean-Paul Sartre, leftist intellectuals have chosen to ignore its contributions to the war against imperialism, or even regard it as terrorist organization from the right, overlooking its potential for anti-imperialist solidarity from the left.

Nathan Yellin Mor’s, Fighters for the Freedom of Israel was published in 1974 by Shikma Publishing.

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(From the book’s cover)