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Ben Gurion’s Genius – Dismantling Militias On “Both Sides”

Ben Gurion’s Genius – Dismantling Militias on “Both Sides”

On both sides

On Both Sides

On Both Sides

On both sides

Ben Gurion's Genius:

Dismantling Militias on Sides

Sources of pictures in heading:

מאת לשכת העיתונות הממשלתית, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22808293

https://www.vice.com/en_nz/article/8xymm5/an-up-close-look-at-americas-evolving-militia-movement

Militias - Perspectives

Evolving militia movement. ViceSource: https://www.vice.com/en_nz/article/8xymm5/an-up-close-look-at-americas-evolving-militia-movement

‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The American Constitution, Second Amendment

No armed force other than the Defence Army of Israel shall be established or maintained except under Law. 

Israel – Basic Law, the Military

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.” (NYT, Aug 9, 2016) (emphasis mine, OA)

It was noticeable to me that in both Maine and New Hampshire, supposedly “blue” states, there were no Hillary Clinton’s signs anywhere… 

Were people in the countryside simply scared to announce their political views in public in the American democracy?

Planetsdaughter website, (Jigger Johnson, White Mountains)

"In a healthy functioning government, the State has a monopoly on violence. By comparison, in authoritarian regimes as well as failing democracies, this power is shared with paramilitary and other martial organizations. These groups — often working with law enforcement and the military — then target the designated enemy Other. This is often done along racial, ethnic, and/or religious lines."

Chauncey Devega, Salon, April 24th, 2019

“Negev Animals”, the Be’eri division, Palmach paramilitary force, prior to going on a mission, 1948. Source: http://www.palmach.org.il/archive/galleries/galleryphoto

Worrying about Two Countries

Rationale for this Writing

Constant vigilance is required to prevent the fringes from overrunning a country.

Unique, but similar

I’m both an Israeli and an American. I feel very blessed to call these two wonderful countries my own and love them both dearly. Neither is perfect, but nobody else is either. Every country in the world has strengths as well as issues that need improvement. Exchanges of ideas is just as important as exchanges of goods.

It is generally difficult for Americans to draw and learn from other countries’ experiences. There is a sense that America has it all and there is nothing “the rest of the world” can add. I am nonetheless sending my message over the grand waters with the hope somebody might find interest in the early Israeli experience of dismantling militias. Perhaps this is because of late I feel a foreboding sense of urgency regarding the situation in both America and Israel.

I elaborate on the Israeli experience at length also because I do not want people to think I am simplifying or beautifying very complex situations. I am well aware of the differences between my two countries, and that what worked here cannot realistically be applied there in the same way. It is also true that most of what I describe took place in a differnet period and under different circumstances, but I also refer to the lingering problem in the present.

In any case, we are all human. There could be more similarities to our situations than first meet the eye. If nothing else, I hope to give people some food for thought.

When you keep reading, it becomes apparent that Israel was saved in the nick of time from the danger of a civil war that could have cost it its very existence. Furthermore, that this danger is still looming in the background today. Prime minister Rabin’s politically-motivated murder in 1995 and its aftermath clearly demonstrate the depths to which things can sink. It is a matter of constant vigilance by the democratic institutions to prevent the fringes from overrunning a country.

Which of my homelands should I worry about more?

Clearly, the Israeli situation is unique. For one, I don’t remember a moment in my life I was not worried in one way or another about my country – whether it was about the obvious existential threats and our safety, or about ethical, financial and social issues. A closure of a single textile factory in the Negev sends ripples throughout the land.

Worrying about Israel seems to come with the territory. That anxiety is a constant background noise, whether I am physically there or abroad. Like maternal worries, fears and concerns, it is included in the package.

This underlying anxiety is handled differently by different people, and could manifest in drivers’ nervousness and in other public situations. It is nonetheless notable that despite the ever-existing strain and uncertainty about the future – or perhaps in a bizzarre upside-down fashion, actually due to them – for the most part Israel is a healthy and, as the surveys show, actually a happy country.

Worrying about the future of a tiny country threatened by hundreds of thousands of missiles is only natural, but I never thought I’d start worrying about my second homeland, America…

I mean, not really

But in the last two and a half years I’ve been as glued to American news on TV and the Internet as to the Israeli ones, if not more. I had never imagined I might feel that Israel was safer or saner than America, but despite all of our problems this is how I feel now, in the wake of Charlotesville and the El Paso shooting

Dismantling militias

In this post I describe steps our first prime minister and the fabled founder of our state, David Ben Gurion, took at the time to dismantle militias that were operative in the pre-state period and during Independence. All militias were eventually merged into our newly-established one-of-a-kind army. Had this effort not succeeded, it is doubtful I could sit at my computer today in a relatively calm Jerusalem and write this post at all.

I had never imagined I might feel that Israel was safer or saner than America, but despite all of our problems this is how it feels to me right now, in the wake of Charlotesville and the El Paso shooting...

American Militias - The Phenomenon

Shock troops?

This week a right-wing New Mexican militia, named the United Constitutional Patriots, took it upon itself to police the Mexican border. They captured illegal immigrants, whom they call “invaders”, and handed them over to government authorities. Chauncey Devega (Salon magazine, April 24th, 2019) called the militiae  “the shock troops of Donald Trump’s authoritarian movement  – a title that sends chills down the spines of most Jews aware of our history.

The scene

The Internet is loaded with information about the American militias, and some of the sites are more reliable than others, There is no need for me to go into too much detail here. According to SPLC (Southern Poverty Law Center), there were 216 active militia groups in America in 2018. Two very partial lists were gathered by Wikipedia and blogger Mike Rothschild. My personal sense is that this data is just the tip of the iceberg.

Emboldened

With the election of Donald Trump as “the first white president”,  right-wing militias, as well as hate groups, became emboldened. The original desire to fight the government (e.g. Timothy McVeigh ) seemed to have lost some of its urgency, since many militia members perceive Trump to be on “their side”. Instead of denouncing the government, right-wing militias have now turned their hatred against new “enemies”:  immigrants, Muslims, Jews, blacks, Hispanics and the anti-fascist group, Antifa.

Without digging deeper into the phenomenon (others do it much better than me), and without getting into the debate about the Second Amendment, I want to conrtibute another angle, an Israeli historical perspective, but first a few words about Israel’s healthy foundations.

Positive Legacies from Israel's Early days

Israel's Healthy Foundations

This tiny country was not a land of infinite possibilities; we learned to create them.

Israelis’ basic sense of wellness despite all the odds might have to do with several wise steps taken at the inception of the country that still affect us positively today. There were also some grave mistakes committed those days with long-lasting effects. This is especially poignant in regards to the status of the religion in the country and to ethnic relations, but that discussion goes beyond the scope of the current article.

It is important to remember that we have never operated under favorable circumstances. The policies I speak of here were legislated when 1% of the country’s population had just been killed in war, when food was rationed, when a million immigrants were living in tents and makeshift dwellings. This tiny country was not a land of infinite possibilities; we learned to create them.

Universal health care

The first correct move that comes to mind is, of course, the universal health care system. I haven’t met an Israeli who feels that s/he should not pay the health tax when young and healthy because it subsidizes older, feebler people. This idea is foreign to our collective national psyche, and I was shocked when I first heard this discussed in America. If anything, the opposite is true – people feel bad about old ladies lying in beds in hospital corridors. That issue is raised every election but, regrettably, not much is ever done… Sad Icon - Avatar Smileys Icons in SVG and PNG - Icon Library

I cannot imagine how bad the situation would be if on top of our other problems, people started dying here because they could not afford health care, or women would not have children because they could not pay for Cesareans.

Three-month subsidized maternal leave

Speaking of which, we have a three-month subsidized maternal leave. It is not enough in my opinion, but still substantial compared with the American situation. The American situation is so extreme it forces mothers to either quit their jobs and stay home, or to compromise their natural maternal bond to their children for the corporate ideal of greed and the “sanctity” of work.

It seems to me that the connection between this policy and the “public mental health crisis”  of disenfranchisement, alienation and violence among the youth, has not been investigated enough. I opine that separating a 2-week old baby from its mother and separating the mother from her baby at this tender age is a cause for a life-long psychological damage to both. If a small country like Israel can afford a reasonable maternal leave, why can’t the United States of America?

Government not an alien force

Another crucial issue, more directly pertinent to the current topic, is that most Israeli Jews most of the time feel that the government is still their government. They bitch about it for sure, and many vehemently oppose its policies or hate the politicians, but people do not go the length of seeing the government per se as an alien force whose sole raison d’etre is to try and extract taxes from them and take away their rights and liberties. When surrounded by real enemies, if your government is another enemy, what then?

This leads to the issue of guns.

Guns

At the moment, most of us cannot get a gun due to fairly restrictive laws. This still holds true despite the danger of terrorism lurking everywhere. Even in West Bank settlements, gun ownership is restricted to one handgun and 50 bullets. The issue rarely makes the top of the news, despite the fact that Israelis had to defend themselves with umbrellas and selfie sticks during the recent so-called “Knife Intifada”. 

Shelters

The government is expected to protect the citizens. When it doesn’t, as when bomb shelters were not opened in time during a missile attack, there is an outcry, and the authorities pay attention. It is now a national law that every new construction should have a Mamad, or safety room (see my post about Doomdsday Preppers and the Israeli Mamad). During the Gulf War, the homefront command delivered gas masks to all citizens free of charge.

License plates and ID cards

There are fringe groups who denounce the state, like the Hilltop Youth and other extremist religious groups. The ultra-orthodox sect, Neturey Karta, even sent people to Iran, an arch-enemy, to talk against the one-and-only Jewish state in the world. They believe it should be created by the Messiah, rather than by human effort…

The Arab minority has an understandable identity conflict, but still basically abides by the rules.

Notwithstanding, it occurs to nobody to resist having license plates or ID cards, even if some do not want to get inducted to the army on ideological grounds. A 16-year-old Israeli is generally proud to get his or her blue ID.

Militias are illegal. Period.

Following is an analysis of the history behind that.  

The Israeli Experience and Ben Gurion's Leadership

Dismantling Militia - The Israeli Experience

The IDF and the State of Israel, as we know it, were made possible by our first  Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, David Ben Gurion, who took the decision and the necessary actions to dismantle all existing paramiliatry organizations (militias) in the country on both sides of the political spectrum – no buts, no ifs, no maybes.

Badge of the Israel Defense Forces.new.svg

Emblem of the Israeli Defence Force, or IDF

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Israel_Defense_Forces_Emblem

 

Haganah Symbol.svg

Palmach symbol   

Lehi Symbol

Etzel (Irgun) symbol

Emblems of the Israeli pre-state paramilitary groups (militias): From left to right: Hagana, Palmach, Etzel (Irgun), Lehi

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haganah; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmach https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irgun;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lehi_(militant_group)

It is a truism that Israel would not have existed if it wasn’t for the activities of the undergrounds. It is also true that it would not have survived had the undergrounds not been dismantled after the state was declared.

This applies not only to the “dissident” right-wing militias like the Etzel (Irgun) and the Lehi, notorious for their anti-British operations, but also to the mainstream Hagana and Palamch organizations, the major vectors in bringing about Israel’s Independence and winning the war against five Arab armies.

In comparison, a bad example of a country where militias have not been dismantled and are running their country down to total anarchy is so-called “liberated” Lybia.

The IDF and the State of Israel, as we know them, were made possible by Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, David Ben Gurion, who took the decision and the necessary actions to dismantle all existing paramiliatry organizations (militias) in the country on both sides of the political spectrum - no buts, no ifs, no maybes.

Israel's Basic Law - The Military

On May 26, 1948, on the heels of Israel’s Declaration of Independence of May 14, Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion issued an order for the formation of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. The order was made legal by the cabinet on May 31, and re-confirmed by the Knesset in 1976 as “Basic Law – the Military“.

The law states that the defense army of Israel is the army of the state, that it is subject to the authority of the government.

Article 6 declares specifically:  “No armed force other than the Defence Army of Israel shall be established or maintained except under Law.”

[Note: Due to irreconcilable expectations and disagreements between the religious and non-religious sectors of the population, Israel still does not have a constitution. Instead we have “basic laws”.]

Ben Gurion's Genius - Turning Israel's "Ragtag Militia" into an Army

Clandestine force to regular army

According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’s website : “Ben-Gurion masterminded and carried out the transition from clandestine force to regular army, dismantling pre-state politicized militias to form a united, apolitical military – the Israel Defense Forces.

Historian Yagil Henkin phrased it differently : “Ben-Gurion could never have declared a state in May 1948 without first painstakingly transforming Palestine’s ragtag Jewish militias into an army.”

“Mystical faith in israeli youth”

His military leadership was a rare mixture of pragmatism and vision. His combination of bold, daring and dogged determination, dynamic organization and decisive moves, linked to a deep, almost mystical faith in Israeli youth, played a crucial role in the conduct of the War of Independence and its outcome. Israel emerged from the war victorious, but paid a terrible price: 6,373 killed, almost 1% of the population.” (MFA)

Consensus

The stories behind “dismantling militias” have not always been pretty, as I elaborate in some detail below. Despite understandable nostalgia for the days of the “Mahtarot” (underground militiae), there is a universal consensus among both historians and the general public that dismantling the militias – all of them – was a pre-requisite for the country’s existence.

A small country under grave existential threats cannot afford to have a civil war, or violent mayhem on the streets. A minimal measure of unity of purpose and national cohesion is an absolute requirement.

Bold New Vision

The vision – a modern, well-equipped military

Ben Gurion had a vision of a modern, well-equipped military surpassing the existing forces by several orders of magnitude. In order to implement the vision he had to first confront his skeptical military commanders. Despite that, and thanks to his outstanding executive abilities, substantial energies were diverted to acquire planes, tanks and cannons in the months preceding the declaration of the State of Israel and during the war itself.

Accroding to Henkin, it would be inconceivable to imagine the fate of the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state Israel) had its security forces fought the war equipped with merely the two tanks (only one of which was working) and the single fighter plane they had on Declaration Day. The Arabs had dozens of tanks and aircraft at their disposal, and no lack of ammunition.

Ben gurion standing on his head, Tel Aviv beachl

Ben Gurion doing yoga exercises on Tel Aviv Beach. Source: http://neveshalom.org/html/arts/art_gallery_bill.html

The vision – developing a civil society

Re-allocating the resources

Even so, reality dictated a need to compromise. Ben-Gurion saw the IDF as just one component of Israel’s overall security. He reasoned that allocating an oversized portion of the tiny state’s budget and resources to the military would eventually jeopardize civil society itself. Foreseeing little risk of war in the coming years, he preferred the short-term gamble of downsizing the army. This allowed him to invest long-term in the new state’s many civilian needs.

The army at the service of civilian goals

Given the enormous challenge of absorbing the mass immigration from post-war Europe and the Middle East, Ben-Gurion diverted army forces to the civilian tasks of education and infrastructure. The uniquely-Israeli Nahal Brigade combined army service with work in Kibbutzim. It also contributed to the establishment of new ones. Later on, the Nahal dedicated itself to helping kids from underprivileded backgrounds and to urban social issues. Nahal soldiers were even sent to assist African Countries interested in Kibbutz-style projects. The army still diverts funds and energies to advance social causes and education.

Dismantling Militias in Early Israel

The Mahtarot (Underground Militias)

Left, Right and Center

Prior to the establishment of the State, several paramilitary organizations, the “Mahtarot” (“undergrounds” or militias), operated on the right, center and left of the political spectrum.

The Hagana and its banner elite militia, the Palmach, were moderate in their approach to the British, especially as long as the wars in Europe and in the Western Desert were still raging. They received the support of the vast majority of the Yishuv (pre-state) population at the time. 

The left-leaning Palmach, in strong alliance with the Kibbutz movement, is credited with winning some of the crucial battles of the Independence War. It was much loved for its lore, songs, style, culture and achievements on the battlefield.  

The right-wing Irgun (Etzel) and the Lehi are well-known for their acts of sabotage against the British. I elaborate a bit about their activities below.

Complex reality

In the following sections I describe the actions taken to dismantle the various pre-state militias, as well as some fascinating stories. My aim is to demonstrate both the difficulties and the various approaches employed in each individual case. It is up to the reader to find modern-day relevance, if any.

By describing the stories in some detail I hope to do justice to the complicated realities of the time – not to cover things up, but also not to minimize the magnitude of the achievement.

Not picking favorites

David Ben Gurion did not pick favorites. Dismantling the right-wing organizations was no simple feat (see below for more details). It brought the country on several occasions to the brink of civil war. But Ben Gurion acted with the same determination to dissolve the popular left-wing Palmach.  His guiding principle was “mamlachtiyut” – “stateliness”.

Anybody not interested in the historical details can skip to the next section dealing the present status of affairs in Israel and America.

Dismantling Militias in Early Israel - The Hagana

Havlaga – Restraint

The Hagana was generally perceived to represent the moderate majority of the Yishuv (pre-state Israel). Until the end of the Second World War, it operated according to the policy of self-restraint or “Havlaga”.  That policy, originally followed by all organizations, eventually instigated the split with the Lehi, and then the Irgun, who advocated active sabotage against the British in light of the White Paper policy.

Following the assassination of Lord Moyne, British Minister of State for the Middle East, in November 1944 by members of Lehi, the Hagana worked with the British against Irgun members. The “Saison, as it was called, or the Hunting Season, was directed mainly against the Irgun. Because the actions were taken by Jews against other Jews, it caused great demoralization amongst Jewish youth.

Menachem Begin, head of the Irgun, ordered his followers not to retaliate in an effort to avoid a full-blown civil war. 

Biggest fighting force

After the United Nations officially adopted the partition plan on November 29, 1947, the Hagana came into the open as the biggest fighting force among Palestinian Jews. It successfully overcame Arab forces during the so-called “Civil War“. 

British estimates of the Hagana‘s strength at this time were of 75,000 men and women on paper with an effective strength of 30,000. After the British army, the Hagana was considered the most powerful military force in the Middle East.

Dismantling the Hagana

Being the largest mainstream organization, the Hagana merged almost seamlessly into the newly-formed IDF. It basically became the army. Hagana brigades were rearranged, sometimes getting new names; new brigades were added. The emblem of the IDF was even designed after the general motif of the Hagana’s symbol (see pictures above).

But even this process was not straightforward. During the so-called “Generals’ Revolt”,  nearly the entire Hagana command threatened to resign one week before the State of Israel was declared! It is interesting that many of Ben Gurion’s colleagues announced the “Old Man” to be out of his mind because of his insistence on a modern well-equipped army.

Hagana training. War of IndependenceThe war of Independence. A group of Hagana memebrs training. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Haganah_members_practicing.jpg

During the War of Independence, almost all the prominent commanders were former members of the Hagana or the Palmach. Few, like my father, who spent five years of his life in the Jewish Brigade of the British army, were automatically promoted to officers in the IDF, due to their experience and training.

Famous members of the Hagana were Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, Rehavam Ze’evi, Dov Hoz, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon, Yaakov Dori, Israel Galili, and Dr. Ruth Westheimer. 

Dismantling Militias in Early Israel - The Irgun and the Story of the Altalena

The Irgun (Etzel) policy, like that of the mainstream organizations, changed and adapted with the flow and intensity of the current events. At one point the Irgun collaborated with the British to sabotage pro-Nazi forces in the Middle East and Europe. David Raziel, commander of the Irgun, was killed during an operation in Iraq.

But on February 1, 1944 the Irgun proclaimed a revolt against the British mandatory government due to the enduring White Paper Policy, that limited Jewish imigration to Israel despite the Nazi persecution in Europe:

The White Paper is still in effect. It is enforced, despite the betrayal of the Arabs and the loyalty of the Jews; despite the mass enlisting to the British Army; despite the ceasefire and the quiet in The Land of Israel; despite the massacre of masses of the Jewish people in Europe….

The facts are simple and horrible… Over the last four years of the war we have lost millions of the best of our people; millions more are in danger of eradication. And The Land of Israel is closed off and quarantined because the British rule it…and strive for the destruction of our people’s last hope.

The Irgun then declared that, for its part, the ceasefire was over and they were now at war with the British. A series of actions against the British followed.

But in 1948, following the establishment of the IDF, Ben Gurion ordered the destruction of a boat carrying weapons for the Irgun – the Altalena. Echoes of that controversial move still reverberate through Israeli society to this day

Altalena on fire after being shelled near Tel Aviv.Altalena on fire after being shelled near Tel Aviv. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altalena_Affair

The Altalena

On June 1, 1948, an agreement had been signed between Menachem Begin, the head of the Irgun, and Yisrael Galili, the former chief of staff of the Hagana, for the merger of the Irgun into the IDF. One of the clauses stated that the Irgun had to stop smuggling arms. Nonethess, Irgun representatives in France bought a ship, renamed the Altalena, packed it with ammunition and sent it to Israel. 

In Ben Gurion’s world view, any vacillation or compromise at that critical time could resurrect the threat of a larger civil war. Unity must not necessarily be based on agreement and compromise, but always on the recognition of the legally-constituted authorities of the state. The Irgun‘s behavior was an act of insubordination, therefore Ben-Gurion insisted that they surrendered and handed over all the weaponry. 

Jews fighting Jews

The Altalena arrived at the Kfar Vitkin coast on June 20, and a clash with the Alexandroni Brigade of the IDF took place. Fighting ended in a ceasefire, but the ship, now reinforced with local Irgun members, including Menahem Begin, sailed to Tel Aviv, where the Irgun had more supporters. A confrontation between them and the IDF units ensued.

In response, Ben-Gurion ordered Yigael Yadin (acting Chief of Staff) to concentrate large forces on the beach and take the ship by force. The Altalena was shelled, to his order, with heavy guns. One of the shells hit the ship, which began to burn. Six Irgun fighters were killed in the Kfar Vitkin confrontation and ten on the Tel Aviv beach. Three IDF soldiers were killed: two at Kfar Vitkin and one in Tel Aviv.

After the shelling of the Altalena, more than 200 Irgun fighters were arrested, but released several weeks later. Thereafter Irgun militants were fully integrated into the IDF and not kept in separate units. 

Standoff in Katamon neighborhood

The initial agreement for integration did not include Jerusalem that was under Arab siege. A small Irgun group called the Jerusalem Battalion, counting around 400 fighters, and the Lehi militia, continued to operate there independently of the government.

Following the assassination of the Swedish UN Envoy for Peace Folke Bernadotte by Lehi combatants in September 1948, the Israeli government determined to immediately dismantle these underground organizations. An ultimatum was issued to the Irgun to give up its independence and integrate into the IDF or be destroyed. Troops surrounded the Irgun camp in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem. The Irgun accepted the ultimatum on September 22, 1948. Shortly thereafter, the remaining fighters in Jerusalem began enlisting into the IDF and turning over their arms. At Begin’s orders, the Irgun Diaspora branches were formally disbanded as well.

Some well-known Etzel figures are Menahem Begin, Zeev Jabotinskly, Eliyahu Meridor, Eitan Livni (Tzipi Livni’s father), Uri Avnery, Elie Weisel, Dov Gruner.

Dismantled Militia Accepts a Merger

On the occasion of the Irgun regiments entering the Jewish army the following “order of the day” was distributed:

[This is a Google translation of the original Hebrew document with some minimal editting by myself (OA). The pompous style was typical of the period, and especially of the Etzel]. 

Order of the Day:

Soldiers, brothers!

One episode in our lives has terminated and another one begins. 

With our utmost efforts, we have brought the nation to where it is now. We have ridden the nation of the burden of British bondage, and in a part of the motherland, Jewish rule has been established. 

Out of loyalty to the people and the homeland we have decided to abandon the underground in the liberated part of the homeland, and out of that same loyalty, we have decided to join the Jewish army, which – along with our troops – is taking part in the war that would decide the fate of our people for generations  

We will serve in our army – whatever its temporary name may be, and whoever it will answer to  – as the soldiers of the National Military Organization used to serve the people: with unconditional discipline, boundless sacrifice, and unreserved devotion. 

 
Come forth on behalf of our heroes and martyrs. Come forth on behalf of our people and our country! 

Victory will be with us. 
Long live Israel! Long live the homeland! 
Long live the Jewish army! The beginnings of our fighting family!

National Military Organization headquarters
In the land of Israel
    June 1948

Dismantling Militias in Early Israel - Lehi

“The Stern Gang”, a thorn in the side of the British

Lehi (acronym for “Fighters for Israel’s Freedom”, also known pejoratively as the “Stern Gang”, was a much smaller group that did not gain wide support among the public, but was a very hard nut to crack and a thorn in the side of the British. Its main agenda was nationalistic, borderline fascistic, and its primary goal was to terminate British rule in Israel. 

All means are kosher

Lehi adopted the tactics of European groups like the Socialist Revolutionaries and the IRA. All means were kosher to achieve the goal, including terrorism and bank robberies. 

Lehi used assasinations, sent explosive envelopes to British officials, and attacked infrastructure and random British soldiers. They are even credited with operating “the world’s first true truck bomb”, driving a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, killing four and injuring 140 .

According to Nachman Ben-Yehuda (N. Ben-Yehuda, Political Assassinations by Jews. State University of New York, 1993, p. 397), Lehi was responsible for 42 assassinations, more than twice as many as the Irgun and Hagana combined during the same period. Of the assassinations that Ben-Yehuda classified as political, more than half the victims were Jews.

Borderline fascist

Some writers have stated that Lehi‘s true goals were the creation of a totalitarian state. According to Kaplan and Penslar, Lehi‘s ideology was “a strange brew” of fascist and communist thought combined with racism and universalism (The Origins of Israel, 1882–1948: A Documentary History – Page 274. Eran Kaplan, Derek J. Penslar – 2011).

The militia went so far with its anti-British and anti-imperialistic agenda that it tried to make deals with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The idea was to get their support for kicking the British out in exchange for letting European Jews come to Palestine.

Lehi split from the Irgun in 1940 in order to continue fighting the British during World War II. At that time Etzel still adhered to the Havlaga policy, like the rest of the undergrounds. The Jewish establishments collaborated with the British against Lehi, and supported the British in their fight against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, e.g. through the Jewish Brigade of the British army (people had to make very tough choices in these hard times…).

A “terrorist organization”

Bernadott’s murder and the ordinance to prevent terrorism

Having drafted most of its activist members into the army, the Israeli government formally disbanded Lehi on May 29, 1948. Despite that, some members carried out one more terrorist act –  the assassination of count Folke Bernadotte, the Swedish U.N. envoy for peace.

In the wake of the assasination, the Israeli government passed the Ordinance to Prevent Terrorism and declared Lehi to be a terrorist organization.

Declaration of Lehi as a terrorist organization, September 20, 1948 Declaration of Lehi as a terrorist organization by the interim government, September 20, 1948

Two hundred Lehi members were arrested, but two prominent leaders, Israel Eldad and Yitzhak Shamir, managed to escape. Two others were charged with leadership of a terrorist organization and were sentenced to 8 and 5 years imprisonment, respectively.

In the name of national unity

Notwithstanding, just before the first Israeli elections in January 1949, a general amnesty to Lehi members was granted by the government in the name of national unity, and they were released.

Some former Lehi members formed small, extremist groups that were later dismantled, but much of the ideological legacy, as I show below, still lingers and has taken on a new form since 1967.

In 1983, former Lehi leader Yitzhak Shamir, by then a prominent hard-line member of the Likud party, became prime minister of Israel. Like his predecessor, Menahem Begin of the Etzel, he seemed to have mellowed somewhat with the office.

Was terrorism productive?

Senior officers of the IDF, including Yisrael Galili and David Shaltiel, told the court that Lehi had hindered, rather than assisted, the fight against the British and the Arabs. 

Lehi and the Irgun were also jointly responsible for the infamous massacre in Deir Yassin during the Independence War. There was, of course, a fierce debate about its “usefulness”, but this is not the place to elaborate on that topic.

Some well-known Lehi figures are: Avraham (Yair Stern),  Yitzhak Shamir, Israel Eldad, Boaz Evron, Amos Kenan, Natan Yellin-Mor, Geula Cohen, Uri Zvi Greenberg, some of whom switched their ideology later on.

Dismantling Militias in Early Israel - Palmach

Palmach lady playing the accordionPalmach lore. Singing and sitting around the fire were sources of energy and motivation for the Palmachniks.Source: The palmach Archives. http://yigal-allon-centre.org.il/blog/

The Palmach’s changing missions

 

The Palmach was established by the Hagana‘s High Command on May 14, 1941 to defend the Jewish community against potential Axis Powers invasion and threats, and to protect Jewish settlements from  attacks by the Arab population once the British withdrew. Initially the group consisted of around one hundred men, but by the time of the War of Independence it had evolved into 3 combat brigades. 

Yes, the Palmach marched in Syria 

The history of the Palmach is fascinating. In 1941 they acted with the British in Lebanon and Syria against Vichy French forces. When in 1942 the British ordered the dismantling of Palmach after the allied victory at El Alamein, the organization went underground.

After the assassination of Lord Moyne, members of the Palmach were involved in the “Saison” Operation. In this capacity, they cooperated with the British in an attempt to crush the Irgun and Stern Gang.

With united forces

But when the war concluded, in October 1945, Ben Gurion decided to launch an armed struggle against the British, and the Palmach entered an alliance with the so-called dissident groups – The Hebrew Resistance Movement. In this framework, the Palmach, together with the Irgun, performed some famous operations, including a mass release of Jewish prisoners from British prisons, a blow-up of bridges and more.

But the alliance was never completely under the Hagana‘s control. The Irgun, on its own initiative, launched a series of evermore ruthless attacks against the British, culminating in the King David Hotel bombing. The attack was a response to a British crackdown on “Black Sabbath” (Operation Agatha) in June 1946. The Jewish civilian leadership’s outrage at the King David attack led Ben-Gurion to call off further Palmach operations, and they were renewed only ten months later.

Politics and de-politicizing 

Israeli politics have always been a messy affair.

The Palmach was a broad spectrum left-wing nationalist organization, associated with socialist parties. Its members trained and lived in the communal Kibbutzim. The political leanings of its leaders were towards Mapam, a left-wing faction that split from Mapai, the dominant party headed by Ben Gurion, in 1944. The new party was inspired by Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union. 

After 1948, Ben-Gurion had a series of confrontations with leaders of the Hagana and the Palmach. In his opinion, the justification for a separate organizational framework was made redundant by the founding of the IDF. An elite unit such as the Palmach would best contribute its strength to the country by assimilating into the umbrella of the national army. He treated any insubordination by commanders and troops in the Palmach severely.

Opponents of Ben Gurion maintained that his motives were political and that the quality of the Palmach‘s fighters and their fighting spirit justified its continued independent existence.

The rationale for dismantling the Palmach and the other underground militias was a policy of de-politicization of the army, a sacrosanct principle still held by the IDF today. Nonetheless, Ben Gurion’s actions were not devoid of political motives. In 1950, most of the Mapam officers resigned. Others were marginalized. The net effect of the “de-politicization” was that all senior army posts were then held by Mapai members or Ben-Gurion loyalists. 

Acceptance and enduring resentment

Dismantling the Palmach was a process that took place between 1948 and 1949 during the War of Independence and its conclusion. Many people today still resent Ben Gurion’s ruthless dissolution of the Palmach after the war. According to the  Palmach museum website, dismantling of the organization, was based in a mixture of motives, practical-operational and national but also political.  

Cosmic irony

Ironically, even though dismantling the right-wing militias was carried out at the request of the Hagana and the Palmach, the organizations were not aware at the time that Ben Gurion was planning to give them a similar treatment, in an act that required considerable political courage.

Henkin writes: “The Tel Aviv Palmach activists who willingly executed the operation [Of dismantling the Etzel] had no idea that to Ben-Gurion’s mind, they posed a similar danger of insubordination.

It is sad irony that the Palmach‘s last independent operation was again taken against the Irgun. The Altalena affair, in which a cannon was used to sink the ship, was commanded by Yigal Allon, with Yitzhak Rabin as his deputy. 

Not taking orders

Ben-Gurion was well aware of Palmach’s crucial contribution to Israel’s victory in the War of Independence, but he also realized that the organization saw itself as an elite and refused to take orders from above. A week before Independence, poet Natan Alterman wrote that  Palmach was an organization “that refused to leave any of the work to ‘outsiders,’… who write their own codes and have already set down their own version of history.” (“The Seventh Column,” Davar, 28 April 1948).

Adjusting to the new format 

After the establishment of the Israeli army, the Palmach, like the Hagana, was reorganised and reframed as three IDF brigades—the Negev, Yiftach and Harel brigades. The Negev and Yiftah brigades fought in the Negev against the Egyptian army and managed to stop and later push it back into the Gaza Strip and Sinai. The Yiftah brigade  later operated in the north. The Harel brigade focused on the Jerusalem area.

In total, the Palmach lost 1,187 fighters during the war of independence and in the years prior to Israel’s creation.

Some well-known Palmach figures are: Eliyahu Golomb, Yitzhak Rabin, Yigal Alon, Moshe Dayan, Rafael Eitan, Yitzhak Sade, Hayim Guri, Yehuda Amihai, Dan Ben Amotz, Moshe Shamir.

Dismantling Militias Today - a Reality Check

Re-emergence of Jewish Militia - Settlers' Armed Groups

Aftermath of Jewish terrorism attack in Duma, West BankPalestinians inspect the damage as they stand in a house in the West Bank village of Duma set on fire in an apparent attack by Jewish terrorists, which killed 18-month-old Palestinian toddler Ali Saad Dawabsha on July 31, 2015. (AFP/Thomas Coex)

Source:https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-to-prevent-terrorism-arab-and-jewish-by-shin-bet-commander-who-fought-both/

The Lehi is gone, but extremism, nativism and ideology-based terrorism (mostly religious) are not. To the contrary. The continued rule of right-wing governments has blurred the lines between official policy and extra-judicial activities.

Jewish religious terrorist organizations

Several groups have been considered religious terrorist organizations in Israel. They usually base their ideology on religious grounds, though the majority of religious authorities do not agree with their interpretations. Some, like the Hilltop Youth try to undermine the State of Israel itself. They sometimes act against the army and are totally lawless.

A Wikipedia list of Jewish religous terrorist groups in Israel includes now-extinct groups like Brit HaKanaim and The Kingdom of Israel, but also movements with lasting influence like Gush Emunim, Kach and the Sikrikim.

Notorious among the settler groups operating in the West Bank against Palestinians, and sometimes against Christians and Jews as well, are Tag Mehir,  the Hilltop Youth and Lehava.

Aggravating this situation is the lenient right-wing governments attitude, which drags Israel further down the rabbit hole of extremism and intolerance. In the past, I could proudly say that this type of criminality would get punished, and its perpetrators would sit in jail. I cannot trust this to always be the case today. Both government and public reactions often fall short in condemning, preventing and punishing such attacks.  

For perspective and clarification, it should be emphasized, though, that terrorism perpetrated by these militias or extremist groups is still a tiny fraction of the terrorism perpetrated by Palestinians against innocent Israeli citizens. The government and the Israeli public at large do not stand behind them and do not support them. Nobody dances on the roofs when a Palestinian dies. In contrast, the Palestinian public and authorities celebrate and glorify acts of terrorism against Israel. Nonetheless, from our ethical standpoint, even a little is too much.

Israel’s war against Jewish terrorism

The well-renown “Jewish Department” of the GSS (Shabak) has been operational for decades. In 2012, a new police unit was also created to fight Jewish terrorism

It is very clear that government policy towards militias and native-born terrorist groups is crucial to Israel’s reputation and to its internal cohesion. 

Dismantling Militias in America - A Possibility?

Won’t happen

The short answer in  “No“! The long answer is “Nope!”

Dimantling militias in the United States seems a very unlikely development even under a hypothetical arch-liberal, gun-hater future president.

The Second Amendment is sacrosanct in this country, a unique phenomenon not easily understood by outsiders. No hope for a revolution there.

But

Individual states can ban and de-legalize militias or limit their activities significantly, and that is true currently for the majority of the states. Perhaps private militias could be forced to merge into the state militias in some cases.

ADL's map showing state laws regarding militias.

Nationwide, 41 states have laws that place restrictions on private paramilitary activity. Some laws limit or regulate private military groups; others limit or regulate private military training. 

However,

According to Mother Jones, even when laws exist, states hesitate to enforce them:

To date, there are no known cases of these laws being used against “patriot” militias, according to Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “They’ve become sort of forgotten little laws.

Forgotten little laws

Obviously, as the problem grows, expands and proliferates, enforcing the law becomes almost prohibitively difficult. Local skirmishes, or even an all-in-all civil war, are likely to ensue. If true that “the American militia movement is pulling in cops on social media”, it complicates the situation even further. The combination of guns, hate, and anti-government sentiments is lethal.

Mother Jones adds:

Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies don’t want to risk angering militia supporters and generating more support for the militia movement. “For the most part…if these militias are just running around the woods with guns, most states don’t really care.”

Many say that the idea of a “well-regulated militia” is an idea whose time and relevance had passed, and that the continued existence of the militias is a recipe for trouble. 

Militias and Baobab Trees

Militias and Baobab Trees

Baobab trees taking over the Little Prince planet. St. Exupery

I am quoting from my Bible, “The little Prince” by St. Exupery:

A baobab is something you will never, never be able to get rid of if you attend to it too late. It spreads over the entire planet. It bores clear through it with its roots. And if the planet is too small, and the baobabs are too many, they split it in pieces . . .

Perhaps you will ask me, “Why are there no other drawings in this book as magnificent and impressive as this drawing of the baobabs?”

The reply is simple. I have tried. But with the others I have not been successful. When I made the drawing of the baobabs I was carried beyond myself by the inspiring force of urgent necessity.

The Little Prince, St. Exupery. Chapter 5

Maybe, unlike Ben Gurion and the Little Prince, Americans feel that their planet is large enough to tolerate and contain some baobab trees.

I am not so certain…

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