Bruce Hoffman’s Anonymous Soldiers is a deftly written account of the Jewish revolt against the British in 1940s Palestine. Despite its scholarship—it draws heavily on recently declassified British documents—and its significant bulk, it is a page-turner that leaves the reader feeling sorry once the book is finished.
Unlike most accounts of the Jewish underground, this one tells the story from the British point of view, though without taking Britain’s side. It leaves the reader with no doubt that it was the Irgun, and to a lesser extent the much smaller Lehi, that drove the British from Palestine, and not, as the longtime mythology of Israel’s Laborites would have it, David Ben-Gurion’s skillful politicking.
It was Lehi that began the terror war against the British in 1940. Its members were completely isolated at first, perceived by the Yishuv—a term for Palestine’s Jewish community—as a criminal gang. Lehi was led by Avraham (Yair) Stern, whom Hoffman describes as a man "of grandiose dreams and half-baked plans," an outstanding classics student at Hebrew University, and a poet. The title of Hoffman’s book comes from a poem written by Stern, which would become Lehi’s anthem. Stern was killed by the British in 1941, and the group’s remaining members killed or captured. The group was revived in 1943 under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir, decades later to become Israel’s prime minister.
In 1944, when it was clear that the Nazis would be defeated, the Irgun, too, declared a revolt. Its new leader was Menachem Begin, who had led the Jewish nationalist youth group Betar in Poland. Hoffman considers Begin a first-class strategic thinker who recognized that he could not defeat Britain militarily and so decided "systemically [to] undermine its authority," believing that if the Irgun could destroy the government’s prestige "the removal of its rule would follow automatically." Through the Irgun’s violent actions, he made Palestine a center of world attention, a "glass house" as he described it, where every British misstep was broadcast to the world.
The Irgun (with Lehi’s assistance) drove up the costs for the British to the point where their presence became unsustainable. By the end of British rule, 100,000 British soldiers had been dispatched to Palestine, one-tenth of the armed forces of the entire British Empire, one soldier for every eighteen inhabitants, with a twenty-to-one numerical superiority over the approximately 5,000 terrorists in the combined ranks of the Irgun and the Lehi. Post-war Britain was in parlous financial condition and of no mind to use its limited resources in what Winston Churchill (from the opposition benches) called "a senseless squalid war with the Jews."
Hoffman is unsparing in his criticism of Britain’s failure in dealing with a vastly inferior force, starting with, and most importantly, the failure of Palestine’s CID (Criminal Investigation Department) — guilty of everything from feckless record keeping to intelligence operatives who knew no Hebrew — "only three senior British detectives" could speak and understand it.
Anti-Semitism permeated the administration from top to bottom. Hoffman quotes repeatedly from the letters of General Evelyn Barker, the commander of British forces in Palestine, to his paramour Katy Antonius, widow of the historian of Arab nationalism, George Antonius: "I loathe the lot … Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them — it’s time this damned race knew what we think of them—loathesome [sic] people." Barker’s last act in Palestine, just before boarding the plane back to England, was to show his contempt by urinating on the ground. This scorn for their Jewish antagonists led the British to strategic blunders, such as the reliance on martial law pursued in the belief that by hurting the Yishuv’s economy, that is, its "pocketbook," the Jews would be forced to cooperate.
Early on the mainstream Zionist leadership did cooperate, motivated by fear of the British as well as the opportunity to crush the Irgun, its main political opponent. In 1944, Ben-Gurion went so far as to use the Haganah, the largest of the three undergrounds, to kidnap and turn over Irgun members to the British in the so-called "season." From the Zionist perspective, the season marked a grim page in its history, but Hoffman shows it inadvertently benefited the Irgun (and the Yishuv) because the British, who kept on hoping for a renewal of Jewish cooperation, pulled their punches when it came to punishing the broader Yishuv for terrorist outrages, lest the Jews become so alienated as to make a renewed "season" impossible.
In 1945, David Ben-Gurion would reverse course and order the Haganah into the fight against the British. It was a dramatic admission of how badly he had read the political map, and highlighted all the more the prescience of Menachem Begin. But after a successful British counter-terror operation, in which most of the Zionist leadership was rounded up, Ben-Gurion called off the Haganah. The Irgun and Lehi soldiered on.
One can make a couple of criticisms of this first-rate book. Hoffman swallows whole the official British version of Lehi leader Avraham Stern’s death, which states that he was shot while trying to escape. Hoffman cites the official police report and repeated victories by Detective Geoffrey Morton, the man who pulled the trigger, in libel suits brought in English courts against writers who claimed he had shot Stern in cold blood. Surprisingly, Hoffman fails to cite the subsequent late-in-life testimony of Bernard Stamp, a CID officer who was with Morton in the room when Stern was shot: "He should never have been murdered, you can call it; that’s what I’d call it. He was unarmed with no chance of escape."
Hoffman also maintains that the 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, the highest ranking British official in the Middle East, by Lehi in Cairo derailed a partition plan that the Churchill cabinet was entertaining when Moyne was shot. The evidence for this is thin. Churchill was positively inclined toward Zionism but in deference to the Foreign Office and Colonial Office he kept the gates of Palestine shut to Jews all through the war (in an effort to appease the Arabs). These departments would have been just as adamant as the war approached its end that partition would alienate the entire Arab world. In support of his contention, Hoffman also quotes Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography. But Weizmann actually says the opposite: "The harm done our cause by the assassination of Lord Moyne … was not in changing the intentions of the British Government, but rather in providing our enemies with a convenient excuse, and in helping to justify their course before the bar of public opinion."
Given the stakes in the Jewish revolt, the creation of the first Jewish commonwealth in 2,000 years, it’s remarkable how few people were actually killed compared with what Hoffman calls "the horrific standards of terrorism today." A total of 141 British soldiers and police and 40 terrorists died between August 1945 and August 1947, he writes, "including those executed or who committed suicide awaiting execution." As for civilian fatalities, fewer than 100 Arab and Jewish noncombatants died in that period.