Some people have claimed that modern day political terrorism began with the Jews in their struggle against the British before the founding of the State of Israel. Of course, that is hyperbole. You can go back to the Irish, the IRA in the early part of the 20th century, the Molly Maguires of the 19th. Further than that  The Russians under the czars,  and  the American Revolution also contained this kind of activity. The Eleventh Century “Assassins,” a shi ‘ite sect reigned terror in Islam for more than two centuries. And, that is just during the last millennium.

Let’s start from there. The Jews did not invent terrorism.

But, terror was a means of resistance in pre state of Israel. J. Boyer Bell, brings clarity to that subject in h “Terror out of Zion: the fight for Israeli independence,” published by Transaction Publishers: New Brunswick (US) and London (UK), 1996.

Avraham Stern, founder and spirtual and martyred head of the LEHI, The acronym  in english means Freedom fighters of israel

Avraham Stern, founder and spirtual and martyred head of the LEHI, The acronym in English means Freedom Fighters of Israel

Bowyer Bell, had also written the same kind of expose on the Irish Republican Army, Spain, South Africa, and Cyprus. So, as much as one can have experience in bringing forth a terrorist history he was not a novice on the subject.

He covers only the revisionist  factions of  Jewish Palestinian politics in the 30s and 40s. Only the Urgun, (ETZEL) and the Sternists  (LEHI) are discussed, leaving Haganna and Palmach the other side of that complicated democratic form to another discussion.

In my opinion this is the most comprehensive, complete and informative history of Jewish pre state revisionist terror in existence, at least in English. There might be others in Hebrew

Menachem Begin in disguise. The British had a constant dragnet out for him. He was never caught.

Menachem Begin in disguise. The British had a constant dragnet out for him. He was never caught.

but I am not aware of them. Not on this level, and not on this non subjective approach. It is a scholarly work, in that it makes no judgments about the subject matter only presents the facts from all sides from current available sources.

Those sources according to the author are continuing to come to the surface. Boyer Bell wrote the first treatise on this subject back in 1977, basing it pretty much on interviews with Jewish participants, British soldiers and Arabs if he could get them to talk. But, the 1996 Transaction publication includes much more than the original. Compelled by what he termed “an enormous amount of material, including the year-by-year revelations from British archives, have produced a far richer array of sources. “

He also states that the original while a bit scant in corroborating sources, his original edition “confirm rather than to vitiate the text.” And, those sources continue to be declassified even today. The story of violent Jewish resistance to British colonialism, is compiled and choreographed perfectly in “Terror out of Zion.”

The idea here was to present the history, not to condemn or praise the participants in that history. If that is what you wish go elsewhere because you won’t get that here. For this reason some might not appreciate the scope of this work. For historians and interested parties in Israeli prestate history it is a must to have on your reference shelf. For all others I would still recommend it, but you will have to decide for yourself if it is something you must know about in that particular detail.

The book is divided into four parts, 1) the Jabotinsky years of formation and building, 2) a section on Avraham Stern and the breakaway from ETZL to LEHI, 3) Menachem Begin’s rise as leader of ETZL and 4) the revisionists response to the Arab attack in the months before the British left, from November 1947 to May 1948.

So, the time frame runs from around the mid 1930s to just before the British left on May 14, 1948. That is a wide area of history for a scholar to cover, but Bowyer Bell does a good job of packing more detail into the 374 pages of the book than you would think.  Primary and secondary sources are listed as end notes at the end of each chapter.

photo of Hadassa hospital massacre on April 13, 1948. Mutilated bodies can be seen in the foreground. a typical calling card of Arab irregular forces operating at that time in Palestine  Photo by author out of "Terror out of Zion"

photo of Hadassa hospital massacre on April 13, 1948. Mutilated bodies can be seen in the foreground. a typical calling card of Arab irregular forces operating at that time in Palestine
Photo by author out of “Terror out of Zion”

Throughout the pages of this now famous historical actions which have only been told in brief are given space to develop, with the appropriate amount of detail, the people involved, and results of those particular actions, some of which reach startling brutal conclusions for both sides.

The breakout of Acre Prison for example.

Acre prison, a 1000 year old Crusader fortress used by the British to house criminals of all sorts, was thought by all to be impossible to escape. The walls were three feet thick with stone and masonry. Windows only graced the upper echelon floors, too high to make an escape, and the British manned the prison so that even if you could traverse, the 12th century construction British oversight would have made the attempt extremely difficult.

Many of the underground were sentenced to serve there. The breakout was one of the standout situations of the post World War II rise of Jewish resistance to force the British to leave Palestine.

Boyer Bell’s recount of the history of how that escape took place is nothing short of magnificent.

Escape had been discussed but it had been decided that without outside participation it would be impossible. The logistics of planning were just too much from the fortified Crusader castle to the mess of little alley ways going nowhere and ancient streets of Acre which could not be easily navigated. But that changed when a stroke of luck came upon the prisoners in February of 1947.

An Arab inmate whose job it was to deliver Kerosene from a special storage room to the kitchen on a daily basis

Where they blew the hole open on the other side of the kerosene room to escape

Where they blew the hole open on the other side of the kerosene room to escape

happened to hear women’s voices from the other side of the wall of the room. That could only mean there was some kind of thoroughfare on the other side. The Arab then happen to mention it in passing to Eitan Livni, Urgun operations officer, and the father of Tzipi Livni, the Israeli labor politician. Livni thought the information vital so he passed it on to others, and  names out of the past, Mordechai Zettler, Mattiyahu Shmulevitz of LEHI and Dov Efrat, Manchem Shiff and Arie Malatsky of the Irgun went and listened for themselves. This prompted getting a message back to Menachem Begin through a number of sources.

The inmates wrote on toilet paper, rolled into small wads so as not to arouse British suspicions, passed them first to the Irgun’s personal postman inside the prison who had access to everywhere. The postman passed them to an Arab hospital employee, (not an inmate) who was well paid for his efforts and directed to take the message to a particular address in Haifa. Jabotinsky’s niece, a trusted source for Urgan movements, then picked up the message  and took the wad to Begin’s own safe house. Begin then approved the plan to look into the other side of the wall where the women’s voices were heard.

And, the plan moved forward from there. Out of 41 Sternists and Urgun to escape, only 21 made it. The rest being killed or recaptured. But, the escape made worldwide attention. Jews planned and executed an escape from what was thought to be an impregnable fortress. It served Jewish morale well.

This is a classic bit of Jewish pre state history. The book is filled with this kind of detail, names, dates and places. Many unusual and rare photographs also are included.

Boyer Bell’s Terror out of Zion, argues with proficiency and detail that the underground resistance on the revisionist side moved with a single minded purpose, to liberate Palestine from British rule. In the beginning of the third section of the book during Menachem Begin’s rise to succeed Zeev Jabotinsky as overall leader of the Urgun,  his own definition of ETZL’s simple motives, probably sums  it up best, “we fight, therefore we are.”

Photo at top taken by author

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