Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany were hardly obvious allies for the Jewish population of Palestine in the early 1940s. But to a radical Zionist named Avraham Stern, certain shared interests made cooperation seem both possible and desirable. Stern sought recruits to swell the ranks of a Jewish army that could shake off British rule in Palestine, and the Axis powers also wanted to defeat the British in the Middle East. In addition, Nazi Germany could send its unwanted Jewish citizens to Palestine, and Stern would have the troops he needed to mount an uprising.
Stern is the central character in British military historian Patrick Bishop’s fascinating new book, “The Reckoning: Death and Intrigue in the Promised Land.’’ When Stern was only 34, a British police officer shot and killed him in a Tel Aviv apartment. At the time of his death in February 1942 he was the most wanted man in Palestine. After masterminding a series of deadly bombings funded by bank robberies, Stern was widely denounced by Jewish Palestinians and British officials alike. But the contested circumstances of his death and the growing unpopularity of British rule catalyzed a movement to refashion Stern as a martyr and prophet. A man once regarded as a gangster gradually became elevated to the status of an Israeli national hero. Today several streets in Jerusalem bear his name and a postage stamp features his image.
Although a history, Bishop’s book embraces the structure of a detective story: It opens with Stern’s killing and then goes back in time to the beginning of his efforts, gradually clarifying the mystery of the event and the motives of those involved. The man who shot Stern was Geoffrey Morton, assistant superintendent of the Palestine Police Force. The force was a powerful instrument of British colonial dominance in Palestine, which made it the target of attacks by both Jewish and Arab extremists. Morton had lost several friends to bombings that Stern engineered.
But Morton was not just settling a personal score. After breaking away from the Haganah, the dominant Jewish militia in Palestine, Stern and his supporters morphed into a radical underground movement that regarded all Arab civilians as legitimate targets and embraced the use of bombings as acts of political protest. Desperate for funding, the Stern Gang began robbing banks, shooting anyone who tried to stop them. The killing of Jewish civilians during one heist turned all but the most virulent extremists against the group.
The Stern Gang’s politics also made them unpopular. A majority of Palestinian Jews in the late 1930s and early ’40s considered the British a necessary ally in the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Facing sometimes violent opposition from Palestinian Arabs and the looming threat of Nazism in Europe, the Jewish population of Palestine generally agreed that British support was essential to their aspirations of statehood.
Stern, however, was so desperate to overthrow the British that he actively courted the Axis powers. His overtures were rebuffed and his tactics condemned by mainstream Jewish political and military leaders. Once the full horror of the Nazi persecution of European Jews became clear, the British policy of denying Jewish emigrants entrance to Palestine began to seem tantamount to a death sentence. Popular opinion started growing more sympathetic toward Stern and his battle with the British.
When Morton tracked Stern to a rooftop apartment in Tel Aviv, he found him unarmed. Accounts of what transpired during the shooting differ; Morton maintained that Stern attempted to flee and may have rigged the apartment with explosives that he was about to detonate. Many witnesses supported Morton’s version of events, but one British colleague recalled late in life that Stern was essentially executed while unarmed and unresisting.
Bishop’s book has all the suspense and detail of a good novel, but it’s impossible to forget that the events he recounts continue to influence the complex politics of the Middle East. A line from a poem Stern wrote during a stint in captivity has the ring of prophecy, one that has sadly proved true: “David’s kingdom will be established in blood.”
Nick Romeo is a journalist and cultural critic.