The Lohamei Herut Israel Movement The Beginning of the Journey
By Nechemia Ben-Tor
Once the schism was a fait accompli, Yair decided to name his new group Irgun Tzvai Leumi be-Israel. Although similar to the official name of the organization he was leaving, Irgun Tzvai Leumi be-Eretz Israel, Yair shifted the focus from the land to the people. He emphasized that the aim of the organization was to act in the name of the entire Jewish nation, rather than being confined to the borders of the land.
On the eve of Rosh Hashana, 5701 (October 2nd, 1940), the new organization, Etzel be-Israel, published an official declaration, separating itself from the Revisionist movement and Etzel:
- Etzel be-Israel opposes any collaboration with the national institutions in the war effort against the Germans, unless they give real and immediate support to the establishment of a Hebrew state (a kingdom of Israel) by establishing a Hebrew army with its own flag, weapons and officers, which will receive dominion over the land immediately, upon conquering it with this force.
- Etzel be-Israel accepts upon itself the responsibility of bringing into existence a revolutionary underground, modeled on that of the Russian Revolution against the Czar; its methods will be armed struggle using personal acts of terror, until the British authorities are expelled and a Hebrew authority is established in its place.
Soon after the schism, it became clear that after Jabotinsky’s death, many of those who had joined Yair were leaving his organization. There were many reasons to leave: the fact that Raziel was now in command of Etzel, the disquiet over the very fact of the split, the firing of many of those who had joined Yair from their workplaces, etc.
There was also the issue of incarceration. Many members had been arrested based on lists the CID (Criminal Investigation Department of the British Police) had prepared. The numbers of Yair’s men were quite low, a situation which had to be addressed.
As they established their ideological and philosophical principles, Yair and his men started building the framework for a new underground movement. A new headquarters was set up, headed by Yair. They made the decision to establish cells of two to four men, in a definitively conspiratorial manner.
Before the schism, Etzel saw itself as a military organization, based on orders and subordination. But a “revolutionary underground” could not be built on blind obedience and personal loyalty to commanding officers; it had to be built on loyalty to the concept, the goal, the journey.
The group education was replaced with individual education, both ideological and martial. There was weapons training, including the tactics of guerilla warfare, putting the emphasis on personal hits; using grenades; and building bombs, mines and car bombs. Only people who were of a hardened character and capable of active warfare were accepted into the combat units. This was a fundamental shift in ideological education, in which most of their energy was invested. Yair was of the opinion that a combat soldier could not fight and sacrifice his life unless he was certain of the ideological path of the underground and committed to it with uncompromising zeal.
Yair understood that underground journalism was an integral element of ideological education, a clarion call to transmit his ideas to his men. Immediately after the schism, the underground began publishing an internally-distributed periodical, Bamahteret, which had the aim of shaping a new template for a freedom fighter of Israel. The newspaper’s distribution was paused after Yair’s murder, but it continued to be published intermittently until Lehi was finally disbanded in 1948.
Just one year after the split, the organization was thinking about public relations. The first step was to build a portable broadcaster, done by an electronics whiz. This broadcaster was put into a small suitcase which could be carried from place to place, so that it would be difficult to trace. The broadcasts were five to ten minutes long. The first one was on Saturday night, June 14th, 1941. Yair wrote the script and was also the newsreader.
The broadcast began with the anthem of the underground, “Hayalim Almonim (Unknown Soldiers)” and the traditional declaration from the Etzel days: “The voice of Zion fighting, the voice of Zion breaking free…”
These broadcasts stopped after Yair’s murder, and they only began again in December 1945. Up to Yair’s murder, the underground had not found a way to develop other tools for spreading its message aside from leaflets and radio.
Another critical problem facing the underground was the lack of funds. At the outset of its journey, the movement faced urgent financial difficulties. The split cut Yair’s men off from the Revisionists’ sources of funds, which formed the bulk of the underground’s war-chest. The lack of funds stood to undermine the structure of the movement and to frustrate any future activities. At first, Yair turned to the few remaining supporters, but when these resources were emptied to the last drop, they tried a new tack to enlist funds, taken from the revolutionary underground of Czarist Russia: confiscation.
The first attempt to confiscate funds occurred in September 1940, in Jerusalem’s Yefet Bank. The operatives managed to steal a satchel filled with money belonging to a Jerusalem factory from the courier sent to deposit it in the bank. The operation was a rousing success, enriching Yair’s organization significantly.
A second attempt, in which they tried to grab a satchel from a courier of Jerusalem’s Berman bakery, was less successful. The courier fought back, and his attackers retreated; still, one of the boys, Shlomo Yaakovi, was apprehended. Before the courier made his way to the line-up to identify his assailant, he was told to erase from his memory Yaakovi’s face. This kept him from being put on trial and given a long prison sentence. The identity of the underground members remained hidden.
Another operation was the Anglo-Palestine Company bank robbery on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv on September 16th, 1940. A number of senior commanders participated in this one. It was planned by Binyamin Zaroni, from the command staff, and the commander of the operation was Yehoshua Zatler, Tel Aviv region chief. Additional participants were Yaakov Eliav, Eliyahu Giladi, Moshe Moldavsky, Avraham Amper, Selig Jacques, Max Goldman, Shmuel Kaplan, and Gavriel Masri. They were all veteran members of the underground.
On D-Day, six underground members entered, masked and armed, shot in the air, and shoved into their packs 4,400 Israeli liras. Then they began to retreat. The boys were pursued, but they managed to escape with the money. Later, Yehoshua Zatler was captured in a manhunt, and he was identified as the getaway driver. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Nevertheless, the confiscated funds saved Yair’s organization from insolvency for a significant amount of time.
However, the greatest bank robbery was an operation which did not come off. The planned target was the Arab Bank of Jerusalem in the summer of 1941. In this case, the operatives dressed up as British police officers and brought the director of the bank from his home, claiming that they were investigating alleged illegal trading in foreign currency. When ordered to open the vault, he told the “police” that they would need a second key to open the vault — and that key was held by the bank treasurer.
In the meanwhile, a local watchman had grown suspicious of these alleged policemen, so he called the station. The real police soon arrived. Gunfire erupted, and the boys managed to escape, save one: Eliyahu Amikam, who would later become the Knesset correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to five years in prison. That night, the bank’s vault held no less than sixty thousand Israeli liras.
During this period after the schism, in which the underground was busy with organizational activities, preparing its members and the public for armed struggle, there were no substantial activities against the British authorities, except for one attack in the immigration offices in Haifa.
This department was responsible for carrying out the dictates of the White Paper: namely, preventing Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and deporting those who made it.
The decision to bomb the building was arrived at after the British decided to deport the Jewish refugees who had arrived on the Atlantic. Inside the building, envelopes filled with explosives were placed; their detonation blew up the offices and set many documents ablaze.
This operation was well-received by the Yishuv, as every sector of the community was in agreement that the gates of the lands should be flung open to save the Jews of Europe who were fleeing from the Nazis.
Once the organizational system had been put in place, the new underground’s next step was to lay the ideological groundwork for a war of liberation against the foreign occupier.