Lehi was the acronym for Lohamei Herut Israel, an armed underground organization in Palestine founded by Avraham “Yair” Stern (also referred to as the Stern Gang). In June 1940, Stern decided to break away from the Irgun Ẓeva’i Le’ummi (Etzel). The split was due to disagreement on three main issues: (a) Stern’s demand that the military struggle against the British government be continued irrespective of the war against Nazi Germany; (b) opposition to enlistment in the British army, which Jabotinsky supported; and (c) willingness to collaborate, as a tactical measure, with anyone who supported the struggle against the British in Palestine.
The group originally called itself Irgun Ẓeva’i Le’ummi B’Yisrael before adopting the name Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi) – Fighters for the Freedom of Israel (FFI). Lehi rejected the authority of the Yishuv’s elected institutions and the worldwide Zionist movement and organized in small underground cells.
In 1933, Stern wrote the poem, “Anonymous Soldiers,” which became the anthem first of the Irgun and, later, of Lehi.
Lehi’s goals were maximalist: conquest and liberation of Eretz Israel; war against the British Empire; complete withdrawal of Britain from Palestine; and establishment of a “Hebrew kingdom from the Euphrates to the Nile.”
In 1941, Lehi’s official organ, Bamahteret, published “The Principles of Renaissance” formulated by Stern, which constituted the ideological and political platform of Lehi:
The Jewish people is a unique people.
The Homeland is here in Eretz-Israel with its borders as defined in the Torah.
Israel took Eretz-Israel by the sword. There it became a nation, only there will it be reborn.
- Redemption of the Land.
- The Re-establishment of the Kingdom.
- The Rebirth of the Nation.
AND THESE ARE THE TASKS OF THE ORGANIZATION IN THE ERA OF WAR AND CONQUEST:
Educating the people to love freedom and encouraging its zealous loyalty to its eternal possessions.
Unifying the entire people around the flag of the Hebrew Freedom Movement.
Concluding pacts with all those interested in the war of the Organization and prepared to assist it directly.
Tempering and glorifying the fighting force in Homeland and in the Diaspora.
Constant war against all those hindering the achievement of the Destiny.
Conquering the Homeland by force from the hands of strangers, as our Eternal Possession.
AND THESE ARE THE TASKS OF THE MOVEMENT IN THE ERA OF SOVEREIGNTY AND REDEMPTION:
Renewing Hebrew Sovereignty over the Redeemed Land.
Setting up a social order in the spirit of Jewish morality and prophetic justice.
Rebuilding the ruins and reviving the desolation to prepare for the immigration and fruitful multiplication of millions.
Solving the problem of the gentiles by population exchange.
A complete in gathering of exiles in the Kingdom of Israel.
Glorifying the Hebrew People by becoming a first-rate military, political, cultural, and economic power in the East and along the Mediterranean shores.
Reviving the Hebrew tongue as the national language; renewing the historical and spiritual identity of Israel; refining the national character in the melting pot of the Rebirth.
Building the Third Temple as a symbol of the Era of the Complete Redemption.
In contrast to the scope of these goals, Lehi’s strength was limited; it never had more than a few hundred fighters and its arms stores were meager. The disparity between its aspirations and its real power dictated Lehi’s method of fighting: bold, extremist actions, intended both to obtain funding and weapons and to demonstrate that it was possible to strike at the enemy successfully. As a result of its activities, the Yishuv’s institutions condemned it. Meanwhile, British police and soldiers who were targeted by Lehi, hunted its members, killing several, and wounding and arresting many others.
Lehi’s intelligence department, “Vav,” played an important role in the planning of Lehi’s military operations. Those tasked with gathering information engaged in surveillance and telephone tapping. Some members worked undercover within the British administration.
Lehi engaged in a continual propaganda campaign, distributing posters and declarations, and operating a clandestine radio station. The “Voice of Fighting Zion” began operations in 1941 and broadcast twice weekly until 1948 with a brief interruption in 1946 after the British located the station and arrested the staff. Prior to his death, Stern wrote and sometimes read the scripts explaining Lehi’s objectives and determination to continue the struggle against British rule.
In addition to Bamahteret, Lehi also published Hechazit, a paper of revolutionary thought; the weekly Hama’as, which reported on military operations; and the daily newspaper Mivrak. Words were considered weapons in the war against the “foreign occupier” and the battle over policy and strategy with the leadership of the Yishuv and rival organizations.
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The underground publications included educational articles for the public, ideological and technical articles, and information on weapons and military tactics. Initially, everything was produced on typewriters, but the group later obtained printing presses that allowed them to exponentially increase their output of newspapers, pamphlets, and posters.
Lehi desperately needed weapons. Stern had purchased some from Polish authorities prior to World War II, but most were stolen during attacks on British army bases, camps, and police stations. Over time, members of the technical section of Lehi succeeded in creating underground arms workshops where they manufactured grenades, mines, detonators, dynamite and other weapons. Toward the end of 1947, Lehi began to produce Sten submachine-guns.
Members of Lehi were ordered to be continually armed. More than 30 trials were held for Lehi fighters who were usually accused of possessing or using weapons. They were sentenced to long prison terms, sometimes life imprisonment, or death. Those who were caught admitted in court to being members of the group but, beginning in 1944, refused to recognize the court’s authority to judge them and made political statements to justify their actions that gained public attention and support both in Palestine and abroad.
In 1941, Jews in Palestine were not yet aware of the “Final Solution” but they did know Jews were suffering under Nazi rule. Stern decided to try to convince the Germans to allow Jews to go to Palestine. He sent Naftali Lubinchik to Beirut for a meeting with a German Foreign Ministry representative. Lubinchik told the German the “Jewish problem” could be solved by sending the Jews to Palestine where they would create a Jewish military force to help conquer the land from the British. The Germans were not interested.
Stern did not abandon the idea of the “Jewish transfer,” this time sending Nathan Yellin Moore to Syria to try to meet with German representatives. Yellin Moore was arrested, however, and imprisoned in Latrun before he could leave the country. This ended Lehi's flirtation with the Nazis.
Lubinchik was also caught later by the British, imprisoned, and transported to Africa where he died of illness.
Late in the summer of 1941, with the British closing in, Stern summoned Yosef Broshi and handed him sealed envelopes containing documents from the Irgun archives. They were sealed inside a milk can and buried in a backyard on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv.
In 1958, the can was found and opened. Inside were letters written by Jabotinsky, Irgun leader David Raziel and Stern, communiques, broadcast texts, agreements, training pamphlets and publications from the period April 1973 to July 1941.
During January and February 1942, the clashes between members of Lehi and the British military and civil authorities reached their peak, and the British forces reacted by arresting and killing group members. Stern was forced to be constantly on the move.
On February 12, 1942, Stern was captured by C.I.D. officers in a Tel Aviv apartment where he was hiding. While handcuffed, he was shot dead by the British detectives.
Considerably weakened by the loss of their leader and others captured or killed, Lehi was on the verge of complete disintegration when some of its detainees managed to escape from prison and regrouped their forces. The remaining fighters continued to wage Stern’s war, and a new command structure was established under the leadership of Yitzhak Shamir (Michael), Nathan Yellin-Mor (Gera), and Israel Eldad-Scheib (Eldad).
Nathan Yellin Mor
Terrorism continued to be the organization’s modus operandi, in the belief that if they inflicted sufficient pain on the British, they would realize the cost of remaining in Palestine was too high. The group continued its operations with brief interruptions until the end of the Mandate in 1948.
In November 1944, two Lehi members, Eliahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri, were sent to assassinate Lord Moyne, the British Minister for Middle East Affairs, in Cairo. Lehi saw the operation as an opportunity to demonstrate they were at fighting the British Empire as well as the Mandate. The two men ambushed Moyne’s vehicle outside his home at 4 Shaariya Gabaliya street in the exclusive residential district of Zamelek. Hakim opened the car door and fired three times killing Moyne. Bet-Zuri shot the driver when he tried to intervene.
An Egyptian policeman on a motorcycle spotted them as they tried to flee on bicycles and shot and wounded Bet-Zuri. The assassins were caught, tried, and hanged in Cairo on March 23, 1945.
In July 1945, Lehi and the Irgun agreed to cooperate in their struggle against the British. In November, Lehi joined the Haganah and the Irgun in the Hebrew Resistance Movement (Tenu’at ha-Meri ha-Ivri), which existed for nine months.
During and after this period, Lehi carried out sabotage operations and armed attacks on military objectives and government installations (army camps, airfields, police stations, railway trains), while also attacking individual members of the British police and army and organizing expropriations (a euphemism for robbery) to secure funds. Lehi’s largest operation was the bombing of the Haifa railroad workshops in June 1946 in which 11 fighters were killed.
On April 26, 1947, Lehi placed explosives at the British police station in Sarona (in today’s Tel Aviv) killing four policemen. Later, the group decided to concentrate its activities in Jerusalem to prevent implementation of the partition plan and internationalization of Jerusalem.
The British were constantly searching for people they considered terrorists. On November 11, 1947, a firearms instruction course was conducted for a group of Lehi teenagers in Ra’anana. Arabs informed the British and security forces surrounded the area and opened fire. Five of the teens were killed and others wounded. The survivors were arrested and put on trial.
In April 1947, Lehi began operations outside Palestine. Ya’acov Heruti was sent to London in October 1947 with the assignment of assassinating Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin According to Jonathan Spyer, Bevin was targeted “because of his pro-Arab actions, his opposition to Israel’s establishment and the frequency of his anti-Semitic rhetoric.” Also targeted were the former commander of British forces in Palestine, General Evelyn Barker, and Major Roy Farran, who had tortured and killed a Lehi fighter in Jerusalem.
Heruti registered as a law student at the University of London and recruited others to help with “Operation Shimon.” Heruti explained, “By chance, I met a number of young Jews. We didn’t have a great deal to lose, and we began to organize. And slowly, slowly, ‘a friend brings a friend,’ and we started building up an infrastructure, addresses, a place for storing weapons.”
A member of Lehi in New York sent explosives to London inside the hollowed-out batteries of a radio set. Heruti decided not to use them to kill Bevin, however, to avoid collateral damage. Instead, he planned to kill him outside a meeting of foreign ministers. The mission was called off by Nathan Friedman-Yellin, Lehi’s operational commander at the time. One historian argued the assassination was cancelled because Bevin was no longer relevant once the British began withdrawing from Palestine.
The plan to kill the other men, nevertheless, went forward. Letter bombs were sent to the homes of Barker and Farran. The former’s wife alerted police when she noticed a strange smell and the bomb was defused. Farran’s younger brother opened the letter and was killed by the explosion.
As the war for Israel’s independence began, Heruti was recalled to Israel and the London cell was shut down.
Wanted Poster of the Palestine Police Force offering rewards for the capture of Stern Gang terrorists
(left to right) Jaacov Levstein (Eliav), Yitzhak Yezernitzky (Shamir), Natan Friedman-Yelin
The Mandatory authorities reacted by making administrative arrests of anyone suspected of belonging to or helping Lehi and by imposing severe sentences on those caught in operations or carrying arms. On March 17, 1947, Moshe Barazani was sentenced to death for having a hand grenade in his possession. Meir Feinstein, a member of the Irgun, was also scheduled to die. Before the sentence could be carried out the two men committed suicide with a homemade grenade that had been smuggled into the Jerusalem prison.
The history of Lehi was marked by frequent prison breaks and escapes from arrest in Palestine (Mezra, Latrun, Jerusalem, Acre, Athlit) and from the countries of forced exile (Eritrea, Sudan, and Kenya). On August 16, 1942, Shamir and Eliyahu Giladi escaped from Mezra. In the case of Acre, the Irgun assaulted the prison on May 4, 1947, and 41 prisoners, including 11 Lehi members escaped, two of whom were killed by British forces.
Another dramatic escape involved Lehi’s radio broadcaster Geula Cohen (later a longtime Member of Knesset). Cohen was arrested on February 15, 1945, during a broadcast and was jailed at Bethlehem women’s prison. When she found out that she would be transported from there for her trial, she decided to escape. She hid in the storeroom with help from her fellow underground prisoners. When the guard changed, she exited the window, climbed a tree near the prison wall and jumped over it. She fell into barbed wire that tore her skin but untangled herself and began running. She was discovered by guards, however, who shot at her. One bullet wounded her in the thigh, slowing her down and allowing the guards to capture her. She was returned to prison and placed in solitary confinement. She later managed to escape from the Jerusalem prison hospital disguised as near woman.
After the United Nations resolution on the partition of Palestine in November 1947, Lehi participated in attacks on Arab regular and irregular forces, including the attack on the village of Deir Yasin near Jerusalem, which they captured together with the Irgun (April 9, 1948). More than 100 Arabs, including some civilians were killed in the fighting along with four members of the Irgun. Amos Keinan of Lehi was killed by friendly fire.
The mandate ended on May 14, 1948, and the British withdrew their forces. A total of 84,000 troops were unable to maintain law and order. The government had spent 100 million pounds and 338 British subjects were killed in Palestine.
After Israel declared independence, the underground organizations were pressured to join the new Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Lehi was unforgiving toward its own members when they were suspected of undermining the organization. Yehuda Levy (“Shmuel”), for example, was executed for suggesting that Lehi surrender its weapons and join the IDF. Friedman-Yellin (later Yellin-Mor) decided Levy was a traitor.
On May 29, 1948, two weeks after the establishment of the State of Israel, members of Lehi entered the IDF. Most entered the Armored Invasion Brigade under the command of Yitzhak Sadeh. In Jerusalem, however, they continued to fight separately for a time, arguing that the city’s fate had not yet been determined and determined to prevent the southern neighborhoods from being cut off from the city, and its western approaches blocked from the coastal plain. The group unsuccessfully attempted to capture the Old City from Transjordan.
On September 17, 1948, Lehi was suspected of assassinating the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, in Jerusalem. The Israeli government outlawed the organization’s branch in Jerusalem and shut down its publication, Hamivrak. The leaders of Lehi, Nathan Yellin-Mor and Mattityahu Shmuelevitz, were sentenced to long jail terms by a military court but were released in a general amnesty. By that time Lehi no longer existed.
The lives of the leaders of Lehi took very different paths after the war. Yitzhak Shamir was recruited by the Mossad and later entered politics and became prime minister. Nathan Friedman-Yellin ran in the elections to the First Knesset in 1949 on the “Fighters” (Loḥamim) ticket that was made up of former Lehi members. He was the only member elected. Soon after his election, he underwent an ideological shift that took him to the extreme Left. He later abandoned politics. Israel Eldad briefly entered politics on a far-right ticket. He never won a seat in the Knesset but became one of the founders of the Greater Israel Movement.
Not everyone from Lehi turned away from violence. In 1952, Heruti organized a new underground movement, “Malchut Yisrael,” with another former Lehi member, Shimon Bachar. They attacked Arab Legion forces near the Damascus Gate and, in 1953, tried to blow up the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv to protest the persecution of Soviet Jews in the “Doctors Plot.” Heruti was sentenced to a 10-year term for these activities but was pardoned in 1955. He was subsequently accused of being involved in the murder of Rudolf Kasztner in 1957. A year later he was acquitted.
Memorial meetings in the memory of Avraham Stern are held annually by an association of Lehi members. A museum was also created in the building where Stern was killed.
Loḥamei Ḥerut Yisrael, 2 vols. (1959); J. Banai (Mazal), Ḥayyalim Almonim (1958); G. Cohen, Sippurah shel Loḥemet (1962); I. Scheib (Eldad), Ma'aser Rishon (1950); D. Niv, Ma'arkhotha-Irgun ha-Ẓeva'i ha-Le'ummi, 3 (1967); Y. Bauer, Diplomacy and Resistance (1970).
Photos: Avraham Stern, Public Domain;
Stern Bedroom, Mitchell Bard;
Yitzhak Shamir, Nationaal Archief licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Netherlands license;
Lord Moyne, Public Domain;
Lehi Wanted Poster, Public Domain;
Lord Moyne, Public Domain;
Yitzhak Shamir, Israel Government Press Office;
Israel Eldad, Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license;
Nathan Yellin Mor, David Eldan, Public Domain;
Geula Cohen, Public Domain.