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Irgun Tz'va'i Le'umi (Etzel): The Establishment of the Irgun

by Prof. Yehuda Lapidot

Towards the end of the First World War, while the British and the Turkish forces were still fighting in Palestine, Lord Rothschild received from the British Foreign Office an official letter, which later came to be known as the Balfour Declaration. It read as follows:


The Foreign Office
November 2, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.


"His Majesty's Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."


I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.


Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

When the First World War ended, discussions commenced on the future of Palestine and the region as a whole. On April 19, 1920, the Allies (Britain, France, Italy and Greece, Japan and Belgium) convened at San Remo in Italy to discuss a peace treaty with Turkey. It was decided at that conference to assign to Great Britain the mandate over Palestine on both sides of the Jordan and the responsibility for putting the Balfour Declaration into effect. While the conference was in session, the Arabs launched violent action to foil its implementation.

The first Arab riots took place in Jerusalem in the intermediary days of Passover (April) 1920. The Jewish community had anticipated the Arab reaction, and was ready to meet it. Jewish affairs in Eretz Israel (Palestine) were then being administered from Jerusalem by the Vaad Hatzirim (Council of Delegates), appointed by the World Zionist Organization (WZO) (which in 1929 became the Jewish Agency). The Vaad Hatzirim charged Ze'ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky with the task of organizing Jewish self-defense. Jabotinsky was one of the founders of the Jewish battalions which had served in the British Army during the First World War and had participated in the conquest of Palestine from the Turks. Acting under the auspices of the Vaad Hatzirim, Jabotinsky established the Haganah (self-defense) organization in Jerusalem, which succeeded in repelling the Arab attack.

Six Jews were killed and some two hundred injured in Jerusalem in the course of the 1920 riots. Had it not been for the preliminary organization of Jewish defence, the number of victims would undoubtedly have been much greater.

After the riots, the British conducted widespread arrests among both Arabs and Jews. Among those arrested was Jabotinsky himself, together with 19 of his associates, on a charge of illegal possession of weapons. Jabotinsky was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor and deportation from the country after completion of his sentence. When the sentence became known, the Vaad Hatzirim made plans for widespread protests, including mass demonstrations and a national fast. Meanwhile, however, the mandate for Palestine had been assigned to Great Britain, and the jubilation of the Yishuv - the Jewish community in Eretz Israel (Palestine) - outweighed the desire to protest against the harsh sentence imposed on Jabotinsky and his comrades.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky

With the arrival in Jerusalem of the first High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, British military government was superseded by a civilian administration. As a gesture towards the civilian population, the High Commissioner proclaimed a general amnesty for both Jews and Arabs who had been involved in the April 1920 riots. Jabotinsky and his comrades were released from prison to an enthusiastic welcome by the Yishuv, but Jabotinsky insisted that the sentence passed against them be revoked entirely, arguing that the defender should not be placed on trial with the aggressor. After months of struggle, the British War Office finally revoked the sentences.

Two and a half years after his release from jail, Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Executive and issued a strong appeal for an extensive revision of Zionism. The party, which he founded in 1925, after having established the Betar youth movement (Brit Yosef Trumpeldor - the Yosef Trumpeldor Alliance) two years previously in Riga, Latvia, was thus called the Revisionist party.

Relations between the socialist parties and the Revisionists were fraught with tension, not only because the former supported the Zionist establishment which Jabotinsky challenged, but also for reasons of ideological rivalry. Jabotinsky rejected the introduction of socialist orientation into the settlement movement in Eretz Israel and advocated a heterogeneous society, where there would be room for free enterprise. In order to reform the character of Diaspora Jewry, he argued, it was essential to impose order and discipline, to maintain 'hadar' (dignity) and freedom in Palestine, but not necessarily to transform each and every Jew into a farmer.

As leader of Betar, Jabotinsky scrupulously observed outward standards of dress and conduct, thereby furnishing the socialist parties with the pretext they needed to term him a militarist, a fascist and an "enemy of the workers." This was a blatant distortion of the truth. Jabotinsky was a liberal and friend to the workers: it was on his initiative and instructions that every member of Betar who immigrated to Palestine was required to serve for two years in the "Betar battalions", in the various settlements throughout the country, and to undertake manual labour.

The 17th Zionist Congress, which convened at Basle in 1931, rejected Jabotinsky's demand that it proclaim the objective of Zionism to be the establishment of a Jewish state, and this rejection exacerbated his strained relations with the Zionist leadership. Four years later, when the Zionist Executive decided on a "disciplinary clause" which prohibited "independent political actions" of Zionist parties, Jabotinsky seceded from the World Zionist Organization and founded the New Zionist Organization. His great popularity among European Jews and in Jewish communities in the United States and South Africa was reflected in the response to his initiative. Some 700,000 members registered before the inaugural conference of the New Zionist Organization (as against about one million before the elections to the 1939 Zionist Congress).

After the establishment of this new body, the Revisionist movement in Eretz Israel seceded from the Histadrut and founded the National Workers Association (Histadrut Ha'ovdim Hale'umit). They also established their own health fund (Kupat Holim Le'umit) and the rivalry between the two camps intensified.

The British disapproved of Jabotinsky's activities, and when he left the country in 1930 on a lecture tour of South Africa, the Mandate government barred his re-entry into Palestine.

As noted earlier, the first Arab riots against the Jews took place in April 1920. Scarcely a year later the Arabs launched a further attack against the Jews. This time the unrest began on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa border (May 1921), reaching Jerusalem on November 2, 1921, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. That year 43 Jews were killed and 134 injured.

The Arab attacks sharpened Jewish awareness of the need for self-defense. The inaugural conference of the Trade Union Movment (Histadrut), held in Haifa in December 1920, decided, among other things, to set up a national defense organization (the Haganah) "to safeguard the national and social content of popular defense in this country." The Haganah now came under the authority of the Histadrut and its institutions.

The 1921 riots were followed by seven years of calm, in which the Yishuv doubled in size (from 87,790 on 23 of October 1922 to 150,000 in 30 of June 1927). This lull was exploited by the Haganah for organization, training and arms' purchase. The quiet also generated a sense of complacency, and some of the Yishuv's leaders began to question the need for a national defense organization, which would require considerable funds. These leaders believed that the British Mandatory government could be relied on to defend the Yishuv in times of need. The events of 1929 proved these beliefs hopelessly misplaced.

The riots began in Jerusalem. They commenced with anti-Jewish agitation during Friday prayers at the El Aksa mosque and attacks on Jewish bystanders. The Arab rioters attacked Jews in the Old City, and from there moved on to the new Jewish quarters outside the City walls. From Jerusalem the riots proceeded to spread to other parts of the country. The worst incidents occurred in Hebron, where rioters moved from house to house, murdering any Jews they encountered. In all, 133 Jews were killed and 230 were injured in the course of one week.

The unrest took the Jewish community and the Haganah by surprise. The great majority of the Jewish leaders were out of the country (attending the 16th Zionist Congress in Zurich), and the Yishuv was left without clear direction during its hour of need.

In the wake of the riots, severe criticism was leveled at the Haganah, and the controversy regarding its policies and its leadership was revived. There was a growing demand for authority over the Haganah to be transferred from the Histadrut to the Jewish Agency, which represented the entire Yishuv. Moreover, the leaders of the socialist parties within the Histadrut tended to be anti-militaristic in outlook, equating militarism with the fascism then emergent in Europe. They also feared that the transformation of the Haganah into an organized military framework would greatly enhance the power of its leaders and enable them to dominate the Yishuv.

According to its constitution, the objective of the Haganah was the 'defense of the Yishuv and preparation of a popular militia'. This basically anti-military stance was countered by many commanders within the Haganah, who sought to impart a more military flavor to the organization, but it was not until the 1940s that it actually adopted a military framework. Professor Yohanan Ratner, who served on the Haganah command, writes: (My life and I, p.222)



Today it often seems to us to be self-evident that the Haganah had to develop into a regular army, or at least that this was the universal aspiration ... but this is a superficial assumption. Nowhere has it been stated that the Haganah had to become an army, or even that it was intended from the outset to become such; till almost the last moment, certain highly influential elements held a different view.

The issues of authority and of militarism caused considerable turmoil within the Haganah rank-and-file and, in conjunction with the Tehomi affair (see below), constituted the underlying causes of the 1931 split in the organization.


Avraham Tehomi, a senior officer in the Haganah, was appointed district commander of Jerusalem after the 1929 riots. In the "History Book of the Haganah " (Toldot Hahaganah) (vol. 2, p.426) we find the following about Tehomi and his comrades


From the 1920s on, there was one outstanding group among the Jerusalem commanders - a closely knit band of friends who regarded themselves as a family and as bearers of sole responsibility for the security of the city and its environs. The group was headed by the two "Avrahams": Avraham Zilberg (Tehomi) and Avraham Krichevsky, who were connected to a group which had immigrated in the early twenties from southern Russia - the Odessa group. Several of its members, distinguished by an absolute dedication to the organization, were senior Haganah officers in various parts of the country. In contrast to the pacifist spirit which - ostensibly- prevailed in the Jewish community in Palestine and influenced the mood of the Haganah at the time, this group was imbued with an unmistakably 'militaristic' spirit.


Avraham Tehomi

Tehomi had been involved in the Jewish self-defense organization in Odessa and had immigrated to Palestine with its members. Once there, he joined a group of laborers working on road building and construction, became a member of the Histadrut and was active in the Haganah. However, he held activist views and insisted that the Haganah become a military organization. As Jerusalem district commander, he brought order and discipline to bear on the Haganah, and was consequently accused of 'militarism' and of introducing 'fascist methods' . At the same time, there was growing demand for the Haganah to be transferred from the Histadrut to the Jewish Agency. Tehomi, who enjoyed considerable prestige among the Haganah officers in Jerusalem, could not easily be replaced by the Histadrut leaders.

In the spring of 1931, Tehomi took leave of the Haganah command to visit the United States on private business. On reaching his first stop, Piraeus, Greece, his visa was revoked by the US consul after a medical inspection team on board ship noticed his injured arm.

Tehomi returned to Jerusalem and asked to resume his post as district commander, but was refused on the grounds that, in his absence, a new commander (Avraham Ikar) had been appointed . (Tehomi had also been suspected of contacts with the Revisionist party and of planning to take over the Haganah leadership). The refusal to reinstate him aroused considerable protest among the district officers, most of whom remained loyal to him. When the Haganah General Headquarters persisted in its refusal, these commanders joined him in seceding from the Haganah and, in April 1931, they established a new underground body.

Their organization was named the "Irgun Zvai Le'umi" (National Military Organization), but for reasons of secrecy, its members used the name infrequently. The more commonly-used name was "Irgun B" or Haganah Le'umit (National Defense). It was in dire financial straits and lacked sufficient funds to cover its expenses. In addition, the Histadrut institutions boycotted the organization's members, who were employed in construction or road building, and prevented them from obtaining work (the employment office was at that time part of the Histadrut).

About a month after the split, the Haganah leaders decided to bow to the authority of the Jewish Agency. A joint General Headquarters was established for the first time, half of its members drawn from the Histadrut and the other half from non socialist parties. Despite this seeming parity, the great majority of the senior commanders of the Haganah were members of the Histadrut and affiliated to the labor parties. The co-opting of non socialists to the Haganah leadership did not bring Tehomi back into the Haganah ranks and the split became an established fact.

David Raziel

The new organization was concentrated in Jerusalem, and included a group of Hebrew University students known as the "Sohba" (fraternity). Some of the members graduated from the organization's first training courses, and played key roles in the development of the Irgun. The outstanding personalities in the group were David Raziel, Avraham Stern, Hillel Kook and Hayim Shalom Halevi. Over the years, the ranks of the Irgun were swelled by new young recruits, particularly from the Betar youth movement, but also from Maccabi, a non-party sports organization. New branches were set up all over the country (Tel Aviv, Haifa and Safed), and the Irgun became a nationwide movement.

In June 1933, Dr. Chaim Arlozorov, chairman of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency and one of the prominent leaders of the labor movement in Eretz Israel, was murdered in Tel Aviv while strolling with his wife on the beach. The crime stunned the Yishuv and the entire Jewish world. Three members of the Revisionist party were charged with the murder, and although they were eventually acquitted, the charge was exploited to incite hostility against Betar and the Revisionist movement in general.

We are not concerned here with details of the affair, but rather with its impact on the development of the Irgun. The unbridled incitement against the Revisionist Party proved effective, and at the 18th Zionist Congress in Prague some two months after the murder, the power of the labor parties had increased whilst that of the Revisionists had noticably declined. The agitation had the reverse effect, however, where the Irgun was concerned. Amongst the non socialist parties there was general disapproval that the Histadrut had utilized the Haganah's intelligence service to amass evidence against the murder suspects. The Haganah was supposed to be a non-party organization, and by wielding it against the Revisionist party, its commanders were exceeding their authority. The parity principle notwithstanding, it was strikingly evident that the Haganah was controlled entirely by the labor parties.

Tehomi visited Prague with the aim of mobilizing public support among those Zionist leaders who were not affiliated with the left. After lengthy discussions, a supreme political committee - the Supervisory Committee - was established for the organization, consisting of representatives of the General Zionist party, the Mizrahi (religious) party and the Revisionist party, headed by Jabotinsky. The Supervisory Committee not only provided political and public backing, but also considerably improved the organization's financial situation. The fact that Jabotinsky himself had joined the National Defense encouraged Betar members to follow suit, thus swelling the organization's numbers. In the "History of the Haganah" (vol. 2, p.580) we find:


It is difficult to understand today why these people officially supported a seceding organization, when a general Haganah organization existed whose administration was based on equal representation, and which was undoubtedly aware of the need for a united stand in defence of the Yishuv. It may be assumed that narrow party considerations influenced them. First of all, the Histadrut's decisive influence on the Haganah was manifest, both because the Haganah had, in effect, been a Histadrut department for the first ten years of its existence, a fact which could not be overlooked.... and also because left-wing activists in the Haganah always enjoyed greater influence and public weight than the right-wing representatives in the command.

Sources: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente