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The Irgun: The Split Within the Irgun

(June 1940)
by Prof. Yehuda Lapidot

The split within the Irgun occurred in June 1940, and was rooted in the enduring differences of opinion between two schools of thought in the Irgun. The dominant group, headed by David Raziel, regarded Jabotinsky as the main leader and accepted the authority of the Revisionist party; the second group, led by Avraham Stern (Yair) held that the Irgun should determine its own political path and free itself of Jabotinsky's tutelage. In addition, Raziel believed that the Arab front was the main front, while Stern regarded the British as the principle enemy. This opinion was reinforced by the publication of the White Paper on May 17, 1939.

Arrest of David Raziel
Outbreak of War
Death of David Raziel

The Arrest of David Raziel

On Friday, May 19, 1939, Raziel was on his way from Tel Aviv to Haifa for a meeting with Pinhas Ruttenberg, one of the leaders of the Yishuv. At the time, the British were setting up roadblocks, and Raziel decided to travel by air. At Sdeh Dov airport near Tel Aviv he boarded a plane headed for Haifa. The plane deviated from its route and landed at Lydda airport for a stopover. The passengers were taken to the waiting room, where they were asked, as was customary, to show identification. Several minutes later, British policemen appeared and arrested David Raziel.

David Raziel

Hanoch Kalai, his deputy, was appointed Commander in Chief. Avraham Stern, who was then in Poland, was summoned back to Palestine and appointed head of the Information Department. The other members of the General Headquarters remained in their positions. At the first meeting of the General Headquarters under Kalai, it was decided to launch a second front against the British administration in retaliation for the publication of the White Paper. In accordance with Irgun procedure, the jailed commander was not consulted, and Raziel did not take part in decision-making.

The first operations directed against the British took place in Jerusalem. On June 2, 1939, Irgun fighters blew up three telephone network junctions. Close to 1,750 telephones were cut off, including some serving the army and the police. On the same day, a mine exploded near the Old City wall, killing five Arabs and injuring many more. After the Jerusalem operations, telephone network junctions were also blown up in Tel Aviv, and the railway line between Tel Aviv and Lydda was attacked.

Four days later the Irgun fighters again launched an attack on British targets. This time they damaged eight telephone network junctions, and dozens of public telephone structures. They also destroyed four of the British Electricity Corporation transformers, plunging the city into darkness. In all, they attacked 23 sites and dozens of fighters took part in the operation.

The Outbreak of War

On August 31, 1939, the Irgun General Headquarters convened for a special session in Tel Aviv. At the height of the meeting, CID (British Intelligence) detectives and policemen burst into the room. The entire General Headquarters was arrested (Hanoch Kalai, Avraham Stern, Aharon Heichman) as well as Haim Lubinsky and Yashka Eliav, who were not members. The detainees were taken first to the Jaffa police station and later to the Jerusalem jail. They were cut off from the outside world and were unaware that the day after their arrest, the Germans invaded Poland and war broke out.

Raziel regarded Hitler as the prime enemy of the Jewish people, and therefore decided that it was essential to collaborate with the British against the joint enemy. When war broke out, Raziel wrote a letter from his place of detention to the British Commander in Chief in Palestine, to the Mandatory government secretary and to the British police commissioner. In his letter, he informed them of his readiness to declare a truce and offered help to the Allies in their struggle against the Germans. In parallel, Raziel despatched instructions to Benyamin Zeroni, who had been appointed commander of the Irgun after Kalai's arrest, to announce the suspension of Irgun operations. Consequently, on September 11, Zeroni distributed a leaflet, which stated:

To avoid disrupting the course of the war against Germany, and in order to invest maximum effort in assisting Great Britain and its allies, the Irgun Zvai Le'umi has decided to suspend all offensive activities in Palestine which could cause harm to the British government and in any way be of assistance to the greatest enemy the Jewish people has ever known - German Nazism.

The leaflet concluded with the hope that the war would give "this tortured nation the sole recompense it deserves - the achievement of sovereign independence within the historic borders of the liberated homeland."

The members of the Irgun General Headquarters, who had been transferred from the central jail in Jerusalem to the detention camp at Sarafand, did not share Raziel's views, and were particularly surprised that he had stipulated no conditions whatsoever in return for collaboration with the British. Criticism was also levelled at his excessive intimacy with the leaders of the Revisionist party, who were also being detained at Sarafand.

In mid-October, 1939, Raziel was brought to Jerusalem for a meeting with Giles, the head of the CID, the deputy government secretary and Pinhas Ruttenberg, one of the leaders of the Yishuv. Raziel reiterated that, due to the emergency situation, the Irgun had decided to suspend all hostile action, and was ready to collaborate with the British in their war against Nazi Germany. He demanded that all Irgun members who had been arrested by the British be freed. On the following day, Raziel was released and ordered to report once a week to Giles' office in Jerusalem. Eight months later (June 18, 1940), his comrades were also freed. Immediately after their release, the General Headquarters held a stormy meeting in Tel Aviv. The main confrontation took place between Avraham Stern (Yair) and David Raziel on two central issues: the first was the question of party authority. Stern and his comrades argued that the Irgun had to extricate itself from its dependence on the Revisionist party, and decide for itself on its future political path. In their opinion, the leaders of the Revisionist movement, who enjoyed legal status and were known to the authorities, were undermining the conspiratorial nature of Irgun activity, and obstructing the struggle against the British because of their concern for the survival of their party. Raziel, on the other hand, asserted that the party was the source of public moral and financial support, and a reservoir for the recruitment of fighters to the underground. According to Raziel, the movement's leaders, headed by Zeev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky, should determine the political path and the Irgun should bow to their authority.

The second issue was the question of the truce. Stern claimed that the fight against the British should continue, even though Great Britain was at war with Germany. To his mind, as long as the British ruled Palestine, they were the main foe and had to be driven out of the country. For Raziel, on the other hand, the Germans were the arch enemy of the Jewish people, and he argued that no impediments should be placed in the path of the British as long as they were fighting Hitler. On this issue, Raziel was in accord with Jabotinsky who, the White Paper policy notwithstanding, regarded the British as allies in the war against Germany. To these differences of opinion should be added personal conflicts based on character and style, which added fuel to the flames.

The split was inevitable, and on July 17, 1940, Avraham Stern seceded and founded the organization known at first as Irgun Zvai Le'umi Be'yisrael - National Military Organization in Israel. (Raziel's organization was called Irgun Zvai Le'umi Be'eretz Yisrael - National Military Organization in Eretz Israel). Later, Stern's organization became known as Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Israel Freedom Fighters) - Lehi for short. The split had a devastating effect on the Irgun and was accompanied by mutual recriminations. Many senior commanders and rank-and-file members withdrew, and the underground was exposed to the Haganah and the CID, which was able, with ease, to draw up lists of names, addresses and positions of many active members. The arsenals also passed from hand to hand and some even fell into the possession of the Haganah.

At the time of the split, Jabotinsky was in the United States, where he was trying to organize Jewish units to fight the Nazis within the framework of the British armed forces. Jabotinsky, who had been suffering for years from heart trouble, spared no effort to rescue European Jewry from the imminent catastrophe. The occupation of Poland by the Germans and the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe broke his heart, and on August 4 he suffered a fatal heart attack while at a Betar camp near New York. Word of his death stunned Jews all over the world, and there was profound mourning in Eretz Israel and in the Diaspora.

The Death of David Raziel

The first task of the new General Headquarters was to rally the ranks and reorganize the branches, which had been operating without a central guiding hand. In parallel, Aryeh Posek and Yitzhak Berman concentrated on establishing closer ties with British army intelligence, seeking ways of collaborating with them.

In mid-1941, the British were on the defensive. The German army was advancing in North Africa and was threatening Egypt; the French Vichy government, ruling under the auspices of the Germans, was occupying Syria and Lebanon and constituted a threat to Palestine from the north; in Iraq, Rashid Ali al Kilani had started a revolt and had taken over the oil fields, which were vital for the war effort. To make matters worse, on May 2, Kilani directed the revolt against the British, placed the Habaniyeh airbase under siege and took the staff of the British Embassy in Baghdad hostage.

In their plight, the heads of British intelligence in Egypt turned to Berman, and asked if the Irgun could despatch a unit to blow up the refineries in Baghdad, since the fuel reserves were vital to the Luftwaffe. Berman passed on the British request to Raziel, who immediately assented. He organized a four-man unit and decided to head it. His comrades tried, unsuccessfully, to dissuade him from taking part. On Sunday, May 17, 1941, the four left for the military airfield at Tel Nof. Raziel was accompanied by Yaakov Meridor, Yaakov-Sika Aharoni and Yaakov Harazi (the latter two were unaware of Raziel's true identity). At Tel Nof, they boarded an RAF transport plane, and several hours later landed at Habaniyeh. After landing, it was explained to Raziel that the plan had been postponed and that, instead, the unit was to carry out intelligence missions in preparation for the capture of Faluja (which was en route to Baghdad).

The next day the unit set out, accompanied by a British officer and reached the river, which they were scheduled to cross. However, there was room for only two passengers in the sole available boat. Raziel ordered Meridor and Sika to cross the river and carry out the mission, while he himself, with Harazi and the British officer, made their way back to the car. Suddenly a German plane swooped down and bombed the area, scoring a direct hit on the car and killed Raziel and the British officer instantly. The driver of the car was injured while Harazi, who managed to jump clear, was unscathed. That evening Meridor returned from the mission, heard the tragic news, and proclaimed:

"This is the Commander in Chief of the Irgun Zvai Le'umi, David Raziel."

Word of Raziel's death stunned and greatly confused the Irgun. It was hard to accept the loss of the leader, and many members could not understand why Raziel had gone on a mission to Iraq. The Irgun's path became unclear, and the internal debates intensified. Yaakov Meridor was chosen to head the General Headquarters and, together with his comrades, he sought ways of overcoming the crisis. It was only in the winter of 1942, about a year after David Raziel's death, that the Irgun began to recover from the blow it had suffered. This period was a turning point in the course of the war, as the Allied forces began to prevail over Germany. Information was beginning to flood in on the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis, and it was clear that it was no longer possible to remain inactive. The reorganization of the ranks began: officer training courses were held to prepare a cadre of instructors of new recruits, and the underground newspaper Herut began to appear on a regular basis. Propaganda activities were stepped up among the young generation, and efforts were made to acquire weapons to replenish the arsenals which had been emptied during the split. More and more members favored ending the truce, which the Irgun had declared at the outbreak of the war, and terminating the collaboration with the British army.

On June 17, 1943, Herut reported a change in relations with the British authorities:

When war broke out, the Jewish people declared their loyalty to the British government, to help it vanquish the enemy of the entire world and of the Jewish people. Great Britain has betrayed this friendship. The Jewish people has not been acknowledged as a fighting nation. A Hebrew army has not been established.

Source: The Irgun Site