Bruce Hoffman does his book something of an injustice with his opening question: “Does terrorism work?” An important topic, no doubt, and the book offers an interesting answer to this query in one particular case, but Anonymous Soldiers is more than another evidentiary brick in the wall of terrorism studies. Rather, it is a major contribution to the historical account of Israel’s founding. Along the way, Hoffman, the director of the Center for Security Studies and director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown, paints a portrait of the United Kingdom as a blundering superpower, one that is at once too hard, too soft, and deeply incompetent at handling an admittedly impossible task.

Hoffman is not merely a gifted writer and a thorough scholar but a dispassionate and insightful student as well. He has sympathy with some of the characters of his tale—the beleaguered Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann, for example, and the browbeaten British high commissioner and retired general Alan Cunningham. For the most part, however, Hoffman writes his story in an old-fashioned way, neither condemning his subjects nor making excuses for their actions. The result is a magisterial history that is indispensable to anyone wishing to understand how and why the State of Israel came into existence. 

Hoffman argues that the British decision to dissolve the Palestine Mandate resulted chiefly from the successful terrorism campaign waged by the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (National Military Organization, more commonly known as the Irgun) and its more radical offshoot, Lohamei Herut Yisrael (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, more commonly known as Lehi or the Stern Gang, after its charismatic founder, Abraham Stern). The Irgun arose in the 1920s as an offshoot of the Haganah paramilitary organization, becoming an independent group by the early 1930s. The Haganah was a semi-covert militia created initially to help defend against Palestinian Arab rioting in the early 1920s, and re-formed in 1929. The group consolidated during the Arab Revolt beginning in 1936, when Britain’s forces were stretched thin and barely able to contain the erupting violence directed against the most exposed and vulnerable members of the Jewish community in Palestine. Under the control of the largely socialist leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine, the Haganah became an underground army, complete with general staff, intelligence and logistical services, and a high command subordinate to civilian control through the Jewish Agency. As the menace of a new world war grew throughout the late 1930s, the British government became increasingly fearful of turbulence in the Arab world. Britain was brutal in its frankness with the Jews: they had nowhere to go for support, and Britain knew it. Indeed, Westminster gradually closed the gates to Palestine on the eve of—and during, and even after—World War II and the Holocaust.

A poster memorializing members of the Stern Gang.
Palestine Poster Project
The Jews of Palestine struggled against British policy by supporting illegal immigration and, occasionally, through armed resistance (the June 1946 attacks, for example, that severed 10 of 11 road and rail bridges leading into Palestine). By and large, however, they avoided direct confrontation with British authorities. The Irgun was rooted in the nationalism of Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky, and while Lehi incorporated visions of Jewish and Arab brotherhood against British imperialism held by leader Abraham Stern. Both groups chose to fight. For some time, both groups had collaborated with the British in the fight against Hitler: the first commander of the Irgun, David Raziel, perished in Iraq in 1941 during a mission to sabotage German facilities and kidnap the exiled Palestinian leader Haj Amin el Husseini. But by 1944, Menachem Begin became the new head of the Irgun. Begin was a thin, diminutive lawyer with thick eyeglasses; he had survived Soviet prisons and was a recent arrival to Palestine by the time he took command of the Irgun and launched a three-year insurgency.

What distinguishes Hoffman’s work from other accounts is the care with which he has studied the British military, colonial, and police records of the time, as well as his scholarly impartiality. In Anonymous Soldiers, the Irgun come across as a highly disciplined, ferocious, and ruthless band of purposeful killers. The Lehi appear as a more extreme, much smaller, and complementary version of the parent organization. The Haganah, seen as the defense force of the mainstream Jewish community, were often duplicitous with the British and other extremist groups. The British are often depicted as violent, ambivalent, bigoted, often undisciplined, and, above all, out of their depth. Very few Israeli or British individuals whose parents or grandparents figure in this work are likely to come away pleased with these depictions: Hoffman spares no sensibilities in describing beatings, robberies, and murders committed by both sides.

Wanted poster of the Palestine Police Force offering rewards for the capture of Stern Gang members Jaacov Levstein (Eliav), Yitzhak Yezernitzky (Shamir), and Natan Friedman-Yelin.
With a force of only a few thousand members at most, Irgun attacked British forces in Palestine, and the Palestinian economy relentlessly. Lehi, which had only a couple hundred insurgents at most, did considerable damage to the Zionist cause through high-profile assassinations, including that of Lord Moyne, the British minister of state in Cairo, in November 1944, for what his attackers viewed as his role in setting Palestine’s strict immigration policies. That brutality alienated British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had been one of the Zionist movement’s greatest British allies. The Irgun, strategically far more sophisticated, aimed at convincing British and world opinion (particularly in the United States) that Britain simply could not govern Palestine. Whether one approves of the methods used by Lehi or the Irgun or not, they were executed remarkably skillfully.

As a response to the unrest, the British poured troops into Palestine—reaching 100,000 soldiers at one point. There were 20 times as many British troops as Irgun and Lehi terrorists, and one soldier for every Jewish male in the country. Troops tried massive cordon and sweep operations, and coerced the Jewish Agency and the Haganah into two periods of collaboration—both of which crumbled in the face of popular disgust and the Haganah’s own ambivalence. British troops also rounded up the Jewish Agency’s leadership repeatedly, and yet they still found themselves stymied.

The leaders of Irgun and Lehi became prime ministers and, in their turn, raged against terrorism.

According to Hoffman, part of the explanation lies in the weaknesses of the British police intelligence system in Palestine, and in general, poor police staffing throughout the mandatory period. When soldiers were brought in, they often made matters worse. This was particularly true of the aggressive Sixth Airborne Division, led by officers who were infuriated that they, who had helped defeat the Jews’ greatest enemy, were being attacked in turn by the survivors of Hitler’s Europe. The soldiers pulled off some brilliant raids, but by ransacking private property, roughing up civilians, and making not infrequent anti-Semitic remarks, they created more enemies. When one British major remarked, “I’m not for the Jews or against them, but I can’t help feeling that Hitler was on the right lines,” he was echoing little more than official opinion (notoriously, that of General Evelyn Barker, the general officer commanding in Palestine). As a result, although the Jews of Palestine might not always approve of the Irgun, they were not about to hand them over to the authorities, whom they came increasingly to despise. And for their part, the British lost contact with a populace that many of them had come to loathe, hunkering down inside of fortified compounds in Palestine’s major cities instead.

British incompetence alone does not explain the success of the Jewish insurgency: for that, one must turn to Begin and the Irgun’s skills and toughness as insurgents. They used violence selectively, and under considerable provocation, they still refrained from repaying the rough treatment some of their men received from the Haganah, thereby averting civil war and ensuring their ability to hide amid Palestine’s population of only a few hundred thousand Jews. Irgun understood the power of symbolic deeds and were brilliant propagandists. When the British flogged Irgun prisoners, the group retaliated in kind and the canings stopped. When the British hanged three Irgun members, the Irgun hanged two sergeants and the hangings stopped. Begin reflected upon this period in his memoir, The Revolt, saying, “When a nation re-awakens, its finest sons are prepared to give their lives for its liberation. When empires are threatened with collapse, they are prepared to sacrifice their non-commissioned officers." 

Outside of the Palestine Mandate, the international environment had changed. Postwar Britain was impoverished, had already committed to abandoning its most important colonial realm in India, and was poorly positioned to suppress the rebels in defiance of the pro-Zionist United States. This led to a humiliating renunciation of the mandate, at which point the story shifts to the United Nations where, on November 29, 1947, a majority in the General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. The human price of the Jewish revolt, as Begin termed it, was, as Hoffman notes, “modest compared with the horrific standards of terrorism today.” Some 140 British soldiers and 40 terrorists died, fewer than one hundred Arab and Jewish civilians died, and some four hundred were injured as a result of the violence. 

A Lehi memorial in Petah Tikva, Israel, 2012.
Avishai Teicher / Wikimedia Commons
These events occurred within living memory; a few of the teenagers who slapped up posters on walls in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the middle of the night are still alive, and perhaps a few of the angry young paratroopers who chased them down alleyways are as well. What is astounding is the amount of change that has occurred within their life span. The British Empire, mighty as it was during the interwar years and still tremendous as it was in 1946 and 1947, has vanished. The State of Israel, founded with not much more than 600,000 Jewish inhabitants, has ten times as many today. Its air force and army are far larger than those of the former imperial power, and its economy is more dynamic. The leaders of Irgun and Lehi became prime ministers and, in their turn, raged against terrorism. The jail in Acre, site of a spectacular break in by Irgun commandos (some of them former British soldiers), is now a museum. The conflict between the Jewish and Arab populations of Palestine continues, although now that country, with all of its troubles, is an oasis of prosperity and tranquility for both peoples when compared with the horror and chaos of nearby Syria and Iraq. 

More than most insurgent groups in history, the “anonymous soldiers” of Hoffman’s history left behind a legacy of accomplishment, as well as of terror—a conclusion as remarkable as the story that he has told so well.

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  • ELIOT A. COHEN is Robert E. Osgood Professor of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
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