”Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947” by Bruce Hoffman— Does Terrorism Work?

anonymous soldiers

Hoffman, Bruce. ”Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947”, Knopf, 2015.

Does Terrorism Work?

Amos Lassen

”Anonymous Soldiers” is incredible history that is based on documents that had not been available before about the battles that led to the creation of the state of Israel. The book chronicles thirty years of anti-colonialism that ended British rule in the area now known as Israel and the resolution by the United Nations to create two separate states. Here we get the (before this book) unknown details of how Britain struggled yet failed to bring together Arab and Jewish demands and revolts. We see new evidence about the bombing of the King David hotel, the assassination of Lord Moyne in Cairo, the leadership of Menachem Begin, the life and death of Abraham Stern, and much more. Hoffman shows exactly how the underdog “anonymous soldiers” of Irgun and Lehi defeated the British and were responsible for setting in motion the events that ultimately resulted in the creation of the nation-state of Israel. 

The importance of this book cannot be underestimated for the understanding of the origins of the modern state of Israel and what is currently happening there today as well as a look at the mind of the terrorist and his methodology. The book came out of previously unused archives and gives a detailed account of terrorist and counterterrorist campaign thus giving us a look at some of the most decisive world events in the modern age.

Author Bruce Hoffman is the director of Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies researched previously unused information and relevant documents to examine the positions and activities of the British government as to the insurgent violence from 1917 when Great Britain assumed control of Palestine after four centuries of Ottoman rule and up to when it decided to abandon the Mandate in 1947.

Hoffman shows how terrorism achieved its goal, what that terrorism was and how and why it succeeded when counterterrorism efforts failed. According to Hoffman, the political violence that played such a big part in Palestine when it was ruled by Great Britain presents an ideal case to examine and assess terrorism’s power to influence government policy”. About two-thirds of the book covers wartime and post-WWII Palestine. He begins his narrative with Arab riots in the early 1920s and in 1929 that were directed primarily against the growing Jewish immigrant population. Then, Jews were encouraged to dedicate more resources to their security force, the Haganah that eventually become the Israel Defense Forces). Hoffman spends time on the 1936-1939 Arab Rebellion, which was directed primarily against the British and we learn that the rebellion was made up mostly of guerilla armies and cells in rural areas. The concentration, however, is on terrorism in the cities and the founding of the Irgun that was a paramilitary splinter of Haganah.

While World War II raged, the Irgun suspended its activities against the British but its splinter group, the Stern gang (Lehi), the more radical did not. Hoffman relates the group’s activities during the war including the disastrous 1944 assassination in Cairo of Britain’s Minister Resident in the Middle East, Lord Moyne. The future Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzhak Shamir assumed leadership of Lehi in 1943. Another future Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, assumed leadership of the Irgun in 1942 and dedicated the group to go after the government institutions that symbolized Britain’s oppressive rule of Palestine. This was when Britain was dealing with Jewish immigration to Palestine, Arab discontent with their handling of Zionist terrorism, and what the Jewish Agency would do as the representative of the Jewish population of Palestine. The Jewish Agency had, it seemed, a love-hate relationship with the terrorists.

Violence picked up after the war and there were terrorist campaigns that targeted the British between 1945 and 1947 and these were under the auspices of the Hebrew Resistance Movement, an umbrella organization that brought the Irgun, Lehi, Haganah, and their elite fighters in the Palmach together under a common cause. One of the most famous results was the bombing of the King David Hotel by Irgun in July 1946 and blame for that is still passed around.

It seems more information about the timing and failure to evacuate the hotel has been uncovered and here we get an account of what happened, when and why. There were 100,000 British soldiers in Palestine, twenty for every suspected terrorist, at a cost of £35 million per year and they repeated cordon-and-search operations, curfews, identity checks, mass arrests, and even martial law but they failed to reduce the bombings, kidnapping, and murders of British police. Now we can understand why that was so.

There is a lot to read here yet even with that there are still some unanswered questions. We do not learn how many Jews living in Palestine either supported or did not support the terrorists. Would their opinions have mattered? Then there is the issue of the author’s own political bias. At first he seemed to be more sympathetic to the Zionist cause but then it could have been his disapproval of the British position.

The book actually deals with the political and sociological roots of the problems that faced Jews and Arabs alike. We get a history that is as “complicated and detailed and dispassionate” as it could possibly be. I think it is wise to say that this is not easy reading—it is academic writing written for academic readers. It explains how terrorism can and does work in an older world, giving credence to the modern methods of terrorism that we see in the headlines of today. Hoffman has written a comprehensive and definitive work of scholarship and there is no doubt that this will become one of the penultimate works about Israel for centuries of scholars to delineate their theories as the Middle East, especially Israel and Palestine, continue their war over life and land. It is meticulously researched, exhaustively referenced, remarkably even-handed, and impressively detailed. We see this in the fact that well over half of the book is devoted to just the last three years of the struggle. The focus is on the activities of the two Jewish terrorist organizations, Irgun and Lehi, and they are examples of the impact a dedicated campaign of terrorism can have on a government’s actions and policies. It is not a comprehensive history and the author makes it clear in the preface that that was not his intention.

Author Hoffman asks an uncomfortable question: Does terrorism work?  The answer that he provides is uncomfortable— sometimes it does.

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