WASHINGTON, D.C.—At a moment when the popular mind-set once again links the words “Arab” and “Islamic” with all things retrograde and threatening—including terrorism (cue the new Charlie Daniels anthem and revel in the poetry: “This ain’t no rag, it’s a flag/And we don’t wear it on our heads. . . . /We’re gonna hunt you down like a mad dog hound”)—it came as a surprise to some that the latest malefactors accorded POW status in the “War on Terrorism” turned out to be Jewish.
Arrested and charged last week with intriguing to do explosive little actions on a Culver City, California, mosque and the offices of Lebanese American U.S. Representative Darrell Issa, Jewish Defense League chief Irving David
Rubin and JDL member Earl Leslie Krugel were, according to FBI wiretap transcripts, anything but circumspect about their devices and desires: Though Rubin lamented the wanting state of technology in the JDL’s possession (not good enough to “blow up an entire building”), Krugel was adamant that “Arabs need a wake-up call” and that the JDL needs to do something to one of their “filthy mosques”—which may explain the five pounds of gunpowder and pipe-bomb matériel found at his house. “If the people responsible for September 11 are the quintessence of evil genius, these guys are at the Keystone Kops end of the spectrum,” says Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “The only reassuring thing about them is their absolute ineptitude and the fact that they were arrested.”
Mainstream Jewish groups were quick to condemn the JDL as well: Characterizing the activities of the organization—founded in 1968 by Brooklyn’s own, now deceased Rabbi Meir Kahane—as “contemptible,” the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director issued a statement “abhor[ing] and condemn[ing] the potential terrorist plot.” The American Jewish Committee said it “categorically condemns in the strongest possible terms the alleged JDL plot,” and went so far as to follow up with a personal letter to Republican representative Issa, decrying “such wanton lawlessness,” which is “so clearly contrary to the fundamental tenets of our faith, and to the basic principles of justice and liberty that brought our parents and grandparents to America’s shores and that form the bedrock of our national values.”
Yet some observers of the current Middle East crisis see more than a bit of disingenuousness and historical irony here. While both the ADL and the AJC have condemned the JDL, they’ve unequivocally backed Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s indiscriminate use of force against the Palestinians and the cutting of ties with Palestinian Authority president Yasir Arafat—neither of which is universally seen as a particularly constructive way to slow the cycles of violence across Israel and the Occupied Territories.
But what’s even more vexing to others is the apparent inability or unwillingness to discern similarities between the current Palestinian milieu and Israeli operations of 50-plus years ago, which secured statehood from colonialist occupiers—as well as similarities between violent, internecine struggles among disparate underground groups. “It’s peculiar, it’s paradoxical, that Sharon and Likud should be the ones who are trying to equate any authentic resistance in Palestine with some of the terrorist activities, as terrorism in Israel really started with Begin and Shamir and later Sharon,” says Clovis Maksoud, the former Arab League ambassador to the United Nations. “It’s a very valid question as to why they see no similarities between themselves under the British and the Palestinians under their occupation.” Especially, he adds, as the Israeli government supports museums that honor assassins and terrorists—including one located on a street named for a terrorist.
The thoroughfare in question runs between Florentine and Emeq-Yisrael, and bears the name Stern Street—in honor of Avraham Stern, a 1920s Zionist and charter member of the Haganah, then a loose-knit Jewish militia organized as a self-defense mechanism against Arab violence. Finding the Haganah insufficiently proactive in realizing the goal of a Jewish state that would encompass “both sides of the River Jordan,” erstwhile Mussolini follower and early-day ultra-nationalist Ze’ev Jabotinsky broke with the militia and formed the Irgun, which devoted itself to terrorist operations against the British. Once an enthusiastic Irgunist, Stern was appalled when the Irgun decided to make common cause with the British against the Nazis, and created the even more underground and more violent Lehi (Lohamei Herut Yisrael, or Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), also known as the Stern Gang, which held there was no greater threat to the Jews of Palestine than the mandate’s British administrators.
To this end, Stern actually made overtures to the Axis powers; September 1940 found him in dialogue with an emissary from Il Duce in Jerusalem, and in January 1941 he dispatched an agent to Vichy-controlled Beirut with instructions to convey a letter to representatives of the Reich. In it, Stern held that the “establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, and bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East. Proceeding from these considerations, [the Lehi] in Palestine, under the condition [that] the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.”
The Germans declined to take Stern up on the offer, but Stern held out hope as his organization continued to engage in terrorism against the British. After Stern died in a shoot-out with British police in 1942, his mantle was picked up by future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Still, the Israeli underground focused on the British as the greatest of all evils, and on November 6, 1944, Lord Moyne, the British minister for Middle East affairs, was assassinated in Cairo by Eliyahu Beit-Tzuri and Eliyahu Hakim—both members of the Lehi, who were later arrested, convicted, and hanged. After the state of Israel was established, the Lehi, displeased with what it considered the too pro-Arab views of the Swedish UN-appointed mediator for Palestine, assassinated him; on September 17, 1948, Count Folke Bernadotte—who, as a neutral diplomat in World War II, had saved thousands of Jews from Nazi death camps—was shot and killed by Lehi assassins, along with French colonel Andre Serot, the senior UN military observer, whose wife’s life had been saved by Bernadotte.
The Bernadotte assassination was so outrageous that the nascent government of David Ben-Gurion had little problem disbanding the Lehi (though none of the assassins were ever brought to justice). Yet, despite this history of terror, the Israeli Ministry of Defense underwrites museums commemorating the Stern Gang and the Irgun—which, under Menachem Begin, bombed the British headquarters at the King David Hotel in 1946, leaving 90 dead and 45 wounded (with 15 Jews among the casualties). Like Lehi, it wasn’t until 1948 that the Irgun was forced out of existence, after its arms-transport ship, the Altalena, was blown up by the provisional Israeli government—a point analysts like Ibish say bears remembering.
“There are streets named after the assassins of Moyne and Bernadotte. They are historical figures not disavowed by the rhetoric of the state of Israel, nor is there any reflection on the fact that two terrorist leaders later became distinguished leaders of the republic,” Ibish says. “And now people are saying that Arafat must have his Altalena.” Ibish adds that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, “never moved against the Irgun and the Stern Gang until after the state was established and secured, which is definitely not true in the case of the Palestinian Authority. Essentially, the Israelis are asking the Palestinians to do something they themselves refused to do.”