Yom Rivii, 19 AdarI 5781
Wednesday, 3 March 2021
The shooting of Stern and the birth of Israel PDF Print E-mail

BECAUSE OF my experience at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, as well as my engagement with Israel as the chairman of Liberal Judaism, I was invited to interview Patrick Bishop at April’s Oxford Literary Festival.

Patrick is a critically acclaimed military historian and author, who was also the Middle East correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. He is best known for his fast-paced books Fighter Boys, 3 Para and Target Tirpitz, which depict danger and bravery. As well as his eye for detail and rigorous research, what I most enjoy about Patrick’s books is how he conveys motivation and emotion with restraint and even-handedness.

His latest work is a compelling factual account of the fatal police shooting of the militant Zionist Avraham Stern in 1942. The Reckoning tells the story of this controversial encounter that hastened the end of British rule and turned Stern, who had become a pariah even in the eyes of other hardline Zionists, into a martyr.

Stern was wanted by the authorities as the leader of a murderous gang that bore his name. He was responsible for a series of armed robberies. He even tried to forge alliances with Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany to get them to send their unwanted Jews to Palestine, so as to form an army to fight the British.

From an early age, Stern saw himself as a man of destiny, though there was little to indicate at first he would face such a bloody end. He was a talented linguist, poet and scholar. He was also a dandy, with a penchant for silk socks even when on the run from the police.

Under the lead of assistant superintendent Geoffrey Morton, a highly regarded member of the Palestine Police, detectives finally hunted down Stern in 1942, discovering him hiding in a flat in a poor part of Tel Aviv.

Because the facts of his shooting were disputed – did he evade arrest or was he shot in cold blood? – Stern was to prove even more dangerous dead than alive. Although not immediate, reaction to his shooting added to a growing hostility to the authorities, especially in their clinical implementation of tight immigration rules that kept out Jewish refugees from war-torn Europe.

Hardline Zionists, who included future Israeli Prime Ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, gathered support in their violent opposition to British rule.

Alongside other political and diplomatic efforts, this eventually contributed to an exhausted Britain ending its mandate and handing over to the United Nations.

During our interview, Patrick told me that his experience as a journalist had exposed him to the reality of battle. It had made him understand fear, how people react under pressure and how groups come to enjoy a spirit of camaraderie.

He described himself as an "old school" Daily Telegraph journalist. Reporting the facts was paramount, and opinions were not encouraged. He said the functions of journalists and historians are similar... to strive for objectivity.

Interviewing Patrick made me reflect on this thought ahead of our movement’s Biennial Weekend. The liberal tradition with a small "l" owes much to a reverence for truth and appreciation of different perspectives. Empathy is different from sympathy: one can learn from truly trying to understand others without necessarily taking sides. Liberal Judaism will often have to take sides, but not at the expense of exercising critical judgment. Justice and compassion can coexist. There lies better understanding of the human condition, and the possibility of progress.

Lucian J Hudson is chairman of Liberal Judaism and the former director of communications at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office