Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Review - The First Tithe by Israel Eldad

The First Tithe, Israel Eldad, translated and with a Foreword and Notes by Zev Golan. Jabotinsky Institute, Israel, 2008. Originally published in Hebrew as Maaser Rishon, © 1950, 1963, 1975 by the author

Israel Eldad was as a member of the three-man Central Command of the underground Lehi organization and its principal ideologue. The publisher of this English version of his memoirs emphasizes Eldad’s shared experiences with figures such as Menachem Begin and Golda Meir, among others, and with underground organizations such as the Irgun and the Hagana. His story includes escape from Nazi-occupied Europe, imprisonment by the British authorities in Palestine, escape from prison, and life in the underground resistance to that British authority while evading recapture until the end of the British mandate and Israel’s independence. Eldad’s account of these experiences has reportedly never before appeared in English.

What author Israel Eldad has presented here, in Zev Golan’s translation into English from the original Hebrew, is neither history nor autobiography, but rather a memoir in a rather classic sense. While generally chronological, Eldad’s narrative is not bound by clock or calendar or limited by objective reality. Rather Israel Eldad tells the story of his life and his work as he recalls it – and as it occurs to him in the telling. He also writes with few concessions to any readership that does not read Hebrew or which might disagree with his views – an attitude that appears consistent with his lifelong struggle to see realized the vision of an independent Jewish state as conceived by him and the Lehi movement. As a result this narrative often challenges but rarely bores the reader.

Eldad’s story is set within Israel’s struggle for independence. That struggle and the subsequent fight for the survival of the young state were first brought to my attention by the 1967 Six Day War. Still in high school at the time, my friends and I immersed ourselves in the details of the dramatic outcome of that remarkable conflict. This interest lead to more reading and research into the historical background of Israel’s existence; the international conflicts, negotiations, and deals; the wars, its military forces and their weapons, the history of persecution, and the Holocaust, etc. This included such modern popular novels as John Hersey’s The Wall and Leon Uris’ Mila 18 both about the Warsaw Ghetto as well as Leon Uris’ Exodus and James Michener’s The Source. I even uncovered in my local library a copy of the White Paper that collected the original memoirs and documents written by the fighters from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943.

However, I found this a challenging work to read much less to review. It was difficult, not for any fault in the translation, but because of the author’s intent and his statements that made it clear to me that I was not a member of his intended audience. In fact, the deeper I read into the book the more I came to wonder if I wasn’t in fact a part of his “anti-audience” – a member of that community against which he was trying to warn his intended audience. His viewpoints and ideas were frequently at odds with my other sources and my resulting understanding of the historical and political events being described. The challenge was only increased when I read in the publisher’s press release that Israel Eldad was “one of the founding fathers of Israel” but by his own words in the book he rejected this modern state called Israel. Eldad described Israeli independence as the defeat of his Lehi movement which had called for an independent state – a sovereign kingdom of Israel – that incorporated Jerusalem and Jordan, as well as parts of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

I recognized that Eldad’s narrative conflicted at many points with my previous readings – many of which reflected the attitudes of the British who controlled Palestine or which reflected the views of other more mainstream elements within the Zionist movement and the Jewish diaspora, and the Jewish community in the United States. My initial surprise in this regard centered on the realization that I had long known of Eldad’s Lehi organization under the sobriquet of “the Stern gang,” a label that supports the reader’s dismissal of the group as being of little value and no further interest, clearly reflecting the viewpoint of the British authorities. From this point on, I read with the understanding that I had passed through a looking glass that separated what I had previously understood about Israel from this new perspective on the nation, its people, and its history.

Eldad’s account of his life’s work on behalf of Lehi clearly supports the long-familiar concept – “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” As an ideologue and advocate supporting Lehi’s fighters in the struggle against Britain’s presence in Palestine and against any other apparent or potential restraint or obstacle to the realization of their vision for an independent Jewish state, Eldad conceded little to nothing in the vehemence of his arguments. The fighters of the Lehi movement were responsible for an escalating series of dramatic and bloody attacks upon the British authorities and even the UN, and its ambitions for further attacks were even greater. And while it is important to remember that his words reach us from a vastly different world almost half a century past, I must point out the following passage:

“And if the British Parliament and Buckingham Palace and the Foreign Office have not yet been blown sky high, this is not because we do not want to provoke or anger them, or because we are afraid of the results, but only because our boys in London have not yet submitted the practical plans to us, though they are working on them and we are awaiting for their letters, and we are sending explosives from France to England.”

There is within these words an echo of another conflict more familiar to me and which repeatedly came to mind as I read Eldad’s declarations on behalf of his cause. The last words above call to mind a 19th Century Irish song which promised “that there’ll be rifles in England that don’t come from France” declaring that the long struggle for Irish independence would be taken up in England’s own green fields.

However, these words above have to be read as very ancient and very modern. In our 21st Century post 9-11 world they have to be interpreted literally and cannot be set aside as a mere exercise in agit-prop political rhetoric. Today such a statement would be acted upon by the intelligence and security services (at least most of us would hope so). Even when first written these words must have held similar if less urgent interest for the authorities of the day.

Another parallel between the IRA and Lehi in their relations with British authority is found in Eldad’s account of how his movement’s fighters rejected the right of the British to put them on trial, the legality of their rule in Palestine, and thereby the authority of the British to determine what might or might not constitute illegal activity such as bearing arms. Irish rebels have long taken similar positions up to and including those members of the IRA brought to trial in the 1980s. By Eldad’s account, Lehi and the IRA also shared a common fund-raising technique – bank robbery. Despite Eldad’s explicit rejection of such comparisons, the parallels are further demonstrated by the IRA attack on then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the 1987 Conservative Party conference and the 1979 assassination of Prince Phillip’s uncle Lord Mountbatten. Neither the IRA nor Israel Eldad considered anyone beyond their reach.

According to the publishers, The First Tithe appeared in five editions in the original Hebrew. This first edition to appear in English was released on Israeli Independence Day, May 8, 2008. In addition to translating this work from the original Hebrew, Zev Golan has added endnotes and other explanatory data that make the work more accessible to the non-Israeli reader. While I may regret he expressed decision to drop certain passages that appeared in the Hebrew original because of the difficulty of translating and explaining their references to the Talmud and other source, his efforts to make this work more generally available are to be commended.

Even a single book as dramatic as The First Tithe is unlikely to change the reader’s views or even to result in a deeper understanding of a complex subject. However, a single book can compel the reader to understand that the subject of that work is indeed far more complex and less cut and dried than previously realized. In this, Israel Eldad and Zev Golan have succeeded and I personally have at least advanced to that recognition as a result. If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the situation that confronts us in the Middle East today, you need to read this book.