Stern Gang

The Heruti code

Attorney Yaakov Heruti belonged to three militant organizations - one outlawed by the British, and two by Israel. He recalls his activities, including involvement in blowing up the Soviet legation in Tel Aviv, and hints that he wishes he were younger and could help the settlers fight the Arabs

By Yossi Melman

Yaakov Heruti,a member of Lehi also known as the Stern Gang

Dr. Yaakov Heruti is today a 78-year-old lawyer, as passionate in his beliefs as ever. He still works - now in the law firm run by his daughter, Edna. The Tsrifin Underground was not the crowning point of his life, but a way station. As a member of Lehi, he planned to assassinate Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary. A booby-trapped envelope that he sent to a British police officer who had killed a Lehi man accidentally, killed the officer's brother. In the War of Independence he was part of the force that tried to enter the Old City of Jerusalem. He was jailed twice in the 1950s for membership in a "terrorist organization."

His worldview, he says, has not changed "since the destruction of the First Temple." His outlook was shaped by the poetry of Uri Zvi Greenberg, the principles of Yair Stern and the cornerstones of Dr. Israel Eldad, one of the three leaders of Lehi after Stern was murdered by the British.

Killing vs. murdering

Yaakov Heruti was born in Tel Aviv in 1927 to Mordechai and Yehudit, both of them Polish-born (the family's surname, Vlecher, was changed to "Heruti" back in Poland). Mordechai Heruti, who was always a very devoted supporter of Mapai - the precursor of today's Labor Party - was at one time deputy president of the court of appeals of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Yaakov Heruti attended Gymnasia Herzliya high school, enlisted as a youth in the pre-state police force that guarded Jewish settlements and then joined Lehi. He was in the technical department of the underground organization and specialized in preparing explosives. In April 1947 a bomb made by that department destroyed the British police base at Sharona (site of today's "Kirya" defense compound) in Tel Aviv, killing an officer and three policemen. Half a year later, Heruti was sent by Natan Yellin Mor, one of the commanders of Lehi, to set up an active branch of the organization in Britain. He enrolled in a law school in London and at the same time recruited a few dozen Jews.

The Lehi leadership assigned the network in Britain a few missions, including the assassination of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, of General Evelyn Barker - the former commander of British forces in Palestine, who was considered anti-Semitic and had signed the death warrants of Jewish underground members captured by the British - and of Roy Farran. Farran, a British police officer who fought in the elite Special Air Service (SAS) in World War II, was tried for his part in the arrest and killing of a Jewish youth, Alexander Rubovich, a Lehi member, who was caught pasting up posters of the underground. (On Heruti's involvement in the Farran episode, see the article by Giora Goodman, which appeared in the Hebrew edition of Haaretz Magazine on September 9, 2004).

The plan to kill Bevin was canceled by order of headquarters in Palestine. A package containing a bomb that Heruti sent to General Barker's home aroused the suspicion of the officer's wife; she called the police, who neutralized the device.

As for Farran, he was exonerated in the trial and returned to Britain. Heruti, in London, received explosives, batteries and a radio from Lehi activists in the United States, and used them to make a bomb, which he hid inside a copy of Shakespeare's plays. The bomb was sent to Farran's address, but the package was opened by his brother, Rex, 25, who was killed in the blast.

"It is regrettable that an innocent person was killed," Heruti says. "It was not intentional. It is unfortunate that it happened. Would I do it again? Yes. It was a war, and in war there are mistakes and there are anomalies. I am sorry the murderer was not killed."

Do you describe yourself as a terrorist?

"No. Of course not. The word `terror' is attached to a huge range of acts of violence done by force. I was a freedom fighter and today I am a person with views that are no longer so militant."

But in the past you were ready to murder?

"To kill. Differentiate between killing and murdering."

What is the difference?

"We did not commit acts of murder in Lehi's war against England. We killed soldiers in the war - we killed and were killed."

How do you define terrorism?

"Acts of terrorism are connected directly to the deliberate murder of innocent people, women and children, as a tactic that is inseparable from the war."

Isn't that what Lehi people did?

"Absolutely not. Neither Lehi nor Etzel [the National Military Organization, also called the Irgun, headed by Menachem Begin] nor the Haganah [the pre-state defense force in Palestine, the forerunner of the IDF] intended to harm innocent people. The struggle was directed against soldiers and policemen and symbols of the ruling authority. I was a fighter against the English and not a terrorist, because I did not intend to harm innocent people knowingly. Of course, in war innocent people get hurt, but that was not the goal."

Etzel and Lehi also killed innocent Arab civilians deliberately, planted bombs in markets and opened fire at buses - isn't that terrorism?

"By my definition, terrorism is intentional killing of civilians and is part of a strategy. With the Arabs it's the goal of the war. If operations against civilians are carried out occasionally, but not as part of the overall strategy, then in my view, if civilians are killed as a byproduct of the war, that is not terrorism. It is true that the Haganah and Etzel and Lehi, too, hurt civilians, but that was not part of the strategy. Every act of the killing of civilians has to examine its circumstances. It might have been terrorism against terrorism, or retaliation."

And if the Palestinian terrorist organizations intended to attack only soldiers and the security forces?

"I would say that that is an act of war and not an act of terrorism, but they would be `marked' for death because they are my enemy. It's possible that they, the Arabs, see themselves as fighters, but for me they are the enemy and my attitude toward the Arabs is `if anyone is out to kill you, kill him first.' Even if the Arabs view themselves as fighters, I see them as a group that wants to destroy me. We are in a state of war."

Wasn't it the case that the British viewed you as an enemy, too?

"That is so. From the point of view of the English, I was a terrorist who deserved to die. I didn't want to die, but I was aware of the risk."

Another terrorist organization

Heruti returned to Israel during the War of Independence and took part in the failed attempt to penetrate the Old City of Jerusalem, in a joint operation of the Haganah, Etzel and Lehi. He helped rescue a wounded Haganah man under fire - an act that stood him in good stead four years later, when he was arrested and accused of membership in an underground organization. Toward the end of the war, after Lehi assassinated the United Nations mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, of Sweden, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the head of the Shin Bet security service, Isser Harel, to dismantle the organization. Many Lehi members were arrested and incarcerated in a detention center in Jaffa. After a large number of them escaped from custody, a special detention camp was set up for them in the abandoned Arab village of Sheikh Munis north of the Yarkon River, whose Palestinian inhabitants were expelled by the Haganah (where the neighborhood of Ramat Aviv and Tel Aviv University are now located). There they were inducted into the IDF.

British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin

Roy Farran, a British police officer who fought in the elite Special Air Service (SAS) in World War II

General Evelyn Barker - the former commander of British forces in Palestine

Count Folke Bernadotte, U.N. Mediator in the Palestine conflict. Bernadotte was assasinated on September 17, 1948
LEHI (Hebrew acronym for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel) was one of the three Jewish underground organizations in Palestine. It was formed following a split in ETZEL (the organization headed then by Begin). One of its leaders during the period described below is than Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Both ETZEL and LEHI were often referred to as fascist by the labor organized third underground, the Haganah. At one time Haganah members would capture members of ETZEL and LEHI and turn them over to the British.

And there is certainly no comparison because of the date. 1941. The Nurenberg laws are already in force. The yellow star has been forced upon the Jews of Poland, Holland, and if I am not mistaken also France. Burning synagogues are a daily occurrence. The murder of Jews is no longer asecret. And nevertheless LEHI establishes contacts with the Germans.

The Dilemma of the "Lesser Evil"

Frank Gordon

During the long years of World War II, those who wanted to help their own people, who wanted to defend the vital interests of their own nations, were faced with an agonizing choice -- which side to join. These patriots and their followers were caught in a tragic dilemma between the two opposing sides, and most often their end was an unhappy one.

For example, in Yugoslavia the Serb patriots, the Chetniks, who had formed the resistance group Ravnogorski Narodni Pokret under the leadership of Drain Mihajlovic, were forced to fight simultaneously against the German and Italian invaders, against their collaborators the Croatian Ustashi, and against the antifascist, communist partisans of Josip Broz (Tito). In the end the Western Allies turned away from their faithful friend Mihajlovic and extradited him to Tito's agents, who executed him. His soldiers, who had trusted British promises of asylum, met the same fate.

The Polish Armija Krajowa met a similar tragic end. These courageous partisans fought against the German invaders and organized the uprising in Warsaw. They were oriented to the West and recognized only the legal Polish government in London. The Soviet army, liberating their homeland from the Germans, also destroyed this army. Some of the AK men fought against the Bolsheviks as guerrillas in the forests to the last bullet, some ended up in the jails of the Polish pro-Soviet puppet government.

Particularly complicated was the situation of the Ukrainian Insurgents' Army, Ukrainska Povstanca Armija, UPA. They fought on three fronts -- against the Soviet army and Red partisans, against the German SD, and against the Polish AK. Most of these Ukrainian guerrillas perished.

The Jews in Palestine also had a radical nationalist group, which gravely erred and ended up in an unenviable position while looking for the "lesser evil." This was the "Stern gang" or LEHI, the acronym of Lohamej Herat Israel, Israel's Freedom Fighters. The group's leader was Avraham Stern-Yair, an ardent Jewish nationalist. Stern-Yair felt that his people's greatest enemy was England, for the British government, holding the Mandate for Palestine, in 1939 practically stopped Jewish immigration into Eretz Israel and did everything possible to prevent the proclamation of an independent Jewish state in the Holy Land.

In the spring of 1941, when the true, terrible scope and meaning of Hitler's "final solution" was still not known, Avraham Stern-Yair decided to establish contact with the Nazis, to save Europe's Jews and drive the British from Palestine. His co-worker and biographer, the late Nathan Yalin-Mor, wrote that Avraham Stern never believed the Axis powers would win (Israel, Israel, in French, Paris 1978, p. 90). On the other hand Eitan Livni, of Menachem Begin's rival organization ETZEL (the Irgun), asserts that "they [LEHI leaders] believed the Italians and Germans would win" (newspaper Yediot Aharonot, Tel Aviv, March 9, 1979).

Be that as it may, the fact remains that in the spring of 1941 Avraham Stern-Yair offered Germany, and Italy, a deal through his emissary Naftali Lubentchik: the Axis powers would recognize the "Hebrew Nation's right" to found its sovereign national (and authoritarian-nationalistic) state and help LEHI move all of Europe's Jews to Palestine as soon as possible; LEHI would undertake to do everything possible to harm British interests and to drive the British from Palestine.

That was Utopian. The German diplomat Otto Werner von Hentig, who after the war was West Germany' s ambassador in Indonesia, replied to Lubentchik in essence the following: there was a movement in Germany that supported the idea of forming a Hebrew state in Palestine, that would be a practical solution to the "Jewish problem"; however, this movement had become too weak to influence the decisions of the government in Berlin, and in any case it was already too late to consider any such action. The Wehrmacht's generals had already decided to rely on the Arabs --whose numbers had to be counted in millions -- in the fight against Great Britain in the Near and Middle East, whereas there was only a handful of Jews.

One of his friends, Arye Kotzer, relates that Stern-Yair said in a moment of insight: "I have no doubt that the Allies will win, and then I and the few men who think like me will be executed and branded as public enemies. But by then, Palestine will have a massive Jewish population." In February 1942, British intelligence agents discovered Avraham Stern-Yak's clandestine flat in Tel Aviv and shot him on the spot.

Another interesting episode from the LEHI saga: At the end of December 1946, a Russian woman living in Paris, Iranda-Betty, married to the Jewish poet David Knut and a veteran of the French Resistance against the Nazis, approached the Soviet foreign minister, Molotov. After the war she had become a journalist, and wanted to help the LEHI fighters. She made use of the fact that her mother was the daughter of the famous Russian composer Skriabin, who himself was Molotov's uncle on the paternal side. Molotov was very surprised when she introduced herself not only as a relative, but also as the "diplomatic representative" of the underground Jewish Palestinian organization LEHI. She detailed LEHI's doctrine, stressing its anti-imperialism, and asked his help in getting the support of the Soviet Union (see Natan Yalin-Mor, op. cit., p. 294).

These two episodes show that before condemning any political group for collaborating with a totalitarian regime, one should first determine these persons' motivation. Perhaps they only erred, wishing only the best for their people.

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