THE RECKONING: DEATH AND INTRIGUE IN THE PROMISED LAND by Patrick Biship

(the old city of Jerusalem in winter, 1942…notice the snow!)

As Israel approaches new elections in March, the Palestinian Authority calls for further recognition in the United Nations, and Hamas still struts their weapons in Gaza, we find ourselves asking what is next for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  According to Amos Oz, the Israeli novelist, “there is a growing sense that Israel is becoming an isolated ghetto, which is exactly what the founding fathers and mothers hoped to leave behind them forever when they created the state of Israel…Unless there are two states—Israel next door to Palestine—and soon, there will be one state.  If there will be one state, it will be an Arab state.  The other option is an Israeli dictatorship, probably a religious nationalist dictatorship, suppressing the Palestinians and suppressing its Jewish opponents.”* Is this the vision that Israel’s founders saw in 1948?  If we examine the ideological splits in Zionism at the time there were groups that favored the concept of some sort of Israeli government excluding Palestinians in Palestine.  This ideology was part of the belief system of Abraham Stern, a Jewish freedom fighter and/or terrorist depending if you were Jewish refugee escaping the Nazis, or a member of the British mandate government in Palestine.  In his new book, THE RECKONING: DEATH AND INTRIGUE IN THE PROMISED LAND, Patrick Bishop examines the death of Stern by British police in 1942 and its impact on those individuals and groups who were bent on the creation of an Israeli state following the Holocaust.

(Israeli commemorative stamp of Abraham Stern)

The core of Bishop’s narrative centers on the personal conflict between Abraham Stern and Geoffrey Morton, the British Assistant Superintendent of the Palestine Police Force.   For Morton, Stern was a terrorist who was responsible for political assassinations of British officials, the murder of innocent Arabs, as well as Jews who became collateral damage.  The issue for Morton became personal, when Stern’s group killed his close friend and second in command, Wally Medler.  From Stern’s perspective, Morton represented a government that blocked the immigration of Jewish refugees in Europe who were trying to flee Nazi persecution, and stood in the way of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.   Stern had evolved from a career as a promising poet in Poland, to an aspiring Zionist theorist, to an underground fighter.  By 1942 he saw himself as a warrior prophet who believed that England was the main enemy of the Jews and the chief obstacle to a Jewish state in Palestine.  For Morton, Stern and his followers were causing major difficulties for his government at a time when things in Europe were not going well, the Battle of Britain was in full swing, and Rommel’s Afrika Corps were approaching Palestine.  When Stern reached out to Italy as a source of weapons, it became clear to Morton that Stern could be a conduit for a “fifth column” for Nazis in the region.

(British wanted poster, 1942 for Stern Gang members)

Bishop provides biographical information for all of his characters and takes the reader through the politics on both sides.  The rupture between the Yishuv (the Jewish Agency that governed Palestine for the Jews, who at the outset felt working with the British would be beneficial in the long run), its military wing the Haganah, the Irgun (the revisionist group under the leadership of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who rejected gradualism in dealing with the British), and the Stern group (that eventually broke with the Irgun and pursued a policy of violence) is examined in detail.  Bishop also explores the different factions within the British government, some who favored greater leniency toward the Jews because of their plight, and those like Morton who wanted to enforce the law as it was written and did not want to compromise.  The reader is taken behind the scenes reflecting solid research for each group and witnesses how decisions were reached and operations were planned.  Bishop keeps the reader aware of events in Europe and how they impacted the region to promote further understanding of all sides.  We meet all the major characters, those who hunted Stern and his cohorts, and those who carried out Stern’s plans and hid him from British authorities.

Bishop discusses the major actions taken by the Stern Group as it became known and its results.  He details the British response to the violence and how it finally was able to kill Stern in February, 1942.  It is the killing of Stern that forms a major focus of the book and the controversy that ensued.  Was Stern killed while escaping a friend’s apartment, or was he murdered as he was unarmed and trying to flee through a window in an area that was sealed off by British police.  Both points of view are given and to this day the controversy remains as to how Stern died.  The problem for British authorities was that the controversy over Stern’s death made him a martyr to the Zionist cause and was used to rally Jews against the British.  Following his death, Stern’s remaining followers worked out a Modus Vivendi with the Irgun, and the Haganah to continue the fight against the British mandate government in Palestine.

Bishop tries to present his narrative as a detective story designed to capture the reader’s interest and keep them on the edge of their seats.  A sub title of the book states, “a true detective story.”  Here I think the book fails.  In trying to take a historical monograph that describes so many different characters, ideologies, and government edicts it is very difficult to try and fit it into the parameters of detective non-fiction.  From the outset of the book, Bishop drops numerous hints as to his plot line and the coming death of Stern.  His repeated clues about Stern’s demise are better left out, and what Bishop should have done is let the story, an interesting an important one in light of current events, play out.  There are a number of important findings that Bishop emphasizes, particularly Stern’s attempts to come to agreement with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany for weapons and support as an ally against the British.  This component of the book reflects Stern’s obsession for the ultimate goal of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and his tunnel vision in that he would work with anyone to achieve it.  This did cause opposition in his “gang,” but ultimately they remained together.  Further findings dealing with Morton’s motivations in dealing with Stern and the Jewish problem and his rationalizations are important as well as his removal by British authorities who felt he had gone too far.

The book is very timely and it points out the influence Stern had on two future Prime Ministers of Israel, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir.  Some might also argue that elements of Stern’s beliefs still exist in Israeli politics, particularly among right-wingers as we approach the Israeli elections in two months.  The book is a useful addition to the vast bibliography that deals with the creation of Israel, but it does itself a disservice by trying to create a historical mystery.

*”What Will Israel Become?” by Roger Cohen, New York Times, December 20, 2014.

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