Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

By Bruce Hoffman

Knopf. 618 pp. $35

Palestinian and Israeli narratives have always been more reflective of each other than contrasting. Both peoples suffered exile from their homeland and the experience of being refugees. Both believe they have been the victims of historical injustice. Both claim the same land and have a primordial attachment to that specific land. And members of both have engaged in acts of terrorism in the pursuit of national self-determination and independence.

Today, when one considers the issue of terrorism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the practices of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other groups come most readily to mind. The tactics employed by the Jewish underground in the years before the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 are less contemplated. Bruce Hoffman’s “Anonymous Soldiers” fills that gap. Hoffman has plumbed recently opened archives and the correspondence and diaries of those directly involved to produce a first-rate portrait of two groups in the pre-state Jewish underground: the Irgun Zvai Le’umi, or Irgun (National Military Organization), led during that period by Menachem Begin, and the Lohamei Herut Yisrael, or Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), led by Yitzhak Shamir.

‘Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947’ by Bruce Hoffman (Knopf)

The reader of Hoffman’s book might be drawn to equating Palestinian and Jewish terrorism, concluding that there is no difference between what the Zionists did before 1948 to achieve an independent state and what the Palestinians are doing now for independence. But there are critical differences, which Hoffman makes clear in his carefully researched and balanced treatment of the Jewish underground. Both the Irgun and the Lehi focused their attention on British military and governmental targets. Civilians were killed, but they were not generally targeted. The Jewish underground also often called in warnings before attacking targets, although Hoffman chronicles a mixed record in this regard. Palestinian terrorism, on the other hand, has been often indiscriminate and frequently directed specifically at civilians.

A word about nomenclature is in order. One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, and Hoffman’s study will undoubtedly add to the partisan debate over who exactly was and is a “terrorist,” and whether violence associated with the struggle of one people for national independence is more legitimate than the struggle of another people. Shamir himself addressed this issue in an interview with a British newspaper in May 1977, just after his Likud party won national elections in Israel for the first time, bringing Begin (and a few years later, Shamir) to power. Asked whether the Lehi’s November 1944 assassination of Lord Moyne, Britain’s minister of state in the Middle East, had helped the Zionist cause, Shamir noted the role of terrorism in bringing the political causes of both the Lehi and the Palestinians to the fore.

Another future Israeli prime minister addressed a similar issue in 1998. Ehud Barak, then head of the Labor Party after retiring from a long career in the Israeli army, told a television interviewer, “If I was [a Palestinian] at the right age, at some stage I would have entered one of the terror organizations and have fought from there, and later certainly have tried to influence from within the political system.” Both Israeli leaders, tough fighters in the cause of their political beliefs, recognized the same impulses in the Palestinians.

Although Hoffman raises these issues, his central question is less the moral equivalency of Jewish and Arab terrorism than its efficacy. Looking at the 30-year period between the end of World War I and the end of the British Mandate, Hoffman introduces the reader to the Jewish, Arab and British personalities who fought a complex battle for political dominance and national independence. Having made contradictory promises to Jews and Arabs to secure their support during World War I, the British were left to clean up the mess they created as overseers of the Mandate for Palestine, one of whose purposes was to promote the implementation of the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Arab violence and their rejection of the very idea of sharing Palestine with the Zionists made this a near-impossible mission from the outset.

Arab violence and terrorism against British military and government personnel and against Jews grew in intensity and scope throughout the 1920s and, later, with the Arab Revolt of the mid-1930s. The British ultimately quelled the rebellion, though it took more than 100,000 troops to do so. The Palestinians fought hard, but they suffered from divisions in their leadership and the failure to build a national movement and national institutions — problems that were to plague the Palestinian national movement for decades to come. Combined with the impending war in Europe, by 1939 this Arab pressure persuaded the British to back away from the promise of the Balfour Declaration. The British instead limited Jewish immigration and land purchases, effectively redesigning the ultimate goal as the partition of Palestine into two states.

The British curb on Jewish immigration — just as the Nazis were carrying out their Final Solution — prompted the emergence of the militant Jewish underground. Begin’s Irgun targeted British military and political institutions in Palestine and elsewhere, with the objective of proving that British rule over Palestine was unsustainable. Often the Irgun would call in warnings before an attack was launched, designed to minimize casualties. But casualties there were — British, Arab and Jewish, military and civilian — as in the spectacular explosion that ripped apart the south wing of the fabled King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British maintained a headquarters. Hoffman examines this event in detail, based on newly available sources, and wades into the debate as to whether the Irgun’s claim that its warnings went unheeded is true. After a thorough examination of the event, he concludes: “Arguments that the Irgun gave warning of the impending explosion — albeit with insufficient time to permit the hotel’s evacuation — and that the group’s proclaimed policy was to avoid harming civilians in the final analysis cannot absolve Begin and his organization from responsibility for the loss of life and harm that their bombs inflicted.”

Shamir’s Lehi also claimed to focus on British targets, but its attacks killed many Jews and Palestinians. Both the Irgun and the Lehi proved stridently resilient, even as the British increased troop strength to more than 100,000 in 1946-1947 to take on the approximately 5,000 underground fighters. By 1947, Britain was exhausted both at home and in Palestine and yielded the Mandate to the United Nations, which voted for partition.

“Anonymous Soldiers” is an indispensable source for understanding why Zionism succeeded, to be read alongside “The Struggle for Palestine,” the classic study by the late J.C Hurewitz on the institutionalization of Zionist politics, and the work of Rashid Khalidi on Palestinian society and its travails, particularly “The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood.” Hoffman’s conclusion — that terrorism as practiced by the Jewish underground was indeed successful — will also add substantially to the contemporary debate about the aspirations, motivations and tactics of resistance movements, and the challenges inherent in addressing them. In Hoffman’s words, “Notwithstanding the repeated denials of governments — terrorism can, in the right conditions and with the appropriate strategy and tactics, succeed in attaining at least some of its practitioners’ fundamental aims.”