The Etzel and the Policy of Restraint

Jabotinsky and the Etzel


The Etzel rose from within the Hagana, following the bloody riots of 1929. Avraham Tehomi, Hagana Commander in the Jerusalem District, resigned, together with a group of commanders, on April 10, 1931, and established "Hagana Bet", known also as "Irgun Bet", "HaIrgun HaMakbil" (Parallel Organization) and "Hagana Leumit" (National Defense). The name "Etzel – Irgun Tzvai Leumi" (The National Military Organization) – first appeared in 'HaMetzuda' (The Fortress) newspaper in summer, 1932. Tehomi's resignation stemmed from, among other things, differences of opinion that erupted between Hagana members about the organization's inadequate performance during the riots. Part of the argument focused on the claim that the policy of restraint had failed, and that it was necessary to implement actions of retaliation against the Arabs, based on the tenet that the best defense is offense.

Tehomi turned to Jabotinsky, out of his high regard for him as a Zionist leader, capable of supporting the organization and its future. In early 1937, he attempted once again to unite the two organizations, "Hagana Bet" and the "Hagana" and hoped to convince Jabotinsky to support the merge. Jabotinsky objected to the effort and claimed that if the merger would occur, no independent body in Eretz Israel would remain that could oppose the partition plan, because the Jewish Agency, to whose authority the Hagana was subject, supported the plan. In the same vein, he opposed the policy of restraint that the Hagana had implemented, which meant non-response to the murder of Jews. Tehomi continued in his efforts to unify, but had underestimated the power of Jabotinsky's influence over members of "Hagana Bet". They rebelled against the idea of integrating with the Hagana. In response, they bolstered the independent organization, ultimately naming it "Irgun Tzvai Leumi" (The National Military Organization).

Up until the outbreak of riots in April 1936, Etzel saw to training and acquiring weaponry. When the riots broke out, which continued for another three years, Etzel needed to recruit additional members into its ranks and to decide whether to continue with the policy of restraint or to initiate response actions. Jabotinsky also deliberated over this question until the disturbances escalated. He then understood that the time had come to act. In his article "The Yishuv's (pre-State Jewish community) Restraint, Till When?," he attacked the policy of restraint, "In Eretz Israel there are young people among Left and Right, who are not afraid of clashing with British soldiers, who force them to play the part of a coward." Jabotinsky invited Tehomi to a meeting in Paris, where they signed a secret agreement, on December 5th, 1936, in which, according to Tehomi, "he received the position of commander in the organization, from the Hatzach president (Jabotinsky), to lead in the spirit of his instructions."

The agreement did not last long, and five months after the signing, in April 1937, Tehomi resigned from Etzel and returned to his Hagana comrades. Jabotinsky remained the organization's prevailing authority; his underground nickname was 'Mendelsohn'.

He decided that, from that moment, he would serve as both Etzel Commander and Betar Representative in Eretz Israel. He met with David Raziel in Paris, and in September 1938, appointed him to head the organization. Jabotinsky saw in him the embodiment of the Jewish rebel, ready for war and sacrifice, and said, "For a man like him, I have been waiting 15 years." Raziel was appointed "First Among Equals" and was obligated to consult with every Etzel Executive member before taking any decisions. This situation created conflicts and differences of opinion between the members, primarily with Avraham (Yair) Stern. The rift between the camps grew, also in light of the illegal immigration activities, in which Etzel took an active role, and establishment of Etzel cells in Europe – a development to which Jabotinsky objected. In February 1939, Jabotinsky called a conference in Paris, in which he determined conditions for the organization's policies, but the differences between Raziel and Stern did not abate. The division occurred in June, 1940, close to Jabotinsky's death in August that same year, when Stern founded another underground organization – Etzel in Israel, which soon became "Lehi" - ("Fighters for the Freedom of Israel").

David Raziel fell in Iraq on May 21st, 1941, when he was sent on an intelligence mission and was wounded by the British Army. Yaakov Meridor filled his position temporarily until Menachem Begin arrived in Eretz Israel, and, in December, 1943, took command of Etzel. One month after his appointment, he declared the Revolt.

The Etzel symbol, which appeared at the end of the 1930's presents Eretz Israel on both banks of the Jordan River, with the caption "Only Thus" displayed above – conquering the land and building a state for the Jewish people only through struggle and conquest, and not passivity. In Jabotinsky's eyes, Etzel was an armed organization, acting outside the control of the Zionist leadership, with central political significance and a framework to advance nationalist aims. He called it "the strongest and most important of all our assets."



Riots of 1936 – 1938


Based on information he received, Jabotinsky warned that the Arab Higher Committee was planning to plunder the Jews in Eretz Israel. The British government ignored his warnings and bloody riots broke out. During this entire period, the British assumed a passive stance toward the Arabs.

Etzel Command members favored responding and acting against Arab terror, but Jabotinsky's approach in 1936 – 1937 was to continue the policy of restraint that the Zionist Executive had imposed on the Yishuv, in order to maintain a unified front by Jews in Eretz Israel. But, in light of the increasing lack of security in the summer of 1937, he realized that his political view stood in opposition to the Zionist – Activist ethos; according to which Jewish blood isn't insignificant. Jabotinsky decided to grant full support to Etzel actions and gave an order to break the restraint and to initiate military actions against the Arabs. The day the policy of restraint was broken was named "Black Sunday", beginning November 14th, 1937.

In his opening speech at the Hatzach Congress in Prague, in 1938, he said, "The same passive patience of the Jews in Eretz Israel, in the face of terrorist gangs, for the sake so-called restraint, has finally broken." That same year, at a public meeting   in Warsaw, he spoke in favor of breaking restraint, "And our youth? This youth believes, fights, sacrifices…poor sons are those of the Jewish people, and their ideal is to serve their people and their homeland."

In an act of retaliation against Arab terror, Etzel attacked the Arab village, Bir Adas,on May 29th, 1939. Instructions emphasized that neither the elderly, women nor children would be injured. Nonetheless, ten Arabs were killed in the attack, and due to confusion, four women were among the victims. When Jabotinsky heard the outcome of the incident, he reacted sharply, and in a special order on June 24th, he asserted clear conditions for future Etzel actions, "It is better not to shoot at all than to endanger a woman; you must concede, where possible, places where women are accustomed to gathering; you are to broadcast and print a warning in Arabic to their public, because, in these days, it won't be fitting that a man will send his wife to the market or a similar place; he will go himself; rules for a baby and the elderly – the same as for a woman."