"We went into battle for our children. We fought so that our people might live their lives in honor, free
from fear. But so complicated were the conditions under which we fought that, on more than one occasion, those
very people were in the firing line. Such are the consequences of war. And we were fighting a war."
-- Munya M. Mardor, Haganah, p. xvi
Throughout history, human beings have persecuted each
other, have sought to enslave or annihilate entire races, and have waged innumerable wars of varying atrocity
in an attempt to conquer other factions or nations. Certain peoples have had a more difficult time than others,
having constantly been faced with opposition, discrimination, and repression from those who would seek to
oppress them. Among those who are no strangers to the yoke of slavery and the anguish of persecution and
genocide, are the Jewish people. From the ancient Egyptians to the Romans of the Empire;
from medieval Christianity to Nazi Germany, Jews have been persecuted throughout their existence. Such a
downtrodden people would eventually have to evolve an effective way to fight back and defend itself against the
powers that threaten it, lest it perish altogether. And in the first half of the twentieth century, that is precisely what the
Jewish people finally did – effectively defended itself.
The Hebrew word for defense is "haganah." In 1920,
Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky founded an underground Jewish army in Palestine, the Haganah. The
Haganah’s initial purpose was to protect Jews from Arab attacks. It began as small units in Jewish towns and
communities, then grew into a "centralized military machine" which functioned on a nationwide level (New
Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, p. 543). During the British Mandate, the Haganah operated clandestinely,
carrying out many of its activities without British authorization, and indeed, sometimes fought openly against the
Mandate. The Haganah existed through WWII, until the founding of the State of Israel and the creation
of the Israel Defense Force, into which it was transformed by the new Israeli government (543).
Between 1920 and 1929, the Haganah staved off Arab attacks
and riots, but was not a very cohesive or far-reaching fighting force. Its first conflict occurred in April, 1920, in
Jerusalem; Jabotinsky and Pinhas Rutenberg quickly gathered 200 Jews and led them in a fight to stave off an
Arab attack. In May of the following year, the Haganah was unprepared for the more extensive Arab riots that
occurred, and the Jews sustained heavy casualties, particularly in Jaffa. Thus, when Arabs assailed the Jewish
quarter of Jerusalem in November, the defenders were better prepared and succeeded in defeating their attackers
(544). However, from late in 1921 to 1929, Palestine experienced a relatively inactive period, which caused the
Haganah to stagnate considerably. It enlisted few volunteers, had no ambitious leadership, and stocked few
effective weapons. So once again, it was taken by surprise when, in 1929, the country erupted in a series of Arab
riots. As a result, the organization underwent a massive revision in structure; foreign weapons were secretly
imported, and locally, an arms industry was instituted for the production of explosives and equipment. Small,
autonomous units were regionalized and trained for engagement beyond the boundaries of their immediate
vicinities. Plans were made on a national basis, operations were directed at the training of commanders, and
intelligence services were established. Instead of employing a passive defense, waiting to be attacked, the
Haganah turned to a more offensive approach, or at least a defense "in the field," as opposed to behind their
Between 1930 and 1936, tensions between Jews and Arabs
were on the rise, due in large part to each side's dissatisfaction with British politics and the perception of the
opposition as a growing threat. The Zionists, having placed priority on the establishment of a Jewish national state,
felt that British policy toward the Arabs was cutting at their program (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 25:419). At the
same time, the Arab countries were assembling to meet the perceived danger of Zionism, and the threat posed by
increased Jewish immigration due to persecution of central and eastern European Jews. Between 1933 and
1936, over 164,000 Jews entered Palestine (Bauer, p. 3). By 1936, Arab nationalism had grown considerably, and
the Arabs executed a six month strike and initiated an armed rebellion of national proportions (Britannica,
In July 1937, a British inquiry commission under Lord Peel
published its findings after studying the situation since November, and reported that differences between the Arabs
and the Jews were irreconcilable.
"An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national
communities within the bounds of one small country. . . . There is no common ground between them. . . . They
differ in religion and in language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as
incompatible as their national aspirations. These last are the greatest bar to peace. Arabs and Jews might
possibly learn to live and work together in Palestine if they would make a genuine effort to reconcile and combine
their national ideals and so build up in time a joint or dual nationality. But this they cannot do. . . . National
assimilation between Arabs and Jews is . . . ruled out" (Mendes-Flohr and Reinharz, p. 612).
The Peel Commission recommended two solutions. First,
the decreasing of Jewish immigration to Palestine and eventually the ceasing of Jewish settlement altogether;
second, partitioning of Palestine into two states (Bauer, 6). However, neither the Arabs nor the Jews would agree to
the proposal, and Britain eventually withdrew it. Other commissions and proposals were formed over the next two
years, but to no avail. In May 1939, Britain dictated its own terms to the Palestinians and issued the White Paper of
1939, which limited Jewish immigration over the next five years to 75,000, and imposed restrictions on Jewish land
purchases from Arabs (Britannica, 22:143).
Along with the mounting political tensions between all sides,
the Arab Revolt began to be directed against not only the Jewish settlers, but the British as well. This forced the
British to ally themselves with the Haganah, despite its clandestine nature and illegal status within the eyes of the
Mandate. In 1937, The British government authorized the establishment of the Jewish Settlement Police (Rivlin, p.
61). It initially had 1,000 members, but by 1939, had grown to 22,000 (New Encyclopedia, 544). Because it
was sanctioned by the British, the JSP was able to legally train thousands of soldiers to fight for the Haganah. As
Arab attacks aimed at undermining British authority increased, so did the Mandate’s dependence on the Haganah.
In 1938, British Captain Orde Wingate was appointed to organize the guarding of the Iraq-Haifa oil pipeline. He
assembled the first Special Night Squads to accomplish this task, and trained Haganah men in the secrets of night
combat (Rivlin, 64). This helped immensely in suppressing the Arab Revolt. The SNS paved the way for
British-trained Jewish commandos, or Palmah, which would follow in the 1940s. Despite the Arab attacks, the
Haganah planned, established, and protected fifty-two new settlements between 1936 and 1939 (New
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of the
Haganah was its intelligence service, the Shai. Its members were not professional spies or investigators,
nor were they saboteurs; the intelligence network of the Haganah was formed slowly, and out of necessity rather
than planning. The Shai gathered information "as a weapon to defend the Haganah organization, its members, and
its secret storehouses" (Dekel, p. 14). The Shai assisted in such activities as the acquisition of arms for the
Haganah, and the aiding of illegal immigrants to Palestine. They obtained intelligence on both the Arabs and the
British, and helped the Haganah stay a few steps ahead of its enemies, and the mandatory government. One British
general who testified at the Peel Commission stated: "Before information arrives from my headquarters to my
commanders, the Haganah Intelligence Service already has it" (Rivlin, 69). One ingenius ploy that aided the
Haganah immeasureably in gathering intelligence on Arab settlements and mapping Eretz Yisrael was the creation
of front organizations that took weekend trips to different parts of the country. These included botanical societies,
bird and butterfly watching tours, and rock collecting expeditions. In reality, these were undercover operations that
permitted the Haganah to gain information on every Arab village, its inhabitants, buildings, strengths, roads, etc.
Of course, the Haganah had no budget, being an
underground operation. For several years, it was funded by its members, who paid for their own ammunition and
travel expenses. As for married men, the Haganah arranged for banks to provide them loans with "very favorable
terms" to help provide for their families (41). This situation was finally remedied in 1938, when a system of taxes
called Kofer Ha-Yishuv, was established to provide funding for the Haganah. It was a voluntary tax levied in addition
to government taxes on cigarettes and matches, butter and sugar, movie tickets and public transportation, as well
as many other things (70). In addition to affording the Haganah a national budget, the taxes also gave Jews not
directly involved with the defense movement the opportunity to help sustain the army, and to, in effect, play an active
role in the emergence of a national state (71). With this added income, the munitions industry grew, and many
settlements built underground arsenals to store weapons and ammunition. Also, the standard of training was
raised in general, and a permanent medical unit was established (New Encyclopedia, 544).
The Haganah took on a new and mighty task when Britain
issued the White Paper of 1939. Faced with slashes in the quota of Jewish immigrants that would be permitted into
Palestine, and what they considered a deathblow to the Jewish refugee movement, the Zionists and the Haganah
laid down plans for illegal immigration. The Haganah was to be strengthened, and placed in charge of receiving
"illegal" immigrants. As WWII broke out, the Zionists suspended their conflict with the British, and the yishuv began
to cooperate with mandate authorities. Thousands of young Jews, including many Haganah members, joined the
British Army in special Jewish units, and the Artillery corps and the Royal Air Force; later, the Jewish Brigade
would be formed, a group that smuggled thousands of refugees across Europe and into Palestine right under
England's nose (544).
In 1938, Chaim Weizmann, encouraged by Captain Wingate,
proposed that the British government form a Jewish army in Palestine to help out the British defenses. This
proposal was tabled until the outbreak of the war. The suggestion was not taken to by the Chamberlain cabinet, but
when Winston Churchill assumed the office of prime minister, he became interested in the notion of arming the
yishuv. In 1940, the War Cabinet decided it would establish a Jewish Fighting Force; but its implementation was
put off several times due to opposition, and was canceled in 1941. However, Jews could still enlist in the British
forces, and the Jewish Agency made efforts to recruit for the imperial forces. Once news about the Holocaust in
Europe began reaching Palestine, soldiers in Jewish battalions requested to be sent to the front. Jews organized
national demonstrations, and demanded to be allowed to use a national flag and insignia. Jewish nationalism
increased, as did educational activity; Jews were eager and determined to take the field against the Nazis
In 1943, the Jewish Agency once more tried to get the British
to establish a Jewish Fighting Force, but not for the defense of Palestine this time. Instead, they expressed their
desire to be able to participate in the liberation of Europe. They wanted their widely dispersed volunteers
concentrated into a more powerful, well-trained formation, and they wanted to bear Jewish national insignia.
Because of the impact of the Holocaust, and the personal urging of Churchill, the British finally submitted to Zionist
insistence. In July 1944, they decided to consider the formation of a Jewish Brigade, and in September, they officially
announced the creation of the Jewish Brigade Group. Shortly thereafter, Churchill promised that the newly-formed
JBG would take part in the occupation of Germany (757).
The JGB's subsequent actions in 1944 and 1945 were
commended by headquarters. It is important to note that of the more than 1,000,000 Jewish soldiers who served in
the Allied forces during WWII, the JBG stood alone in that it went to battle under the Jewish national flag and
insignia, expressing the united effort of the Jewish people as a whole. The time served in the British army equipped
Jewish soldiers with the skills they would later employ in the Israel Defense Forces; their experiences also
prepared them for Israel's War of Independence. But beyond their status as fighters, the members of the JBG
meant something much greater. In the eyes of Holocaust survivors, they embodied the essence of Eretz Yisrael.
They spread their influence to thousands of young survivors and helped refugees reach the Mediterranean and
D.P. camps in the American zone of Germany. The soldiers organized movements to smuggle immigrants past
British blockades, and they organized refugee camps and educated the inmates on Zionism. Between 1945 and
1946, literally hundreds of thousands of Jews travelled across Europe, and tens of thousands made it to Palestine
The early defense forces of Israel, the predecessors of the
IDF, were of particular significance in the history of Jewish institutions. They defended Jews in Palestine, they
promoted Zionism, they paved the way for the IDF, and they aided countless so-called "illegal" immigrants. Also,
they fostered a Jewish national spirit and identity, and were the initial impetus for instilling within Israeli Jews the
die-hard, never-give-up attitude that has allowed them to succeed in so many battles, even when severely
outnumbered or outgunned. Israeli soldiers and fighters have persisted and established themselves as one of the
greatest fighting forces of the world. They have given Jews a sense of hope, a sense of self-worth as a nation, and
have earned the international respect of countries and peoples around the globe.
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Jewish Publication Society of America, 1970.
Dekel, Efraim. Shai: The Exploits of Hagana Intelligence. New York.
Thomas Yoseloff, 1959.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica.
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Mardor, Munya M. Haganah. Elston, D. R., ed. New York. New
American Library, 1964.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul and Reinharz, Jehuda. The Jew in
the Modern World. 2nd ed. New York. Oxford University Press, 1995.
Rivlin, Gershon. Haganah Highlights. New York. Herzl Press, 1994.
Wigoder, Geoffrey, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Zionism and
Israel. Madison, NJ. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.
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