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THE FIRST TITHE

Reviewed by David Isaac

“Know your enemy,” said Sun-Tzu. Had he been a Jew, he would have said, “Know your enemy both without and within.” Israel Eldad, a member of the leadership of Lehi, the smallest, but most ruthless of the Jewish undergrounds that fought against British rule in Palestine, learned this truth the hard way. His book, The First Tithe, first published in 1950, was only translated into English last year (and is available on Amazon).

Israel Eldad (nee Scheib), who was born in Galicia in 1910, describes his book as a “personal memoir,” and it is that, painting a picture of a man who was a remarkable mixture of original thought, unswerving determination and self-sacrifice. To protect his wife and newborn daughter, he was forced to leave them. “I leave my apartment in the month of Adar 5704 (1944), to return only in Adar 5708 (1948). In that instant, as I left, I lost my civilian and my family life,” he writes.

He suffered physical torment as well. While fleeing the British, he fell from a building. His body shattered by the fall, he found himself doubly imprisoned—both in a body cast and a Jerusalem jail cell. The ideological strategist for Lehi, he continued to write even in a body cast, preparing speeches for fighters who were on trial and acting as a mentor to his fellow prisoners.

Though active in Betar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Eldad marked his official start in politics with the Third Betar Conference in Warsaw, which took place on September 10, 1938. In a well-known exchange at that conference, Jabotinsky likened Menachem Begin, who called for a more activist policy, to a “squeaking door” which served no useful purpose. Less well known was Eldad’s defense of Begin. He said that not all squeaking doors are useless. A squeaking door once warned him that thieves had broken into his home.

Jabotinsky applauded Eldad’s rhetorical hit, and from that moment Eldad’s “personal memoir” also became a historical one. The First Tithe reads like a secret history, lifting a veil from the events leading up to Israel’s establishment, and illuminating much of what would otherwise seem incomprehensible to those observing Israel from afar. As the book’s translator, Zeev Golan, writes in his introduction, “Historians and political scientists who try to explain Begin at Camp David, Shamir at Madrid, Rabin and Barak in their dealings with Arabs, without first understanding the roots of the behavior of these individuals and the movements they represent in Zionism, are writing blind.

“How can one explain Begin’s far-reaching concessions without knowing of the rooftop conversations Eldad and Begin held in the 1940s? How can one understand Shamir’s behavior as premier during the Gulf War without reading Eldad’s analysis of the personality of his Underground co-commander? How can one account for the policies pursued by three different Labor Party prime ministers without putting their motives in the context of the Labor movement’s goals before the creation of Israel, as described by Eldad?” Golan writes.

Though one might reasonably have expected Eldad to focus on the conflict with the British, given that Lehi made it its mission to drive them from the Holy Land, it’s the “Yishuv”-–a term used to refer to the Jewish community in Israel, but in this case, to its official institutions—to which Eldad returns again and again.

For it was the Yishuv, led by the socialist-dominated Jewish Agency headed by David Ben-Gurion, that did its best to stop the Jewish underground from waging war against the British. As Ruth Wisse details in her Jews and Power. centuries of accommodation with gentile rulers had instilled in Jews a meekness in the face of authority. Old Diaspora habits die hard, and this submissive posture proved difficult to shake for even the most committed Zionists.

But there was more going on than a centuries-bred tradition of conciliation. Eldad argues that the Yishuv had grown wealthy and complacent during the war years. Essentially, the underground movements forced the Yishuv to fight. “They hated us for making them fight, for fighting before they did, and because we would continue to fight after they surrendered,” Eldad writes.

The hostility reached its zenith with the Altalena affair. The story, of which the reader is probably familiar, involved the arms-laden ship Altalena, which the Irgun had sailed to the shores of Palestine to supply the new Jewish army. On David Ben-Gurion’s orders, the Haganah, under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, opened fire on the ship and destroyed it under the false pretense that Menachem Begin had planned a putsch.

It would be unfair to say the Yishuv as a whole welcomed the sinking of the Altalena. Many Jews, even on the left, condemned the despicable act. Yet, Eldad’s explanation—that the Yishuv’s leaders were motivated by fear that their rule was threatened, that they did not want the Irgun to save the day by supplying the army —is the most convincing of many that have been given. Popular support had been growing for the dissident underground organizations and were it not for the Altalena, which turned the tables, who knows what Israel’s history might have looked like. Historians have suggested that with the arms supplied by the Altalena, Israel could have taken all of Jerusalem in 1948.

There are many similarities between then and now. The hostility the Left felt toward the underground is mirrored today by the hostility its spiritual heirs feel toward religious Zionists who insist on living in areas like Judea and Samaria even as the Left works to abandon them.

After the War of Independence, Eldad taught Bible and Hebrew literature in an Israeli high school until David Ben-Gurion had him fired, fearing Eldad would instill his ideology into his students. Finding it difficult to find work after being, as he says, “publicly fingered as a danger to the state,” Eldad wrote columns, books, a newspaper-like review of Jewish history called Chronicles and a nationalist journal Sulam. In 1962, he was made a lecturer at Haifa’s Technion.

A central idea to which Eldad adhered all his life was that the State of Israel was a stage on the road to “Malkhut Israel,” the “Sovereign Kingdom of Israel,” a term he used to express the idea of full redemption, in which the Jews would be politically powerful, fending off hatred from without and treason from within. He viewed this Malkhut as Israel’s destiny, without the completion of which it would not long survive.

Eldad also recognized early the cultural rot that infected Israel’s elites and whose damage became apparent only decades later. In the preface to his 1962 edition of The First Tithe, he writes, “We have the tremendous potential to manage our national and physical and spiritual powers in a wide expanse, yet we also see so many brains and hearts reduced to a lack of vision, or even an openly professed and exhibited anti-Vision of the type now expressed in what is called literature and art; a culture the content of which is abandon and which, in boredom and plenitude, mimics the wild and disturbed West which is actualizing the anthem of the East: No God, no king, no heroes.”

Eldad was iron-willed; ruthless in a way that only intellectuals can be. One could make the argument that he was constitutionally unsuited for the give-and-take of a politician’s life, but there’s no doubt that had he been in power, Israel would be in a stronger position today to withstand Israel’s enemies. The Jews need more like him.

David Isaac is a freelance writer living in California.

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