Alexander Zvielli , THE JERUSALEM POST
The First Tithe
By Israel Eldad
Translated with a foreword and notes by Zev Golan
420 pages; $24.95.
The fire of the burning bush that wasn't consumed inspired Moses to free his people from Egypt, and it apparently inspired poet Israel Eldad's attempts to free his people from the shackles of the Diaspora and set them free from the foreign occupation of Eretz Yisrael.
Shortly before his death, Eldad quoted a talmudic debate between the School of Hillel and the School of Shammai: "Is it better for man to have been created, or not to have been created?" After three years of arguing, the rabbis took a vote and decided that man would have been better off not being created. But they added: "Since he was created, let him examine his deeds."
Eldad was enthusiastic about this directive. He believed that while everything is forced upon man while we are here, what is important is what we do. The First Tithe is a highly emotional account of his activities between 1938 and 1948, an inseparable part of Israel's history.
An English edition of The First Tithe (there have been five Hebrew editions) was Eldad's dream, and the Jabotinsky Institute published one on the country's 60th Independence Day, to mark his contribution to the emergence of the state and perhaps also to remind us all that we weren't offered our independence on a silver platter.
Eldad presents us with a most accurate description of the tragic situation of Polish Jewish youth on the eve of the crucial Third Betar Congress, which was held in Warsaw on September 10, 1938. He writes: "In the many cities and villages, the youth loiter, forces moving, but doing nothing. Strength is withering. Or spending itself on the nonsense of collecting pennies for Jewish National Fund charity boxes, or breaking JNF boxes in protest, or participating in old Jewish congresses, and then a new Zionist one, or organizing petitions, and then again holding congressional elections. Young men and women walk the streets of Zelva and Peski and Volkovysk and Vilna, fires burning within them and gnawing at their own flesh, for the flesh of real enemies is withheld from them."
Eldad ignores and perhaps unjustly denigrates other existing Jewish youth movements.
At the Betar Congress, Menachem Begin opposed Ze'ev Jabotinsky. He said that the time for words was over and the time of action had come. He pointed out that the good, liberal Western nations had abandoned Czechoslovakia without mercy, that the world was cruel and understood only force. Eldad comments that here someone had finally said what had to be said, and notes that Begin's challenge was greeted by wild applause. Betar's oath was changed from "I will raise my arm only in defense" to "I will raise my arm to defend my people and conquer my homeland." The Irgun became a challenge both to the British and to the policy of restraint against Arab provocations adopted by the vast majority of the Palestinian Yishuv.
ISRAEL Scheib (later Eldad) was born on November 11, 1910, in eastern Galicia, and graduated from the Rabbinical Seminary in Vienna. He attended Revisionist Zionist meetings, taught at the Jewish Teachers Seminary in Vilna and was deeply moved by the poems of Uri Zvi Greenberg. Following his miraculous escape from Vilna and arrival in Jerusalem, he became - together with Yitzhak Shamir and Nathan Yellin-Mor - a top commander of Lehi.
His motto was "Blessed is God my rock, who trains my arm for battle." His underground aim and conscience were clear: one had to get rid of the British occupation by all means available. He had warned his wife before their marriage that he needed a home like a boat needs a port, but he could not belong entirely to it. He would not become a sinner, not for a piece of bread, nor a wife or a home.
The vast majority of the Yishuv opposed Lehi and supported the policy of the Hagana and the national institutions. Lehi had actually split from the Irgun, due to its decision to volunteer for the Jewish Palestinian units of the British army. Eldad was critical of David Raziel, the Irgun commander, who died leading British troops against the French in Syria. In Eldad's opinion it was a vain sacrifice. Eldad was also critical of Jewish industrial and agricultural development and support for the Allied war needs, even if this policy greatly strengthened the Yishuv's postwar possibilities.
The majority of the Yishuv condemned Lehi's stand and supported Jews' enlistment in the Palestinian units of the British army and the eventual creation of the Jewish Brigade. It was, however, the slow and systematic British implementation of the 1939 White Paper, the sinking of the immigrant ship Patria, the deportations of Irgun activists and of "illegal" immigrants, the Exodus affair, which slowly gained for Lehi more fighters and a more general understanding and sympathy.
There were times when Lehi acted alone, others when it cooperated with the Irgun, and there was even a short period when British postwar betrayal of Jewish aspirations became so obvious that Lehi, the Irgun and the Hagana joined forces. During all these years, Eldad, who escaped from British detention in Latrun after two years of imprisonment, was the ideological father of Lehi and its underground press. He never participated in armed operations. Once offered a gun during his escape, he didn't accept it; he was afraid that he might use it the wrong way and cause more trouble. But it was his pen that had sustained and inspired others.
Eldad agreed that perhaps elected leaders and journalists were justified in asking: "Who are these few Lehi people who give themselves the right to dictate the policy of the entire Yishuv, who decide by themselves if the country will enjoy calm or super-military rule, constant British arrests and searches, who issue death sentences, kill people and declare war or peace? Don't they sit like madmen in hiding, and interfere with the entire life and prospects of the Yishuv?"
Eldad answered that while there were dozens of elected Yishuv institutions, it would have been impossible to get their complete support for any operation, because there would always be vested interests that would interfere. But years later he admitted that he favored democracy, but only to the point where it began to cramp his Zionism.
Lehi was finally dissolved together with the Irgun and the Palmah on May 29, 1948, and most of its members joined the IDF and the Herut political party.
Eldad never wrote his planned "Second Tithe," but for the next 14 years published his revolutionary journal Sulam. He also edited Chronicles, the newspaper of Jewish history, and from 1962 until 1982 lectured in humanistic studies at the Technion. He submitted occasional articles on Jewish values to The Jerusalem Post and other Zionist journals.
Eldad died in Jerusalem in January 1996. His late wife, Batya Washitz, was a well-known Jerusalem social worker. His son is MK Arye Eldad.
The book reads like the emotional political manifesto of a dedicated underground fighter, but Eldad moves us by the strength of his belief, his sincerity, the honest admission of his own doubts and weaknesses. He spares no one, even himself. The text is well illustrated by Eldad's rich references to the Jewish lore and traditions. There can be little doubt that his memoirs are indispensable to all wishing to learn both about Judaism and the history of the difficult years that led to Israel's independence.