Nationalist whining and a torrent of words turn a fascinating biography into a long, confusing and boring book.
"Yair, Roman Biografi" ("Yair, A Biographical Novel") by Moshe Shamir, Zemora-Bitan, 551 pages, NIS 97
Avraham Stern was a Jewish terrorist - admired by many and still admired today. He was the leader of the pre-state underground organization Lohamei Herut Israel (Lehi) that also murdered citizens in the name of the Zionist struggle for national independence. Stern's world view embraced certain elements of Mussolini-style fascism, and at a certain point, he tried to enter into an alliance with Hitler's Germany. But the Nazis, who hated him even more than he hated them, spurned him in favor of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al- Husseini.
Stern has a fascinating biography, and Moshe Shamir is the perfect person to write it: Like Stern, he left the socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement to join up with the nationalist far right. Midway through the book is a sentence that opens a window into the soul of Avraham Stern, and perhaps also the souls of terrorists operating in the Palestinian camp: "An underground produces crazies, but also vice versa: crazies produce undergrounds." Here is a statement that could sustain an entire biography. Shamir squanders the opportunity.
"Yair," as Stern was known to his friends, is Shamir's Siegried, his Wagnerian hero. His admiration for Yair knows no bounds. There are times when Shamir and Yair appear to be one and the same. This book might have benefited from a wash and cut at the hands of a good stylist. In its current form, it is too long and too confused. The end product is simply boring. An abridged version in Arabic could prove very inspiring to members of Iz a Din al-Kassam, the military wing of Hamas.
Stern was born in Poland. His father was a dentist and his mother, a midwife. He was the elder of two sons. As a boy, his nickname was "Mama," but Shamir, for some reason, calls him by his code name, "Yair," almost as soon as the book begins. This is no coincidence. Shamir is not writing about a flesh and blood Stern; he is writing about the myth, Yair. He describes him at the age of seven as if he were one of the great thinkers of the Jewish people. Like Elik, the quintessential Palmachnik from the War of Independence, who was "born from the sea," Yair was born from Zionist poetry and music. His was not an ordinary childhood. It was the childhood of an immortal.
Stern was seven years old when World War I broke out - old enough to absorb the shock waves of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. In the early 1920s, he spent some time in the company of one of his uncles, a man with high connections in the Communist government. They lived in a fancy suite of rooms in a St. Petersburg hotel confiscated for the use of the proletariat. Stern was sent to the Pioneers in preparation for joining the youth movement of the Communist party - a fascinating chapter in his life, and a fascinating chapter in Shamir's book. It is also a well-written chapter, apart from the annoying tendency to present the boy as if he were an active participant in the cultural discourse of his time. As a 13-year-old, he presumably did some other things apart from discussing the works of Pushkin. Here, Shamir adopts the line that Stern himself liked to push: "I was considered an adult and lived like an adult from the age of 13." His studies at the Gymnasia in Jerusalem are portrayed not as the life of a high school student but the life of a university student with nothing on his mind but the deliverance of his people.
It was the 1920s, "and Jerusalem had a governor, a wicked English governor," writes Shamir, clinging to the shopworn narrative about the villainy of the British in Palestine and employing a pseudo-biblical Hebrew style that is both irritating and uncalled-for. In so doing, the role of the Labor movement in the history of Zionism is downplayed to the point of nonexistence, and the desire for revenge is set on a pedestal as if it were one of the Ten Commandments. Together with his hero, Shamir pays homage to the notion that self-realization can only be achieved by fusing with the national collective. Ironically, Stern and his gang borrow an Arab term for this: sokhba, friendship. Shamir is not unaware of the homoerotic features in this brotherhood of men, but a veiled hint here and there is all he dares.
Even after 500 pages, it is not clear what makes Stern choose life as the leader of the pack over life with his wife and child. Shamir accepts without question what Stern writes in one of his poems: "Our dream is to die for our people." But why? Shamir never tells us, as if it were obvious.
In the 1930s, Stern went off to Italy to study ancient history. Attending university in fascist Italy was not uncommon. Tuition was free, or at least very cheap. Ra'anan Weitz, a true son of the Labor movement, went there to study the agricultural techniques developed by the fascist regime. No one is saying that Shamir is under any obligation to denounce this flirt with Mussolini's Italy, but instead of telling the story in a straightforward manner, he tries to cover it up. In the end, it is not clear whether Stern was against fascism, as Shamir would like us to believe, or for it. Ra'anan Weitz, who met Stern in Florence, remembers him delivering a speech about fascism to a crowd of admirers. Stern felt that in view of the growing hostility between Italy and Britain, Mussolini's Italy might be helpful to the Zionists. This same thinking led Stern to meet with representatives from Nazi Germany.
Shamir tries to downplay this episode, as if it were unimportant, pointing out that the Labor party also maintained contacts with Nazi Germany. True, but the "ha'avara" agreement (the transfer of money to Palestine by German-Jewish immigrants), branded an act of treason in Stern's circles, began in 1933, in the early Nazi period, whereas Stern's attempt to form a political alliance came much later. Compared with the events as recounted by Yosef Heller, a Lehi historian, Shamir's telling obscures the truth. And the truth is that nationalism drove this man out of his mind. Masses, if not millions, of Jews had already been murdered by the time Stern called Chaim Weizmann a British lackey and sneered at him for perceiving "victory over Nazi Germany as the primary goal."
Stern's visit to Warsaw on the eve of World War II is obscured in much the same way. Shamir creates the impression that Stern was hard at work, putting together an army of 40,000 soldiers to liberate Palestine from the British bastards. From the guarded way he talks and the vague hints he drops, one might think he is still afraid to reveal the secret to this day: The bastards might hear. The story, apparently, is that the Polish army had a stash of weapons it was willing to sell to Stern. In the end, it was all a fantasy, which is why Shamir prefers to omit the details: There is nothing to tell.
Similarly, Shamir would rather keep his readers in the dark about what led to the split of Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the underground group led by Menachem Begin) in the first place - leading to the establishment of Lehi. Our pure and noble hero, always reading and writing poetry, would never get mixed up in anything as unworthy as politics. Anyone who really wants to know something about Lehi should read Heller, who also discusses the organization's Stalinist faction. Shamir does not seem to have heard about it.
In writing about the terrorist activities of Etzel and Lehi, Shamir makes a great effort to describe these acts as part of a legitimate military struggle. Here again, everything grows fuzzy in a torrent of words. Not that this is surprising: If Shamir cannot bring himself to confront Stern's fascist tendencies, he cannot be expected to confront such questions as whether one could draw any parallels between Lehi's attack on the Rex movie theater and the bombing of the Dolphinarium by Arab terrorists. In Shamir's conceptual world, such a question would not even be asked. The answer is obvious: One is us and the other is them. By the same token, Shamir does not broach such matters as the mysterious circumstances surrounding Stern's death, or who tipped off the British police.
Shamir is one of Israel's most prominent authors, and a great epic such as this certainly lends itself to literary treatment. Yet the combination here of fact and fiction is open to debate, as well as the way the author's biography is allowed to intrude upon that of his subject.
Many pages of the book are printed in a different typeface, with a layout resembling that of a chronological chart. Shamir has tried to set up an alternative chronology: The agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn enjoys celebrity status, whereas David Ben-Gurion makes one appearance at most. This is legitimate, of course, in the same way that it is legitimate (but rather odd) to argue that Chaim Arlosoroff was assassinated by the British.
Shamir might have done himself a favor if he had hired a research assistant to weed out some of the more embarrassing factual errors in this book. There is something tedious about the way he writes, with his nationalist whining and love of somersaulting flashbacks that impede the flow of the text. One is reminded of Barbara Tuchman's wise advice to writers like Shamir: Unlike a Bach fugue, the power of a great story lies in its simplicity.