Avraham Stern's violent life and death


Most people with a passing knowledge of the history of the dying days of the British Mandate in Palestine will have heard of the Stern Gang, or Stern Group as it became more formally known. But few are likely to have heard of Geoffrey Morton, the British CID man who became Avraham Stern’s nemesis and who — in circumstances still in dispute today — shot Stern dead on a cold February morning in Tel Aviv in 1942.

Now, Patrick Bishop, a long-time British foreign correspondent — he was based in Jerusalem for the Daily Telegraph from 1989 to 1991 — and author of a number of critically acclaimed non-fiction books with a military theme, has turned his considerable forensic skills into uncovering what exactly happened when Assistant
Superintendent Geoffrey Morton finally confronted Avraham Stern on a Tel Aviv rooftop flat.

The book is subtitled, “How the killing of one man changed the fate of the Promised Land”, but I am not sure that Bishop adequately makes the case for this claim. Certainly his research is meticulous and Stern comes over as a fairly unlovely human being, vain, pompous, and — worst of all — someone prepared to negotiate with the Axis powers in his blind hatred of the British.

But let us suppose that Stern had not been killed. Does Bishop believe — as the dramatic sub-title implies — that the British would thereby have hung on to Palestine and extended the Mandate beyond 1948? It is an unlikely proposition. Everything we know about the Mandate after the war points to an albatross around Britain’s neck of which it was desperate to rid itself. An Avraham Stern, in prison or out, could hardly have significantly increased this desire.

Morton always maintained he shot Stern because he was trying to escape. He made a nice little earner in a series of libel actions against writers and publishers who claimed that Morton had shot Stern in cold blood while he was doing nothing more sinister than tying his shoelaces.
Bishop’s research certainly suggests that the latter was the case but now that Morton is dead there is no one who knows what really happened.

Either way, Patrick Bishop has presented the reader with a beautifully judged evocation of a largely forgotten, turbulent time, when wartime Tel Aviv rang to gunshots in the street and British police went in fear of Jewish bombers. Careful to a fault, Bishop sifts through the archives and brings to life the madness of the Irgun, Lehi, and Avraham Stern and his gang.

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