Irgun Zvaʾi Leʾ

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Militant Jewish underground organization in pre-state Israel.

A revisionist group of militants broke from the Haganah in 1931 and formed the Irgun Zvaʾi Leʾumi (Etzel). In 1937, the Irgun signed an agreement with Vladimir Zeʾev Jabotinsky, the president of the Revisionist New Zionist Organization, and became the defense organization of the Revisionist movement. During and after the Arab uprising of 19361939 and the British White Paper of May 1939, the Irgun embarked on a series of terrorist attacks on British and Palestinian targets. With the eruption of World War II, however, the Irgun suspended attacks and many members joined the British forces to be trained and to fight against Nazi Germany. Irgun commander in chief David Raziel was killed in Iraq while leading a group of volunteers on behalf of the British army. A small group of dissident Irgun members, led by Abraham Stern, broke with the Irgun, formed LEHI (the "Stern Gang"), and continued to carry out violent actions against the Mandatory forces.

In 1942 Menachem Begin assumed command of the Irgun and, in early 1944, formally embarked on armed revolt against the British in Mandatory Palestine. Though comprised of a small group of poorly equipped Jewish guerrillas, the Irgun inflicted damage on the British forces through a combination of factors, including successful use of the element of surprise, intimate familiarity with the topography and terrain, broad local Jewish sympathy, and a campaign of public relations abroad that built on sympathy for the victims of Nazi genocide.

In 1945, after the British Labour government refused to alter its Palestine policies, the Jewish Agency arranged an alliance of Haganah, Irgun, and LEHI forces, the United Hebrew Resistance Movement, which carried out violent actions against the Mandatory forces. In mid-1946, however, the Jewish Agency reinstituted its policy of self-restraint and disbanded the alliance, but by then the Irgun was sufficiently large to independently escalate attacks on British targets.

The Haganah and mainstream Zionists consistently opposed the Irgun and its terrorist actions. In July 1946, when the Irgun blew up the British army headquarters and the Secretariat of the Mandate government in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, it was strongly denounced. Less than a month after the British executed four Irgun members in the Acre Prison, in April 1947, an Irgun force of thirty-four men dynamited their way into the prison and freed 250 Jewish and Arab prisoners. The following day, the daring action was widely reported in the world media. On 14 May 1948, with the proclamation of the State of Israel, the Irgun agreed to disband and join the new Israel Defense Force; they continued, however, to carry out a number of independent actions, the most serious of which led to the Altalena affair.

The Irgun did not achieve official recognition until 1968, when President Zalman Shazar formally recognized its efforts, along with those of the Haganah and all groups, including NILI, the Jewish Legion, and LEHI, in the struggle for independence and defense of the State of Israel.

see also aaronsohn family; altalena; shazar, shneour zalman.


Begin, Menachem. The Revolt: Story of the Irgun. Tel Aviv: Steimatzky, 1951.

Bell, J. Bowyer. Terror Out of Zion: The Fight for Israeli Independence. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996.

chaim i. waxman