Interview: Dr. Bruce Hoffman on His New Book, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947

By Sarah Maksoud, Reporter

The GSSR sat with Dr. Bruce Hoffman to discuss his new book, Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. Based on meticulous archival research conducted in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Israel, the book explores the use of terrorism as a tactic in the Jewish campaign against the British in Palestine.

Q: What was the inspiration for the book?

Well, it really goes back to when I first entered graduate school, 39 years ago. When it came to terrorism, I thought that governments said one thing and did another. They said they didn’t negotiate with terrorists, but they did. They said that terrorism as a means of achieving political change never works, and yet at some level it often did, at least tactically: whether in getting prisoners released, or attracting attention to the terrorists and their cause, or getting their members invited to the United Nations. That really made a huge impression on me, and I wanted to assess whether terrorism worked on a broader, more systemic, level. What terrorism’s role is in history was. That was really the impetus. I thought that this was the kind of question that political scientists often answered with all sorts of models and comparisons. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about men and women, countries, events, governments, and revolutions, and the only way to assess the impact that something has on these developments is to really do an immensely deep dive into the documents, and into the archives, because that’s how you actually learn how and why something happened. I just thought that this was a remarkably unique opportunity for me to get the most microscopic view possible of how terrorism affects government. And you see that in the book because the purpose of the book is to examine how terrorism affected British policy in Palestine from the start. But the big question is what role it played in the events that led to Britain deciding to surrender the mandate and leave Palestine, which set in motion the chain of events that resulted in the creation of Israel. The first six chapters in the book deal with the period 1917 until 1939, the next four deal with the World War Two period, then the final nine, so almost half of the book, deal with the final three years of British rule on virtually a day to day basis to be able to make that conclusion.

Q: What served as the foundation for your research?

Unparalleled, concerted access to archives in the United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States. The British archives are much better organized than any other country I’ve worked in. It’s much easier to know what’s there, and to go through documents systematically. Then of course there was this big release of documents by the British government over the last decade and a half that sort of rounded out the picture and drew me back to the subject. The release of materials by the British Security Service, MI5, in particular was something that’s quite unique to Britain. Britain is one of the only countries whose intelligence or security service has released files that are open to public and scholarly inspection. So that was pivotal to the book, and it complimented all the other research I was also doing.

Q: Was the bulk of your archival research done online or did you travel to the UK?

The research was done physically. In the British archives many of the documents, like the Cabinet Papers, were all online. But there’s so much more that isn’t. It took over the course of four years to physically consult the relevant archives in the UK along with those in the US, and also in Israel. The invention of the digital camera played a huge role in making it possible to complete this research in even that time frame.

Q: What was the most interesting and/or unexpected finding over the course of your research?

It would have to be—just because of his own notoriety—a document that was sent by H.A.R “Kim” Philby, the famous Cold War spy. He was the MI6 chief of counterintelligence and the document was a letter that he sent to the Colonial Office and to MI5 about a supposed Jewish terrorist plot to attack the British delegation offices, and to murder the equivalent of the British ambassador and his staff, in Beirut in 1946. I didn’t realize it when I found the document, but, as I did more research, it turned out that it was part of a massive deception operation carried out by the Jewish terrorist group called the Irgun. They wanted to make sure that the MI5 station chief for Palestine and the head of British police intelligence were both out of Jerusalem on the same day that they bombed the King David Hotel. They were essentially sent to Beirut on this wild goose chase. The question is, why would Philby be putting his nose into Palestine affairs? But of course, his Soviet handlers wanted him to vacuum up whatever information he could find anywhere. So he was constantly looking for things, and came across this, and was basically the one to alert the authorities in Jerusalem and thus facilitate the Irgun’s deception.

Q: What is the one thing you hope your readers might take away from the book?

History is not mono-causal, it’s personality driven, politically driven, economically driven, socially driven, and so when you have peoples that have very different religious beliefs who believe in a divinely-ordained right to the same land, it’s an enormously complex subject. If I’ve been able to reduce it, and to tell a good story, in a clear, comprehensive, and unbiased fashion—which is what relating history is about—then I’d feel I’ve succeeded.

Q: What lessons do you hope might be taken from your book and applied to a modern context?

Well, depressingly, I think the fact that the foundations of effective counterterrorism or counterinsurgency, historically, have always been the same. Which is good intelligence, good governance, closing the operational loop between intelligence and action, I mean all those things are timeless. But it’s remarkable how governments and militaries don’t learn these lessons. And as I’ve often taught, terrorists are very good at learning lessons, and at emulating one another, and building off of one another. So I think the timelessness and the attraction of terrorism as a vehicle to achieve change is something that I think will continue, until we get as good at learning how to counter terrorism and insurgency as the terrorists and the insurgents are at learning from the past.

Q: What about the use of terrorism in the struggle against the British made it so effective?

Well, I think the Irgun was the first post-modern terrorist campaign, certainly the first important post-World War Two campaign. And I think it understood the nexus between kinetic and non-kinetic forms of resistance, in that the violence was orchestrated for a purpose. It was designed to send a message. It underscored the power of violence as a form of communication, and that’s what terrorism is. It also demonstrated the fundamental terrorist strategy of provocation, of provoking governments to undertake responses that the terrorists hope will play in their favor and undermine government credibility. I think that’s the perennial feature of terrorism. Since the Irgun’s was the first post-modern terrorism campaign, it was also the first that was really situated very much in a world of international media—of course the media was much slower than it is today. But I think Menachem Begin, the commander of the Irgun, really understood that. And I think the lessons that he taught about the nexus between violence and communication are still being learned by terrorists today.

Q: Do you have any other books in the pipeline?

I’m under contract to do a third edition of Inside Terrorism. I’m also seriously thinking of doing a book on America’s first ‘war on terrorism,’ which would be during the Regan Administration. I’m just writing the proposal now.

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