Does Terrorism Work?: A Discussion with Dr. Bruce Hoffman

Photo: The King David Hotel in Jerusalem in the aftermath of the July 1946 attack, Hulton Archive/Getty Images, via The New York Times

By Brian Wickizer, Reporter

SSP Director Dr. Bruce Hoffman spoke at the Center for Security Studies Lunch Series on February 18 to mark the one-year anniversary of the release of his book Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. Dr. Hoffman described the book as being a study of terrorism and counterterrorism in Palestine during the British mandate through which he sought to answer the question, “Does terrorism work?”

Anonymous Soldiers grew out of Dr. Hoffman’s frustration with the political science literature about government decision-making in response to terrorism. He believed the available case studies drew conclusions without adequate evidence. If terrorism is a losing strategy, as politicians and statesmen often claim, why has it been employed for thousands of years and become the intractable challenge to international security that it is today? Dr. Hoffman dove into archives housed in London, Washington DC, and Jerusalem to bring greater rigor to his analysis of this question as it pertained to the case of British Palestine. He examined documents from the whole of British government including once-classified papers from MI5. “To give you an example of how overly-zealous I was, I looked at the dental corps’ records,” Hoffman added.

In his prepared remarks, Dr. Hoffman walked through the history of British imperial control of Palestine from 1917 to 1947. The mutually-exclusive promises Britain made to Arabs and Jews concerning the sovereignty of the territory ensured conflict. In the 1920s, Arabs rioted against British authority and the British appeased them by restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. This event taught Arabs that the British could be manipulated through violence. In 1931, Britain permitted Jewish immigration again, resulting in a wave of newcomers from Europe through the 1930s. In response to the influx of Jews, the Arabs rebelled. The British cut a deal to pacify Palestine and ensure they had access through Palestine to the rest of their empire. Looking at the failure of peaceful diplomacy to secure a Jewish homeland and the success the Arabs had using violence to achieve their political goals, the Jewish began to form terrorist groups of their own. According to Dr. Hoffman, “The Jews drew the only logical conclusion you could looking at the past two decades: violence pays.” The Jewish terror groups, such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang, stepped up their campaign against the British after World War 2, assassinating Lord Moyne and bombing the King David Hotel in an iconic attack that killed 91 people.

Surveying the history of the British mandate, Hoffman concluded that the strategy of Irgun leader Menachem Begin to polarize the Jewish population under British imperial worked. Despite the fact that the Irgun’s 1,500 “trigger-pullers,” were vastly outnumbered by the 100,000 British security personnel, Begin succeeded by portraying the British as oppressive occupiers rather than providers of law and order. Irgun attacks provoked the British into a heavy-handed response that disrupted daily life and alienated the larger Jewish community. The stronger the response from British security forces, the more powerful the terrorists appeared. And the use of capital punishment for captured Jewish terrorists only played into Irgun’s hands, transforming those executed into martyrs for their cause. An exasperated Britain unilaterally terminated the mandate and an independent Israel was formed. Dr. Hoffman concluded by saying that many variables contributed to the formation of Israel—namely, civil disobedience, diplomacy conducted by moderates, the plight of Holocaust survivors, and President Truman’s support—but terrorism undeniably contributed to the outcome.

Dr. Hoffman’s presentation is available for viewing below, courtesy of the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies YouTube channel: 

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