The Irgun Tzvei Leumi B’Eretz Yisrael (known by the acronym, Etzel) or National Military Organization in the Land of Israel, was born out of the Revisionist Movement, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky. In the spring of 1920, following the Conference at San Remo in 1920, it was determined that the Balfour Declaration would be binding, and thus, the first Arab riots ensued.  

In Jerusalem, The Jewish Council of Delegates anticipated the violence and placed Jabotinsky in charge of subduing the coming riots. There was great confidence in Jabotinsky due to his experience fighting the Turks in WWI; he was one of the founders of the Jewish Battalions of the British Army. That unit conquered Palestine from the Ottomans. In charge of establishing a defense force, Jabotinsky founded the Haganah, without which a great many more Jews would have died in the riots of 1920. 

Once the violence quelled, the British arrested both the Arab aggressors and the Jewish defenders, including Jabotinsky and several other Haganah members. Jabotinsky, who was given a harsh sentence that included expulsion from Palestine, was disgusted that he was treated in a similar fashion to the Arab aggressors. Eventually, he was released and all charges were dropped against both Arabs and Jews.

In 1925, Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist movement as a result of an ideological split with the Haganah. While the Haganah promoted a socialist agenda, Jabotinsky sought to create a free-enterprise Jewish State. Yet there was another pivotal difference – the Haganah was an entity which promoted havlaga, or restraint, as opposed to retaliation. 

Etzel riding through Tel Aviv streets after Jaffa victory
Etzel fighters riding through the streets of Tel Aviv
after a victorious show in Jaffa; 1948

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In 1931, the Irgun was founded by a band of commanders from Haganah who disagreed with the organization’s line of defense, and whose main aim was armed struggle against the Arabs. The newly formed group felt that the Haganah was too weak when faced with both the British rule and Arab oppression. Avraham Stern, who later founded Lehi, was among this influential faction. Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, viewed the Irgun as a “harmful, destructive gang” and thought them (as well as the Lehi) to be a threat to diplomatic efforts.

The Irgun readily pursued a tactic of armed resistance, resulting in one of its members being hanged by the British for shooting at an Arab bus. During the Arab rights of 1936-1937, the members were divided along ideological lines. Many returned to the Haganah, and of those who remained, elected Jabotinsky as their leader. 

Portrait of Ze'ev Jabotinsky
Founder of Betar and Irgun (Etzel)

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Irgun Poster
Irgun recruitment poster

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Etzel Training-tel Aviv
Etzel weapons training, Tel Aviv; 1947

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It is not lost on history that just as WWII was set to erupt and the Jewish people faced extermination in Europe, Britain issued yet another antisemitic immigration restriction. After the White Paper of 1939 was declared, the Irgun rapidly escalated attacks on the British. However, in 1939, with the onset of WWII, a ceasefire was agreed upon. Avraham Stern rebuked this decision and formed his own more militant group, Lehi. After Jabotinsky’s death, Menachem Begin assumed leadership and in 1944 the group declared war against the British. They were responsible (along with the Lehi) for blowing up bridges and railway stations to rid Palestine of the British occupiers. Menachem Begin would later become one of Israel’s esteemed Prime Ministers.