Israel Eldad, member of the Lehi central committee and its foremost ideologue and public intellectual, was born in eastern Galicia in 1910, in the town of Pidvolochysk, on the banks of the Zbruch River in the Ternopil region. The Jews were two-thirds of the town, and the community was lively, consisting of three groups: a) the intelligentsia; b) the common folk, who were quite Zionistic; and c) the ultra-Orthodox. Zionist activities were very popular, with classes to learn Hebrew.
Eldad’s original family name was Scheib, and his father Leib was a Zionist, well-educated but self-taught. The rest of Leib’s family had moved to America, leaving him alone in the town. He always wanted to immigrate to Eretz Israel; his Zionism was unalloyed, not religious or socialist. Leib played a prominent role in his son’s developing worldview, planting in him a love of intellectual pursuits and Zionism. Leib maintained Jewish tradition, though he was liberal. He went to synagogue and did not travel or smoke on the Sabbath, but he did not cover his head.
Leib was a fantastic craftsman, and he made the furniture and the children’s toys by hand. His wife, Fruma Laufer, was from a Hasidic family. A dynamic, skilled and resourceful woman, she married Leib at age seventeen, out of passionate love, over her parents’ objections. Israel said, “From her I inherited creativity and a love of life.” Until the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Leib made his living as a miller. Israel spent his first four years in Pidvolochysk, but the family was forced to leave with the onset of World War I, as Leib had no desire to be drafted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He did not want to die in a war that was not his, so the family of five set out on their way, suffering poverty and oppression in the city of Ternopil. Finally, in 1918, they arrived in Lviv, shortly before a pogrom against the Jews at the hands of the Polish Army. Leib opened a bakery and barely eked out a living.
Leib designated Israel for greatness. He wanted his son to be a writer, as Israel showed great skills even as a youth. After four years in a Polish school, he was sent to the humanist Jewish gymnasium. At the same time, Leib hired a tutor to teach him Hebrew and Jewish studies, while he attended night classes at the Suk School for three years, until he was fourteen. In the gymnasium, Israel began to display his obstinate character and his yearning for independence, leaving home at 16½ to attend the gymnasium in Lodz. During those years (1927-1929), he developed his right-wing worldview and his intellectual personality. He was exposed to Ahad Ha’am, who sought to establish a “Jewish spiritual center.” Israel, on the other hand, sided with Herzl’s political Zionism. In philosophy, he was attracted to Nietzsche. In 1928, he heard that Jabotinsky was coming to Lodz, and he was inspired by his words about establishing a Jewish state, even though he had not yet decided to join the Revisionist movement. At age 18, he returned to his parents’ home in Lviv in order to make a decision about his future.
Ignoring his attraction to the theater, he chose to enroll at the Rabbinical Seminary of Vienna for religious studies and the University of Vienna to pursue a doctorate in philosophy, spending six years there. During this time, his political views became more solidified. After the 1929 Arab riots, he protested the massacres of Jews in Hebron and Safed. Uri Zvi Greenberg’s poem “I’ll Tell It to a Child,” about a people unready for their messiah, made a tremendous impact: an earthquake of the heart, a clarion call. In 1932, Israel met Greenberg, which noticeably increased his regard for him. Under the influence of his friend, Dr. Wolfgang von Weisl, Israel began participating in political debates in the Revisionist Party, which he already identified with ideologically. In 1932, he also met Batya Waschitz, daughter of a Hasidic merchant, whom he would marry in 1937.
While he was still in Vienna, his father died in Poland. He received his PhD in July and completed his rabbinical studies, although he never took his final exams for the latter. In the summer of 1935 he began teaching high school in Wołkowysk. He also published articles in Revisionist Zionist journals, becoming famous throughout Poland, and became the commander of the local Beitar section. When his gymnasium closed, he moved to the Teachers Seminary in Vilnius in 1937, continuing to publish and express his opposition to the policy of restraint being followed in Eretz Israel.
On September 18th, 1938, at the Third Beitar Conference, which addressed the aggressive moves of Hitler, he supported the view of Begin, who opposed Jabotinsky’s moderate stance about the situation in Eretz Israel and in Europe. For the first time, he became acquainted with Avraham “Yair” Stern, who explained IZL’s confrontational, combative stance. Fired from the Teachers Seminary, Israel decided to move to Warsaw in August 1939, working in the editorial staff of Der Moment. He also was appointed as the head of Beitar’s cultural department.
With the outbreak of World War II, the leadership of Beitar decided to leave Warsaw and Poland as a whole and to try to get to Eretz Israel. Israel reached Vilnius together with Natan Yellin-Mor, who would also eventually become a Lehi central committee member, and they used forged documents to get away from the Soviet occupation and make it to Turkey, where they learnt of the schism in IZL. Most of the people, Israel included, would join Yair when they made their way to Eretz Israel.
In April 1941, he arrived on the shores of Haifa. At first he lived in Jerusalem. He met Yair and joined Lehi, finding his first employment in the Bialik Institute, based on the recommendation of his childhood friend, Dr. Kurtz.
Late in 1941, he and Batya arrived in Tel Aviv, and he started publishing essays in the Revisionist newspaper HaMashkif. He became acquainted with Yair in the underground, and he began writing an elaboration of the 18 Principles of Rebirth. However, it was never published, according to Israel, “because of the intense passion and sophisticated language, of which Yair did not approve.” Israel, together with Yair, edited the Lehi newspaper BaMahteret, which demanded that despite the war against the Nazi menace, the battle against the occupier of the Hebrew homeland must continue. After Yair’s murder, Israel continued to write (known at that time by the nom de guerre Sambatyon) in the underground newspaper, composing leaflets against Jewish enlistment in the British Army. He wrote: “We are opening a second front against Britain, that of the Hebrew nation, the front which will determine our fate not just in the present, but for all generations, the front of liberation!” In Avnei Yesod (Foundation Stones), which appeared in 1943, he expanded the principles of the war of liberation, based on Yair’s 18 Principles of Rebirth. “Zionism as a philanthropic movement is bankrupt; its aim must be conquering the land, and only afterwards can it turn to the ingathering of exiles.” After fleeing from Mizra, Yitzhak Shamir reorganized Lehi and put Israel in the central committee, together with Natan Yellin-Mor. Israel’s role was to be the ideologue. Until he was imprisoned in 1944, he edited HaHazit. He was a partner in all of the important operations, including the assassinations of Lord Moyne and High Commissioner MacMichael (attempted). Eldad carried on Yair’s ideas, articulating the underground’s goals as going beyond fighting local British authority to the British Empire as a whole, beyond the borders of Eretz Israel.
Throughout this time, Israel was a teacher in the Ben-Yehuda Gymnasium in Tel Aviv. Rumors of his membership in Lehi were flying among the members of Etzel and the Revisionist Party, and they knew the police were after him. Three days before he was to retire, from teaching and go underground, on April 26th, 1944, the police came to arrest him in the middle of a lesson. Eldad decided to flee! Trying to escape, he darted into the residence of one of his students, slipping into the bathroom and climbing out the window on a sewerage pipe. However, he slipped and fell, injuring himself seriously. He was captured and taken to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, put in a full body cast and under heavy guard. He was then moved to the infirmary in the central prison in Jerusalem. He met Rabbi Arieh Levin, the prison chaplain, and the two became good friends. Despite his cast, he continued to write for HaHazit essays such as “Forty Years after Herzl,” “Expressionist Politics,” and “Worthwhile Debate.” There the trials of recently-arrested Lehi members were set to begin. Under Eldad’s direction, their trials would be reversed; the Lehi members would go from the accused to the accusers, indicting the British authorities for occupying the homeland of the Hebrew nation. On September 1st, 1944, he was transferred to Latrun, where he continued his ideological activities.
On June 7th, 1946, two years after he was arrested, while he was being examined by Dr. Troy in his clinic, Eldad was freed in a daring operation by Lehi men, under the command of “Blond Dov” Granek, and he was relocated to a safe-house in Bnei Brak, where he resumed his duties as a member of the Lehi central committee. Until Lehi left the underground, Eldad dedicated most of his time to writing in the underground newspapers and lecturing in ideological courses. At the same time, Eldad and Gera had some differences, concerning the “neutralization of the Middle East” and the pro-Soviet orientation. Eldad supported an independent foreign policy. After the UN Resolution, he published with Gera a declaration opposing the Partition of Palestine. In late 1947, Eldad was part of the editorial staff of Lehi’s daily paper, HaMivrak, which was published in Jerusalem. Before the Declaration of Independence, he negotiated with Levi Eshkol and Yitzhak Sadeh about recruiting Lehi men into the Israel Defense Forces. Eldad himself decided to move to Jerusalem and to fight for its liberation and annexation to the State of Israel. On September 17th, 1948, the central committee of Lehi decided to assassinate Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN representative, for the crime of trying to force an agreement which would require Israel to relinquish much of Eretz Israel and to hand over Jerusalem to the Arabs, annexing it to Jordan. Eldad called this operation “the greatest gift that Lehi gave to the people of Israel.”
Once the battles died down, the Fighters’ Party was established with Lehi veterans, with two ideological camps: one was headed by Gera and Michael and was a revolutionary socialist party, while the second was headed by Eldad, who wanted to establish an educational movement for the philosophy of the freedom of Israel. Gera was chosen to be the representative of this party, and this caused Eldad to lose all interest, and he left soon afterwards. The party fell apart after two years.
In the spring of 1949, he founded Sulam, in which he explained the kingship of Israel as the synthesis of messianic, redemptive values and concrete Zionistic values. At the same time, Ben-Gurion ordered for him to be fired from his teaching position at the gymnasium, even though he had won his Supreme Court appeal, and he eked out a living by translating and editing books.
In 1953, he moved to Jerusalem and published a newspaper called Divrei HaYamim which described historical events in fresh language. Due to the trial and murder of Rudolf Kastner, Eldad was accused of membership in a terrorist organization and publicizing seditious and treasonous material; this never came to trial. In the 50s and 60s, he published two books: The First Tithe, the story of his lfie in the underground, and Biblical Musings on the Pentateuch. He translated the works of Nietzsche into Hebrew; for this he won the Tchernichovsky Prize. In the 70s, he lectured as a professor of the humanities in the Technion in Haifa.
He added many books over the years: Accent Mark, Holiday Musings, Israeli Musings and Judean Musings, collections of essays about Jewish thought. He also wrote The Jerusalem Challenge with his son Arieh. He was one of the founders of the Greater Israel movement after the Six-Day War. Eldad attempted to make it into parliamentary life in Israel, with the Knesset elections in 1969, heading up the independent Ken list, but it did not pass the electoral threshold.
After the victory of Herut in 1977, Eldad volunteered his services to Begin, but he was rebuffed. After the Camp David Accords, the rift with Begin only grew, and Eldad was one of the founders of the Tehiya movement. In 1987-1988, he received the Jabotinsky Prize in New York and the Bialik Prize for Jewish thought.
With the wave of Soviet immigration in 1991, he travelled to Eastern Europe. As elections approached, he tried without success to unite the small nationalist parties, but he rejected the offer of the Moledet Party to be its head.
He opposed the Madrid Conference. He saw the Oslo Accords as a betrayal of Zionism, accepting the partition of the homeland, in opposition to Yair’s ideology.
He was only happy in God’s little acre—the bosom of his family. His wife, Batya, had a successful career as a social worker. His daughter Naama followed in her footsteps. His son, Brig. Gen. Arieh Eldad, served as the Chief Medical Officer of the Israel Defense Forces. Eldad and Batya had seven grandchildren.
Israel Eldad was a freedom fighter, an intellectual, a writer, translator and publisher, an ideologue and a teacher with tens of thousands of students. He defined himself as a Zionist educator. His greatest cause was “the philosophy of the freedom of Israel, without fear and without compromise.”
Eldad passed away in his home in Jerusalem on January 22nd, 1996. He was buried on the Mt. of Olives, overlooking the Temple Mount, not far from the grave of poet Uri Zvi Greenberg.