Review: The Reckoning: How the Killing of One Man Changed the Fate of the Promised Land, by Patrick Bishop

This is the story of the killing of Avraham “Yair” Stern, the leader of the Jewish underground group in Palestine that bore his name, by a British police officer in Tel Aviv in 1942. Patrick Bishop is an accomplished historian and this book is exceptionally well-written and well-researched.

It is a very difficult subject to tackle, as it deals with conflicting narratives. From the point of view of the British, Stern was a “Chicago gangster” who needed to be “liquidated”. To his followers, Stern was a freedom fighter. One of those followers, Yitzhak Shamir, eventually became Israel’s prime minister and over time, Stern increasingly came to be seen as one of the country’s founding heroes. There is a state museum in his honour, and streets are named after him.

Patrick Bishop is not a big fan of Stern, to put it mildly, and this becomes increasingly clear as the book progresses. He describes Stern as something of a dandy, down to his silk socks, a negligent husband, vain, arrogant and a personal coward (he never seems to have fired a weapon and never took part in the operations carried out by his group). The British police officer, Morton, who killed him is portrayed as his opposite: a good, honest family man. The contrast could not be more striking.

The portrayal of Stern as entirely evil and Morton as entirely good falls apart in the final pages of the book. For more than 200 pages one is led to believe that Morton, like the mythological George Washington, could never tell a lie. The story he told was that Stern attempted to escape and was possibly going to trigger a bomb that would have killed everyone in the room. When this story was challenged by various historians, Morton sued them for libel — and all his suits were successful.

And yet more than four decades after Stern’s killing, one of the policemen in the room when Morton shot Stern came forward with a different narrative — one in which Morton deliberately killed the defenceless and unarmed Stern in cold blood.

The entire narrative about Morton’s spotlessly clean record fell apart as I read those final passages in the book. Well done to Patrick Bishop for fearlessly including evidence that undermines a simplistic view of the two men, Stern and Morton, who confronted each other on that fateful day.