Chaim Arlosoroff as the Story of Israel

Some stories have everything, and the story of Chaim Arlosoroff is one of them. Murder, politics, diplomacy, Nazis, moral ambiguity and sex with Nazis: the story of Arlosoroff has all these things. Yet above all the life and tragic early death of Arlosoroff is very much the story of Israel embodied in a single drama. I am indebted to Dr. Charles Landau for giving a fascinating lecture on the topic last week at the London School of Jewish Studies.

There is a memorial to Chaim Arlosoroff on the exact spot of the Tel Aviv beachfront promenade where he was gunned down next to his wife Sima in 1933. It’s right outside the Tel Aviv Hilton. There are streets all over Israel named for Arlosoroff, yet surprisingly few Israelis know much about him. This is odd as well as unfortunate. The shooting of Arlosoroff is an intriguing unsolved case of murder, and the victim was a young but important Zionist leader favoured by David Ben Gurion. In fact, Arlosoroff would likely have been a Prime Minister of Israel had he lived. Yet this proud and committed Jewish leader found himself attacked for treason and collaboration with the Nazis, of all people. Thirty years ago in March of 1982, Menachem Begin would launch a Judicial Commission of Enquiry into the killing to finally settle the question of who committed the murder and why. The anniversary of that failed investigation encouraged this post.

The 8-foot tall bronze monument to Arlosoroff, Tel Aviv

The grandson of a rabbi but a child of non-religious parents, Arlosoroff was born in the Ukraine in 1899. Like many Jewish children of that time and place, he was to encounter vicious anti-Semitism early on. In 1905 his family home was attacked in a pogrom, and the family fled to Germany. He thrived there as a student at the Gymnasium, and studied economics at the University of Berlin. Arlosoroff was a bit of a wunderkind, a gifted writer on political matters and just about everything else. He was immersed in Goethe and Schiller, yet also studied Hebrew with a private tutor and quickly became a leader in the Labour Zionist movement in Germany. He received a doctorate by the age of 24, but turned down a professorship to live in the land of Israel. Two years later he was representing the Yishuv (organised Jewish community) at the League of Nations. A fascinating letter he wrote to his German literature teacher at the age of 17 reveals much about him:

“I am a Jew, and I feel strong and proud of my Jewishness. I feel it in my bones that I am different from a German, and it would never occur to me to deny this… My soul yearns for the unique, ancient Hebrew culture – but I also like German culture, and perhaps I am also afraid to admit how great my love for it is… Yet Goethe and Schiller never really touched my heart closely. They fill me with awe and wonder, I get excited by them as by a powerful and magnificent natural phenomenon, which reveals itself to men in all its sublime glory. But I cannot live in them and for them”.

Soon he was the tireless political head of the Jewish Agency. Strongly believing in outreach to the Arab community, in April 1933 Arlosoroff organized a historic luncheon at the King David Hotel on behalf of the Jewish Agency, inviting Chaim Weizmann and prominent Arab leaders like the Emir Abdullah of Transjordan. Not everybody in the Arab and Jewish communities were thrilled by this. Arlosoroff would earn the particular scorn of the Revisionist Zionists for his dovish positions; Revisionist Zionism being the less compromising, territorial maximalist movement that was the main rival of the Labour Zionists at the time. They felt Arlosoroff was undermining their goal of an independent Jewish state in favour of a bi-national one. Fiery threats were made.

Arlosoroff, sitting at centre, after convening the meeting of Arab and Jewish leaders at the King David Hotel.

The Haavara Agreement

Then the Nazis came to power in Germany. Assisting the Jews of the country he so loved became Arlosoroff’s top priority. Other Jews had also rushed to action in response to Nazi anti-Semitism. American Jewish leaders began deliberating on a boycott in March of 1933. Some were vociferously opposed to such action, fearing it would cause even more trouble for the Jews in Germany. However, Rabbi Stephen Wise, American Jewry’s most prominent rabbi and communal leader declared “we must speak out” and “if that is unavailing, at least we shall have spoken”. A rally of 55,000 was held at Madison Square Garden with about 70 similar rallies held in other cities in parallel with it. Jews were joined by labour and political leaders as well as Christian clergy.

The Nazis were furious. Goebbels wrote in his diaries about “international atrocity propaganda” and the need for “mental conquest” of the entire world. The result was a vicious Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, with all its notorious imagery of Brownshirts outside Jewish stores and Stars of David painted on their windows. Jews were fired from government positions and forbidden from leaving the country without special exit visas.

In stepped Arlosoroff. In the past, Jewish communities that sought to plead their case with the ruling powers of the day had the shtadlan, an intercessor, to plead their case. Arlosoroff was a successor to that tradition, though in an unusual manner. The Nazis did not like the Jewish people, and the Zionists needed more of them. Arlosoroff saw common ground.

Now, many wonder why such people as the Nazis would bother negotiating on this matter. But they did. The Nazis were devoted anti-Semites, who believed in what the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion taught them. That is, all that stuff about Jewish Zionist power. The new regime needed to have some level of respectability to outside nations. As fiercely anti-Semitic as they were, Hitler and Goebbels did not appreciate the sight of pogroms, and in declaring a boycott the leadership actually urged the people against engaging in any violence. When the Nazis murdered Jews, they murdered in the most orderly and efficient manner in the history of genocides, and during a war when world attention was consumed with the fighting. Even then, they would shamelessly declare that Jews were the only people profiting from the World War II.

Arlosoroff went to Germany to negotiate the transfer (ha’avara) of Jews out of the country to the British Mandate of Palestine, in a way that would allow them to take most of their property. While the Nazis had permitted Jews to emigrate and were happy to see it, they used the opportunity to confiscate virtually all emigrant Jewish assets. Arlosoroff negotiated an arrangement that had already been used by a Zionist citrus planting company, Hanotea. The Haavara Agreement allowed the Zionist movement to set up a company (Haavara Ltd.) that required emigrant Jews to pay money into their special account, which was then used to purchase German goods useful for developing Jewish enterprise in Palestine. The proceeds of the sale of these goods were given to the Jews when they arrived in the country.

While initially critical of the idea, Hitler came to support it despite staunch opposition among many Nazi leaders to negotiating with Jews and helping boost the Zionist project. Many Nazi voices, such as the head of the Middle Eastern division of the foreign ministry, Werner Otto von Hentig, supported the policy of concentrating Jews in Palestine as a way of getting rid of Jewish anti-German elements. It also overcame the Jewish anti-Nazi boycott, as Jews purchased the goods.

The Zionist reaction was mixed. The Revisionists, particularly a secret radical branch, Brit HaBiryonim, expressed extreme criticism of Mapai (the left-wing socialist party in which Ben Gurion and Arlosoroff were leaders), due to their willingness to negotiate with the Nazi government. The esteemed leader of the Revisionist faction, Vladimir Jabotinsky, believed that the Yishuv should have been at the forefront of the anti-Nazi boycott and other anti-Nazi endeavours  This was very much in line with Revisionist ideology. Now, I happen to personally sympathise with some of the Revisionist outlook and I admire Jabotinsky’s staunch anti-socialism, and the non-socialist alternative they provided in the Zionist movement (along with Liberal Zionists like Chaim Weizmann). Yet the Revisionists often appear to me to be like hotheads with too much to prove; something like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. An apt description of their mentality comes from the mouth of a kibbutznik character in Amos Oz’s ‘A Tale of Love and Darkness, who says of Menachem Begin:

“[He’s] a sort of lapsed yeshiva bocher, who believes that if we Jews start shouting at the top of our voices that we’re not the way Jews used to be, we’re not sheep for the slaughter, we’re not pale weaklings but the opposite, we’re dangerous now, we’re terrifying wolves now, then all the real beasts of prey will be scared of us and give us everything we want, they’ll let us have the whole land, they’ll let us take all the holy places, swallow up Trans-Jordan, and be treated with respect and admiration by the whole civilised world as well”.

Revisionist criticism of Arlosoroff, already intense, became so fierce that it is said an ‘atmosphere of hate’ spread all over the Yishuv. Arlosoroff and his associates were said by Brit HaBiryonim to have committed treason against the Jewish people, and there was definite incitement to extreme responses. Leah Rabin, widow of Yitzhak Rabin, has expressed a lot of sympathy with Arlosoroff, finding his tribulations and that of her husband to be similar. There is much to be said for this.

My own position on the Haavara Agreement is supportive. Negotiating with Nazis should be a moral imperative if it can lead to saving Jewish lives. This the agreement did. 60,000 Jews transferred from Germany escaped persecution and probable death. The economic gains for the Yishuv were enormous. $100 million dollars at the then value came to Palestine, along with an industrial and agricultural infrastructure highly beneficial for a soon to be independent Jewish nation. While the German economy benefited, it was overall a very small and marginal aspect of the German economy. The equipment transferred from Germany, like irrigation tools and tractors also necessitated a continuing spare parts industry, which only stopped with the beginning of war in 1939. In the midst of a global economic depression, Palestine saw an economic boom that doubled the size of the Jewish population. The number of commercial firms went from around 600 to 14,000. The wealth, education and entrepreneurship of the German Jews were especially welcome.

Yet not all were satisfied.

Assassination, Suspicion and Trial

Arlosoroff returned from Europe to Jerusalem on June 14th, 1933. His extended trip had included a round of negotiation with the Nazis. He then settled some business at the offices of the Jewish Agency before leaving for his home in Tel Aviv on Friday 16th, in time for the weekend which his wife Sima planned to spend in the countryside. Arriving at his house at 5:15PM, the couple decided to dine at a beachfront hotel that night. They had dinner at 8:30, which lasted approximately for one hour, and at 9:30 went for a walk northward along the beach towards the Yarkon River. At some point Sima felt they were being followed by two men, but Chaim dismissed it. When the couple turned back at the end of the shoreline they came by the two men Sima was suspicious of, who walked ahead in front of them. At 10PM they encountered the men again. One man, the taller of the two, suddenly came close and shone a flashlight into Chaim Arlosoroff’s face and demanded to know the time. Annoyed, Arlosoroff told him not to bother them. The shorter man made what Sima later described as an ‘Oriental gesture’ with his hands and took out a gun. The taller man quickly turned out the light, and the other shot Arlosoroff.

Bystanders who had heard gunshots and Sima’s cries rushed towards them, and brought the wounded Arlosoroff to a hospital. He drifted in and out of consciousness and died at 12:45AM Saturday morning.

The description of the killers that Sima gave to the police went out on the official police blotter, which was carried in all the country’s newspapers:

[The man who held the flashlight] Suspect Number 1: Male, taller than average, large build, age 30-40, clean-shaven, full face, light-skinned, tough expression, brownish-reddish hair, stands with legs apart, has a duck-like walk. Wearing a dark suit in a European style – black or dark blue – and the stitching may be in a ‘double-breasted’ style. Collar or long tie. Wearing shoes, speaks without accent.

[The man who fired the gun] Suspect Number 2: Male, short, thin, fit body, age 30, dark Oriental type, long nose, unshaven, tough expression, dark hair, wearing a dark suit in a European style with irregular stripes. We think that he is wearing a gray hat and shoes. He makes Oriental movements with his hands.

A 500 lira reward was offered by the police to anyone with any information on the suspects. The Jewish Agency offered its own 1000 lira reward.

Yitzchak Halutz, a clerk in the Immigration Department in Jerusalem, saw the police blotter on June 17th. The description of Suspect Number 1 reminded him of Avraham Stavsky, a Revisionist Zionist activist and member of Beitar, the Revisionist Zionist youth movement. Stavsky had applied for an exit visa in order to visit Poland, in order to engage in outreach and recruitment for the Revisionist party. His application was refused and he had spoken to Halutz in person the day before to get his application fee returned. Halutz supplied a photo of Stavsky to the police. Stavsky’s plan to leave the country raised alarm bells. He was apprehended at his home in Tel Aviv on the morning of June 19th.

Suspect Number 2 was identified as Ze’ev Rosenblatt, a Beitar member from Kvar Sava. He was suspected by a fellow member of his local Beitar group, Rivka Feigin. She told Mapai authorities that she had overheard an editor of a Revisionist newspaper Hazit Ha’am saying he was certain Rosenblatt was Suspect Number 2. Mapai went to the police. Rosenblatt was arrested 37 days after the murder, on July 23, at his local Beitar camp in Kfar Sava. He denied the charge, claiming that he was at a Revisionist party meeting in Kfar Sava the night of the murder.

A third suspect, Abba Achimeir, was also arrested on the week following the assassination. He was linked to the murder solely because he co-founded Brit Habiryonim, a secret organisation that advocated violent measures against the British for Jewish independence. He was eventually acquitted because of there was not enough evidence to try him.

Most in Mapai suspected the Revisionists, although some suspected Arabs attempting to rape Arlosoroff’s wife, or Communists. There were and are a variety of other theories. At first the Revisionists completely denied any involvement. They also made no attempt to defend Stavsky or Rosenblatt. Embarrassed and worried, they tried to distance themselves from Stavsky and even claimed he was a Communist. Jabotinsky eventually weighed in on Stavsky’s side in a party newspaper on July 22. He accused Mapai of creating a Blood Libel against the Revisionists. He further accused the party of exploiting the murder for political gain. Some Revisionists insisted that Mapai itself killed Arlosoroff, in order to defame the opposition

That was not the most unusual theory. Some have linked Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels to the murder, as there has been some speculation that Arlosoroff was sleeping with his wife, Magda Goebbels (n. Behrend). Arlosoroff, though not the most attractive of men, was known to have a way with women, almost like the male equivalent of Scarlett O’ Hara as she was described in Margarett Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. The Nazis were suspected of ordering the killing in order to bury the potentially explosive story. This has never been proven. Interestingly, however, during the First World War, Ms. Behrend met and became very close friends with Lisa Arlosoroff, Chaim Arlosoroff’s sister. One theory goes that because of Arlosoroff’s role in the transfer agreement, Goebbels became acutely aware of his wife’s former Jewish friend and sought to erase what might have been an embarrassment for the family. Magda’s happened to have a Jewish stepfather, Richard Friedländer, who was arrested on Goebbels orders and perished in the concentration camp in 1938. Yet others have blamed the Soviets for acting against what they considered an alliance against them.

The case was further complicated by the figure of Abdul Majud. Majud was an Arab arrested after the murder of Arlosoroff for a different murder. Majud announced in January 1934, a few months before the trial of Stavsky and Rosenblatt began, that an associate of his called Issa Ibn Darwish had killed Arlosoroff. He claimed they were both walking on the beach and he had asked Chaim Arlosoroff the time, and used a flashlight to help him see his watch. Darwish then shot him, but Majud insisted he had not intended to murder anyone or even known who Arlosoroff was. This story turned out to be completely false; Stavsky and Rosenblatt had paid Majud to take the blame when they met him in prison. Sima Arlosoroff never recognised either Arab man in a line-up, and Majud never testified at the trial. The bribe by Stavsky and Rosenblatt went against them.

The trial began in May 1934, and ended a week before the first anniversary of Arlosoroff’s murder. The prosecution mostly rested on Sima’s eyewitness account. However, some of this proved problematic. Sima had been shown Halutz’s photo of Stavsky before she went on to identify him at the line-up. Stavsky looked very distinct from the rest of the men there and it was argued this was done deliberately to make him stand out more.

In regards to Rosenblatt, Sima was given nine jackets to identify, one of which belonged to him. She picked out Rosenblatt’s jacket as the one worn by Suspect Number 2, particularly because of its zig-zag pattern and red colour. The prosecution argued that the zig-zag pattern was a common design, as it was at the time. They also claimed there was no way that Sima could have been able to see the colour red at that time of night.

Four people testified that they saw Stavsky in the Sharon Restaurant in Jerusalem that night, and that he was still there by 8:45 PM. This would not have given him enough time to get to Tel Aviv by the time of the murder. Members of the police who had been there that evening disputed this.

Rosenblatt claimed he was at a political meeting in Kfar Saba on the night of the killing. However, his credibility was called into question because he originally said that he was at a party. Several witnesses who were at the meeting corroborated this, but their individual stories did not always match. The minutes of the meeting were also presented showing Rosenblatt had took part, but the prosecution argued they were distorted to assist him as they were written in quite a different fashion than the group’s notes normally were. However, due to it being a Friday night, the regular secretary was not taking notes because she was Shabbat observant. Thus Beitar were using a temporary replacement.

An important pillar for the defence was that because Arlosoroff was in Europe until June 14th, and his arrival in Palestine was unexpected (Sima did not know when he would be returning) his political opponents surely could not have known either. Even if organised the murder after he returned, the suspects would have had no way of knowing that he would be on the beach at that time on Friday night. Until Friday afternoon, the Arlosoroffs themselves had planned to be out of the city.

The defence always contended that the crime was an impromptu attempt at sexual assault or rape of Sima by two other men. As the men did not cover their faces and the shooter did not immediately fire, they argued murder was not the goal. In fact, it was claimed that what Sima dubbed Suspect Number 2’s ‘Oriental gesture’ before the gun was fired was a sexual one.

The trial saw Rosenblatt acquitted and Stavsky found guilty. The latter verdict was overturned on appeal. Neither the killers nor the motive for the killing were ever found.

The murder of Arlosoroff and the subsequent manhunt highlight the internal dynamics of the Zionist movement and Israel’s turbulent founding. The drama was an important landmark in the internal relations of the Jews in pre-state Israel, and its resonance has echoed throughout Israeli history, as the opinions of Leah Rabin show.

In early 1982, approximately fifty years after the murder, the Israeli historian Shabtai Teveth published a bestselling book on the assassination and trial. Teveth’s position was that one of the accused Revisionists was probably guilty: Avraham Stavsky. This offended the then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the former Irgun leader of strong Revisionist pedigree. The release of the book strongly increased the Israeli public’s interest in the case. Thus a Judicial Commission of Inquiry was set up, headed by former High Court of Justice Judge David Bachor. The Committee found no new evidence about the case, and was inconclusive about the identity of the killers and the motive. However, it decided unanimously that neither Rosenblatt nor Stavsky were connected to the killing.

The Story of Israel

There is an absolutely fascinating connection, however, to the assassination of Arlosoroff and a subsequent incident where Revisionists and the pragmatists of Ben Gurion clashed once more. That was the Altalena Affair. The legendary armed Revisionist force under Menachem Begin, known as the Irgun, signed an agreement with Ben Gurion’s aide Israel Galili on 1-2 June 1948 incorporating itself into the newly-formed IDF, which Ben Gurion’s new government had created as the successor to the Haganah. Begin transferred his troops as separate battalions within two IDF Brigades (Giv’ati and Alexandroni). The Irgun units in Jerusalem remained independent.

Yet on 19-20 June there occurred what Ben Gurion deemed a rebellion. An Irgun ship called Altalena embarked from France full of weapons and immigrants. The Irgun demanded the weapons be distributed to ‘its’ battalions and the independent Irgun fighters in Jerusalem. The government refused. Then, without government permission, the Irgun took over a beach north of Netanya and began to unload the immigrants and arms. A firefight ensued when the IDF surrounded the Irgun on the beach. The Irgun eventually surrendered to the IDF, but the Altalena set sail for Tel Aviv. There the IDF, under orders from Ben Gurion, fired on the ship with artillery, and it soon sank with much of the arms lost. Palmach troops then raided Irgun headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv, and the Irgun brigades within the IDF were disbanded.  Begin refrained from igniting civil war; for the good of the war existing effort and because his men were vastly outnumbered. The Irgun troops continued to serve in the IDF but no longer as independent battalions. The Irgun and Lehi fighters in Jerusalem stayed independent until a crackdown on all dissidents after the Bernadotte assassination.

The memorial commemorating the fallen Irgun of the Altalena Affair is just a few yards from the 8-foot bronze memorial for Chaim Arlosoroff. Below is a photo. Readers of Hebrew will have no difficulty identifying the fifth, particularly interesting name down on the left: Avraham Stavsky.

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About Cranky Notions
Reactionary. That fella from the Norris scandal.

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