Zionist history's murder mystery

The JC Essay


By Colin Shindler, June 16, 2013
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Arlosoroff, sitting at centre, after convening the meeting of Arab and Jewish leaders at the King David Hotel.

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

Eighty years ago this coming Sunday, Haim Arlosoroff was gunned down during a Friday-night walk with his wife on the Tel Aviv beach. He was 34 and a rising star in the Zionist firmament. He was a respected political thinker - in the words of his biographer, Shlomo Avineri: "the critical student of Marx, Kropotkin and Nietzsche, a product of Russian populism and German Romanticism". His death robbed the future state of a great talent and a potential prime minister.

Arlosoroff's journey to Tel Aviv started in the Ukraine in 1899, where he was known as Vitaly. Facing bloody pogroms, his family fled to East Prussia to escape murder and pillage - and, in Germany, Vitaly became Victor.

He became an activist in the non-Marxist pioneering Zionist party, Hapoel Hatzair. In 1921, he visited Palestine and the disturbances of that year brought home to him that a national movement existed among the Arabs of Palestine. He castigated those Zionists who ignored it, as being "like a doctor who denies the existence of a malady in an obviously sick person because the microbes he finds in the blood of the patient are different from those he is used to seeing under the microscope".

Following his appointment as head of the political department of the Jewish Agency in 1931, Arlosoroff attempted to find a way to defuse the rising tension between Jew and Arab. He discovered that a cash-strapped Emir Abdullah, who ruled the East Bank of the Jordan, was amenable to the idea of selling land to the Zionists from the unpopulated tracts of his country.

Before her marriage to Goebbels, Magda had been Arlosoroff’s lover in Germany

Arlosoroff did not regard all British officials in Palestine as antisemites. Most, he believed, were clueless about Zionism and ignorant about Jewish immigration. "The worldwide Jewish question interests them as much as last year's snow," he said, arguing that many a British administrator became pro-Arab because the figure of the Arab better reflected the imagery of the ruled in the colonial psyche. Such views led to disputes with Ben-Gurion and other labour Zionist luminaries.

After Arlosoroff's murder, suspicion immediately fell on his ideological adversaries in the newly emergent Revisionist movement of Vladimir Jabotinsky. The finger was pointed at one of its leading intellectuals: writer Abba Ahimeir, a recent defector from Hapoel Hatzair.

Ahimeir not only joined the Revisionist movement but became the leader of its maximalist wing. In November 1927, he wrote an article entitled: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" He noted that Rabbi Hillel's saying had been converted into the slogan of Sinn Fein - and said that this should be the Zionist pathway as well. In this and subsequent articles, he argued the case for Italian fascism, at a time when it was not antisemitic.

Passionately anti-Communist, Ahimeir began to sympathise with the national dictatorships that were spreading across Europe. As a teacher of the leaders of the youth group, Betar, he attracted a group of committed followers. Affronted by the continuing Arab disruption of Jewish services at the Western Wall - and without informing the official leadership of Betar in Palestine - they organised a disciplined march to the Wall. The following day, however, a Muslim demonstration took place that ended with the dispersal of Jewish worshippers and the burning of prayer books, with little interference from the police. This was the catalyst for the disturbances of 1929 and the slaying of many Jewish civilians by Arabs - and many Arabs by British troops.

Ahimeir labelled those killed, "martyrs to the building of the Jewish homeland" and asked whether Jewish youth was prepared to do something about this. Young Jews in Palestine and the diaspora such as Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir rallied to the maximalist call.

Ahimeir's network formalised itself by creating Brit Ha'Biryonim, named after the zealots of the Second Temple period. For some the biryonim were recalled as the assassins of the perceived enemies of the Jews, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Significantly, Jews with "moderate" views were especially deemed worthy of assault.

Yet it was Lenin rather than Mussolini who was held up as the exemplar. During one of his lectures to the Brit Ha'Biryonim, Ahimeir commented: "We reject the doctrines and philosophies of Lenin and his followers, but they were correct in their practical path. This is the path of violence, blood and personal sacrifice."

Ahimeir and his acolytes became a thorn in the side of the British and an irritant for the Zionist establishment. Arlosoroff's killing presented the authorities in Palestine with a golden opportunity to liquidate the maximalists.

In the eyes of Brit Ha'Biryonim, Arlosoroff was responsible for the controversial transfer agreement allowing Jews leaving Nazi Germany to depart with some of their belongings. Ben-Gurion had taken a pragmatic view that the Zionists should not provoke the Nazis by initiating "an irresponsible battle against Hitler".

Five weeks after the assassination, the police seized the Revisionist archives and some of Ahimeir's writings. They discovered his unpublished script, The Scroll of the Sicarii, dedicated to two well-known assassins of the past, Charlotte Corday and Fanni "Dora" Kaplan. Ahimeir argued that the legacy of the biryonim was that history changes its course because of "the work of negative heroes - not the divine but the satanic".

Ahimeir suggested that history seemed to permit killing if it was deemed to be for the public good but criminal if conducted for private reasons. He gave the examples of Julius Caesar, William of Orange and Tsar Alexander II. All this was in the realm of intellectual theorising. The British, however, viewed it as concrete evidence.

On the night of the assassination, Ahimeir was lecturing in Jerusalem. The central figure in the case, Avraham Stavsky, had recently arrived in Palestine and was lodging with Ahimeir. That night, Stavsky was staying at the Turjeman hotel in Jerusalem. The police said he had slipped out, travelled to Tel Aviv, committed the act and returned swiftly. Another accused, Ze'ev Rosenblatt, said he had been at a social gathering in Kfar Saba. Ahimeir was seen as the inspiration while Stavsky and Rosenblatt were charged with the actual murder. Ahimeir claimed he and his co-defendants were "the Dreyfus and Beilis of our generation". Initially, Stavsky was sentenced to death but the evidence proved flimsy and the accused were released on appeal. But suspicion between left and right deepened.

Mapai, the leading labour Zionist party, viewed the Revisionists as fascists. The right saw Mapai as ideologically subservient and willing to use dirty tricks to entrap leading nationalists. Although opposed to the radicalism of Brit Ha'Biryonim, Jabotinsky came out in open support of the arrested. While describing Arlosoroff as "an honest, quiet, hard-working Jewish patriot", he described the case as "a lie which has no legs to stand on".

Despite an inability to make the charges stick, the extensive police searches located incendiary material. Although the charges relating to Arlosoroff were formally dropped on May 16 1934, Ahimeir was charged on several counts of sedition a few weeks later and sentenced to 21 months in the Jerusalem Central Prison.

Jabotinsky suspected that the killers had been Arabs, and that it had been part of a chain of events, starting with the mass killings of August 1929 and ending more recently with arson in the Balfour forest. In early 1934, Abdul Majud, a Jaffa Arab claimed responsibility for the killing together with Issa Ibn Darwish. It was portrayed as a fumbled attack to ward off Arlosoroff so that they could sexually assault his wife. A few weeks later, Majud retracted this, stating he had been bribed by the Jewish defendants in prison. He was never cross-examined in court.

In the 1970s, it was suggested that Joseph Goebbels had sent Nazi agents to murder Arlosoroff. Before her marriage to the Nazi leader, Magda Goebbels had been Arlosoroff's lover in Germany. Brought up Catholic with a Jewish stepfather, Magda had even worn a star of David, given to her by Arlosoroff, and attended Zionist meetings. Their ways parted but, weeks before his death, Arlosoroff visited Berlin where he came across a marriage photograph of his old flame, arm-in-arm with Goebbels.

One opposition paper carried the headline: Nazi Chief weds Jewess. After the initial shock, Arlosoroff began to view Magda as his conduit to Goebbels with the aim of securing an arrangement for the transfer of German Jewish assets to Palestine.

According to the German writer, Anja Klabunde, Arlosoroff did talk to Magda and they arranged to meet again. This meeting never took place, but Arlosoroff later received a message from Magda to warn him that he was in danger and should leave Germany immediately.

Despite an inquiry initiated by Begin in the 1980s, all theories remain within the confines of conjecture. An accidental bungling? A well-planned assassination? Unlike contemporary TV drama, this mystery remains unsolved. As time recedes, it is unlikely we will ever know the identity of the killers of Haim Arlosoroff.

Colin Shindler's 'History of Modern Israel' has been published by Cambridge University Press in an updated second edition

Last updated: 10:45am, June 16 2013