Israel bade farewell this week to Yossi Harel, the commander of the Exodus and three other illegal immigrant boats that defied a British blockade and brought 25,000 Holocaust survivors to the Promised Land, more than a third of those who sailed from Europe between 1945 and 1948.
He died in Tel Aviv aged 90 and was buried by the Mediterranean at Kibbutz Sdot Yam. He is survived by his American widow, July, and three children.
Veteran novelist Yoram Kaniuk, who served with him in the Palmach commandos and wrote his biography, said: “He was a very brave man, an old-fashioned hero. He was a combination of a very strong man and a very compassionate man. But he didn’t have an ego. He didn’t want to be somebody. Most Israelis didn’t know much about him until after his death.”
Another old comrade, journalist Yuval Elitzur, remembered Harel as a handsome charmer. “He was not a great military genius, but he was a very dedicated person. When he went into business, he pursued it with great charm, but he was not a great businessman.”
When the Royal Navy boarded the Exodus, Harel encouraged the crew and the immigrants to fight back. But when he saw that they had no chance, he surrendered. He feared that many would be killed and that the ship, a converted Mississippi riverboat, would sink. It was years before Ike Aaronowitz, the ship’s professional skipper, forgave him.
When the British packed the survivors back to Europe and interned them in a former Nazi camp in Germany, the Exodus became a propaganda bonanza for the Zionist cause. It inspired a Leon Uris novel and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Paul Newman.
According to Mr Kaniuk, Harel was rare among sabras of his generation in empathising with the survivors. “He really cared about these Jews, who looked so terrible and were so strange. On the ships that he commanded there was music, he arranged lectures.”
But Harel’s military career did not begin or end with the Exodus. Along with Moshe Dayan and Yigal Allon, he was one of the founding generation of Haganah fighters. He learned his trade under the maverick British
colonel Orde Wingate.
He left the military after the War of Independence and studied marine architecture in the United States, but he was called back repeatedly to handle sensitive intelligence tasks. He cleaned up the mess after the Lavon Affair, in which an Israeli spy and sabotage ring was captured in Egypt in 1954.
Moshe Dayan, the Chief of Staff, invited him to investigate the affair, which was still secret. When Harel realised the depth of the disaster, he persuaded Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to dismiss the people who planned the botched operation. Then he rebuilt military intelligence from scratch.