Murder on the Tel Aviv Beach ...
The strange, unsolved—and ominous—mystery of Chaim Arlosoroff
Just after dark on the evening of June 16, 1933 (88 years ago today, precisely), Chaim Arlosoroff and his wife, Sima, went for a stroll on the Tel Aviv beach.
Arlosoroff was the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department and effectively the foreign minister of the yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine. As he and Sima walked along the beach, two men approached out of the dark, one shining a flashlight in Arlosoroff’s face while the other pulled out a gun and fired. Arlosoroff died on the operating table a few hours later.
We’ll never know if Arlosoroff would have been killed had he not, years earlier, had an affair with the woman who would become the wife of Joseph Goebbels (Hitler’s infamous Minister of Propaganda.) We’ll come back to that very strange twist, or tryst, below. But what we do know is that Arlosoroff was the first political assassination in the history of the yishuv/Israel. He’s worth recalling today not only for that, but even more ominously, because segments of Israeli society seem determined to replicate the circumstances that led to his murder.
In an earlier posting, “Picture the protesters, they’re worth a thousand terrifying words,” we spoke about the political environment that had Israel in its grips as the Yair Lapid / Naftali Bennett coalition seemed to be taking shape. Not much has changed since then. True, Israel has made it past some hurdles: whether you like the coalition or not, Israel at least has a government, and might succeed in passing a budget for the first time in two years. Bennett has managed to stay alive not only politically, but actually alive, thanks to Shin Bet security that he was provided earlier than would otherwise have been the case.
But the accusations of treason are hardly over. At yesterday’s Flag Parade in Jerusalem, which mercifully passed without major incident, one could see more than a few protesters holding up signs with the words “Bennett, shakran”—Bennett, The Liar. That, of course, is precisely what was said about Rabin, who was also, like Bennett, called a traitor.
A couple of weeks ago, Rabbi Chaim Druckman and several other leading religious figures on the hard right issued a letter calling on their followers to “do everything” to ensure that the “change government” (as the Lapid/Bennett government is known) did not come into power. Druckman adamantly denied accusations (including suggestions by the Shin Bet) that he was engaging in incitement, but he has certainly done nothing to try to calm the winds.
Everyone is labelling Bennett with what to them is the worst thing one can say about an Israeli leader. Bibi and his frantic now-in-the-opposition-minions are calling Bennett a “leftist,” despite the fact that Bennett is almost certainly to the right of Bibi on a host of issues (and despite the irony that it was the Left that founded and built this country). The ultra-Orthodox, who don’t like him only because they made a tactical error in tying themselves to Netanyahu and now find themselves outside the coalition, are calling Bennett “Reform.”
That’s actually good, since we can all use a chuckle these days.
What all these appellations and accusations have in common is their portraying Bennett as the arch-enemy of Israel’s security, and thus, of the Jewish people’s future. Which is why one cannot help but think about Yitzchak Rabin these days, and why, today, we should also be thinking of Chaim Arlosoroff.
That brings us back not only to Arlosoroff and Sima, but also Magda Ritschel, who inadvertently became part of Jewish history and Israeli lore in the most unlikely of manners.
Arlosoroff had moved with his family from Ukraine to Tel Aviv in 1924 to escape pogroms. On the way to Palestine, he spent time in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics and where he also met and had his affair with Magda. Their relationship didn’t last, and after Magda had relationships with a variety of other Jewish men, she eventually married Joseph Goebbels, the notorious Nazis propagandizer.
In June 1933, after having risen to the top of the Yishuv’s leadership, by which point the Nazis were in power and Hitler’s plans were taking shape, Arlosoroff actually returned to Germany. The purpose of his trip was to negotiate with German officials—apparently using contacts through Magda, his former mistress, by now married to Goebbels—to gain access to the people he needed to see. He hoped to advance a plan he had hatched called the “Transfer Agreement” that would allow German Jews to leave Germany without having to forfeit all their assets. Jews emigrating from Germany would deposit their money in a fund that was made available to Palestinian banks. Those banks would then purchase German goods that were shipped to Palestine. In Palestine, merchants would purchase the goods, and the money from the purchase would then be returned to the Jews who had emigrated from Germany.
It was a crazy and complicated plan, but the idea was that everyone would benefit. Germany got rid of Jews it did not want (at that point, Germany only wanted the Jews out of the country; the Final Solution would follow later), the yishuv benefited from an influx of immigrants, the Jews who departed Germany could keep some of their assets, and Palestine was able to import German goods that it desperately needed. Some twenty thousand German Jews availed themselves of this plan, and $30 million moved from Germany to the Yishuv.
Yet as Germany tightened the noose around its Jews, the Transfer Agreement became increasingly controversial. Arlosoroff, many said, had made a pact with the devil. David Ben-Gurion (who would eventually also defend German Reparations to Israel against Menachem Begin’s accusations that he was sacrificing Israel’s soul for money) defended Arlosoroff’s plan as a means of sustaining the Yishuv while increasing immigration. But others—on the right, as was the case with Rabin, and as is the case today—were appalled, arguing that Germany had to be boycotted in order to pressure it to relent in its treatment of the Jews and that Arlosoroff’s Transfer Agreement would undermine the boycott’s impact. Arlosoroff, they said, was endangering the Jewish people.
Zeev Jabotinsky (the leader of the Revisionist Movement, which would eventually morph into the Likud, the party of Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Shamir and now, Bibi Netanyahu) railed against the Transfer Agreement. The Revisionist newspaper Hazit Ha’am (“The People’s Front”), ran a column on June 16, 1933, condemning Arlosoroff’s agreement, warning that the Jewish people “will know how to respond to this odious act.”
June 1933: the people “will know how to respond to this odious act.”
June 2021: people must “do everything” to rid Israel of Bennett’s government.
The newspaper article personally identified Arlosoroff. And it was later that very day that Arlosoroff and his wife headed out to the beach.
Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party (which would eventually morph into today’s Likud) was immediately blamed for the murder; two days later, Avraham Stavsky, a member of the Revisionist movement’s organization Betar (in which Menachem Begin came of age), was arrested, after Sima identified him as the man with the flashlight. Two other Revisionists were arrested, one as an accomplice and the other as the gunman. The Left blamed Jabotinsky for both inciting the murder and planning it. Jabotinsky, in turn, invested tremendous effort and resources in defense of the three.
Stavsky, who had initially been convicted and sentenced to death, was freed in July 1934 after his conviction was overturned by the British Court of Appeals in Palestine. No one else was ever convicted of the crime, and the mystery of Arlosoroff’s assassination remains unsolved.
That, one would think, would be the end of the Arlosoroff story.
But there’s a bit of a coda, in the form of Avraham Stavsky. His conviction overturned, Stavsky continued to work to save European Jewry. But in June 1948, fifteen years after his acquittal and a month after Israel’s creation, Stavsky found himself on the Altalena, a ship filled with arms that a fringe of the revisionist movement was sending to Israel, but specifically for Begin’s militia, after Ben-Gurion had already merged all the para-military organizations into the IDF. Ben-Gurion and Begin could not reach agreement as to how to allocate the arms. (The story of the Altalena is very complex; we’ll do it another time.)
It was a young man named Yitzchak Rabin who gave the order to sink the ship. The IDF opened fire, and the Altalena, loaded with explosives and weapons, blew up. Most of the people on board had left the ship earlier, but some remained, and a few were killed in the firing from the IDF aimed at the ship and in the explosion itself.
Later that same day, on June 21, 1948, fighting broke out between men who had served in the Hagganah and those who had served in the Irgun (all were technically now part of the IDF, but old loyalties remained). Men on both sides were killed.
One of those killed on the ship was Stavsky. We will never know if Stavsky was or was not responsible for the assassination. What we do know is this: in the climate of hate between Jews, even exoneration by the British could not keep him safe.
Once we let it out, the genie of hatred never goes back into the bottle; just when we think we’re safe, it can all end.
Avraham Stavsky died about 50 yards away from where Chaim Arlosoroff had been murdered fifteen years and five days earlier.
We’re still a few days away from June 21. So in five days, we’ll take a closer look at the Altalena for what it really was—Israel’s only Civil War.
There are few organizations in Israeli life more controversial than "Breaking the Silence," which serves as a platform for Israeli soldiers to discuss incidences in their military service that they felt were morally problematic, or worse. From the right, BtS has been accused of undermining Israel, of publicizing stories that are not true, of taking money from anti-Israel organizations ... the list goes on. BtS, of course, disputes some of that. On the left, BtS is often controversial because it is not opposed military service, is not a human rights organization and for a host of other reasons.
Mikhael Menkin, with whom I speak in this episode, was one of the founders of BtS, and its Executive Director for a number of years. He's Orthodox, a passionate Zionist, not a pacifist ... and he is also profoundly thoughtful and exceedingly articulate.
Israel from the Inside is about breaking out of the echo chamber, hearing views that might be different from our own; our conversation with Mikhael Menkin will, I'm betting, leave you thinking for quite some time.
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