Jacob Israel De Haan (1881-1924) was a prolific Dutch Jewish literary writer and journalist who was assassinated by the Haganah for his anti-Zionist political activities and his support for the Arab cause, thus becoming the first victim of contemporary Zionist political violence and a martyr among certain vehemently anti-Israel sections of the ultra-Orthodox community, particularly the Neturei Karta and the Edah HaChareidis.
De Haan, born in the Netherlands to a poor cantor and shochet, attended cheder and was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but he denounced his faith shortly after leaving home to pursue opportunities in the wider secular world. He studied and taught law (1903-09), during which time he also published works in socialist and other publications.
As the result of writing explicit and scandalous erotic works, he was dismissed from his teaching job and exiled from social-democratic political circles. He married a non-Jewish doctor, Johanna van Maarseveen (1907), but they separated in 1919 (they never officially divorced) after he became more religiously committed and she refused his request that she convert.
De Haan’s interests in Judaism, Eretz Yisrael, and Zionism began when he became an activist on behalf of the Jews of czarist Russia. Armed with a letter of recommendation from Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, he traveled to Russia and successfully negotiated leniency for many Jews. Upon his return, he published his shocking findings in In Russian Prisons (1913) and founded a committee to urge nations, particularly France and Great Britain, which were Russian allies, to exert pressure on Russia to improve the fate of its prisoners. (Amnesty International, in fact, credits his activities as the precursor of its own.)
De Haan wrote extensively about Eretz Yisrael and Zionism and, in 1919, he made aliyah, writing to Weizmann in his passport application that he was “anxious to work at rebuilding land, people, and language.” Thousands of Dutch Jews, thrilled by his rededication to living a Torah life, swarmed the Amsterdam train station and saw him off with a passionate rendition of Hatikvah. He settled in Jerusalem, where he taught at the new law school and wrote articles for several important Dutch newspapers.
He initially aligned himself with religious Zionism and the Mizrachi movement, and his fanatical Zionism was such that at the annual Chanukah reception of Annie Edith Landau – an Orthodox Jewess who, as the “grand dame” of Eretz Yisrael society, was broadly respected by Jews, Arabs, and the British – he reportedly announced aloud to a notable Arab sheikh that “the land was given to us, and you should take your wives and your children, load up your camels, and go away.”
However, after meeting Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the leader of the charedi community and a staunch theological opponent of Zionism from its very inception, he philosophically embraced the rav’s anti-Zionism and went on to become the official political spokesman of the charedim in Jerusalem.
De Haan sought an agreement with several Arab leaders pursuant to which the Jews would relinquish all rights under the Balfour Declaration to a Jewish homeland in exchange for the Arabs allowing unrestricted Jewish immigration into Eretz Yisrael. In one particular instance, when the Zionist leadership sent an important delegation to Amman to meet with King Hussein to argue the merits of Jewish sovereignty, De Haan got there first, convinced the king that “real Jews” supported the establishment of an official Palestinian state, and persuaded Hussein to issue a statement denouncing “the Zionist movement as unjust towards Muslims, Christians, and Orthodox Jews.”
The Arab cause became his obsession. Through his publications and propaganda, he became well-known overseas for his anti-Zionism and pro-Arab sympathies, which constituted a particularly serious threat to Zionist goals and dreams, coming as they did from a “respected Jewish leader” who lived and worked in Eretz Yisrael. His very name came to represent the challenge to the idea that the Zionist movement was the sole representative of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Not surprisingly, the Zionist authorities, both in Eretz Yisrael and worldwide, considered him a traitor, referring to him derisively as “the Jewish Lawrence of Arabia.” (T.E. Lawrence sought to ethnically cleanse Eretz Yisrael of all Jews because he feared they would interfere with the Arab nationalist movement.)
While there certainly were anti-Zionist elements in the Yishuv, the issue had always been the subject of an internal dispute until De Haan undertook to “publicly air Jewish dirty laundry” through his systematic dissemination to the non-Jewish world of the rift in the Jewish approach to Zionism.
Of particular concern to the Zionists was that his treacherous betrayal was finding critical resonance in London, where crucial decisions about the future of Eretz Yisrael were being made. Nor did his predilection for sticking a finger into the eyes of the Zionists at every opportunity earn him any friends; as but one example, after becoming somewhat proficient in Arabic, he demanded that the Zionists address him only in that language.
De Haan was assassinated on June 30, 1924 when, upon his exit from the synagogue at the Shaare Zedek Hospital on Jaffa Road where he regularly prayed, he was shot three times by Avraham Tehomi, a senior Haganah officer in Jerusalem, and died minutes later. Many charedi writers and others believe that the order to murder him was issued directly by Ben Gurion and Weizmann, though there is no evidence to support that allegation.
There are a great number of other conjectures, none of which has ever been proven. Although the British authorities offered a reward for information leading to the arrest of the killer, Tehomi was never apprehended.
Some six decades later, Tehomi, who had been living in Hong Kong, admitted to two Israeli reporters that he had committed the murder and claimed that he received his instructions from Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, later Israel’s second president, an allegation that has not been confirmed. Although the identity of precisely who ordered the murder remains unknown and controversial, it is virtually universally accepted that senior Zionist leadership knew about the planned attempt and did not object.
In this incredible and historic May 25, 1923 correspondence written a year before he was killed, De Haan writes to Colonel Frederick Hermann Kisch about setting the time for a meeting and, in fact, predicts his own murder:
I have to thank you for your kind letter, which I brought in the meeting of the Ashkenazic Counsel and showed to Rabbi Horovics. R. Chaim Sonnenfeld asks to be answered, but he will send the leaders of the Community in his place. Rabbi Horovics asked me to let you know his intention was immediately to when you your [sic] visit. But he wanted to consult the other people before. We should be glad to see you next Monday at 4:00 p.m.: the Rabbi Horovics for Agudath Israel, the Rabbi Bernstein and Yungreis and my own poor self (if not killed before!) for the Ashkenazim. [emphasis added]
Due to Rav Sonnenfeld’s tutelage, De Haan’s greatest grievance against the Zionist movement arguably was its subordination of non-Zionist Orthodox Judaism to Zionism. When the charedi establishment in Eretz Yisrael was denied representation in the Jewish Agency – they were, after all, fervent enemies of all that the Jewish Agency sought to accomplish and, indeed, all that Zionism stood for – it founded a Jerusalem branch of Agudath Israel to represent their interests, and Rav Sonnenfeld chose De Haan to organize and represent the charedi position. Elected political secretary of the Orthodox Community Council, De Haan wasted no time in propagandizing about the “tyranny” of the official Zionist movement, even going so far as to spy on it for the British secret service.
The issue referred to by De Haan in our letter was the struggle around a proposed Communities Ordinance. Charedi Jews who sought to opt out of this community, which was organized and controlled by the Zionists, had no recourse to appeal its general hegemony or, in particular, to protest the formal recognition of the Zionist Organization, the official agency authorized to speak to Jewish interests in Eretz Yisrael.
With limited options, De Haan drafted a petition, signed on behalf of the Council of the Ashkenazic Jewish Community by Rav Moshe Leib Bernstein, chairman of the Council, and Rav Baruch Reuven Halevi Jungreis, honorary secretary, protesting that the equitable reestablishment of the country was obstructed by the refusal of the Jewish Agency to include a duly authorized representative of the one million Orthodox Agudah Jews. As a result, the petition continued, the Mandate Authority was being misled into believing that the only way forward was the one presented by the Zionists.
The petition proved only somewhat successful; the Mandates Commission retained the Jewish Agency as the representative of the Yishuv, but it permitted the charedim to “opt out” of the general Jewish community and to conduct their own independent communal lives in accordance with their consciences.
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Born in Lauenburg Germany, Yosef Gershon Horovitz (1874-1931) – the rabbi mentioned in our letter – was the son of a prominent Orthodox rabbi and a scholar in early Islamic history, early Arabic poetry, and Islamic and Koranic studies. He studied and taught at the University of Berlin; traveled on commission to find Arabic manuscripts through Eretz Yisrael, Turkey, Egypt, and Syria; and taught Arabic at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in India (1907-14) before creating the Department of Oriental Studies at the newly founded Hebrew University and serving as its first director (in absentia).
He also held the Chair of Semitic Philology with a Concentration in Targum and Talmudic Literature at the newly established Frankfurt University (1915-31), a position he retained until his death.
Horovitz’s philosophical gestalt centered on his attempt to reconcile Jewish and Arab interests to Eretz Yisrael under the banner of joint scholarship. Often articulating his concerns about the Zionists’ disregard of Arab interests, he compared Zionist practices in Eretz Yisrael to rank European imperialism, and believed that there could be no resolution of the Arab-Jewish problem without acknowledging Arab aspirations for independence. In this regard, he was a brother-in-arms with De Haan and Rav Sonnenfeld.
Born to a British-Jewish family in India, Kisch (1888-1943) – to whom our letter was addressed – had an eventful military career and was awarded both the British Distinguished Service Order for gallantry in action and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. After service with the Royal Engineers in World War I (he later also served with the Military Intelligence Corps in World War II, during which he was killed after stepping on a landmine), he accepted Weizmann’s invitation to become a member of the Zionist Executive in Jerusalem, where he became head of its Political Department (1923).
He played an important role in advising the Jews of Eretz Yisrael on self-defense techniques, and he successfully furthered the development of the Yishuv into a blossoming national entity.
He also served as Zionist Commission chairman of the Jerusalem Executive (1923-31), in which capacity his principal task was to act as an intermediary between the Mandatory Government and the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. His British military background facilitated his ability to encourage a positive relationship with both the Mandate Authority and Arab leaders, and one of his greatest achievements was convincing the British to transfer complete control over Jewish health and education in Eretz Yisrael to the Yishuv.
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De Haan was buried on the Mount of Olives, and his funeral was attended by hundreds of charedim, Zionists, and British representatives. The police were barely able to control the furious charedim, who went to central Jerusalem after the funeral to confront the Zionists. During the shiva, representatives of the Arab Executive and the Muslim-Christian Association paid condolence visits to a despondent Rav Sonnenfeld; there were many Arab tributes to De Haan, including one from Musa Kazim Pasha al-Husayni, the mayor of Jerusalem; and Agudath Israel received condolences from the “Palestine government.” In New York, ultra-Orthodox Jews circulated Yiddish leaflets condemning the “Torahless Zionists, who use violence to enslave the pious.”
Although Israeli historiography views him as little more than an ineffectual maverick of little consequence, De Haan remains an iconic character in charedi circles and continues to be revered by anti-Zionist Jews worldwide.