Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The extraordinary story of Chaim Arlosoroff (1899 – 1933) involves politics, high intrigue, conspiracy theories, moral ambiguity, notorious trials, Nazis, Zionist conflict, and – first and foremost – an unsolved murder mystery.

Though Arlosoroff was not observant, both his precociousness and his strong feelings as a Jew can be seen in a letter he wrote at age 17 to his German literature teacher:

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.

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In the wake of a pogrom in 1905, the Arlosoroff family moved from their native Ukraine to Germany, where Chaim joined the Zionist labor party Histadrut (1918), became an important leader in Hapoel Hatzair, and was appointed editor of Die Arbeit, a journal in which his writings were first published. In Jewish People’s Socialism (1919), one of his most important works, he argued that Jews could only preserve their cultural identities in a Jewish national homeland. Distancing himself from traditional Marxism, he advocated a “new” brand of “Jewish People’s Socialism” pursuant to which returning Jews would be guaranteed ownership of public land in Eretz Yisrael and where the Shemittah (the Sabbatical year) and Yovel (Jubilee year) would be observed. He was also among the first to foresee the return of Hebrew as the as the official language of the future Jewish state.

He also apparently had a poetic and romantic bent. Shown here is a handwritten poem dated January 18, 1921:

And his brilliant image embodies his dream.
Ever since I knew the intense longing, I have been carrying for you a load of gold.
From evening to evening, from year to year – you are silent.
Oh, there is that separation that dwells in the highest places,
come, kiss my lips that are thirsty for you.

At the bottom, his sister, Lisa Arlosoroff – who, as we shall see below, may have inadvertently played a role in his murder – certifies on December 6, 1934 that “this handwriting by Chaim Arlosoroff I am giving to Mr. Fogelson for his collection.”

After earning a doctorate in economics from the University of Berlin in 1924, Arlosoroff settled in Eretz Yisrael that same year and in short order became the representative of the Yishuv at the League of Nations Permanent Mandate Commission (1926).

He went on to play a major role in uniting the two major Zionist socialist political parties, Poale Tzion and the Hapoel Hatzair, which in 1930 resulted in the establishment of Mapai. He served as a party leader and spokesman and was appointed political director of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, in which capacity – in strong opposition to Ben-Gurion and other Mapai leaders – he worked closely with Britain in an attempt to create a Jewish state.

He later concluded, however, that Britain had no intention of promoting Zionist aspirations and, no longer concerned about risking British enmity, he dedicated himself to saving the Jews of Europe from Nazi tyranny at a time when, ironically, both he and Hitler viewed Eretz Yisrael as a land of promise, albeit for diametrically opposed reasons.

The Reich, which considered Eretz Yisrael a suitable dumping ground for ridding itself of Jewish refugees and “misfits,” sought to bolster the weak German economy by reaping a financial windfall through a payoff from Zionist leaders. Toward that end, Arlosoroff visited Nazi Germany to negotiate the highly controversial Ha’avara Agreement under which, in exchange for paying what was in essence a ransom, Jews would be permitted to take some of their property with them and emigrate to Eretz Yisrael.

The deal, finalized after Arlosoroff’s death, ultimately saved more than 60,000 German Jewish lives. And the agreement generated over $100 million, which made an important contribution to establishing an industrial infrastructure for the emerging Jewish nation. Nonetheless, Arlosoroff faced deep-seated hostility from many Zionist groups, particularly the Revisionists led by Jabotinsky, and many theories emerged that he was murdered by Jews disgruntled over the Ha’avarah Agreement.

On April 8, 1933, only a few weeks before his death, Arlosoroff organized a historic event at the King David Hotel, marking the first time Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann, met with key Arabs, including Emir Abdullah and Transjordanian sheiks, to promote cooperation. But many Zionists, including particularly Mizrachi and the religious nationalists, fearing such cooperation could lead to a binational Eretz Yisrael, demanded that Arlosoroff resign from his Jewish Agency position. The incident was widely seen as having created even greater animosity toward Arlosoroff among his fellow Zionists.

Arlosoroff was murdered while walking with his wife, Sima, on the Tel Aviv seashore on June 16, 1933, just two days after his return from Germany where he’d been negotiating the Ha’avara Agreement. Shown here is a next-day announcement by the Worker’s Movement that Arlosoroff had been shot in the stomach by two men on the coast of Tel Aviv who approached him and asked for the time. The announcement also included information about the funeral, which proved to be the largest in the history of the British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael, with well over 70,000 attendees.

While the Arlosoroff murder trial (1933 – 34) failed to solve the mystery of the assassination, it did serve to exacerbate political tensions in the Yishuv and within the Zionist movement. Abba Achimeir, the leader of a Revisionist faction, was charged by the Palestine police with plotting the murder, and two rank-and-file Revisionists, Abraham Stavsky and Zevi Rosenblatt, were charged with the actual murder. Achimeir and Rosenblatt were acquitted, and Stavsky’s conviction was ultimately reversed by the Supreme Court for lack of corroborating evidence.

(In one of those grand historical coincidences, Stavsky later became an Irgun leader and was responsible for procuring a cargo ship, the Altalena, loaded with weapons intended for the newborn state of Israel. When the ship approached Tel Aviv in June 1948, it was met by heavy machine-gun fire from Haganah forces bitterly opposed to the Irgun. Stavsky was one of 16 Irgun members who died aboard the ship.)

The defense, which accused the Palestinian police of manipulating the widow’s testimony for political reasons, developed the theory that the murder was connected to an intended sexual attack on Sima by two young Arabs. One of these Arabs twice confessed to having been involved in the murder, but he twice retracted his confession and accused Stavsky and Rosenblatt of having bribed him to confess to the crime. There were many – most prominent among them Jabotinsky and Rav Kook – who not only insisted on Stavsky’s innocence but also denounced the entire affair as “a blood libel by Jews against Jews.”

In the mid-1970s the Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested a new explanation for the Arlosoroff murder, which was subsequently embraced by many analysts, including Lisa Arlosoroff (Chaim’s sister): that it was ordered by Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.

The story begins with the marriage of the non-Jewish mother of Magda Behrand to Richard Friedlander, an assimilated Jew whose observance of Jewish festivals gave Magda some familiarity with Judaism. Magda became close friends with Lisa, who lived nearby in Berlin, and developed a crush on Lisa’s older brother, Chaim, who was already a dynamic Zionist leader.

Magda, though not Jewish, shared Chaim’s Zionist passion and considered joining him in emigrating to Eretz Yisrael. There is no doubt they became very close, but Chaim’s true love was Eretz Yisrael and when Magda ultimately could not make the same commitment, they drifted apart. Magda went on to marry Goebbels on December 19, 1931 – with Adolf Hitler as a witness.

When Chaim arrived in Germany to negotiate the Ha’avarah Agreement in April 1933, he realized he needed to somehow gain access to Goebbels – which, he believed, could be accomplished through Magda. But after a brief meeting, Magda urged him to leave Germany immediately. In a troubled letter to Lisa, he wrote that Magda said he had committed a grave error by even contacting her and that she feared for her life.

It is highly likely that Goebbels was informed of Arlosoroff’s attempt to resume contact with Magda. The theory is that Goebbels feared Magda’s relationship with Chaim, if it became publically known, would constitute a great danger to him, and so he ordered Arlosoroff’s murder to remove a potentially enormous embarrassment. What is beyond dispute is that Goebbels ordered the arrest of Richard Friedlander, Magda’s Jewish stepfather, who was killed in a concentration camp.

In 1982, Prime Minister Menachem Begin, eager to clear his Revisionist movement from the continuing accusations of its involvement in Alosoroff’s murder, established a judicial commission of inquiry to determine, once and for all, who murdered Arlosoroff and why. Though the committee was inconclusive about the identity of the killers and the motive, it ruled unanimously that neither Rosenblatt nor Stavsky was connected to the crime.

The murder remains officially unsolved and is still debated passionately.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.