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Zionist Leader Haim Arlosoroff Was Murdered So That Israel Could Live

The notorious political assassination, still unsolved 80 years later, is instrumental in in keeping Israeli politics sane

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photos Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons, and Deutsches Bundesarchiv.)
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Eighty years ago this month, Haim Arlosoroff, one of the most prominent leaders of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, was murdered on the beach in Tel Aviv. The crime remains unsolved and has spawned any number of conspiracy theories: To hear different people tell it, Arlosoroff was shot by the far right, the far left, the Arabs, or the Nazis, with each of these theories revealing not only facts about a specific crime but also much about the still unstable political psyche of a young nation. Eighty years and one political assassination later, Arlosoroff’s unsolved murder continues to haunt Israel.

***

On Saturday night, June 16, 1933, Haim Arlosoroff and his wife Sima were sipping coffee at the Kate Dan hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, unwinding after what had been an exhausting week. Two days earlier, Arlosoroff had returned from a long trip to Europe that took him to London, Brussels, and Berlin. He was there to try and negotiate with the newly ascendant National Socialist Party and arrange for the safe passage of Germany’s Jews and their property to Palestine. It was a doomed mission—the Nazis would not meet directly with a Jew, and Arlosoroff’s efforts to find a British interlocutor failed. More poignantly, political opponents back home did not take kindly to the idea of an official representative of the Jewish community negotiating with Hitler. Arolosoroff, declared the newspaper of the right-wing Revisionist movement, was selling out to Hitler because he was greedy; he was a traitor to boot, an internationalist agitator, a knife in the back of the Jewish nation. “The Jewish people,” read one typically ominous bit of criticism, “have always known how to treat those who betrayed their dignity and the dignity of the Torah, and we will know how to respond now that such a travesty is being committed in full view of the entire world.”

These were harsh words, but Arlosoroff was unmoved. At 34, he was one of the youngest and fastest-rising leaders of the leading Mapai party, the political director of the Jewish Agency, and no stranger to controversy. In 1933 alone he had clashed bitterly with David Ben Gurion over whether or not the Zionist movement ought to increase its influence in the British Parliament and organized a rare and heatedly criticized meeting between Arab and Jewish leaders in the hopes of facilitating peace. When he sat down for a late coffee at the hotel, then, a crowd of onlookers gathered nearby, gawking at him and making catcalls. Arlosoroff, after all, was the biggest celebrity in the tiny town.

Miffed by all the unwelcome attention, Haim and Sima Arlosoroff decided to seek privacy by taking a stroll on the beach. Soon, however, Sima noticed that they were being trailed by two men, one short and the other tall. To shake off the stalkers, the couple left the beach and dashed for a while into a nearby neighborhood. When they felt safe, they returned to the beach and resumed their leisurely stroll. Soon, however, the two men reappeared. They walked toward the Arlosoroffs. One of them shined a light in Haim Arlosoroff’s face.

“Why are you bothering us?” asked Arlosoroff, and Sima, annoyed, pleaded with the men to leave them alone.

“How much is the time?” asked the tall one, cryptically.

“It’s none of your business,” replied Arlosoroff.

“How much is the time?” came the question, so awkwardly worded, once again. Haim and Sima Arlosoroff began to walk away. The short stalker drew out a gun and fired it once, hitting Haim Arlosoroff in his stomach. Then the two men ran away. Sima called for help, and a car soon materialized to rush Arlosoroff to the hospital. He died there three hours later. The next day, his coffin was publicly displayed, wrapped in a tallit, a Hebrew flag, a red flag, and a stripe of black cloth. Then the accusations started flying.

To give each of them its merit would take decades, and did: As late as 1982, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, eager to clear his Revisionist movement from all accusations of historical wrongdoing, took the unlikely step of appointing an official committee to investigate a crime cold for 49 years. The committee reviewed the facts, interviewed all living witnesses, and determined that it was impossible to conclude who had pulled the trigger and why. The main culprits at the time, a small band of right-wing activists affiliated with Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Beitar movement, were tried by the British mandatory court and released for lack of evidence. Going another route, many at the time of the murder were moved by the testimony of Abdul Majid, a local Arab man who confessed, of his own accord, to having committed the crime. He later retracted this story and then retracted the retraction and said he’d shot Arlosoroff, but only because he was promised a fortune by the right. Those who believed he was the shooter pointed out that the assassin’s seeming lack of command of Hebrew—asking “how much is the time” rather than “what time is it”—suggested he was not Jewish.

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Zionist Leader Haim Arlosoroff Was Murdered So That Israel Could Live

The notorious political assassination, still unsolved 80 years later, is instrumental in in keeping Israeli politics sane