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
The most prominent suspect, however, if the least credible one, was Magda Goebbels, the wife of the Nazi minister of propaganda. As a recently published novel—written by a former French cultural attaché in Israel and based largely on facts—claims, Magda Goebbels had reason to want Arlosoroff dead. Growing up next to the Arlosoroffs in Berlin in the 1910s, Goebbels, then named Magda Friedlander, was the adopted daughter of the Jewish man who had married her mother and a close friend of Lisa Arlosoroff, Haim’s sister. She was also friendly was Haim himself, although just how friendly is a matter of speculation. The book’s author, Tobie Nathan, imagines the two as lovers: eloquent, charismatic, intelligent, and ambitious, Arlosoroff was just the sort of man to whom the future Mrs. Goebbels was clearly drawn. In his book, Nathan speculates that Arlosoroff, upon arriving in Berlin in 1933, tried to schedule a meeting with his former lover. Incensed, and terrified that her past romantic entanglement with a prominent Jew might destroy her standing as Nazi Germany’s de facto first lady, Madame Goebbels secretly traveled to Palestine and contracted local killers to do her bidding.
It’s a wild story, of course, but no wilder than all the others.
In a way, though, it’s not the answers to the riddle Israelis are interested in but the question itself. In popular culture, “Who killed Arlosoroff?” is still a common phrase, presented not as a plea for answers but as an invitation to a discussion. A nation whose political discourse is so heavily predicated on certainties—on the strong belief in a particular and immovable worldview—couldn’t have asked for a better therapeutic device than an unsolved—and seemingly unsolvable—mystery that invites each person to speculate and by speculating to turn his or her own biases, prejudices, and fears into wild but still plausible theories.
This cathartic function was intensified in 1995, when an Orthodox right-winger named Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Even though the Rabin assassination, unlike Arlosoroff’s, was an open-and-shut case, it didn’t take long for wild conspiracy theories to circulate: A poll conducted as recently as 2010 proves that only two-thirds of Israelis believe with certainty that Amir was the assassin, with the rest placing the blame with the secret service, the Labor Party, and a host of other improbable culprits. In 1995 as in 1933, an attempt to use an assassination in order to vilify the right failed miserably.
And that’s a good thing. While there could be little doubt that Amir was motivated in large part by the preaching of fundamentalist rabbis and encouraged, perhaps, by the inflammatory declarations of right-wing politicians, a state as small and a society as intricately woven as Israel’s might not have survived the blow that was sure to come, had the outrage continued to escalate and the mad grief caused by the assassination led to a full-fledged civil war pitting right against left and secular against religious. In 1995, Israel, in part, turned on its Arlosoroff safety valve and engaged in a tradition of floating around conspiracy theories, some knowingly silly, in order to exorcise its demons in a nondestructive way. In a sense, it still does: The Arlosoroff assassination is still hotly debated, consuming energy otherwise traditionally reserved for real violence. Eighty years after he was shot to death on the beach in Tel Aviv, Haim Arlosoroff continues to be Israel’s most instrumental politician.
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