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David’s War

A haftorah of discipline and death

Liel Leibovitz
April 30, 2010
Etzel warriors in training, 1937.(Israeli Government Press Office)
Etzel warriors in training, 1937.(Israeli Government Press Office)

A few weeks ago, Shoshana Raziel, aged 92, died in Jerusalem. The Israeli press—preoccupied with the gargantuan corruption scandal that put everyone from the former director of the country’s largest bank to the capital’s former deputy mayor behind bars—barely found room for an obituary. But with Shoshana died a sliver of Israeli history, a legend the embattled nation would do well to remember.

On the afternoon before the Passover seder of 1938, Shoshana, then 18, married David Raziel. No more than two dozen people attended the wedding, a simple ceremony held in a friend’s back yard, and after David and Shoshana were wed they had lunch with their parents and checked in to a Tel Aviv hotel. They had to register under a false name: David was a wanted man.

In an interview given a few weeks before her death, Shoshana recalled that her husband spent their wedding night hunched at the hotel room’s desk, writing. He was the leader of the Etzel, also known as the Irgun, a militant group that parted ways with the main defense force of the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine to pursue more radical, and frequently more violent, paths. He lived for the struggle.

A few months later, when David was arrested by the British police, Shoshana visited him in jail. She told the warden she was Raziel’s sister. If anyone knew the rebel had a wife, Shoshana realized, she, too, would be locked up. David was eventually released and resumed his command of the Etzel. He orchestrated the bombing campaigns of several large Arab markets, killing dozens of civilians and wounding many more. He targeted British officers. The Jews, he fervently believed, were fighting for their right to survive, and they had no business holding back.

In May of 1941, David kissed Shoshana goodbye. He was off on a routine mission, he told her, and would be back in 10 days. That Shabbat, Shoshana attended a synagogue and read Parashat Emor, the same parasha we read this week.

Ten days passed, then 20. Shoshana went to look for David in a number of apartments she knew the Etzel used as hiding places. He wasn’t there. Finally, she went to see David’s parents. His mother, Bluma, had little to say. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” she mumbled. “May His name be blessed.” With that, she ripped a small tear in Shoshana’s blouse. At 21, Shoshana was a widow. She was also a few weeks pregnant with David’s child. The boy would live for only one day.

There was little left for Shoshana to do but fight David’s last battle. He had died in Iraq, she learned, on a reconnaissance mission for the British army. As soon as England went to war with Nazi Germany, David had reached out to his former enemies; he would immediately cease all anti-British terror, he promised them, and instead enlist to help defeat Hitler. A German plane bombed his convoy. He was buried not far from where he fell, in the Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. For more than a decade, Shoshana pressed to have his remains exhumed and brought to Israel. It took two decades for David to finally come home; in 1961, he was given a state funeral and posthumously awarded the rank of major general in the Israel Defense Forces.

Many, myself included, take issue with Raziel’s predilection for violence, as well as with many of his organization’s tactical and strategic goals. But this week, the week of Parashat Emor, let us remember him.

The haftorah might serve as a useful guide. Speaking of the priests, it enumerates the clergy’s numerous restrictions and obligations: their hair neither shaved off nor allowed to run wild, wearing linen hats and linen breaches, steering clear of the dead, the divorced, and other impure sorts.

As we read the list, we have no choice but feeling somewhat sorry for these elected few. To perform ritual, to serve as intermediaries between God and man, they are thrust into a sort of divine holding pattern, veiled from life’s grisliness and wants and preserved without blemish. It even comes down to their food: “Anything that has died of itself or is fatally wounded,” the haftorah tells us, “whether it be bird or beast, the priests may not eat.” These elevated men must snack solely on sacrificial meat, the consecrated offerings of their lowly brethren. It may not make them holy, but it makes them pure.

David Raziel was certainly not holy. The bloodshed he’d orchestrated is a matter for historians to discuss. But he was not unlike the priests his wife would have read about in synagogue the weekend, 69 years ago, that he died in Iraq. The man who spent his wedding night writing revolutionary tracts, the man who left his young wife to sift the sands of a faraway desert for valuable intelligence, the man for whom there was nothing but struggle, that man was pure. Ordinary men and women would do well to fear and question his zeal; they must, indeed, examine the consequences of his actions and try their best to find more sober, peaceful paths to achieve their goals. But they must also never lose their awe for the David Raziels of this world, the mad priests with the bloodied hands and the pure hearts. For better or for worse, they are the ones who make history hurtle by.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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