Haim Arloso­roff Memo­r­i­al in Tel Aviv

On the night of June 16, 1933, Haim Arloso­roff was mur­dered on the beach in Tel Aviv, a cou­ple of hun­dred yards from the very tip of the street that is named after him, Rehov Arlozorov, famil­iar to all vis­i­tors to the city. Arloso­roff (I’ll use the pre-state spelling) was the thir­ty-four year old head of the Jew­ish Agency’s polit­i­cal depart­ment and one of the lead­ers of Ben Gurion’s Labour Zion­ist Par­ty. He had recent­ly returned from Ger­many, where he had nego­ti­at­ed a high­ly con­tro­ver­sial agree­ment with Hitler’s new­ly formed Nazi gov­ern­ment. Under the terms of what came to be known as The Trans­fer Agree­ment” Jews flee­ing per­se­cu­tion in Nazi Ger­many would be able to leave, not with their mon­ey, but with per­mis­sion to buy Ger­man goods and export them to Pales­tine. The Nazis hoped to ease the inter­na­tion­al boy­cott on their regime and boost their own econ­o­my, and the Jews of the Yishuv want­ed to res­cue Ger­man Jews from their rapid­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ing sit­u­a­tion and viv­i­fy their own econ­o­my with Ger­man prod­ucts. Arloso­roff became a tar­get of Jabotinsky’s Revi­sion­ists, exco­ri­at­ed in the Jew­ish right-wing press for doing a deal with the dev­il. For Arab polit­i­cal lead­ers the deal was also anath­e­ma, as it opened the way for increased Jew­ish immi­gra­tion from Europe to Palestine.

Who mur­dered Arloso­roff? After nine­ty years the jury is still out. Three men asso­ci­at­ed with the Revi­sion­ist move­ment – Avra­ham Stavsky, Zvi Rosen­blatt, and Abba Achimeir – were tried in May 1934 for the mur­der. Stavsky was con­vict­ed, a ver­dict that was over­turned on appeal; the oth­er two were acquit­ted. For Labour Zion­ists, the tri­al – run by the British Man­date author­i­ties – had result­ed in a mis­car­riage of jus­tice. For many oth­ers, the killers were undoubt­ed­ly Arabs, a ver­sion of events rein­forced by the con­fes­sion of an Arab teenag­er, Abdul Majid, who indi­cat­ed that he and a friend want­ed to sex­u­al­ly assault Arloso­rof­f’s wife, Sima. But Abdul Majid quick­ly retract­ed his admis­sion of guilt, claim­ing that he had been bribed to con­fess. The waters were fur­ther mud­died by Sima, who wit­nessed the killing but offered con­tra­dic­to­ry accounts of her husband’s assailants, describ­ing them some­times as Jews but oth­er times as Arabs. What­ev­er the truth, the mur­der, as the emi­nent Israeli polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Shlo­mo Avineri wrote, became the most noto­ri­ous polit­i­cal mur­der case in mod­ern Zion­ist history…parallel in its inten­si­ty per­haps only to the impact of the Drey­fus Affair on French pol­i­tics.” The emo­tion­al and ide­o­log­i­cal rift that exists today between the left and the right in Israel didn’t begin with Arlosoroff’s mur­der, but it cement­ed a polar­iza­tion now in place for almost a century.

Who mur­dered Arloso­roff? After nine­ty years the jury is still out.

On my desk, next to my com­put­er as I write, I have a thin book with a par­tial­ly bro­ken spine, tat­tered black cov­er, and some brown-stained pages. Its title is The Arloso­roff Mur­der Tri­al: SPEECH­ES and REL­E­VANT DOC­U­MENTS pub­lished in Jerusalem in July 1934, only weeks after the tri­al had end­ed. It is a tru­ly extra­or­di­nary book, for not only does it detail almost every aspect of the tri­al, but also, with­in the Rumpole of the Bai­ley type ora­to­ry of the high­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed British Man­date bar­ris­ters, it pow­er­ful­ly evokes the milieu of Man­date Pales­tine as a place of com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives, with vivid char­ac­ters, includ­ing Arabs, Brits (includ­ing British Jews work­ing in the Man­date Admin­is­tra­tion) and local Jews, polit­i­cal fig­ures, crim­i­nals, police offi­cers, lawyers, and a host of minor char­ac­ters all cre­at­ing fric­tion in a tin­der­box world.

This was the book that sent me on my way to The Red Bal­cony. I wrote a nov­el and not a his­to­ry, so I was able to expand the bor­ders of the milieu and add in a group of bohemi­an artists, poets, and writ­ers active in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the time of the mur­der, loose­ly based on some fig­ures whose work I was famil­iar with and admired. I also took the fic­tion­al lib­er­ty of incor­po­rat­ing not only the real his­tor­i­cal fig­ures of Haim and Sima Arloso­roff, but also ref­er­ences to some off­stage play­ers in 1933 to 1934 Jerusalem includ­ing Ger­shom Scholem and Albert Ein­stein. Most urgent­ly, I invent­ed a young Anglo-Jew­ish char­ac­ter, Ivor Cas­tle, a recent grad­u­ate in jurispru­dence from Oxford, out in Pales­tine to assist the lead bar­ris­ter for the defense. Ivor falls in love with one of my imag­i­nary wit­ness­es, a mys­te­ri­ous and charis­mat­ic Jerusalem artist, Tsiona Kerem. In the tri­al doc­u­ments there is no hint of a love sto­ry, but there had to be one some­where, didn’t there?

Jonathan Wil­son is the author of eight pre­vi­ous books, includ­ing the nov­els The Hid­ing Room, run­ner up for the JQ Wingate Prize, and A Pales­tine Affair, a New York Times Notable Book, and run­ner up for the 2004 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award; two col­lec­tions of short sto­ries, Schoom and An Ambu­lance Is on the Way: Sto­ries of Men in Trou­ble; and the soc­cer mem­oir Kick and Run. His work has appeared in The New York­er, ART­news, Esquire, The New York Times Mag­a­zine, The New York Times Book Review, Tablet, The Times Lit­er­ary Sup­ple­ment, and the Best Amer­i­can Short Sto­ries, among oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Wil­son has been the recip­i­ent of a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship, and his work has been trans­lat­ed into many lan­guages. He lives in New­ton, Massachusetts.