Three Political Assassinations in Jewish History

While most of us remember the 1995 murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Jewish history’s earlier political assassinations may be less familiar. A politically-motivated murder in the biblical era and two during the British mandate still have consequences that are felt to this day.

Gedaliah ben Ahikam

Filled with massacres, rape and bloodlust, the Bible should probably come with a trigger warning. Adultery, rape, infidelity, genocide, incest and coldblooded assassinations unfold across the Bible’s pages, uninhibited and uncensored. And with no holds barred, Israel’s biblical leaders are depicted in all their sinful glory.

Unfolding amongst this chaos and corruption are a number of political killings, including the elimination of King Saul’s cousin and army commander, Abner, and son, Ish Bosheth, by David’s men. Curiously, though, the murder of a lesser-known biblical character is commemorated with a day of fasting and mourning that has been observed for more than 2,500 years. The fast of Gedaliah — observed on Gimel Tishrei — remembers the political killing of Gedaliah ben Ahikam — and its consequences.

In the 6th century BCE, just after the destruction of the First Temple, Zedekiah, King of Judah, suffered the political consequences of supporting the Egyptians over the Babylonians. In retaliation, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar showed Zedekiah no mercy, burning down Jerusalem and torturing his sons in front of him, pulling their eyes out and brutally slaughtering them.

The Babylonians then exiled Judah’s upper class in order to repress any political uprisings. Only the poor were allowed to stay in the Land of Israel. They appointed Gedaliah ben Ahikam to oversee the remaining Jewish population.

Gedaliah hailed from a prominent family of scholars, ministers, elders and scribes. And the fact that his family was politically pro-Babylonian made him the perfect candidate to serve as local overseer. He was so trusted that he actually governed an independent Jewish autonomy in Judah, under the protectorate of the Babylonian empire.

Gedaliah was not without his enemies, however. His political rise provoked the party of

Ishmael ben Matania, a descendant of the Davidic Dynasty that had controlled Judah until the destruction of the First Temple. Gedaliah was warned that his life was in danger, but he mistook the warning for an empty threat. In the midst of a Rosh Hashana feast, Ishmael killed Gedaliah in cold blood.

The assassination led to the end of Jewish life in the Land of Israel in the First Temple era and marked the beginning of the first Jewish exile. Two days after his murder — on Gimel Tishrei — Gedaliah was buried. Marking the last stage of the fall of the Judean kingdom, Jews have long since been commemorating this fateful day. It was not Gedaliah’s murder, but the devastating consequences of his murder, that have inspired Jews to observe the fast of Gedaliah for more than 2,500 years.

Jacob Israël de Haan

Jacob Israël de Haan (1881-1924) was an Orthodox Jew, a homosexual, a jurist and journalist, and a poet and author who spoke several languages. His assassination shocked the Jewish Yishuv and proved that a Jewish civil war could actually take place.

De Haan was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Zaandam, Holland. As he grew up he abandoned his faith, married a Christian woman, published two successful books, became a Marxist and a famous journalist, served as a law professor at the University of Amsterdam, became religious again, was drawn to Zionism and came to Israel in 1919 at the age of 38.

The fond farewell the scholar received from the Jewish community of Amsterdam was in stark contrast to the empty platform he was met with in Jaffa. De Haan turned to Jerusalem, but was not warmly welcomed there either.

Talented and eager, de Haan wished to make an academic contribution to the age’s Zionist institutions. He was rejected, however, by each and every one of them, including the newly-established Hebrew University as well as all of Israel’s political organizations. Even his request to become Holland’s emissary in Israel was denied.

De Haan was bitter and frustrated, and in this disturbed state he made yet another ideological turn, joining the extremist Haredi community where he became close with Rabbi Haim Sonnenfeld. The enlightened scholar living in Haredi quarters was quite a phenomenon in Jerusalem. He became the group’s spokesperson in opposition to the Zionist movement and headed the Haredis’ battle against secularization, all the while maintaining political relationships with Arab leaders. (Rumors also circulated after his death that he had maintained intimate relationships with young Arab men, including accusations of pedophilia.)

De Haan was as gifted as he was complex. His pointed articles managed to hurt the Zionists. As a reporter for the popular Dutch newspaper “Algemeen Handelsblad,” he ridiculed the proud, handsome Zionist pioneers and managed to sabotage the movement’s efforts to raise international funds and support.

During his five years in Jerusalem, de Haan published 393 “Journey Letters” through which he elevated journalism to an artistic genre. He described all aspects of life in Palestine, including the Arab population and the conflict between the Zionist leadership and the Haredi community, all while effectively criticizing the Zionist lifestyle.

Not surprisingly, he soon had numerous enemies.

On June 30, 1924, de Haan left his apartment on Jaffa Street and headed to afternoon prayer. An assassin ambushed him and shot him three times, leaving him to die in the street. It is assumed that the shooter was Avraham Tehomi, acting on orders from the Hagana. Though it is agreed that this was a political murder, to this day no one has ever been charged with the crime.

De Haan’s death, which was the first political shooting in modern Israel, shook the Yishuv entirely.

“I did not think of him as a lowlife informer, but rather a deep man, a poet and scholar torn between good and evil,” Uri Keisari wrote in “Davar.” And Labour Party member Moshe Beilinson noted that, “The flag of our movement must not be tarnished. Neither by the blood of the innocent, nor by the blood of the guilty. Otherwise, our movement will be bad, because blood draws other blood. Blood always takes revenge, and if you walk down this path once, you do not know where it will lead you.”

Unlike the aftermath of the biblical murder of Gedaliah, Israel’s Labour movement chose to silence and censor the whole de Haan affair. Ironically, the movement that was responsible for the first political murder in modern Israel eventually lost their own party’s leader, Yitzhak Rabin, to the same crime.

Today, the only people who still pay yearly tribute to de Haan’s memory are members of the anti-Zionist religious group Neturei Karta.


Haim Arlosoroff

On June 14, 1933 Haim and Sima Arlosoroff were taking a summer stroll on the beach of Tel Aviv. Suddenly they spotted two men following them. After a few minutes one of the men pulled out a gun and shot Haim Arlosoroff, who died after three agonizing days.

Arlosoroff’s murder, much like the German Reparations Agreement, split the Yishuv, and on similar grounds — negotiating with the Germans.

As the Nazi Party came to power in mid 1930s Germany, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head. German Jews began to feel helpless and insecure. Their savor was Haim Arlosoroff, director of the Jewish Agency’s political department and a prominent young leader in the Mapai Labor Party. He was an extremely gifted man; some say that, had he lived, he would have been declaring the Jewish State in 1948 instead of David Ben Gurion.

“The transfer” was a huge project in which Arlosoroff negotiated with the Nazis in order to transfer 60,000 Jews — along with their assets — to a safe haven in Palestine. This operation marked Arlosoroff as the enemy of the revisionist right, who condemned him as a traitor.

Although Arlosoroff’s assassins were never captured, many see parallels between Arlosoroff’s end and that which Yitzhak Rabin suffered for negotiating with the Palestinians six decades later. The revisionists, meanwhile, claim that accusing them of this murder is merely intended to discredit them in favor of the left. Historian Moti Golani claims that the Labour Party indeed exploited this murder for their own political interests, though he believes that the right played right into their hands.

Two suspects, Abraham Stavsky and Ze’evi Rosenblatt, were tried for the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, though both were acquitted.

A few conspiracy theories circulated after Arlosoroff’s death, including one that holds Magda Goebbels responsible for the assassination. According to this theory, years before Magda met her infamous husband Joseph Goebbels, she had a friendly, perhaps even romantic, relationship with Arlosoroff. According to this perhaps far-fetched theory, Magda wished to conceal all evidence of her relationship with a famous Jewish man, and so she hired hit men to take care of him.


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