Swapping Handshakes for Handguns

The assassination of the Jewish diplomat the night before he was to travel on a secret peace mission to Jordan shook officials in Yerushalayim who had counted on him to secure the Jewish presence in Israel.

But this story wasn’t in Tel Aviv, didn’t happen in 1995 and the victim’s name wasn’t Yitzchak Rabin. The murdered envoy was Dr. Yaakov Yisrael de Haan, a Dutch lawyer and noted askan, who served as the informal foreign minister to the beleaguered old Yishuv of Yerushalayim shel Maalah.

The murder for political reasons of de Haan, 43 at the time, was the first assassination of the modern era among Jews.

A front-page feature in last week’s Hamodia had been intended to mark 20 years since the killing of Rabin, not to suggest that the act — horrific though it was — blazed a new trail in evil. No, the evil soup of killing for a diplomatic edge was brewed by many cooks. The 1995 assassination was merely the first time a prime minister of Israel drank from the putrid potion.

The cocktail recipe for using handguns rather than handshakes litters the trail of the Zionist enterprise. Mileposts include the de Haan murder, the mysterious Arlosoroff beach shooting and the preventable mass murder on the shores of Tel Aviv known as the Altalena Affair. To which, in 1995, was added yet another.

After becoming a baal teshuvah, and then rejecting religious Zionism, de Haan began handling the most sensitive political issues for Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt”l, who headed the Eidah Hachareidis and was the leader of the Yishuv.

Frightened that the Zionist plans would incite the Arabs to violence, Rav Sonnenfeld opened negotiations with Jordan’s Emir Abdullah I and Saudi King Hussein. The two royals were agreeable to allowing Jews to live there peacefully if they agreed to give up on political autonomy. Abdullah even signed a letter to this effect.

On July 1, 1924, de Haan was to have set out to Jordan to finalize details. This would have thrown a monkey wrench into the Zionist dream. Should they visit the modest dwelling overlooking Har HaBayis and negotiate with Rav Sonnenfeld? The answer they fired off reverberates to this day.

As de Haan was leaving Shaarei Zedek hospital following Maariv, three shots rang out and he was killed instantly. Nobody was ever charged, but in 1990 Avraham Tahomi, an ex-Haganah member then living in Hong Kong, admitted that he was the one who pulled the trigger.

“I have done what the Haganah decided had to be done,” Tahomi said in a broadcast interview. “And nothing was done without the order of Yitzchak Ben Zvi. I have no regrets because [de Haan] wanted to destroy our whole idea of Zionism.”

Ben Zvi was no ordinary Israeli. He was the second president of Israel whose father was honored by the first Knesset with the title “Father of the State of Israel.”

From there, it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the next political purge.

Chaim Arlosoroff was walking with his wife in Tel Aviv one summer night in 1933 when two men approached. One shined a flashlight in his eyes and asked him for the time. Shortly afterward, shots rang out and Arlosoroff slumped to the ground.

At the time, Arlosoroff was David Ben Gurion’s point man on negotiating with the new Nazi regime in Berlin to allow Jews to immigrate. His work evoked fierce criticism from Zev Jabotintsky’s Revisionist movement, which viewed any talks with the Nazis as immoral. Arlosoroff had just returned the week before from Germany when he was killed. Two Revisionists were convicted in his death.

The convictions were later overturned by a British judicial panel, who noted that, under the Ottoman rules still in effect, the pair had to be released. However, they emphasized, according to Asher Maoz, a law professor at Tel Aviv University, “Had the case been heard in England itself, or in most of the territories of the British Empire, the conviction would rightly have been upheld.”

Then there was the infamous Altalena Affair, a political mass murder which almost tore the state of Israel apart days after its inception. The Altalena set sail from France in 1948, before any state had been declared, laden with troops, arms and heavy weaponry for Menachem Begin’s Irgun group.

After Ben Gurion read in his gravelly voice one Friday afternoon that Israel had become a sovereign state, Begin arranged with him that the ship would berth in Israel and its contents be divided among Irgun and the Palmach, which were both supposed to fold into the newly inducted Israel Defense Force.

When the ship arrived in Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion ordered that everything be turned over to the IDF within 10 minutes. Having in the meantime boarded the ship, Begin ignored the order. The Altalena was then bombarded, and 16 people aboard were killed. It was only because of Begin’s urgently broadcast request not to return fire that civil war was averted.

With some 3,000 troops at his disposal, Begin had neither the intent nor the ability to wage war on Ben Gurion’s forces. The Mapai leader’s objective with the order to shoot was political — the first elections were months away and there was scant polling to show how many seats he would get.

Americans have an expression — “politics ain’t beanbag.” In other words, you win some, you lose some, get over the political drubs.

Conversely, the path to Israel’s establishment was paved by politicians with a victory uber alles mentality. Politics is beanbag.

So it’s 3 to zero. Three political assassinations — zero punishments. De Haan’s murderer was subsequently promoted by Haganah as the district commander of Yerushalayim. The man who sent him, Ben Zvi, became president of Israel.

And that officer who led the attack on the Altalena was a young man who would go on, just like Ben Zvi, to serve as a leader of Israel.

His name was Yitzchak Rabin.