Dr. Robert Soblen, far right, outside a law court in New York.
Dr. Robert Soblen, far right, outside a law court in New York. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion labeled him an enemy of the Jewish people. Photo by AFP
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In the summer of 1962, the country was in uproar over two Jews. One was Yossele Schumacher, a 10 year old native of the Soviet Union, who had immigrated to Israel as a young child with his parents. The other was Dr. Robert Soblen, a 62-year-old psychiatrist who had been convicted of spying for the Soviets.

The child had been smuggled from Israel to New York; Soblen fled from New York to Israel. The two never met, but starred in one story that preoccupies Israel to this day: the story about the connection between Israelis and Jews. After 50 years there are grounds for assessing that the connection between the two incidents was closer than has usually been thought.

Yossele fell victim to a family dispute surrounding his upbringing: His grandfather wanted him to receive a religious education. At a certain point, members of the anti-Zionist Orthodox sect Neturei Karta intervened in the dispute and smuggled the boy abroad disguised as a girl.

"In my opinion there has not been such a scandal in Israel since its reestablishment," Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said, and ordered the security service to find the child. Documents that Mossad chief Isser Harel later presented to the government suggest that, at one stage, the kidnappers had considered altering the boy's features by means of plastic surgery.

As the scandal grew, Yossele became everyone's child. Or, more precisely, nearly everyone's - similar to what happened with Gilad Shalit almost half a century later. As with Shalit's abduction, Yossele's kidnapping ignited a principled and emotional debate that touched the raw nerves of Israeli identity. The affair greatly deepened the hostility between secular and religious Israelis, and the primary casualties were the religious Zionists: They were often identified with the ultra-Orthodox, and the ultra-Orthodox were identified with the extremists among them, Neturei Karta.

This was partially the fault of Mossad chief Harel, who was basking at the time in the heroic glow of capturing Adolf Eichmann in Argentina; he also presented tracking down the kidnapped boy as a bold operation, and presented Neturei Karta as ferocious enemies. In an appearance at the cabinet meeting, Harel read, for the record, Yiddish posters and letters by Neturei Karta that rejected Zionism. Among other things, Harel claimed the group was abducting children from Morocco who were set to immigrate to Israel and transferring them to Switzerland. We are talking about a fearsome underworld, Harel charged - and he did not neglect to mention that one of the members of the Neturei Karta in London, a jeweler by trade, manufactured crucifixes.

Harel further claimed that religious-Zionist circles also identified with the boy's kidnapping. In response, cabinet ministers from the National Religious Party said the statements showed that his judgment as head of the Mossad was not to be trusted.

For his part, Ben-Gurion defended Harel. He described the attitude of Neturei Karta as "a cancer that has grown on the body of Israel," and praised the Shin Bet security service for exposing "the pus" - as he termed the sect. "If you know there is pus it is possible to get rid of it," Ben-Gurion said.

It was not often that the conflict between religious and secular Israelis was waged in such a hysterical fashion as in the days of the Yossele affair. Bringing him back to Israel was depicted as a national challenge of unrivaled importance.

The first announcement that Yossele had been found was made by Ben-Gurion on July 1, 1962, at a cabinet meeting. He added that getting the boy out of the United States and returning him to Israel involved a legal process relating to the American immigration authorities. Then Ben-Gurion said, as though it was part of the same story: "I am fulfilling the interior minister's request and announcing that at 7:30 this morning Dr. Soblen was flown to England ... A physician was secretly sent with him, but he does not know this."

There was also another secret that Soblen was presumably unaware of, and Ben-Gurion kept that from government ministers as well: One of the passengers on that same El Al flight was an American agent named James J.P. McShane, who had come from the United States expressly to escort Soblen.

In 1960 an American court ruled that Soblen was a communist spy and sentenced him to life in prison. Ahead of his appeal hearing, he was released on bail - also because he was sick with leukemia. In June 1962 he fled to Israel. He used a Canadian passport that did not belong to him, and that was the official excuse for deporting him. But the real reason for his deportation was never made clear; a section of Ben-Gurion's diary related to the affair is, to this day, classified.

The official government minutes show that Ben-Gurion himself decided on the extradition in conjunction with the Foreign Ministry. His military secretary, Chaim Ben-David, handled all the details of the operation, including coordinating the arrival and departure of the American agent McShane. Ben-David was in direct contact with the CEO of El Al, Efraim Ben-Arzi. The airline ticket for the Israeli physician, a Dr. Gottlieb, was paid for by the police.

Attempted suicide

The fact that Soblen was deported on the same morning that Ben-Gurion informed the government that Yossele had been found may have something to do with the diplomatic effort required to persuade the U.S. immigration authorities to allow the boy to return to Israel. Mossad chief Harel telephoned Israel's ambassador to Washington, Avraham Harman, and demanded that he urgently contact the U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Ambassador Harman later recalled that the matter had not been easy for him to arrange; Kennedy himself was unreachable and his people made things difficult. There is reason to believe that Soblen was deported with great haste, in response to a demand from the United States, and in order to expedite Yossele's return [Yossele returned to Israel in July 1962].

Soblen's deportation caused a public outcry, not only because he was a Jew but also because he was deported before his lawyer had an opportunity to petition the Supreme Court to delay the deportation. The airplane that was supposed to bring him to the United States made a stopover in London. Soblen took advantage of the opportunity and wounded himself with a knife in what seemed like an attempted suicide. He was hospitalized.

Thus Soblen became the hero of a political affair that whipped up a storm in the Knesset and the press. Interior Minister Haim-Moshe Shapira claimed that he had been against the hasty deportation, saying that he suggested to Ben-Gurion that Soblen remain in custody. Ben-Gurion claimed no recollection of the suggestion. As usually happens, the affair deteriorated into claims of who said what and when. And, as expected, a committee of inquiry was appointed.

There were calls in the Knesset for a state commission to be established. Ben-Gurion said he assumed full responsibility, but at the cabinet meeting he displayed great anger: "I think it is a disgrace for the state," he said. "There is a new Jewish hero, Dr. Soblen - a scoundrel and a swindler ... In our nice press there is all kinds of gossip." By chance, or not, they also discussed the Yossele affair once again at this cabinet meeting.

The discussions at the cabinet meetings reflect great embarrassment; over and over again, the ministers were warned to keep these matters to themselves. Israel had now made every effort to dissociate itself from Soblen: the foreign ministries of the United States and Britain were informed that Israel no longer saw itself as a party in the case: "The State of Israel deported him and that is the end," the government minutes stated.

Not a refuge for crooks

But the story was far from over; in fact, it grew more complicated. Soblen's lawyer, a Mapai activist named Ari Ankorion, submitted a formal request to grant Soblen immigrant status. He invited himself to see several ministers and claimed that Soblen had served in the past as the sole physician for the Israeli consulate in New York. Not true, Golda Meir said at a cabinet meeting, noting: "The consulate's employees are insured by health insurance, as is customary in the United States, and it has a large panel of doctors and Dr. Soblen was one of them."

But the lawyer tried to persuade the government that Soblen felt a deep connection to Israel and had also resided in the country for a while before moving to America. Hovering constantly in the background was the charge that the American court had wrongfully convicted him.

Ben-Gurion decided that Soblen must not be allowed to immigrate to Israel based on the clause in the law that denies this right to a Jew who has acted against the Jewish people.

At a certain point Ben-Gurion got carried away, as was his wont on occasion: "We are not talking about Hitler here," he said, but "everything this man has done is against the Jewish people. He violates the Jewish people's honor, endangers the Jewish people. A man comes to settle in America and there is a large Jewish community there and he spies on behalf of another country - he endangers the Jewish community there. The two million Jews in Israel are also part of the Jewish people he worked against, but first of all against the Jews in the United States."

Ben-Gurion also claimed that Soblen wasn't remotely interested in immigrating to Israel, noting that actually he wanted to settle in Czechoslovakia. And so it was decided: The Law of Return did not apply to Soblen. Ben-Gurion volunteered to sign the request denial personally. The affair gave birth to a debate on the connection between Israel and the Jewish people, and Ben-Gurion published a piece in the newspaper Davar titled "Israel, a refuge for immigrants not crooks."

The summer reached its peak but the Soblen affair refused to die down; the next act was set in London. Soblen recovered, the U.S. government pressured Britain, and Britain demanded that El Al complete the flight of the passenger Robert Soblen and take him to New York. The Americans pressured Israel, too. On August 10, Ben-Gurion read to the gathered cabinet a cable from Washington that had been sent, he said, by "a loyal friend," which demanded that Soblen be returned to America without delay.

"The affair is arousing negative reverberations in Congress and jeopardizing greater interests," the friend stated.

It was a threat that was worthy of consideration, but in view of the scandal that Soblen's first expulsion created, the government did not want to lend a hand to his deportation.

At one of the cabinet meetings, the government discussed the danger that the British government would try to formalize its demand by means of a court order. If El Al refused to comply, its pilots might find themselves jailed for contempt of court. The ministers considered the possibility that Soblen would be permitted to board an El Al plane, but instead of flying him to the United States he would be returned, for lack of any other option, to Israel. For the time being, they decided that El Al flights to New York would not go through London.

Meanwhile, they uncovered a detail that embarrassed them greatly: Soblen had not arrived in Israel on an El Al flight, as they had thought throughout. Instead, he had arrived with Air France, and thus there had been no need to deport him from Israel on an El Al plane. The state could have been spared the whole affair.

For a moment the ministers latched onto the possibility of returning Soblen to the United States on an Air France flight. The cabinet minutes at this point read like they were taken down at some travel agency: It transpired that Air France did not operate a direct flight from London to New York. The British blinked first: They were fed up with the entire matter and one day they informed El Al that they were waiving their demand. On September 11, the British were about to fly Soblen to New York on another carrier. Soblen beat them to the punch: He swallowed poison and died. Ben-Gurion made a note in his diary that the affair had cost El Al 300,000 Israeli lirot.