This Day in Jewish History

1933: The Murder of Chaim Arlosoroff

The mystery of who assassinated this pre-state leader of the Zionist movement remains unresolved.

David Bachar

On June 16, 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff, the 34-year-old head of the Jewish Agency's political department, was murdered on a Tel Aviv beach - a crime that remains unresolved to this day

Despite his relative youth, Arlosoroff was one of the most accomplished leaders of the Labor Zionist movement. He held a number of positions that made him a lightning rod for controversy, meaning that the most enduring explanation for his murder has been political in nature. Unfortunately, eight decades later, the circumstances of his death - and the mystery surrounding it - remain for many the sole thing they know about Arlosoroff, even though his life was no less memorable than his death.

Chaim (known in Russian as Vitaly, and in German as Victor) Arlosoroff was born on February 23, 1899, in Romny, in what is today Ukraine. The family relocated to East Prussia in 1905, after their home was attacked during a pogrom in Romny, and Chaim grew up and was educated in Germany. He earned a doctorate in economics at the University of Berlin, and a short time later immigrated to Palestine, passing up an offer of a university position in Germany.

Arlosoroff had become involved in Zionist affairs during his student days, and as a leader in the Hapoel Hatzair (Young Worker) movement, he developed a theoretical strain of Zionism that was intertwined with socialism. His vision included a strong Jewish cultural consciousness, one of whose elements was a belief in the importance of a revival of the Hebrew language. Arlosoroff also drew attention early on to the need to reach reconciliation with the Arab natives of Palestine, among whom he discerned a national awakening. He had experienced the volatility of the situation firsthand: His first visit to Eretz Israel, in 1921, coincided with anti-Jewish rioting by Arabs, with high numbers of casualties among both Jews and Arabs.

By 1926, Arlosoroff was the representative of the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) to the League of Nations, and four years later, he was central to a merger of the two major socialist Zionist parties of the time into what became Mapai, (the Workers Party of the Land of Israel), forerunner to Israel's Labor Party. In 1931, he became both a member of the Zionist Executive and head of the Jewish Agency’s political department, two highly influential positions.

Early in 1933, Arlosoroff found himself in conflict with David Ben-Gurion and other Mapai leaders regarding the extent to which the Zionist movement should cooperate with the British Mandate authorities that ruled the country at the time. The point became somewhat moot after the start of World War II, but at the time, Arlosoroff argued that if the Jews did not establish a good working relationship with the mandatory government, the British would naturally align themselves with Arab nationalist leaders.

At the same time, however, Arlosoroff sought avenues of dialogue with local Arab leaders. On April 8, 1933, he organized, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, a meeting in Jerusalem with Arab political figures, among them Emir Abdullah, who later became King Abdullah I of Jordan. Arlosoroff’s belief in the need for compromise with the Arabs earned him the enmity of both the Mizrachi religious-Zionist movement and the Revisionists, led by Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

No less controversial were Arlosoroff’s efforts, immediately after the rise of the Nazis to power in January 1933, to reach a deal with them that would allow Germany’s Jews to leave that country for Eretz Israel.

One of the immediate responses by world Jewry to the initial anti-Jewish moves in Germany (as early as April 1933, Jews were banned from holding positions in the civil service) was to organize an international boycott of the German economy, a measure that the Nazi regime was very afraid of. Although the Germans wanted to rid their country of Jews, they did not allow them to leave with their property. Arlosoroff proposed a deal that would make it possible for Jews to deposit their wealth in a bank account before departing Germany for Palestine, or elsewhere. Instead of losing their capital, they would be able to spend it on German goods that would then be exported to their new home (not necessarily Palestine).

The arrangement negotiated by Arlosoroff, the Ha’avara (“transfer”) Agreement, led to the immigration of some 50,000 German Jews, with their wealth, to Palestine within two years. It was this deal that Chaim Arlosoroff had finished working out when he returned from Germany to Israel on June 14, 1933.

Two days later, Arlosoroff had dinner with his wife, Sima, at a beachfront hotel in Tel Aviv. After dinner, they walked along the sand, where, according to Sima’s later testimony, they were approached by two men, at about 10 P.M. One of the men directed the light of a flashlight in Arlosoroff’s face, and a second one shot him. He died in hospital several hours later,

Three men associated with the Revisionist movement, Avraham Stavsky, Ze’ev Rosenblatt and Abba Ahimeir, were tried the following May for the murder – which Labor leaders, including Ben-Gurion, were quick to describe as political. Stavsky was convicted, a verdict that was overturned on appeal; the other two were acquitted.

Another theory was that the attack on Arlosoroff was a sexual assault on his wife that got out of hand. Others have sought to connect the murder with the fact that as a young man in Germany, Arlosoroff and his sister Lisa had been close friends with Magda Behrend, who later married Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Magda’s stepfather, Richard Friedlaender, was a Jew, who was arrested by the regime and died in a concentration camp in 1938. According to this theory, Goebbels wanted Arlosoroff killed because he knew of his wife’s Jewish upbringing.

To this day, we still do not know who killed Arlosoroff, and why. Yet, for decades it was a source of bitter animosity between Labor and Revisionist Zionists. In 1982, when Menachem Begin, a Jabotinsky follower, was prime minister, he appointed a former Supreme Court justice to carry out an official investigation of the crime, but that inquiry was inconclusive.