This Day in Jewish History

2008: Yossi Harel, the Real Person Behind Paul Newman’s Ari Ben-Canaan, Dies

Yossi Harel, secret Israeli hero, smuggled Holocaust survivors to Palestine and continued to work in intelligence for most of his life.

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On April 26, 2008, Yossi Harel, who led the pre-state Aliyah Bet effort to bring Holocaust survivors into Palestine by running the British maritime blockade and later served as an official in the Mossad intelligence agency, died at the age of 90.

Black and white historic photo of the Exodus ship, with passengers and sailors on board.
Frank Schersche/GPO

Between 1945 and 1948, Harel was responsible for the attempted immigration to pre-state Israel of some 25,000 refugees, most famously in 1947 on the Exodus, the ship whose tale became the basis for Leon Uris’ 1958 book “Exodus.” The character of Ari Ben-Canaan, played by Paul Newman in the 1960 film version of the book, was loosely based on Harel.

Yosef Hamburger and his twin brother were born on January 4, 1918, in Jerusalem, to Moshe and Batya Hamburger, whose family had been in Jerusalem for six generations. They were not well-off. Yossi studied at the Tachkemoni School, but while still a teenager worked in a quarry and lay telegraph cables for the post office.

While in his mid-teens, he ran away from home to join the pre-state Haganah defense underground. By age 20, he was a member of the night squads trained and led by British Capt. Orde Wingate to defend Jewish settlements from attacks by local Palestinians.

During World War II, Harel enlisted with the British army. When, in 1941, he was badly wounded fighting in Greece, he was discharged.

However, like so many of his Jewish peers, while he had fought with the British in Europe, back home in Palestine he found himself working against the British authorities to advance the Zionist cause. In particular, as the war came to an end, he was assigned by Shaul Avigur, who headed the Aliyah Bet program, to develop methods to spirit Jews out of Europe and into Eretz Israel.

Reportedly, one of his tasks was to smuggle gold into postwar Greece, to bribe European officials to look the other way as refugees were led from Europe to Palestine.

The real story of Exodus

Avigure decided that Harel would command the operation that, between 1945 and 1948, sent four rickety vessels, each rebranded with a Zionist name – Knesset Israel, Exodus 1947, Atzma’ut, and Kibbutz Galuyot – to carry Jewish survivors to Palestine.

In July 1947, the SS Exodus sailed from Marseille, France, with 4,557 refugees aboard. When the ship arrived in Haifa Bay, the British removed the passengers – and boarded them on new vessels to be dispatched back to Europe, eventually to a prison camp in the U.K.-occupied zone of Germany.

Many of these Exodus refugees were later smuggled again out of Europe into Palestine. Others would only reach Israel after independence, in 1948.

But the desperate voyage of the Exodus and the other ships had a profound impact on world opinion, perhaps all the more because they were intercepted and most of their passengers sent to detention camps in Cyprus – or in the case of the Exodus, to Germany. The presence of United Nations observers in Haifa when the passengers of the Exodus were deported reportedly contributed to their recommendation to the organization that the British mandate be ended and Palestine partitioned.

After the war, Yossi Harel studied naval architecture at MIT, in the United States. However, he was called back shortly before finishing his degree, in order to serve with a Military Intelligence unit, 131, which was assigned to clean up the mess caused by the Lavon Affair, the aftermath of a secret mission in Egypt gone awry in 1954.

In 1948, during a visit to Los Angeles, Harel met a local Jewish woman, Julie Berez. They married and returned to Israel, where they had three children.

Despite the popularity of both the book and screen versions of “Exodus,” Yossi Harel maintained a low profile until near the end of his life. He made a living as a businessman, a career that reportedly served as a cover for the various intelligence missions he carried out for Israel.

In 1999, Harel was the subject of a dramatic, and widely translated, biography by the Hebrew writer Yoram Kaniuk, and received a number of honors, so that by the time of his death, he was a well-known figure.

He died of heart failure in Tel Aviv on this day in 2008, and was buried at Kibbutz Sdot Yam.