On June 30, 1924, poet, legal scholar and journalist Jacob Israel de Haan was gunned down in Jerusalem, a murder apparently carried out by the Haganah, the pre-state Zionist militia, to stop de Haan’s anti-Zionist activities. The story of Jacob de Haan’s life – and death – is one of the more surprising, if not bizarre tales of pre-state Jewish life in Palestine.
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Jacob de Haan was born on December 31, 1881, in Smilde, in the northern Netherlands. His family was traditional – his father was a ritual slaughterer and cantor – and he was said to be one of 18 children.
De Haan studied law and worked as a teacher in Amsterdam when in 1904 he published his first book, “Lines from De Pijp,” a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about a supposed relationship with the scholar Arnold Aletrino, to whom he also dedicated the work. De Haan was dismissed from his teaching position and from a newspaper column he wrote for children. Meanwhile his fiancée and Aletrino (a criminal anthropologist and married man who had publicly defended homosexuality) bought up all of the book’s first printing, to prevent its distribution. The author then reworked the book without the elements that alluded to Aletrino.
In 1907, de Haan married the same fiancée, Johanna van Maarseveen, a non-Jew, and a year later, published another novel, this one about a sadomasochistic relationship between a man and a young boy. In 1916, he received a doctorate in law, but was disappointed to be passed over when a job in the law faculty at the University of Amsterdam opened up
In the following years, de Haan wrote a number of books of poetry, on both Jewish and sexual themes. He visited czarist Russia to study the conditions of prisoners there on a series of trips that resulted in a book exposing those conditions, a cause in which he was also active politically, and he began to adopt both a Zionist outlook and an observant Jewish lifestyle.
In 1919, de Haan decided to emigrate from Amsterdam to Jerusalem. In a letter to British Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, he wrote, with typical self-assurance, that, “I am not leaving Holland to improve my condition. Neither materially, nor intellectually, will life in Palestine be equal to my life here. I am one of the best poets of my generation, and the only important Jewish national poet Holland has ever had. It is difficult to give up all this …"
Initially, de Haan was involved with Zionist circles in his new home. He helped establish the Jerusalem Law Classes in 1919, where he lectured, worked as a correspondent for a Dutch newspaper, and continued writing poetry. Soon, he met and found a kindred spirit in Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the founder of the ultra-Orthodox, anti-Zionist Edah Haredit community, and became his political spokesman. He also is said to have taken an interest in the young boys of Jerusalem, both Jewish and Arab.
Within a short time, de Haan became critical of the secular nature of the Zionist movement and of its relationship with the Orthodox community. He also became convinced that it was on a collision course with the indigenous Arab population of the land.
In 1922, the same year that Jacob de Haan defended Agudath Israel, the Haredi political movement, in a legal trial over its refusal to pay a new excise tax levied by Zionist authorities on matzot before Passover, he also met with Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail newspaper in London, when the latter visited the region. He shared his anti-Zionist views with Northcliffe and those views were reported back in the United Kingdom. Soon, de Haan was offered work as a correspondent for the tabloid Daily Express. De Haan also met with Hashemite leader Hussein bin Ali, the King of Hejaz, to discuss the establishment of a Palestinian state.
By now, de Haan had become a liability to the Zionist movement, and especially dangerous because of the platform he now had for spreading his views in London, where critical decisions about Palestine were made. In Jerusalem, he became persona non grata among Zionists, including his law students. One anecdote has him walking with a Dutch visitor, who observed that as people passed them into the street, they were spitting on the sidewalk. The visitor thought this was a sign of disrespect, to which de Haan responded, according to Dutch historian Ludy Giebels: “"Oh no, they spit on the street out of respect for you, your presence. Otherwise they would have spit in my face."
Early on the morning of June 30, 1924, as he left the synagogue in Shaare Zedek hospital, on Jaffa Road, de Haan was shot three times. He died immediately.
The British authorities offered a reward for information that would lead to his killer, but no one was ever tried for the crime. The killing was thought to have been ordered by the Haganah, but it was only in the 1980s that two Israeli journalists, Shlomo Nakdimon and Shaul Mayzlish, received an admission of guilt from Israeli businessman Avraham Tehomi, who was then living in Hong Kong.
Tehomi told the journalists that he had been acting on orders of the Haganah, specifically of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, an officer in the militia and a political activist, later the second president of the State of Israel: "I have done what the Haganah decided had to be done. And nothing was done without the order of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi ... I have no regrets because he [de Haan] wanted to destroy our whole idea of Zionism."
De Haan’s murder is seen as the first political assassination in the Zionist community. Among Haredim (who generally overlook his sexual proclivities), he is still seen as a martyr. In the Netherlands, his poetry is still in print, and a line from one of his poems is engraved on the triangular Homomonument in Amsterdam.