This Day in Jewish History

1941: Jewish Commando Dies on Mission for British in Iraq

As head of an underground Jewish resistance group, David Raziel had been pursued by the British. Come WWII, he would offer his help.

David Raziel, one of the founders and commander of the Etzel underground organization, who was killed in action during WWII while serving with the British.
GPO

On May 20, 1941, David Raziel, commander of the Etzel – the Jewish underground militia in Palestine affiliated with Revisionist Zionism – was killed while leading a commando mission in Iraq for the British army.

In its early years, the Etzel, the acronomyn of Irgun Tzvai Leumi – literally “national military organization” –treated the British Mandatory government in Palestine as an enemy. But after World War II started, Etzel made common cause with the British, which is how it was that Raziel was asked to assemble a team to travel to Iraq. Its mission was to destroy the oil refineries west of the capital, which were supplying the Germans with fuel critical for their war effort.

Enemy aliens

He was born David Rozenson, on December 19, 1910, in Smorgon, in modern-day Belarus. His father was Mordecai Rozenson, a Hebrew teacher, and his mother the former Bluma Gordin. The family, which also included a sister, Esther, were Zionists, and spoke Hebrew in their home. When Mordecai was offered a position teaching at the Tachkemoni School, in Tel Aviv, in 1914, they immigrated there, if not for long. 

During World War I, the Turkish rulers of the Land of Israel exiled Russian-born residents, whom they considered enemy aliens, to Egypt. This happened to the Rozensons too, and they went back to Russia, only to return to Israel in 1923.

David studied at his father’s school, graduating in 1928, when he moved to Jerusalem to attend the Merkaz Harav yeshiva, where his hevruta (study partner) was Zvi Yehuda Kook, son of chief rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. At the same time, he was a student at the Hebrew University.

After the shocking massacre of the Jewish residents of Hebron, in 1929, Raziel joined the Haganah, the Jewish defense organization that became the official militia of the pre-state government. He completed a Haganah commanders course before joining the group that split from it in 1931 over the Haganah’s policy of military restraint (havlaga) vis-à-vis the country’s Arab population.

The splinter group, with ideological leadership from Ze'ev Jabotinsky, became the Etzel, also called Irgun.

Pursued by the British

Over the next decade, Raziel played a major role in the Irgun, heading its Jerusalem division, writing three manuals dealing both with doctrine and field techniques, and eventually becoming its commander. During this entire period, he, like other members of the organization, led their lives underground, often being pursued by the British.

President Reuven Rivlin speaking at a memorial to David Raziel, Har Herzl, Jerusalem, May 4, 2015. Rivlin is wearing a dark blue suit and tie and stands at a dais bearing the emblem of the State of Israel.
Amos Ben Gershom

In 1938, Raziel was married – secretly – to Shoshana Spitzer, whom he had met four years earlier, when she was 14 and he was invited to a lecture about the writer Israel Zangwill at the school for ultra-Orthodox girls that her mother, Hana Spitzer, had founded in Jerusalem. That same year, he was appointed commander in chief of the entire Irgun, whereupon he expanded the organization’s activity to training new recruits in Lithuania and Poland.

In 1939, he traveled abroad to Paris, where he met Jabotinsky for the first time (the father of Revisionism told him that he had been waiting for 15 years for someone of his caliber to appear), and went on to the United States, to raise funds.  

Upon his return to Palestine in May 1939, he was arrested by the British. He was still in prison in September when war broke out, when he wrote to the British military commander in Palestine offering his organization’s help to the British in fighting Germany. (It was the opposition of his colleague Avraham Stern and others to that strategic decision that led to their breaking off from the Etzel and forming the militant group known by the acronym Lehi.)

In 1941, when the British colonial government in Iraq faced a German-supported revolt, they asked Raziel to organize a raid on the refineries at Habbaniya, west of Baghdad. Raziel put together a team, which he decided to lead himself, which flew from Tel Aviv to Iraq on May 17.

Shortly after their arrival, a German plane scored a direct hit on part of the group, killing Raziel and a British escort.

Raziel's body was buried in Iraq. Only in 1961 did circumstances make it possible to bring it to Israel for reinterment at Mt. Herzl, in Jerusalem.