Season 2, Episode 21
The Deal With the Devil
Zionism has long suffered from anti-Semitic accusations that the movement and its Jewish leaders collaborated with the Nazis. That’s due to a strange incident in 1933. For a window of time in the 1930s, both the Nazis and the Zionists were aligned in seeing the benefits of getting the Jews out of Germany and into the British Mandate in Palestine. The question was, should the Yishuv take advantage of this opportunity, or was any agreement with the Nazis beyond the pale for the Jewish community? This debate would result in Chaim Arlosoroff’s murder on the beach in Tel Aviv.
Adolf Hitler wasn’t quite ready to kick the Jews out of Germany after he came to power in the 1930s. Doing so would lend support to the calls for an international boycott, and quickly losing so many Jewish workers would negatively impact the economy. But if a creative solution could be found that got the Jews out of Germany but kept the repercussions to a minimum, Hitler would be interested. Enter Chaim Arlosoroff.
Bizarre as it seems, in the spring of 1933 the Nazis and the Zionists had something of an alignment on what to do with the Jews of Germany. Arlosoroff was authorized to contact and negotiate with the Nazis on behalf of the Zionist leadership in Palestine. It was hugely controversial and led to a worldwide, take-no-prisoners Jewish fight that got very ugly, with each side accusing the other of risking Jewish lives.
In April, 1933, Arlosoroff headed to Germany to ink a deal with the Nazis. It was called the Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement. Under the deal, Jews were allowed to emigrate to Palestine but had to relinquish their assets to Zionist organizations, which then used that money to buy German goods; but then provided the new immigrants with equivalent assets when they arrived in Palestine. Economically, it was a win for everyone. The Nazis rake in a ton of money from Jews leaving. Individual Jews receive equal value in Palestine for whatever they left behind, so that they’re not left destitute. And the Yishuv gets desperately-needed funds to purchase land, build more infrastructure, and enlarge Jewish towns.
Vladimir Jabotinsky and his Revisionist Zionists, while acknowledging the dire threat to German Jewry and urging them to leave, were adamantly opposed to the Transfer Agreement. Anger over the Agreement reached a fever pitch. On June 16, 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff was shot dead in front of his wife while walking on the beach in Tel Aviv.
It was never conclusively proved who murdered him. Three Revisionists were charged with the murder but only one convicted. Left wing Zionists like Ben Gurion and Weizmann maintained their belief that the Revisionists did it. Israel continued to periodically investigate the murder into the 1980s, finally concluding, under a Revisionist prime minister, that the Revisionists had had nothing to do with it.
The Jews saved by the Ha’avara Agreement were part of the Fifth Aliyah, in which 250,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine during the 1930s. They largely settled in the bigger cities, like Tel Aviv and Haifa. This influx brought the percentage of Palestine’s population to almost 50% Jewish
Chaim Arlosoroff: Born in the Ukraine in 1899, he belonged to the Labor Zionist tree branch and became a senior official in the Jewish Agency. He believed that the young Arab nationalist movement was legitimate, and that the Yishuv ought to work harder at coexistence. He still advocated a strong Jewish self-defense, but he repeatedly clashed with Jabotinsky for what Arlosoroff considered unnecessary provocations. The key figure in the Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement, Arlosoroff was murdered in Tel Aviv in 1933.
THE BIG IDEAS
The Jewish Agency was created to carry out the work of the Zionist Movement in the Yishuv. Its goal was to encourage and facilitate Jewish immigration, and the development of the Land of the Israel, and to represent the global Jewish community there. The British recognized the Jewish Agency as the representative body of the Jewish community in all matters of relations between the British Mandate government and the Jews in Palestine. Think of it as the Jewish government before the State of Israel was created.
The Ha’avara Agreement raised profound and urgent moral questions with life-or-death consequences. Do you negotiate with the Nazis or not? The international boycott was hurting the German economy and thus presented an opportunity to get thousands of Jews out of Europe. For the Zionists, a huge influx of Jewish immigrants and their wealth would be of significant benefit. But Jabotinsky was resolutely opposed. “Our Jewish interests,” he said, “demand the complete destruction of Germany. Collectively and individually, the German nation is a threat to us as Jews.” Jews, he insisted, needed to support the boycott. The Yishuv then had a dilemma: helping the Jews of Germany meant they couldn’t have a boycott, but not having a boycott meant they would be financially and materially supporting the Nazi regime. So what to do?
In 1933 Arlosoroff inked the Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement. Jews wishing to leave Germany had their accounts frozen, which were turned over to Zionist trust companies, which then used the money to purchase German goods — thus keeping the Jews’ wealth in Germany. Those goods were sent to Palestine and sold. Money from the sales went right back to the Jews who had just arrived from Germany, with some percentage going to Zionist activities in the Yishuv. So everyone benefits economically and the Jews get to leave Germany. The Ha’avara Agreement probably netted Germany well over a billion dollars.
During World War One, Chaim Arlosoroff became friends with, and possibly had a romantic relationship with, a German woman named Magda. In 1931 Magda married an up-and-coming Nazi Party leader named…Joseph Goebbels.
From 1933 to 1939, the Ha’avara (Transfer) Agreement allowed 60,000 Jews to leave Germany, thereby saving their lives.
The Fifth Aliyah brought the total number of Jews in Palestine to around 450,000, more than doubling the size of the Yishuv.
© Jason Harris 2018