Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER
Ask most U.S. baby boomer Jews and their offspring about Haim Arlosoroff and it’s a good bet you’ll get a blank look.
But Arlosoroff’s murder on a Tel Aviv beach in June 1933 was a sensation, widening a rift among British Mandate Jews that reverberates faintly today.
Arlosoroff, 34, was part of the Zionist leadership, back just two days from a trip to Nazi Germany where he’d negotiated an agreement allowing Jews to leave for Palestine with a bit of money.
The deal would help the German economy, creating disagreement among Jews, particularly rightist followers of Ze’ev Jabotinsky,
Arlosoroff “was probably one of the most hated men in Palestine,’’ writes Jonathan Wilson in his novel The Red Balcony. “For fanatical Revisionist Jews he was the traitorous envoy sent to Europe to set up and validate a deal with the devil; for the local Arabs, he was the Jew trying to force wide the gates of admission for an influx of European refugees.”
Labor Zionists blamed Revisionists for killing Arlosoroff.
His death and the trial of suspects Abraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt is the reality around which Wilson builds a tale of a (fictional) non-observant and improbably naive young British lawyer, Ivor Castle (né Schloss), assisting the defense counsel, rather high society (fictional) Phineas Baron.
Wilson includes a (fictional) Oxford classmate, a sharp-tongued Revisionist, who insists the suspects are innocent.
We don’t get much of the defense’s legal work, but we do get Ivor’s torrid-at-first-sight affair with artist Tsiona Kerem. She tells Ivor, “You will never get what you want from me,” perhaps an allusion to Ivor’s British discomfort in Israel and Jewish discomfort in Britain.
He knows he shouldn’t be seeing Tsiona, a prospective witness. In a Jerusalem café at the same time as the suspects, she claims neither to recall seeing them nor the precise time — central to whether they could have reached Tel Aviv when Arlosoroff was killed.
It’s less improbable that a man smart enough to graduate from Oxford would discard all sense over a beautiful woman; it happens all the time.
Ivor is more preoccupied with Tsiona than with defending the suspects. He later has a chaste relationship with Susannah Green of Baltimore, in Jerusalem with her hugely rich parents. Her father has some secretive business dealings there.
The story’s factual basis: Arlosoroff and wife Sima were taking an after-dinner walk on a Tel Aviv beach when two men approached. One shined a flashlight at Arlosoroff’s face, the other shot him.
Red Balcony tells of an assailant identity problem, saying Sima three times called the men Arabs, then later Jews. There’s a jailed Arab suspect who confesses, then recants.
Fictional romance makes Red Balcony lighter stuff than I’d hoped, but by mid-book, Wilson builds some dramatic tension, entertaining while teaching about the Labor-Revisionist divide that still echoes. Jabotinsky follower Menachem Begin led Herut, the foundation of today’s Likud Party.
Incidentally, Begin led large protests against a German reparations agreement in 1952, calling it blood money. The reparations were valuable in building up impoverished Israel.
The 1933 deal is worth relating.
The Jewish Virtual Library explains that Jews were leading an effort to boycott German goods.
“The Zionists sought to attract immigrants to Palestine, most especially the affluent German Jewish immigrants, and the Germans sought to get rid of their Jews” (while confiscating their wealth), “increase their exports [and obtain] a propaganda victory by dividing the Jews regarding the boycott,” the Virtual Library says.
Britain required the German immigrants to possess 1,000 Palestine pounds — then $4,990 — to get a “capitalist” immigration permit, the Library says. The amount, paid to a Jewish trust company, bought German goods that were brought into the Mandate and sold, the proceeds going to the immigrants.
The Library says the agreement brought in 60,000 German Jews by 1939, and together with money invested by the immigrants, helped expand agricultural settlement and the economy.
Wilson tosses off some gems. For example, Baron invites Ivor to a celebrity-filled Yom Kippur fast-breaking at his home, where “a table has been set for the hungry and those pretending to be.”
To an announcement that 13 more German Jewish professors are joining Hebrew University, wry Baron says that’s why it “forever will be known as ‘the last great German University.’”
Wilson provides a sense of Mandate Israel and its environment, frequently describing scenery, flora and (three times) dust motes in sunlight. He sprinkles in words such as plimsolls (sneakers), hircine (goat smelling). and pillion (motorcycle passenger seat).
His description of the trial’s outcome isn’t quite the same as the Virtual Library’s, but even after a 1982 reexamination, the killing remains unsolved.
One of Wilson’s most telling, subtle references comes when Ivor is summoned to see Britain’s high commissioner.
Approaching, “Ivor could make out the Union Jack on Government House’s flagpole; on this windless morning it hung limply, as if it had given up trying to assert itself.”
Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor.
(American Jewish World, April 2023)
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