Who Murdered Chaim Arlozorov?

Rav Kook’s Fight for Justice for the Falsely Accused

BY MOSHE NACHMANI

Ninety years ago, on Friday night, June 16, 1933, Chaim Arlozorov, head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, was murdered on a beach in Tel Aviv. Two right-wing Jewish activists, Avraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt, were suspected of the murder. Their ten-month trial caused a storm of controversy in the Jewish community in Israel, and at the end of the trial, Stavsky was sentenced to death by hanging.

One of the most prominent figures in the story of Stavsky’s rescue from execution was the Chief Rabbi, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. Rav Kook came to Stavsky’s defense on the grounds that there was no actual evidence that he committed the murder, arguing that it was forbidden to execute a suspect under such circumstances.

Rav Kook’s argument was not based on ruach hakodesh, nor on the assumption that a Jew is incapable of killing, as some respected researchers claim, but on confidential information he received that exonerated Stavsky. The decisive information was given to him by Bechor Sheetrit, the prosecutor in the murder case. Sheetrit had interrogated two Arabs who were suspected of the murder and became convinced that they were, indeed, the culprits. After Rav Kook swore that he would keep the matter a secret, Sheetrit revealed his conclusions to him.

An action committee was established to save the accused, and Rav Kook won the public campaign to save Stavsky. He published announcements and urged distinguished public figures to join the rescue attempts. He did all this despite the heavy public pressure directed towards him and accusations that he was protecting a murderer. Left-wing extremists hung posters on the walls of his house: “Woe to the generation whose kohanim protect murderers.” For many weeks, the left-wing press published a slew of hateful articles against Rav Kook.

Rav Kook was not frightened by the propaganda campaign. In one of his proclamations, he wrote: “We can all testify that [Stavsky] is completely free of guilt. We must not stand idly by! Anyone who has a spark of G-dliness in his heart, from all of Israel and from all of humanity, must protest against this terrible sin of shedding clean and righteous blood, and do everything in his power to correct the perversion of the law and restore to the pure victim his complete freedom.”

When Rav Kook was asked if he was sure that Stavsky was not the murderer, he replied: “I am not 100% sure; I am 120% sure!” In an assembly attended by fifty people, including the leaders of the Yishuv, he said: “I am ready to swear on Erev Yom Kippur in front of an open aron kodesh that Stavsky is innocent.”

 

Davar newspaper headline the day after Arlozorov’s murder.

Interestingly, though Rav Kook was one of the leaders of those who worked for the acquittal and release of Stavsky, to this day no comprehensive study has been written that describes all of his efforts. Much has been written about the Arlozorov murder, but the experts have, for some reason, purposely concealed Rav Kook’s role. For example, in the book The Murder of Arlozorov by Shabtai Tevet, Rav Kook’s name is mentioned only twice incidentally.

After Stavsky was acquitted in court, Beitar leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky sent an emotional letter to the Religious Zionist rabbi Natan Milikovsky (Benjamin Netanyahu’s grandfather), and among other things he wrote: “Overnight, Rav Kook’s name became a sublime symbol in the hearts of countless multitudes… If I were not a boor completely ignorant of the Torah and afraid to open my mouth on a religious matter, I would call publicly at this moment for something I have dreamed about since my youth: to renew in our days the title of kohen gadol!”

Upon his release from detention, Stavsky ran to Rav Kook’s house to thank him for saving him from death. When he arrived at the Rav’s house, he realized that Rav Kook was at a resort on Mount Carmel. Rav Kook’s assistant, Rabbi Avraham Chechik, came to his aid and handed him the phone. Stavsky called the rabbi with great excitement, and when he heard the rabbi’s voice he began to cry with great emotion, and Rav Kook also cried for some time. Only after a few minutes was Stavsky able to stop crying and thank Rav Kook for saving his life.

“The next Sunday, he went to Haifa to see our late rabbi face-to-face. It was like a father meeting with his son after a long separation. They kissed and hugged with special warmth and love,” Chechik later said (Bimchitzato, Rabbi Avraham Chechik).  

Chechik added: “The Stavsky trial unleashed a storm of anger and fighting within the Jewish community. Who knows how we would have morally deteriorated had G-d not infused our holy teacher and rabbi, whom G-d blessed with love for Israel without measure, with His holy spirit. G-d knew his pure soul and directed its path so that it would hear a higher command. When the righteousness of the late accused Stavsky became clear to him beyond all doubt, he set out to stand in the breach to save a soul of Israel.”

But if Stavsky did not murder Arlozorov, who did? As I mentioned above, the murderers were two Arabs, Abdul Majid and Issa Darwish, and this became clear as the years passed, with the disclosure of publicly published evidence.

A few years ago, I heard from the late Esther Bazak the testimony of her father, Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Shereshevsky, about what happened that night at the beach. Shereshevsky immigrated to Israel with his three children from Germany shortly before the murder. The night of the murder, he was sitting with some friends on the beach, where they organized a birthday party for him. Suddenly they saw two Arabs running on the beach towards Jaffa. A few minutes later, British policemen arrived and shouted at the group of celebrating Jews to leave.

The next day, Shereshevsky and his friends heard that Chaim Arlozorov had been murdered on the beach where they were sitting the night before. “My father went to Jerusalem on Sunday to see Rav Kook and told him that he saw the Arabs fleeing and that the British kicked them out of the beach,” Esther said, “and later it turned out that Arlozorov was indeed murdered by two Arabs.”

Since many on the left did not accept the ruling of the Mandate authorities acquitting the accused and believed that Stavsky and Rosenblatt were guilty of murder and were acquitted for technical reasons only, the left continued for many years to accuse the Revisionists of murder. This is why Menachem Begin established the Bechor Committee in 1982 to investigate the murder of Arlozorov, and it concluded that the Jewish defendants, Avraham Stavsky and Zvi Rosenblatt, were innocent of any guilt.

In a new book recently released about Rav Kook, הֵיכַל הָאַהֲבָה, fascinating material was published about Rav Kook’s involvement in the rescue of Stavsky and Rosenblatt, including an article written by Rosenblatt on the first anniversary of Rav Kook’s death:

“Only a year ago, Rav Kook was alive among us. He fought and rallied us all around him. He was the father of the Yishuv, the genius and righteous man of the generation. With a pain that burns to the depths of our souls, we mourn his passing. Today his absence is even more deeply felt. In front of everyone and as the British government watches and does nothing, shocking atrocities and murders are carried out [against the Jewish community]. The Yishuv is wallowing in blood and there is no one to encourage the Yishuv and unite it to properly respond to the injustice that cries out to the heavens. Only you, Rav Kook, could have protested when our rights were violated at the Western Wall in 1929; only you knew how to encourage us and awaken us… When the decree prohibiting the blowing of a shofar by the Western Wall was published, you publicly called upon the Yishuv to protest the decree and fight for our rights. And in 1933, in those days when class war and the desire to divide our people raged in the Yishuv and destroyed everything good in us, when a part of the Yishuv consumed by hatred wanted to destroy a tribe from Israel and plotted to have three innocent Jews hanged – you knew how to stand in battle against evil and fought for the honor of the Yishuv. You knew how to respond with the necessary sharpness, and you understood how to navigate the authorities and the police. You called out and awakened the conscience of the community and brought a victory of justice over lies.”

Rosenblatt ended his article with an emotional personal cry: “Silently, we stand at your grave. An orphaned and poor nation yearns to unite with your memory, to continue the path you forged for the freedom fighters of Israel.”

 

Moshe Nachmani is a writer for Olam Katan specializing in Religious Zionist history.

© 2024 World Mizrachi

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