There are a number of figures who played major roles in the pre-State era who have unjustly faded into oblivion. Jacob De Haan is one of these. He packed more life into his short 43 years than others could pack in several lifetimes. He was a teacher, poet, journalist, lawyer and a close confidant of one of Israel’s leading religious figures of the first decades of the 20th century, Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld. At various times in his life he was a socialist, an atheist who married a non-Jew, an ultra-Orthodox Jew, a Zionist, and an anti-Zionist. He was also gay and publicly identified himself as such.
De Haan was born in a small northern Dutch village, one of sixteen children, born to a father who was a cantor, melamed (religious teacher) and ritual shochet (slaughterer). He himself earned his teaching certification and became a teacher, later moving to Amsterdam. There he taught in the city schools and became a socialist. He lost his religious faith and married a non-Jewish doctor ten years his senior, who later supported him in his legal studies.
He became editor of the children’s page of the socialist party’s newspaper. At the same time, he began frequenting the city’s gay underworld and wrote an explicitly homoerotic novel, Pijpelijntjes (“Pipelines”). The novel recounts his relationship with a prominent married medical doctor who pioneered the field of criminal anthropologist, Arnold Aletrino. The book is dedicated to him. As it became popular, Aletrino became scandalized by the notoriety and he, together with De Haan’s then-fiance, traveled throughout the city to buy up every copy they could find. A second edition removed the dedication to Aletrino and changed the main characters’ names in order to distance them from their real-life originals.
The book’s focus on the gay demi-monde and the characters’ flirtations with young boys and portrayal of sadomasochistic behavior ended his career as a children’s journalist and his teaching career as well. But De Haan was undeterred and continued to write homosexual novels and poetry.
His contemporaries noted he was what Ludi Geibels calls (p. 110) “a figure of striking personality.” The death of his mother, who played an outsize role in life, brought on a severe mental breakdown. In his poetry, he gives voice to flights of ecstatic spiritual rapture alternating with a celebration of carnal lust. His novels portray his obsession with sadomasochism sex play. The existence of such dichotomies in the same soul seems one of the most striking characteristics of his personality.
This tortured attempt to integrate one’s sexuality in the context of society and its expectation is a trait commonly seen in the lives of many gay individuals, though attempting to bridge homosexuality and the life of an ultra-Orthodox Jew seems one of the most extreme examples of such integration.
The British governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, who De Haan admired, portrayed him as “facially an intellectual version of Vincent Van Gogh, whose dreadful glare of an unknown terror sometimes blazed in his eyes.” Today, undoubtedly he might have received a diagnosis of manic-depressive disorder. Given his massive struggle with his sexual identity, it’s astonishing how productive and ambitious were his political achievements in the few years he lived in Palestine before his murder.
De Haan’s older sister, Carry van Bruggen, was also a distinguished writer known for her literary innovation and rebelliousness. She suffered from depression her entire life and committed suicide at the age of 51.
Back in the Netherlands, De Haan had already enrolled in the law school and earned his law degree, where he made his mark as a legal theoretician. He pioneered the field of semiotics in the law, which “demonstrated that legal writing often contained (and obscured) hidden agendas, and altered power relations in ways not explicitly expressed.” He specialized in criminal law and became interested in the plight of the Jews of eastern Europe and Russia who faced pogroms and massive waves of anti-Semitism. Common at the time was the notion that Jews were identified with criminality, a notion prevalent in European criminal law, which De Haan disputed.
After his socialist comrades abandoned him, De Haan turned to an altogether different political movement, Zionism. The suffering of the Jews in Russia moved him and he came to see Zionism as a means of providing safe haven for such communities.
He combined his scholarly and Zionist interests with a two-year-long trip to Russia where he conducted research on the Czarist prisons. In particular, he focussed on the Jewish inmates often accused of sympathy for the Bolsheviks. He described his trip as “two full years of unremitting work in Russia on behalf of his suffering Jews.”
Trip to Czarist Russia and Turn to Orthodox Judaism
Sometime during his Russia travels he returned to the faith of his ancestors and resumed Orthodox Jewish practices. On his return, he joined the Orthodox Zionist party, the Mizrahi. At this point he began to consider making aliyah to Palestine, a calling heard in the recitations from the daily prayer book. If he could not make his mark in Holland, he would set out on a new adventure as the first Dutch Jew to emigrate to the Holy Land. At the suggestion of a leading Zionist, Israel Zangwill, De Haan wrote to Chaim Weizmann, offering himself as a leading Dutch Jewish poet of his generation eager to do his part on behalf of his people.
Weizmann was not impressed. The Zionist movement in 1919, when he arrived, did not need poets. It needed clerks, teachers, mechanics, farmers, guards and ideologues. He didn’t receive the rapturous welcome he expected when he arrived in Jerusalem. But he did take up a teaching position in the British Mandate’s new College of Law. He joined Vladimir Jabotinsky as a co-founder of the law program.
When the latter was arrested by the British for organized an armed militia to defend Jews during the Palestinian riots, De Haan joined his legal defense, where he provided flamboyant and effective counsel.
Increasingly, De Haan found himself at odds with the Yishuv Zionist leadership in its approach toward both the Orthodox and Palestinian communities. Dishonest land deals negotiated by Zionist financiers, which deprived Palestinian peasants of land and livelihood distressed him in particular. He gravitated toward the ultra-Orthodox movement which, through the Agudat Yisrael organization, represented a significant percentage of the Jewish population of Palestine, especially in communities like Hebron, Tiberias, Jerusalem, and Safed.
Unlike the secular or Orthodox Zionists, the Agudah championed both Ashkenazi and Sefardi Jews in Palestine, marking a major break from the Yishuv’s focus largely on the Eastern European Ashkenazi (a bias that continued for decades even after the establishment of the State).
Disciple of Rabbi Sonnenfeld
In this period, De Haan met and became a disciple of the leader of the Haredi community, Rabbi Sonnenfeld. Originally from Austro-Hungary, Sonnenfeld was not a typical holy man. He was learned in both secular and religious fields and open to the world outside Judaism in ways that many of his disciples were not. He was also quite astute politically and understood that De Haan’s legal training and sharp political mind was something lacking amidst the Agudah’s fold. Michael Berkowitz quotes Sonnenfeld:
He knew that he required “a loyal and well-versed lawyer to plead in the courts, advise delegates to conferences, draft petitions and memoranda, study proposals and precendents and explain the general situation in answer to sympathetic inquiries.”
This suited De Haan to a ‘T,’ and they took an immediate liking to each other with the Dutchman becoming one of the rabbi’s most trusted advisors. He became something akin to a foreign minister for the Haredim: its representative to the outside non-Jewish world. He spoke up to the British Mandatory authorities not only on behalf of the interests of the Haredim, but also in opposition to the prevailing Zionist movement. De Haan also became a powerful journalist-advocate who wrote columns for Dutch and English newspapers which advanced ideas in direct contradiction of those of the Zionist movement. He was handsomely remunerated for his journalistic reportage, which afforded him financial independence from Palestinian society.
De Haan’s homosexuality was well-known and Sonnenfeld understood that his protege’s skills in advancing the Haredi cause were more important than the sin represented by his sexual identity. It is a remarkably progressive (or perhaps cynical) view, considering the absolute taboo against homosexuality inscribed in Jewish religious law.
Ultra-Orthodoxy, Anti-Zionism and Political Threat
The Haredim opposed national sovereignty and creation of a State for religious reasons (awaiting the Messiah who would restore the Davidic monarchy). They preferred to remain under British colonial control, believing that the Empire would afford Jews security in their homeland. But they did not ignore the Palestinians living in their midst. They understood that they shared the land with them and sought ways to co-exist peacefully. This was one of the reasons Haredim opposed shoddy land deals negotiated between Ottoman absentee landlords and Zionist purchasers. De Haan also roiled the Zionists when he pursued independent diplomacy, meeting with Arab monarchs who exercised authority (or sought to do so) in Palestine.
At the same time, De Haan, the cultivated and learned European Jew, enjoyed a prominent role in Jewish society frequenting soirees at the home of a prominent Jewish socialite which brought together literary, cultural and civic figures including British officials. He used such an entree to impress the British with his sophistication and erudition, becoming a favored interlocutor among both the Jewish and British elite class.
This too rankled the Zionists, who sprang from the Eastern Europe working class and prided themselves on forming a socialist laboring class that would create the new state they envisioned. They had very little in common with the British Christian ruling elite, which hailed from aristocratic families.
Despite De Haan’s radical ideas in the Yishuv context, he was an avowed Orientalist. He viewed Arabs as the Exotic Other, the tantalizing and desired. In his poetry, he waxed rhapsodic about these people of the mysterious east. It was a poetic version of Gaugin’s paintings of voluptuous Tahitian maidens, and a common European motif. It was also reminiscent of the medieval Spanish Hebrew poetry of Yehuda HaLevi: “My heart is in the east, but I am at the far reaches of the west.”
But unlike the typical Orientalist of the period, De Haan did not so much seek to foist western values on the east. Rather, he sought to elevate the east to an equal, and integrate it with the civilization of the west. His vision was not unlike that of Lawrence of Arabia in seeking to create a united Arab nation out of the disparate tribes of the region. But in at least one sense, DeHaan’s vision was even more radical: he sought to unite two separate religious and ethnic groups into one united political entity that would advance the interests of both.
De Haan, unlike the Zionists, he did not wish to conquer or expel the Palestinians. He sought to unite with them, or at least respectfully co-exist with them.
One of the major goals of the Agudah was to roll back the Balfour Declaration which, in 1917, had declared the goal of the British Empire to establish a “national home” for the Jewish people. De Haan’s vision was altogether different: he saw the Jews of Palestine living together with their Palestinian neighbors in relative harmony. Even if the British eventually ended the Mandate, the Haredi leader believed that he could negotiate a similarly stable, productive relationship with King Abdullah of Transjordan.
Given that the Yishuv leadership’s ultimate goal was to drive the British out of the region and establish a nation-state for the Jewish people, De Haan was a powerful, effective and dangerous opponent. The conflict came to a head when he announced that he planned a voyage to Britain, where he expected to conduct high-level diplomacy with leading officials responsible for Mandatory affairs. The possibility that he could unravel years of progress made by the Zionist movement toward its goal of national sovereignty was too serious to ignore.
Who Gave the Order?
A recent Haaretz article recounts the discovery of the previously-unknown journal of the then-chief of the Zionist militia, the Haganah, Yosef Hecht. It was he who gave the order to murder De Haan. Though Hecht does not clarify whether he received explicit approval from the leader of the Yishuv, Yitzhak Ben Tzvi (later to become the country’s second president), the assassin whom Hecht charged with the mission, did claim in a 1985 interview that Ben Tzvi directly approved it: :
“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.”
The murderers did try beforehand to warn De Haan that he was a marked man. They urged him to leave the country. But he was not one to be deterred. In fact, he saw himself as a visionary, a pioneer, and possibly even a martyr. He was almost philosophical about his own death. He certainly would not let his enemies change his course.
Thus, on the evening of June 30, 1924, the day before he was to set sail for England, De Haan left the synagogue of Shaarey Tzedek Hospital after evening prayers. He was accosted by Avraham Tehomi, who drew out a pistol and shot him three times. He died soon after.
Though there was outrage both in the Haredi community and the world outside Palestine at his murder, no one was ever arrested. The Yishuv, in order to deflect blame from itself, spread the calumnious rumor that one of De Haan’s Arab lovers had murdered him in a fit of jealous rage. As a deflection, it had a bit of genius to it, as it served to reinforce the Arabophobia of the Jewish population: this is what happens when a Jew betrays his tribe and consorts with Arabs. This is his reward for his sympathy for them.
Tom Segev, whose majesterial biography of Ben Gurion, A State at Any Cost, was published last year, wrote this account of the assassination for Haaretz in 2010:
…Zman Yerushalayim, came out with a five-page article, centering around an interview with a 74-year-old man named Yosef Meshi, who proudly claims: “My father was the murderer.”
The father, Ze’ev Meshi, was a member of a fanatic Zionist underground group called Hamifal. According to Yosef, his father told him that de Haan’s activity was a threat to the Zionist enterprise, and therefore the group decided to murder him. They sat in the granary on Moshav Nahalal and drew straws to decide who would carry out the act. The responsibility fell to Ze’ev Meshi and a man named Avraham Tehomi.
…According to Meshi: His father stood guard in the alley and made sure nobody approached, and Tehomi fired.
…Based also on testimony found in the Haganah archive…de Haan was murdered by order of that organization [the Haganah], and the decision to kill him was taken according to a formal, organized process. Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who would later become Israel’s second president, was among the planners of the murder, as may have been the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.
In the Ben Gurion biography, he adds more details about the Zionist leader’s views on the murder:
The Zionist establishment condemned him as an anti-Semitic rogue; nearly everyone agreed he was insane. Ben Gurion accused him of “betrayal and deception, talebearing and slander.”
…Ben Gurion went to watch the funeral. He estimated there were…about 200 people in attendance. “I did not see among the mourners any profound anger. Apparently, most of the Jews accepted it without getting much exercised about it.”
The question of whather Ben Gurion had been involved in the murder would soon arise; in other words, the question Ben Zvi would have taken upon himself to approve such a deed without informing Ben Gurion. Perhaps he would have…There is no reason to belive that Ben Gurion saw any need to liquidate De Haan.
De Haan’s death left Ben Gurion unmoved, but he likely saw the assassination as just one more in the series of subversive acts carried out [by the Haganah] without the authority of the Histadrut [Ben Gurion’s fiefdom], and that was intolerable.
Tehomi, the assassin, was later expelled from the Haganah and became the first commander of the Jewish terror organization, Etzel. Hecht, who authorized the assassination, was eventually deposed as Haganah chief and disappeared into the back pages of Zionist history. Ben Gurion found the murder of fellow Jews distasteful. It’s not clear whether he held this view for purely pragmatic reasons because it made the Zionist movement look bad; or because the murder of fellow Jews made the Zionist movement look like it lacked discipline and self-control. He clearly had no moral compunctions about the murder. At any rate, after Hecht later conducted a drumhead court-martial in 1930 Ben Gurion sacked him:
The trial was held…before a panel of three commanders, none of whom had a legal background, and in the absence of the accused himself…He was charged with providing information about the Haganah to a senior officer in the Mandatory police…and was ordered to kill himself.
After the trial, two of the judges broke into the condemned man’s home…bombarded him with accusations, forced him to sign a confession of treason and, on their way out, left him with a loaded pistol with which he carried out the sentence.
Hecht’s role in the formation of the precursor of the national army receded and he was largely forgotten until his notebooks were discovered and reported in Haaretz.
Assassination as a Tool of Political Domination
Sonnenfeld and the Haredi religious movement never mounted a similar challenge to the Zionists after De Haan’s murder. They were cowed and accepted dominance of the secular Zionists in political affairs. Henceforth, ultra-Orthodoxy retreated from the political area (at least as a potential rival to Zionism) and largely reverted to a purely religious movement. In this sense, the assassination succeeded in suppressing a movement that threatened Zionist hegemony.
Assassinations serve many purposes for those who commit them: some are acts of desperation and protest like the murders of Nazi diplomat, Ernst Von Rath by Herschel Grynszpan (which led to Kristallnacht); or the assassination of Rudolf Heydrich by the Czech resistance. Others like the assassination of Lord LeMoyne by Lehi seek to lay down a marker warning the colonial enemy that terror will lead to their eventual defeat. But the assassination of De Haan was an expression of dominance by the Zionist leadership–that it would brook no competition or threat to its power and control of the Yishuv’s political future.
De Haan as Victim of Zionist Homophobia
There was a second, less obvious element in the murder plot. Though De Haan was viewed primarily as a political enemy of the Yishuv, he was also despised as a sexual deviant by Zionist Jews. He was known to groom young Palestinian boys and had such a male servant with whom he was suspected of conducting a homosexual relationship.
Though today, Brand Israel uses pink-washing to paint Israel as a paradise for the global LGBT community, De Haan’s murder has explicit homophobic elements. The official historian of the Haganah, Prof. Yehuda Slutsky, wrote this of the murder victim:
…He of the dangerous pathological background, tainted with homosexuality and with the lust of his perverse acts of love with the Arab shabab [youth].”
It is no accident that the first Zionist political assassination of a fellow Jew incorporated raging homophobia as well. It’s important to note that such hate continues to simmer in Israeli society to this day with the Bar Noar (unsolved) and Jerusalem Pride murder.
Zionism and its adherents can readily understand hatred against the Palestinian Arab enemy. Such violence is almost inbred in the struggle between these two peoples. But it much more troubling to accept that inherent in Zionism is a murderous urge to eliminate Jewish dissidents as well. That’s certainly why this particular tragedy has receded to the periphery of Zionist consciousness.
But it is important to understand that Zionism was not a visionary, altruistic enterprise solely seeking the good and happiness of the Jewish people. It was a ruthless movement which viewed itself as part of an existential struggle to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people in the face of centuries of Jew-hatred.
Nor were such assassinations a one-off phenomenon. Seventy years later, in 1995, another murderer fueled by Judean settler rage and blessed by their rabbis assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. His “crime” was to sign the Oslo Accords and threaten the demise of the Greater Land of Israel, and the messianic vision of Gush Emunim to resettle the entire Biblical Land of Israel and thus hasten the coming of the Messiah.
As was true of De Haan, the settlers who plotted the murder knew they could not defeat Rabin at the ballot box. Their only recourse was through a gun barrel. Yigal Amir’s murder did precisely that. Though Rabin’s successor, Simon Peres, promised to continue the martyr’s legacy, he squandered whatever political capital the killing offered. The Labor Party lost power and Bibi Netanyahu assumed the leadership during his first term as prime minister. Oslo was dead and interred in its grave. The Labor Party went into a gradual decline that has continued, to the point where today it stands on the brink of oblivion.
So the Rabin assassination, similar to that of Jacob De Haan ensured the dominance of Likudist ultra-nationalism and rejectionism as the path for the Israeli state for decades to come.