A Mysterious Murder in British Palestine

April 24, 2023 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

The Times of Israel calls it “the great whodunnit of Zionist lore.” In 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff was murdered in Tel Aviv. Only 34 years old, Arlosoroff was a prominent lead­er in David Ben Gurion’s Mapai Par­ty and head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Palestine. Who killed him?  And why? The suspects included Jewish political opponents, local Arabs, and Nazis. To this day, Arlosoroff’s murder remains unsolved. This infamous case forms the backdrop for the legal thriller, The Red Balcony by Jonathan Wilson.

The Arlosoroff Murder

On the evening of June 16, 1933, Chaim Arlosoroff was enjoying a leisurely stroll along the Tel Aviv beach with his wife, Sima, when two men approached. One man shone a flashlight into Arlosoroff’s face and asked him for the time while the other man shot him.

Just days before his murder, Arlosoroff had returned to Palestine from Germany where he had been negotiating with the Hitler regime for increased Jewish emigration. The resulting “Transfer (Ha’avara) Agreement” between the Zionist leadership in Palestine and the Nazis, approved by the British, permitted German Jews to emigrate to Palestine and to retain the value of some of their assets by using them to purchase German goods for Palestine. From the Nazi standpoint, the pact offered an opportunity to weaken the international economic boy­cott of Germany while simultaneously ridding the country of Jews.

Angry Opposition to the Transfer Agreement

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Revisionist movement, and his followers denounced Arlosoroff in right-wing newspapers as a traitor for dealing with the Nazi regime. The Revisionists wanted Jewish immigrants, but fiercely opposed breaching the boycott of German goods. They hoped that the boycott would so devastate the German economy that Hitler and his government would topple.

Other ardent opponents of the Transfer Agreement were Palestinian Arab political leaders. Their fear was that the agreement would lead to a surge in Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to Palestine. And indeed, an estimated 50,000 Jews came to Palestine pursuant to the Transfer Agreement.

Sima Arlosoroff first identified her husband’s killers as Arabs, but later claimed they were actually Jews.  Adding to the confusion were rumors that Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, had hired hit men to kill Arlosoroff.  According to these rumors, Goebbels suspected Arlosoroff of having had an affair with his wife, Magda, and/or he feared that Arlosoroff would sully Goebbels’ reputation by revealing that Magda’s stepfather was Jewish.

Amid these swirling speculations, three Jewish men associated with Jabotinsky’s right-wing movement were tried for Arlosoroff’s murder in 1934. The contentious trial acquitted two men and convicted one, but that conviction was overturned on appeal for insufficient evidence.

The Novel

Jonathan Wilson’s The Red Balcony views the Arlosoroff case through the eyes of Ivor Castle, a British Jew and naïve young lawyer, who has come to Palestine to assist a British barrister in the defense of the Arlosoroff murder suspects.

Ivor is immediately immersed in a volatile cauldron of Jewish-Arab-British politics. He begins to question his identity – is he more British than Jewish or the reverse? His work on the Arlosoroff case turns personal when he falls in love with a potential defense witness – a beautiful artist who can possibly place the defendants in a Jerusalem café, far from Tel Aviv, on the night of the murder.

Struggling to know whom to believe or trust, Ivor meets diverse Jewish characters with different aspirations for Palestine’s future. In interviews, author Wilson has suggested that those competing visions in the British Mandate period are the ideological seeds of the bitter political divisions that rend Israel today.