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Tuesday, May 13, 2008

‘Cowboy zionist’ who led the Exodus passed away

'Cowboy zionist' who led the Exodus

By Sue Cameron

Published: May 9 2008 18:49 | Last updated: May 9 2008 18:49

It was more an embarrassment than a ship. Nearly 20 years old, its single tall funnel poked out above dilapidated decks and scarred paintwork. It was heading for the breaker's yard until the Haganah, the Jewish underground, bought it. Now, loaded with more than 4,500 Jewish refugees, many of them Holocaust survivors, it was approaching the Palestinian port of Haifa and its moment of destiny.

Its commander that July day in 1947 was Yossi Harel, who has died at 90. The ship was the USS President Warfield but Harel had renamed it Exodus 1947. Nearing Haifa it was pursued by British warships mounting a blockade to stop Jewish refugees landing. The 28-year-old Harel raised the blue and white star of David, soon to be Israel's flag, while loudspeakers played Hatikvah, to be its national anthem. When the British shot across the ship's bows and sent troops to board, it was Harel who led fierce resistance by the unarmed passengers and crew.

Harel's gallant defiance of the British was to echo round the world. It would turn international opinion against Britain, which then ruled Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. Above all, it would ensure that the United Nations backed the establishment of the state of Israel, created 60 years ago this week. Some even date the creation of Israel to the day when the Exodus tried to run the British blockade. As Harel's biographer, Yoram Kaniuk, put it: "The state of Israel came into existence before it acquired a name, when its gates were locked to Jews, when the British fought against the survivors of the Holocaust."

Aware of Arab sensitivities, in 1939 Britain had restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine to 75,000 over five years. Anxious to preserve stability and with a UN decision on an Israeli state pending, the British stuck to the quota after the second world war. For the moment they had the upper hand. During the fighting on the Exodus, three Jews and a British soldier died. More than 30 people were wounded.

When the British took the wheelhouse Harel surrendered – against the wishes of the ship's captain – so as to save lives. Even so, the impact on public opinion was even greater than Harel might have hoped. For the Exodus was towed into Haifa and the refugees transferred to three British steamers under the eyes of the UN. As US Congressman Howard Berman put it this week: "Members of the UN Special Commission on Palestine saw first-hand as these refugees with their meagre possessions were unloaded from the ramshackle Exodus and prepared for their return to Europe – just precious feet away from the land they had so desperately yearned to reach."

Worse was to follow. The refugees were shipped back to France, which had agreed to take them but for 24 days they went on hunger strike and refused to disembark. The French would not remove them by force and Britain decided the only place to house so many refugees quickly was the British-controlled zone of Germany. Secret papers released this week by the UK's National Archive show that the British recognised the risk of what one of diplomat called a "violent, hostile outburst in the press". Yet Britain used troops to force the Jews off the ships at Hamburg. They shouted "Hitler commandos", "gentlemen fascists" and "sadists" as they disembarked.

They were sent to camps in Germany – rumoured to be concentration camps, which caused international outrage. The rumours were false, though initially the camps had been surrounded by barbed wire and watch towers. Eventually, after huge damage to Britain's reputation, the Exodus refugees were released. Many eventually found their way to Palestine.

Meanwhile Harel was taking more shiploads of Jews to their biblical homeland. He made four trips, including that on the Exodus, and carried 24,000 people to what was soon to become Israel.

He was born in Jerusalem in 1918 to a family, originally called Hamburger, that had lived there since the 19th century. His father, Moshe, was a grocer. His beautiful and aristocratic mother, Batya, was mentally fragile and his childhood was difficult. Aged 15 and described by biographer Kaniuk as a "cowboy zionist", he ran away and joined the Haganah. By turns he fought the British and took part in Arab-Jewish conflicts. His courage and leadership skills were soon recognised. He became a founder member of the Nodetet, a small commando supported by the eccentric British officer Orde Wingate, which intended to make pre-emptive strikes during the Arab revolt of the 1930s. In 1938 Harel became the personal bodyguard to Chaim Weizmann, later the first president of Israel but, after the outbreak of the war, he joined the British army. Sent to Greece, he was badly injured and discharged. After the war he was sent on a coastal navigation course run by Haganah and made head of an illegal operation known as Aliyah Bet – "Immigration B". Set up to circumvent British limits on Jewish immigration, this was run by Palyam, a clandestine Jewish naval force.

The voyage of the Exodus was the base for a novel of the same name by Leon Uris that had a big influence on American attitudes towards Israel. It was followed in 1960 by an Otto Preminger film in which Paul Newman played Ari Ben Canaan, the character based on Harel. The real Harel moved to the US after the 1948 Arab/Israeli war and studied mechanical engineering. In 1954 Moshe Dayan, then head of Israeli defence, put him in charge of Unit 131, a secret group that ran spies in Arab countries.

In later life Harel collected avant garde art and pursued a successful business career that gave him cover to continue intelligence work. Though charming and gregarious, the habits of secrecy remained ingrained. Often he would lie about his whereabouts in calls to friends – just in case. He is survived by his wife, Julie, two sons and a daughter, Sharon, wife of British venture capitalist Sir Ronald Cohen. Speaking two years ago he pointed out that in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war 6,000 out of the 600,000 Jews who fought were killed. Of the 100,000 who ran the blockade, 3,000 died. "Yet they kept coming. A nation destroyed was coming back to life."

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