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David’s War

A haftorah of discipline and death

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Etzel warriors in training, 1937. (Israeli Government Press Office)

A few weeks ago, Shoshana Raziel, aged 92, died in Jerusalem. The Israeli press—preoccupied with the gargantuan corruption scandal that put everyone from the former director of the country’s largest bank to the capital’s former deputy mayor behind bars—barely found room for an obituary. But with Shoshana died a sliver of Israeli history, a legend the embattled nation would do well to remember.

On the afternoon before the Passover seder of 1938, Shoshana, then 18, married David Raziel. No more than two dozen people attended the wedding, a simple ceremony held in a friend’s back yard, and after David and Shoshana were wed they had lunch with their parents and checked in to a Tel Aviv hotel. They had to register under a false name: David was a wanted man.

In an interview given a few weeks before her death, Shoshana recalled that her husband spent their wedding night hunched at the hotel room’s desk, writing. He was the leader of the Etzel, also known as the Irgun, a militant group that parted ways with the main defense force of the Jewish community in pre-state Palestine to pursue more radical, and frequently more violent, paths. He lived for the struggle.

A few months later, when David was arrested by the British police, Shoshana visited him in jail. She told the warden she was Raziel’s sister. If anyone knew the rebel had a wife, Shoshana realized, she, too, would be locked up. David was eventually released and resumed his command of the Etzel. He orchestrated the bombing campaigns of several large Arab markets, killing dozens of civilians and wounding many more. He targeted British officers. The Jews, he fervently believed, were fighting for their right to survive, and they had no business holding back.

In May of 1941, David kissed Shoshana goodbye. He was off on a routine mission, he told her, and would be back in 10 days. That Shabbat, Shoshana attended a synagogue and read Parashat Emor, the same parasha we read this week.

Ten days passed, then 20. Shoshana went to look for David in a number of apartments she knew the Etzel used as hiding places. He wasn’t there. Finally, she went to see David’s parents. His mother, Bluma, had little to say. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away,” she mumbled. “May His name be blessed.” With that, she ripped a small tear in Shoshana’s blouse. At 21, Shoshana was a widow. She was also a few weeks pregnant with David’s child. The boy would live for only one day.

There was little left for Shoshana to do but fight David’s last battle. He had died in Iraq, she learned, on a reconnaissance mission for the British army. As soon as England went to war with Nazi Germany, David had reached out to his former enemies; he would immediately cease all anti-British terror, he promised them, and instead enlist to help defeat Hitler. A German plane bombed his convoy. He was buried not far from where he fell, in the Al Anbar province, west of Baghdad. For more than a decade, Shoshana pressed to have his remains exhumed and brought to Israel. It took two decades for David to finally come home; in 1961, he was given a state funeral and posthumously awarded the rank of major general in the Israel Defense Forces.

Many, myself included, take issue with Raziel’s predilection for violence, as well as with many of his organization’s tactical and strategic goals. But this week, the week of Parashat Emor, let us remember him.

The haftorah might serve as a useful guide. Speaking of the priests, it enumerates the clergy’s numerous restrictions and obligations: their hair neither shaved off nor allowed to run wild, wearing linen hats and linen breaches, steering clear of the dead, the divorced, and other impure sorts.

As we read the list, we have no choice but feeling somewhat sorry for these elected few. To perform ritual, to serve as intermediaries between God and man, they are thrust into a sort of divine holding pattern, veiled from life’s grisliness and wants and preserved without blemish. It even comes down to their food: “Anything that has died of itself or is fatally wounded,” the haftorah tells us, “whether it be bird or beast, the priests may not eat.” These elevated men must snack solely on sacrificial meat, the consecrated offerings of their lowly brethren. It may not make them holy, but it makes them pure.

David Raziel was certainly not holy. The bloodshed he’d orchestrated is a matter for historians to discuss. But he was not unlike the priests his wife would have read about in synagogue the weekend, 69 years ago, that he died in Iraq. The man who spent his wedding night writing revolutionary tracts, the man who left his young wife to sift the sands of a faraway desert for valuable intelligence, the man for whom there was nothing but struggle, that man was pure. Ordinary men and women would do well to fear and question his zeal; they must, indeed, examine the consequences of his actions and try their best to find more sober, peaceful paths to achieve their goals. But they must also never lose their awe for the David Raziels of this world, the mad priests with the bloodied hands and the pure hearts. For better or for worse, they are the ones who make history hurtle by.

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kathymm says:

This is fiction right?

It’s about time that you translate לוחם correctly. It is combatant and not warrior. And if those guys in the photo were members of the Etzel than I am Moshe Rabanu. I suggest you read Nurit Gertz’s biography dealing with her husband Amos Kenan’s fun and games in his Etzel days. It puts things into perspective about those guys.

“Not unlike the priests,” seriously.
This comparison is quite a stretch.
Priests were not combatants — except for the Hasmoneans, and that didn’t work out too well, did it.

This article conceals a lot of facts.The “Etzel” was actually the Irgun, the right-wing Revisionist army of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Not a nice bunch!

I have a problem with the eulogy of Mr. Raziel. He “orchestrated the bombing campaigns of several large Arab markets, killing dozens of civilians and wounding many more. He targeted British officers. The Jews, he fervently believed, were fighting for their right to survive, and they had no business holding back.”

Substitute the word “Jewish” for “Arab” in that paragraph, and “Arabs” for “Jews” and what do you have? An Arab terrorist.

For reasonably objective portrayal of the Irgun, here is a good essay:

The article fully credits the Irgun with the rescue of thousands of Jews from Eurpoe during the Holocaust, but also details the many terrorist acts committed by the organization.

Here’s the icing on the cake: during WWII, after the deaths of Mr. Raziel and Mr. Jabotinsky, the Irgun declared war on the British. That’s right, while the British were tied down fighting the Nazis and the Fascists.

Dear Kathy, Larry, Jan and Robin,

First of all, thank you so much for your comments. There’s no greater pleasure than hearing from insightful and knowledgeable readers.

Larry, I share your enthusiasm for Nurit Gertz’s excellent book–she was my professor at Tel Aviv University and I remain a dedicated fan–but have no reason to doubt the Israeli Government Press Office’s caption identifying the men in the photograph as members of Etzel.

Jan, the point you raise is an interesting one. In defense of the comparison, I would argue that the original priestly class came into existence when Moses, descending from the mountain and seeing the golden calf, cries “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me.” As Exodus 32 tells us, the sons of Levi rush to his side, and together they slaughter thousands of idolaters. The same Levites, needless to say, would soon become Israel’s spiritual leaders; to gain their elated position, the priests first had to shed blood.

And Robin, your argument is well-taken. My brief commentary never claimed to present an exhaustive history of the Etzel, merely to explore one facet of the life of David and Shoshana Raziel. I hope it’s taken in just that spirit.

Robin Margolis says:

Dear Liel:

You are very gracious!

Thanks for hearing our comments.


Jan says:

Dear Liel,

I second Robin in thanking you for your thoughtful responses to everyone.
Yes, the Levites were warriors in the sense that they slaughtered the idolators in the Golden Calf episode, who happened to be fellow Israelites and according to traditional sources, even close relatives. So maybe your comparison to Etzel, which also settled scores with fellow Jews, was even more apt than you realized!

Anyone know if Peter Beinart (of anti-AIPAC fame) is related to the late Haim Beinart, professor of history, who was an Irgun combatant, head of the Jerusalem counter-intelligence unit (nom de guerra: Uriyah)? There are a significant number of liberal Jews/Israelis, born to Zionist Revisionist/Irgun/Lechi families that have somehow, I think, – and a study should be made [any anthropologists out there?] – made a subconscious revolt which has turned out to be pernicious, people like J. Ben-Ami, now Begin’s grandson, Eyal Press, Rahm Emmanuel, et al.

a) the photo: the Irgun never had uniforms of the British army circa WW I in 1937. neither a gun like that. btw, I just did a search but the pic didn’t appear at the GPO site.

b) priests and Levites are two different tasks and Levites did not sacrifice. The verse reads “sons of Levy”, though, and the Ibn Ezranotes “not all the sons of Levy”. But in a twist, when David is told his hands are bloodied and therefore he cannot build the Temple, what are to make of that? Does it contradict the proposition Liel makes? – even though the Midrash indicates the blood was that of sacrifices and dealing in the laws of niddah.

c) Jan, the Hagana and Palmah also settled scores with Jews, killing those who snitched to the British during the summer of 1940, for example, as well as the infamous Saison.


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David’s War

A haftorah of discipline and death

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