Saturday, September 5, 2009

Obituary: Yossi Harel

Yossi Harel, who renamed the rickety ship he commanded Exodus 1947 and sailed it to legend as a symbol of the righteousness of the mission by Jews to settle Palestine in the face of British opposition, died Saturday at his home in Tel Aviv. He was 90.

His death of a heart attack and burial were widely reported in the Israeli news media.

Britain, which controlled Palestine under an international mandate, had in 1939 restricted the number of Jews it would allow to move there to 75,000 over five years, a tiny figure compared with the number who were desperate to go there. Partly because of pressure from Arab countries, Britain held fast to this pre-World War II limit, even as Holocaust survivors tried to go to a biblical homeland.

Harel commanded the main clandestine operations bringing immigrants to Palestine and personally delivered 24,000 of them, a quarter of the total. He is particularly remembered for his command of four large ships. He named one Exodus to recall the Jews' escape from Egypt.

The Exodus never made it to the Palestinian shore. But it made a dazzling sight as it approached the port of Haifa. Loudspeakers blared "Hatikvah," which would become Israel's national anthem. What would be Israel's flag snapped in the wind.

It was there that British forces boarded the boat and engaged in a violent encounter with Holocaust survivors, leaving three Jews dead and hundreds injured. The unintended symbolism could not have been stronger: the British used tear gas and delivered the Jews to an old Nazi SS camp near Hamburg. The events caused wide outrage and prompted support for the Zionist dream.

This vivid tale quickly assumed the mythic power in the Israeli independence struggle that the Boston Tea Party had in America's. It was turned into "Exodus," a popular 1958 book by Leon Uris, which two years later became a film directed by Otto Preminger. Paul Newman portrayed Harel, who was called Ari Ben Canaan in the movie.

Yoram Kaniuk, an Israeli author, wrote in a biography of Harel that the state of Israel was established not in May 1948, when independence was declared and the British left, but on July 18, 1947, when the Exodus valiantly sailed toward certain confrontation in the port of Haifa.

"The state of Israel came into existence before it acquired a name, when its gates were locked to Jews, when the British fought against survivors of the Holocaust," Kaniuk wrote in a biography of Harel, "Commander of the Exodus" (2000).

Yossi Harel was born Yossef Hamburger on Jan. 4, 1918, in Jerusalem; he and his twin brother represented the sixth generation of his family to be born there. The Guardian reported in its obituary that he had a troubled youth, and, after a series of labor jobs, he left his family at 14 to join the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the core of Israel's military. Kaniuk called him a "Zionist cowboy" in his book.

Harel joined the British Army during World War II and was badly injured in fighting in Greece. He then worked to transport as many Jews to Palestine as possible, legally or illegally. The Daily Telegraph reported that in mid-1946 he was sent on a secret mission to provide agents in Greece with gold to use in bribing European governments to speed up the transit of Jews to Palestine.

Exodus 1947 began as the merchant vessel President Warfield, which was being scrapped after service for both the British and Americans in World War II. It was secretly purchased by Haganah and left Baltimore on Feb. 25, 1947. Yossi, whom Haganah had earlier ordered to study coastal navigation, took command at an Italian port. The refugees boarded at Sète, France, on July 12.

Six days later came the confrontation with the British. At first Yossi encouraged resistance, but then surrendered to prevent further casualties. The next day, members of a United Nations special committee overseeing developments in Palestine watched refugees being transferred to British ships for return to Europe. The committee recommended that the British mandate end and a Jewish state be established. The United Nations General Assembly authorized this on Nov. 29, 1947.

Harel was a bodyguard for Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president, a top official in Israel's post-independence navy and then a naval architecture student in the United States. Various Israeli and British news reports said he studied naval architecture or engineering in Los Angeles or at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1954, Moshe Dayan, chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, called him back to Israel to head Unit 131, a secret Israeli group that had spies in Arab countries. His immediate task was to clean up after a botched Israeli plot to carry out bombings in Egypt to persuade the British and Americans that they could not afford to withdraw from Egypt.

The Telegraph said he went on to pursue a successful business career, which also served as a cover for continuing work for Israeli intelligence.

Harel is survived by three children, eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, The Jerusalem Post reported.

In a speech in La Jolla, California, in 2005, Harel gave statistics to show that running the British blockade was deadlier than Israel's war for independence. He said that 6,000 of 40,000 to 100,000 Jews who fought in the war were killed, or 1 percent. Of the 100,000 who tried to get through the blockade, 3,000 died, or 3 percent.

"With all these casualties, they kept coming, they didn't stop," he said. "A nation destroyed was coming back to life."

- Douglas Martin

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