April 26, 2019
Yossi Harel, who leads four Aliya Bet (illegal immigration) missions in 1946-47 passes away from a heart attack in his Tel-Aviv home at the age of ninety. Harel is born Yossef Hamburger in Jerusalem in 1918 to a six generation Jerusalem family. Yossi has a difficult childhood, his mother suffers from mental illness, and he begins working at an early age to help supplement his father’s income. He spends his evenings studying foreign languages, becoming fluent in English, French and Arabic. At the age of fourteen, he leaves his family to join the Haganah.
In the Haganah, Harel is greatly influenced by Yitzhak Sadeh, a Russian immigrant and World War I veteran, who makes aliyah in 1920. In 1937, at the height of the Arab rebellion, Sadeh, who is in his forties, mentors many of the younger members of the Haganah. He creates a special field company named Posh (an acronym meaning “field forces”) in which Harel serves as a chief weapons instructor. The following year, the British authorize the creation of Special Jewish Night Squads under the command of a British officer, Orde Wingate. The Squads specialize in intelligence gathering, fighting mostly at night, and are very successful in launching surprise attacks against Arab militants. Harel joins the squads and Wingate, who admires Yossi’s bravery in battle, comes to see him as a protégé giving him the nickname “the Bomber” after one particular mission.
When World War II breaks out September 1939, Yossi, like many other Jews in Palestine enlists to serve in the British Army. He becomes a truck driver for the British and is stationed first in North Africa where he drives in missions to pick up paratroopers, and then in Greece, where he injures his ear in 1941. Following his injury, Yossi requests and receives an honorable discharge from the British Army and returns to Tel-Aviv where he rejoins the Haganah.
Back in the Haganah, Harel comes under the command of Shaul Avigur, for whom he served in an intelligence capacity before the war. Avigur, is in charge of a secret Haganah operation called HaMossad l’aliyah Bet (The Organization of Aliya Bet—the illegal immigration of Jews into Eretz Yisrael) created in 1938 to oversee rescue and immigration of Jewish refugees. In addition to bringing Jews into Palestine, HaMossad l’aliyah Bet also coordinates the smuggling of weapons for use by the Haganah. Avigur places Yossi in a coastal navigation course after which he gets involved in arms smuggling for the Palyam, the Haganah’s marine strike force.
In addition to arms smuggling, Yossi runs a number of secret missions for the Haganah, including paying off European government officials to help with the illegal immigration operation of Aliyah Bet. In November 1946, he is named second in command of the Aliyah Bet ship the Knesset, which would carry nearly 4,000 passengers together with a sister ship the Abba Berdichev from Bakar in Yugoslavia (today Croatia). It was the first time that Yossi met Holocaust survivors and it had a profound impact on him. He recalled, “A shiver ran down my spine. These Jews had been saved from the fire, they were homeless refugees; they stood bunched into small groups, some had little children with them. We had the feeling that they were precious treasure that had to be handled with care. They had been given into our custody not so that we would pity them, but rather that we and they were bound in a mutual pact; that we were partners.” (http://palyam.org/indexEn, accessed March 2016) The two ships are intercepted by the British and the passengers, including Yossi who is dressed just like the others so the British would be unable to identify him as a commander, are deported to Cyprus as part of Operation Igloo and placed in internment camps. He is released the following day as part of the monthly quota of 750 the British allow to enter into Palestine. Upon his return, he advocates, encouraged by Sadeh, for greater support of the Haganah in the rescue missions.
Yossi is sent to Italy in 1947 where Avigur meets him at a cafe and appoints him as commander of a newly acquired American ship, the President Warfield. The ship sets sail from Sete, France on July 11, 1947 with 4,530 Holocaust survivors onboard. On the fourth day of the voyage, Yossi receives word from Tel-Aviv headquarters that the ship would be called Exodus 1947. He recalled, “We were informed that our name would be ‘Exodus,’ and we were mad. What sort of a name was that? We wanted something aggressive like ‘The Jewish Revolt.’ But these were our orders.”
The ship is accompanied by British destroyers almost from the outset of its voyage. On July 18 at 2:00 AM, as it is off the coast of Gaza, it is fired upon and rammed by the British. Facing mortal danger, Yossi orders the ship to cease resistance. The British accompany it into Haifa where members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) witness the ship’s passengers being doused with DDT and packed onto deportation ships. The event has an impact in the Committee’s recommendation for partitioning Palestine. Yossi, hiding and dressed as a stevedore, disembarks the next day. In November, he will command two additional Aliyah Bet ships.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948, Yossi works in the intelligence community, of which he is one of the founders and later heads up Unit 131, a secret Israeli spy network operating in Arab countries.
The photo shows Harel with David Ben-Gurion. Photo Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sir Ronald Cohen.