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Yossi Harel

(1918-2008)


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Yossi Harel (Hebrew: יוסי הראל‎), born Yosef Hamburger, was the commander of Exodus 1947 and a leading member of the Israeli intelligence community.

Yossi Harel was born in Jerusalem in 1919. He was a sixth generation Jerusalemite. At the age of 15, he joined the Haganah, the clandestine military organization of the Jewish community in Palestine. At the age of 20, he joined the Special Night Squads set up in Palestine by Captain Orde Wingate to fight Arab bands, where he earned a reputation for bravery. He played a leading role in the clandestine immigration enterprise in pre-state Israel, commanding four Aliyah Bet ships: Knesset Israel, the Exodus, Atzma'ut and Kibbutz Galuyot. By the time he was 28 he had been responsible for about 24,000 immigrants that had come in under his command, more than one-third of those smuggled into the country secretly between 1945 and 1948.

In 1941, the Palmach was established as the elite force of the Haganah, and Harel soon joined it. He was sent by the Palmach to work with Aliyah Bet in assisting Jews to enter Palestine illegally (the number of Jews allowed to enter the territory was restricted following the British government's publication of a White Paper in May 1939).

In mid-1946 Harel was sent from Palestine on a secret mission to transfer gold to Jewish agents in Greece so they could bribe officials in European governments to speed up the transit of Jews to Palestine.

Harel chartered a 15-ton trawler with a crew of four and boarded it at sea after leaving the coastal settlement of Bat Galim in a rowing boat. Because of storms the journey to Greece took three weeks, but eventually the mission was accomplished successfully and with it Harel's reputation as a brave, reliable and efficient soldier was established; it was later to be crucial in his selection as the commander of the Exodus operation.

Yoram Kaniuk, a friend of Harel's and also his biographer, related that David Ben-Gurion and Shaul Avigur (commander of the Aliyah Bet illegal immigration campaign and founder of Shai, the Haganah intelligence service) had marked him out as suitable to command the clandestine immigration ships because in addition to his leadership skills and fighting prowess, “there was something very hevreman [sociable] about him. He was not the kind of clap-you-on-the-back hero. He was a man of manners, the type who didn't raise his voice. He was a man of conscience and a daring fighter.”

Perhaps the high point in Harel's career was not the more famous Exodus, according to an earlier article in Haaretz by historian Dr. Aviva Halamish. It was the two-and-a-half week voyage of the Knesset Israel. The ship set sail in November 1946 from Yugoslavia with 4,000 souls on boad. According to Halamish, this voyage brought to the fore the contrasts between the Yishuv, the Jewish community in pre-state Israel, and the clandestine immigrants, who were Holocaust survivors and “carried their struggle with them.” Inspired by the story of the Knesset Israel, the poet Natan Alterman wrote in the newspaper Davar of the “division of labor” between the two groups.

Yossi Harel was appointed to command the ship Exodus 1947, the immigrant ship which tried to make it through the British blockade to Palestine after the Second World War with 4,553 Jewish refugees on board, while it was still in Italy undergoing its refitting and conversion from a Chesapeake Bay steamer to a passenger ship capable of carrying thousands of refugees. Between June 29 and July 6, 1947, 4,553 Jews from displaced persons camps in Germany were transported to Sète, a little town 85 miles west of Marseilles where, on July 11, they boarded the ship.

Under Harel's command, Exodus set sail for Palestine on July 12, 1947 and, after it had left French territorial waters, the British cruiser Ajax and several destroyers escorted it to Haifa with the aim of arresting it and preventing the immigrants from entering Palestine.

Harel planned with the skipper, Yitzhak (Ike) Aaronowitz, that close to the coast of Palestine they would “get rid” of the British escort. The plan, Harel later recalled, was “to turn off all the ship's lights at a given moment, stop suddenly so that the unwary destroyer would pass us by, and then change our course by 90 degrees and steam away at full speed ahead - 18-19 knots - with all the lights out.” On board, Harel also prepared the stiffest possible resistance against any potential British attempt to board the ship.

On Friday, July 18, when Exodus was 22 miles off the coast of Palestine, Harel was informed by the British that his ship had entered the territorial waters of Palestine and that he had to shut down the engines and surrender. With five British destroyers closing in, Harel felt he could not implement his plan of evasion and instead ordered his captain to ignore the British warning and head straight for Haifa harbour.

When Harel failed to obey the British command, Exodus's bow was hit and a detachment of troops attempted to board the ship. But under Harel's leadership the British troops were driven back by a volley of canned goods, bolts and potatoes.

British commandos soon managed to take the ship's wheel, however, by which point several holes had been made in the ship's wooden structure. Harel - after a strenuous argument with his skipper, who was keen to continue fighting - ordered the immigrants to cease their resistance and allow the ship to be towed into Haifa. Three Jews and a British soldier died during the operation.

The next day members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), who happened to be in Palestine on a fact-finding mission, witnessed the transfer of the refugees to three British transports which were to return the Jews to Europe. This affair greatly affected UNSCOP in its decision to recommend an end to British Mandate in Palestine and argue for the creation of a Jewish state in part of the territory. Exodus was often described as “the ship that launched a nation.”

Five months after the Exodus affair Harel was put in charge of an even bigger operation, which was to bring to Palestine 15,000 illegal immigrants from Romania. Harel took commmand of two vessels: the Pan York and the Pan Crescent and on December 27, 1947 led the ships from Burgas in Bulgaria to Palestine.

Two days later, while crossing the Sea of Marmara, Harel was alarmed to see the outline of six British vessels - two submarines and four destroyers - waiting in the darkness to stop the ships.

The situation was dangerous and potentially explosive, but Harel negotiated with the British and secured agreement that, rather than be forced back to Romania, the ships might proceed to Cyprus, where thousands of refugees were already interned. Harel was later smuggled back to Palestine.

During Israel's War of Independence Harel acted as adviser on naval reorganisation to the prime minister David Ben-Gurion and was sent to America to purchase vessels for a future navy. The Israeli navy was established in November 1948 and Harel was one of the candidates to lead it, but the job eventually went to Paul Shulman, a graduate of the Americal naval officers' school in Minneapolis, with Harel becoming his deputy.

Soon after the War of Independence, Harel retired and became bodyguard to President Chaim Weizmann; he then moved to Los Angeles to study mechanical engineering. As chief of staff, Moshe Dayan called him back to Israel in February 1959 and made him head of Unit 131, a division of military intelligence responsible for secret groups in enemy countries, designed to operate primarily in time of war. It also operated the Israeli spy ring that collapsed in Egypt in 1954. A year later he retired from the Israel Defence Forces to pursue a successful business career, though it served also as a cover for his continuing work for Mossad. He spent the last few years of his life collecting avant-garde Russian art.

Harel is the subject of a biography in Hebrew by Yoram Kaniuk, Exodus: The Odyssey of a Commander (1999), which has been translated into many languages. He rose to fame after the release of the 1960 Otto Preminger film Exodus, which was based on the Leon Uris novel by the same name. His character in the novel, Ari Ben-Canaan, was portrayed by Paul Newman.

In 2007, Harel received the Exodus prize, awarded by the Italian government to those who promote peace and humanitarianism. The prize is awarded every year at La Spezia in Italy, where the Exodus refugee ship was renovated.

Harel died in Tel Aviv on April 26, 2008 at the age of 90. His daughter Sharon said Harel suffered cardiac arrest at his Tel Aviv home. “He was an extraordinary, unusual man, very brave, very modest and very lucky because he was able to touch the lives of so many people,” she said.

“History has proven that you cannot defeat refugees,” Harel was quoted as saying two decades ago by the now-defunct Israeli newspaper, Hadashot. “It starts now with one boat. After that, dozens more will come,” he said.

Harel was buried at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, near Caesarea.


Sources: Wikipedia; The Jerusalem Post (April 27, 2008); Haaretz (April 27, 2008); The Daily Telegraph (April 28, 2008). Photo: The Daily Telegraph (unattributed).

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