Friday, November 17, 2023

The Storming of Haifa’s Maccabi Hall, 1934

The storming of Haifa’s Maccabi Hall, 1934

By Yisrael Medad

Published in the Jerusalem Post Weekend Magazine, November 17, 2023

On Thursday evening, October 18, 1934, at 9:15 PM, Dr. Wolfgang-Ze'ev von Weisel ascended the platform of the Maccabi Hall in Haifa located where Herzl and Balfour Streets join, near the old Reali High School site. He was facing less than 100 listeners who had purchased tickets to hear him speak on the topic "The status of the Jews in Europe and the Question of the Saar Region and the National Petition". He never finished his presentation. In fact, he barely got a word out.

Viennese-born, as his father, who was an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, von Weisel also served and was wounded in World War I. He came to Mandate Palestine in 1922 and was an instructor in the early Hagana officers’ training school in 1924. He became an early disciple of Ze'ev Jabotinsky and a leader in the Revisionist Party. He was a renowned syndicated journalist and, covering the outbreak of the 1929 riots in Jerusalem, he was stabbed and seriously injured.

The anti-Revisionist atmosphere in Haifa at that time was especially vitriolic especially following the murder of Haim Arlosoroff in June 1933 with the suspicion of guilt falling on the Revisionists. Mapia's Haifa branch decided that Revisionists must be "dismissed from work and deprived of their livelihoods; we must create an atmosphere of moral contempt and personal boycott, on the streets, at work, and wherever we can exert influence." This resulted at the end of July 1933 in the dismissal of Revisionists and Betarim from jobs in Histadrut enterprises.

A new labor clash, this one in Haifa at a construction site, began to develop in January 1934. Contractor David Shmuel-David was engaged in constructing an apartment building in the Herzliya neighborhood just west of Hadar Hacarmel. He employed not only Histadrut-affiliated workers but didn’t see any problem with Betarim even though, technically, they were unorganized.

On one occasion, when, short of laborers, he asked of the Haifa Labor Council to employ Betarim in addition to Italians and Arabs. That body insisted that he employ only organized labor and to exclude the Betar members. When he refused and hired them anyway, the Labor Council called a strike. Abba Hushi, head of the Haifa Labor Council, spoke in the name of 6000 workers and felt he could bully anyone who opposed his vision of "Labor Palestine".

The Betar members who had been called in, were declared strikebreakers. Other buildings in Haifa belonging to the contractor, as well as those of a Weinstein, were demolished. The few Betarim who did get though and worked were repeatedly attacked by mobs of party activists and the police had to intervene. Previously, Mapai had sanctioned a muscle group set up by Yitzhak Ben-Aharon called Hever Hape'ilim ("The Activists"), the practical organization of which was in the hands of Ben-Aharon, Yosef Almogi of Haifa's Labor Council and Yosef Avidar of the Tel Aviv Labor Council and also a member of the Hagana command.

The rank and file were organized into "Hapoel Squads," within the framework of the Hapoel Sports Organization. They were controlled by the labor councils in the cities, especially Tel Aviv and Haifa, which provided funds. Yet, by the Histadrut denying Betarim the right to work because they were unorganized, and denying them the right to organize themselves within their own labor exchange, the local labor councils left the Betarim few alternatives other than breaking strikes so that they could earn money for their physical existence. Clashes were inevitable.

Two additional occurrences fed into the events of October 18. In July, Avraham Stavsky was found not guilty of Arlosoroff's murder after a three-month long trial that filled the newspapers almost daily. Moreover, in late August that year, the Revisionist movement appealed to Mapai to reach understandings so as to remove from inter-party activities any violence as well as to achieve a modus vivendi for resolving labor disputes which had plagued the Yishuv ever since February 1928 and, in greater intensity, since October 1932 when, at the Froumine Biscuit factory in Givat Shaul in Jerusalem, Betarim were beaten up for strikebreaking.

During an earlier discussion at a Mapai Central Committee session in June 1934, Moshe Beilinson, member of the Histadrut's Executive Committee, decried the fact that "Our movement's image is becoming more and more distorted. For the past two years, the use of physical force has become our answer to everything…We, for our part, have only one response: force! Strikebreakers, unorganized labor, employment of Arabs, children in uniforms we don't like, calling Stavsky to the Torah. Everything is an abomination and our reaction is always the same: Let them have it!" His criticism fell on deaf ears in Haifa.

In Haifa, it was Labor Zionist policy that no Revisionist meeting could take place even in a closed hall and by invitation. And so, outside the Maccabi Hall that Thursday evening were about 1500 protestors recruited from Hapoel squads, kibbutzim and socialist youth movements. As soon as the meeting began, there were disturbances from several socialists who had purchased tickets to be on the inside. The doors were broken down and the mob began to stone those inside.

A stink bomb was thrown which caused vomiting and dizziness in the enclosed space. Windows were smashed. Furniture was overturned. Over twenty people (40 according to Haaretz, among them 7 police personnel) were injured, among them, Von-Weisel himself whose head was cut. Four, including two children, passers-by, required hospital treatment and one, 15-year old A, Rundstein, had his head operated on. Police officer Blumstein needed medical attention, too. Fifteen were arrested but released on bond. When the contretemps ended, hundreds of labor youth movement members marched in formation through the streets of downtown Haifa singing a workers' march, “Kadima HaPoel”.  

The immediate result was that the Betarim and Revisionists gained much sympathy within the parties and non-socialist parties. The Vaad Haleumi established an inquiry commission. At the Mapai Central Committee convened on October 21, 1934, Golda Meyerson (later Meir) declared: "How could our people sing that night in Haifa?! The youngsters who participated in the action should at least have been ashamed and not flaunted their 'victory'…to organize 1500 people in order to throw eighty Revisionists out of a closed meeting, that's not brave."

Many more Mapai leaders recalled the view of Berl Katznelson who earlier had identified Mapai’s problem of Mapai as the looming "fascisization of the labor movement".

Despite the gain, the Revisionists and the Betar members lost a larger battle. Ben-Gurion's talks with and tentative agreements with Jabotinsky in London mediated by Pinhas Rutenberg during 16 meetings that were held over a period of a month in 1934, first broached in mid-August, were put to the test in a vote of authorization by the members of a special Histadrut convention on March 24, 1935. Those who opposed inner Zionist peace numbered 11,522 and those who sought to continue the exclusionary and discriminatory policies garnered 16,474 votes.

The socialist camp’s willingness to justify violence against its ideological rivals stemmed from the European tradition of the working-class who believed employing force to ensure the right to work, on the one hand, and, on the other, identifying Revisionism with fascism on the background of events in Berlin, Rome and more recently, Vienna.

When that formula took hold, the next logical step was to assume it was quite legitimate for workers to attack them even as they were of the same economic class. In later years, the Yishuv would witness the Saison campaign to hunt down members of the dissident undergrounds and the Altalena Affair. The poison that temporarily reached a crescendo in Haifa has seemingly continued its nefarious influence as we witnessed the crashing of a Likud assembly in Raanana on September 4 and the daubing of the Bet Jabotinsky in red this past weekend in Tel Aviv.

Among other sources, including the press at the time, I note Anita Shapira's article, "The debate in Mapai on the use of violence, 1932–1935", in Studies in Zionism, 1981.

Some newspaper articles and a photograph of Wolfgang-Ze'ev von Weisel

"The Red Pogrom in Haifa"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The same radical leftists who would promote the Deir Yassin libel years later - motivated by politics, not by facts. ..