July 5th, 2024


In late 1927, a controversy erupted over dispensations given by the London-based Russian-born rabbi, Joseph Shapotshnick (1882-1937), for childless Jewish women requiring a release from levirate marriage. These dispensations were purported by their author to enable such women to remarry without having to go through the mandatory release ceremony executed by a brother of their late husband.[1] The storm over Shapotshnick’s spurious rulings rolled on for months, and ultimately resulted in a remarkable published condemnation that contained the signatures of more than 600 rabbis from all over the world, including those of some of the era’s most distinguished rabbis.[2]

Shapotshnick was hardly new to controversy. After moving to London from his native Odessa in 1913, he had established a reputation as a maverick, determined to make a name for himself even if this meant doing or saying outrageous things, which he frequently did. One of his favorite outlets was short-lived newspapers and pamphlet series that he would issue at his own expense, sometimes with literary and scholarly contributions by others, but more often entirely dominated by his own verbose pronouncements on contemporary topics of Jewish interest, usually in Yiddish or Hebrew, and occasionally in English.

In 1924, Shapotshnick began the publication of one such newspaper, which he titled “Die Londoner Yiddish Freie Presse” (hereon: “London Jewish Free Press”). This newspaper lasted just four issues,[3]and the editorial content was standard Shapotshnick fare, addressing parochial talking points pertinent to the local Jewish community, for which Shapotshnick took typically contrarian views.

There was one topic in the London Jewish Free Press, however, that broke with this mold. It revolved around a news story that had rocked the Jewish world at the time: the assassination of Jacob Israel de Haan, a Dutch journalist based in Jerusalem who had adopted the anti-Zionist position of the strictly Orthodox community there, evolving into a proactive political nuisance for the Zionist leadership in British-mandate Palestine. Many suspected that the assassination had been organized by the Zionists, who were eager to silence their opponents as Zionism made progress in its efforts to create a Jewish sovereign state in Palestine.

This monograph examines Joseph Shapotshnick’s departure from topics that had hitherto dominated his output, and looks at his foray into the murky world of interwar Jewish politics and intrigue relating to Zionism, and particularly the controversial role played by de Haan, whose background and activities could not have been further removed from the world Shapotshnick was familiar with.

Shapotshnick’s stance on the de Haan assassination sheds light on the reaction to de Haan’s slaying in real time, and from an unexpected source, namely, a nonconformist Hasidic rabbi living in London whose anti-establishment views on this particular issue add color and nuance to an historic event, the ramifications of which continue to reverberate to this day.

The article that dominated the front page of the first issue of Joseph Shapotshnick’s London Jewish Free Press on 11 July 1924 was headlined, simply, “Dr. de Haan.” Its content marked a significant shift by Shapotshnick from views he had previously held, and the article’s prominence in this first issue of what Shapotshnick anticipated would be a widely-circulated long-term Jewish newspaper indicated the importance that he attached to publicizing that shift. The article in question dealt with the reaction in the mainstream Jewish press towards the assassination of Dr. Jacob Israel de Haan, which had occurred less than two weeks earlier, on 30 June 1924.

Jacob Israel de Haan was a highly controversial and deeply complex individual, born in Smilde, Holland, in 1881, into a fully observant, Dutch Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Isaac, was an all-round religious functionary who, soon after de Haan’s birth, moved the family to Zaandam, a provincial town where there was a tiny but very traditional Jewish community.

De Haan was a difficult and precocious child; as he grew older he drifted away from observant Judaism, flitting from one creed to another, variously involving himself with anarchism, socialism, and Christianity. In 1907, de Haan married a Gentile woman nine years his senior, Dr. Johanna Belia Cornelia Jacoba van Maarseveen (1872-1946), but despite his marriage many believed that he was homosexual, especially after the publication of two overtly homoerotic semi-autobiographical novels.[4]

De Haan studied law but never practiced as a lawyer, instead preferring to write and teach. At some point before the First World War, he went back to being a fully observant Orthodox Jew, and for a while was also a deeply devoted Zionist, involved with the religious Zionist party, Mizrachi. But after moving to Palestine in February 1919, having left his Gentile wife behind in Holland (they never divorced, remaining in regular contact until his death), de Haan soon became disillusioned with political Zionism in its practical application, and particularly with the secular Zionist leadership.

Unable to find regular work as an academic or a writer, probably because of his unbridled self-importance and his stridently expressed views, de Haan found himself drawn to the separatist anti-Zionist Orthodox community of Jerusalem, soon becoming their chief spokesman and publicist, and a close confidant of their spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Hayyim Sonnenfeld (1848-1932).[5]

De Haan initially met Rabbi Sonnenfeld at an interview he conducted with him as a journalist, during which he was struck by the elderly rabbi’s deep piety, firm convictions, and earthy intelligence. By March 1920, de Haan had become a member of the 70-strong Ashkenazi City Committee, the separatist organization set up in opposition to the Zionist-sponsored Jerusalem City Committee.

De Haan was by far the most sophisticated member of this anti-Zionist opposition group in terms of his Westernized credentials: he spoke several languages, could write fluently in most of them, had a doctorate in law, and was also an accomplished public speaker. As a result, he rapidly advanced within this group, soon becoming a trusted advisor to its leadership, in addition to which he was regularly dispatched to advocate for them to foreign officials or international players as their official representative.

But he was not simply a parrot who touted a party line. On the contrary, de Haan became both a leading idealogue and a wily backroom strategist for the Old Yishuv, encouraging their leadership to adopt an aggressive non-cooperation stance vis-à-vis the Zionists, and also to develop an independent parallel agenda for the non-Zionist Jews of Palestine (one that would be acceptable to local Arabs, who were becoming increasingly concerned at the prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine) and for the growing number of international statesman and opinion formers, particularly those in Great Britain, who had begun to regret the Balfour Declaration and the whole idea of a Jewish national home.

As an overseas correspondent for various European newspapers, de Haan regularly dispatched anti-Zionist reports from Jerusalem which would then appear in their foreign affairs columns. In addition, de Haan frequently dispatched memos that were harshly critical of Zionist activities in Palestine to the British Mandate authorities and senior British officials in London, as well as to a range of diplomats working for the newly formed League of Nations.

In February 1922, de Haan artfully finagled himself into the entourage of the powerful British press baron, Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922), on his visit to Jerusalem.[6] During de Haan’s time with Northcliffe, he complained bitterly about “Zionist tyranny” against their fellow-Jews in Palestine, in particular those Jews who were not supporters of the Zionist enterprise.

Northcliffe, who considered the Balfour Declaration letter of 1917 a grave diplomatic error, was intrigued by de Haan’s advocacy for an officially recognized non-Zionist “separatist” Jewish community. De Haan convincingly argued this was simply a continuation of the pre-Zionist Jewish community structure that had endured in Jerusalem for generations before the Zionists arrived.

The entourage of journalists that accompanied Northcliffe lapped up de Haan’s narrative, and echoed his anti-Zionist views in their published articles, thereby introducing anti-Zionism into the mainstream British press. And, as a direct result of the time spent with Northcliffe and his journalist retinue, de Haan went on to be appointed Middle East correspondent for the Daily Express,[7] the most widely read tabloid newspaper in the British Empire, owned by the powerful press baron, Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964).[8]

De Haan also initiated and cultivated high-level political contacts with Arab nationalists in Palestine and Transjordan on behalf of the separatist community. In the early summer of 1923, de Haan headed to the newly formed country of Transjordan, which had previously been part of the British-controlled Palestine mandate.[9] There he met with the leader of this new entity, Emir Abdullah (1882-1951), to discuss forming a coalition of nationalist Arabs and anti-Zionist Jews in Palestine that would offer political and full civic rights for the Jewish community, in the context of an Arab controlled country once sovereign independence was granted. Also at the meeting was King Faisal of Iraq (1885-1933), Abdullah’s brother, possibly as a moderating influence.[10]

For de Haan, the meeting could not have gone better than it did. Emir Abdullah was resolute: he told the visitor from Jerusalem that he would never support a Jewish state in Palestine, and that he considered the anti-Zionist separatist community natural allies of Arab nationalists. Emir Abdullah also signed a declaration welcoming any Jewish immigrant to Palestine, if they rejected Zionist aspirations.

This document was a diplomatic sensation, and de Haan translated the choicest parts so that they could be read aloud by Agudat Israel’s Jerusalem representative, Rabbi Moshe Blau (1885-1946), at the first Grand Congress (Knessia Gedolah) of Agudat Israel, held in Vienna in August 1923.[11]

But this breakthrough paled in comparison to the meeting arranged by de Haan between a delegation from the anti-Zionist separatist community (which included Rabbi Sonnenfeld) and Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca (1854-1931), whose authority extended over the holy sites of Islam in Mecca and Medina. Hussein bin Ali was the father of both Abdullah and Faisal, and at the time, despite worrying threats from the Wahabi Al-Saud family in Arabia, these three Arab leaders represented the powerhouse royal family of the Middle East, bolstered by steadfast British support.

The meeting took place in Amman, Transjordan, where Hussein bin Ali came on an official visit in February 1924, and although the Zionists had also put together an official delegation to meet the world’s most senior Muslim leader, it was de Haan’s delegation that was given the red-carpet treatment.

Faisal, who saw himself as representing the international Arab movement, including Palestinian Arabs, told the delegation that all Arabs recognized the historical rights of Jews in Palestine, but that they were very concerned by the Zionists. “In Palestine, our partners in government will be the ultra-Orthodox Jews,” he told de Haan and his colleagues, “because we trust them not to destroy the foundations of education and modesty of our sons and daughters.”

Not only did de Haan emerge from the meeting with Hussein and his sons having extracted a royal promise to partner with the anti-Zionist separatist community, he also managed to solicit a significant financial donation from them to fund various separatist-affiliated institutions in Jerusalem.

Remarkably, he wasn’t entirely satisfied with these achievements, and came back to Amman a couple of months later to persuade Hussein bin Ali to issue a public statement denouncing “the anti-religious Zionist movement” for its gross mistreatment of faithful Muslims, Christians, and Orthodox Jews. Even more remarkably, Hussein bin Ali complied with de Haan’s request.

By now, the Zionists were beside themselves; de Haan’s diplomatic activities and media presence threatened to derail their entire agenda by promoting the cause of Jewish residents of Palestine who were not partial to the Zionist project. In the late spring, the Zionist leadership became aware that de Haan was planning to visit London to see officials from the British government at the head of a delegation of anti-Zionist separatists. As a direct result of this worrying development, it was decided at the highest levels of the Zionist movement to assassinate de Haan for behavior they believed amounted to treason against the Jewish people.[12]

The execution-style killing took place on the evening of 30 June 1924, at 7:35pm, as de Haan emerged from evening services at the Sha’arei Zedek hospital on Jaffa Road, and was carried out by a Haganah operative called Abraham Tehomi (1903-1990), who pumped three bullets into de Haan’s chest at point blank range, killing him instantly.

Tehomi was never apprehended,[13] but despite the Zionist leadership’s insistent denials of any association with his violent death, most people instinctively believed that de Haan had been killed by orders of the Zionist leadership as a direct consequence of his ongoing agitation against their agenda. Nevertheless, Zionist leaders dismissed all accusations that they were behind de Haan’s murder, and according to an article in the Daily Express they even attended the funeral.[14]

Immediately after the assassination, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that de Haan had been planning to travel to England together with Dr. Moshe Wallach (1866-1957), a devout member of the strictly Orthodox community who founded and ran Sha’arei Zedek, to formally protest “against the draft of the ordinance of the Palestinian Government granting internal autonomy to the Jewish communities of Palestine,” which it was feared would give the secular Zionist leadership control over the existing Jewish community structure, including the strictly Orthodox anti-Zionist faction.[15]

Jewish reaction to de Haan’s murder, as reflected in the general Jewish press, was varied. Many Jewish writers and leaders sympathized with the intent behind the assassination, even if they disapproved of the act itself. It seems that de Haan was widely perceived as a traitor, and was consequently reviled by vast segments of the Jewish community, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora.

The separatists were seen by many in the Jewish world as a community living in the past, vainly trying to preserve their existence in the face of a fast-changing reality, via nefarious methods that amounted to perfidy against their co-religionists. De Haan, as the public face of that community, was the person most identified with their ideals and methods of resistance, and was consequently not an object of sympathy.

Meanwhile, Agudat Israel supporters and Orthodox anti-Zionists hailed de Haan as a martyr. Additionally, they saw his assassination as further proof that Zionism was a travesty of Judaism, a creed that inevitably led, as it had in this incident, to cold-blooded fratricide. Indeed, they did not perceive de Haan’s assassination as an aberration, but rather as the natural consequence of a doctrine that drastically deviated from Jewish traditional beliefs even as it masqueraded as true Judaism.

Remarkably, in the immediate aftermath of de Haan’s murder, Shapotshnick fell firmly into this second camp, a striking departure from his previously expressed views. In the later issues of his periodical, Roshei alfei yisrael, that had appeared during the First World War,[16] Shapotshnick had addressed the issue of Zionism, and presented himself as sympathetic to the idea of both political activism and practical steps that would lead to Jewish autonomous control of Palestine. His views leaned towards those within the religious-Zionist camp who welcomed Zionism and identified with its aims, while at the same time despaired at the irreligiosity of the secular Zionists and vigorously challenged their worst excesses, although always as fellow Zionist travelers.

Shapotshnick was swift to offer his views on Zionism following the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, devoting the first seven pages of the next issue of Roshei alfei yisrael to “My opinion on Zionism” with an alternative headline promising that his position was “non-partisan”.[17] Shapotshnick astutely observed that that the British presence in Palestine was extremely positive for Jews, both politically and economically; the British were a vast improvement on the Turks who had hitherto been in control, he said, as the Ottoman Empire was a spent force, and the Jewish state would never materialize if Palestine remained under their control.

And although Shapotshnick expressed serious reservations about the very secular nature of political Zionism and particularly its leaders, he also critiqued the strictly-Orthodox community’s vehement opposition to the objectives of Zionism. Rather than reject Zionism and Jewish nationalism as unwanted intruders into Jewish life, Shapotshnick urged Orthodoxy to embrace Zionism, telling his readers: “I declare that all devout Jews must become Zionists!”  Now that the Balfour Declaration had been issued and Jewish statehood in Palestine was all but guaranteed, all the campaigns of agitation and denunciation against Zionist leaders by Orthodoxy because of their lack of loyalty to traditional Judaism amounted to a grave strategic error.

Shapotshnick curiously advocated a power-grabbing revolution from within the Zionist movement by Orthodox activists, with a view to taking over Zionism and inheriting its national agenda. This, he contended, would be a far more suitable approach than the pointless policy of conscientious objection from the outside. In any event, Shapotshnick’s suggestion, although hardly an enthusiastic endorsement of the Zionist movement’s agenda, was far removed from the stance of de Haan and the militant anti-Zionists of Jerusalem’s strictly Orthodox community.

And yet it was this anti-Zionist ideology that Shapotshnick seems to have adopted in the six-and-a-half years that had elapsed between January 1918 and July 1924.

There was some hint of the eventual metamorphosis in Shapotshnick’s views in his positive review of an anti-Zionist pamphlet authored and published by the Hungarian-born New York-based Rabbi Barukh Meir Klein (d.1931)[18] that had appeared in the final issue of Roshei alfei yisrael.[19] Nevertheless, despite Shapotshnick’s sympathy for, and agreement with, some of the anti-Zionist arguments in Klein’s pamphlet, in his review he clearly and unequivocally reaffirmed his commitment to the Zionist project overall.

In the intervening five years since the review had appeared, however, Shapotshnick’s views had shifted dramatically, and by the time of de Haan’s assassination he had evolved from a Zionist-sympathizer into a cynical critic of political Zionism and all its supporters. The de Haan murder was clearly not the trigger; it merely gave Shapotshnick a hook to express his views, and he eagerly used the opportunity to vent his hostility in the wake of this horrific incident.[20]

What particularly offended Shapotshnick was the partisan nature of so much of the Jewish media reaction to the murder. Ever the iconoclast, he saw this broad almost-blind support for those he believed were the perpetrators of the murder as evidence that something was fundamentally wrong. The Jewish press was, in his view, way out of line for casting aspersions on de Haan’s character and his motivations for advocating the anti-Zionist cause. This same media, said Shapotshnick, jumped at any opportunity to heap praise on charlatans and phonies, as long as they peddled the broadly accepted party line. But if somebody disagreed with their perspective, they were fair game for the harshest criticism and could expect to be subjected to unfair, negative reporting.

In Shapotshnick’s opinion, the blatant partisanship of the Jewish press was underpinned by three factors, and they were – in no particular order – corruption, ignorance, and an urge to please the masses. This partisanship and bias were an utter disgrace, he said, as it meant that good people fell afoul of the press and therefore became marginalized from mainstream Jewish life simply because they were not partial to the views of a particular party.

De Haan was not the monster he had been depicted as in the “filthy partisan newspapers,” said Shapotshnick. Rather he had been an “ardent Jew who devoted his life to Judaism with enormous sacrifice and commitment.” Hasidic rebbes visiting Palestine from Poland had treated him like a brother, and he was “the best friend any Orthodox rabbi could have ever had.”[21]

There can be no doubt that Shapotshnick was using de Haan’s assassination as a foil, seeing himself as a man of equal caliber similarly vilified and marginalized, despite his sterling credentials and his determination to create a positive future for the Jewish world while staying true to the Jewish faith. Indeed, Shapotshnick considered himself a revolutionary social reformer who had never got to first base in his bold efforts to change things for the better, and just as de Haan’s rejection and murder stemmed from his mistreatment by the mainstream Jewish leadership and their media lackeys, his own inability to succeed was the fault of these same actors. Shapotshnick saw himself as a martyr equal to de Haan, the “ardent Jew who devoted his life to Judaism with enormous sacrifice and commitment,” only to be snuffed out by the shadowy forces that controlled the Jewish world.

In the third issue of the London Jewish Free Press Shapotshnick devoted a further full page to de Haan under the headline “the truth about Professor Dr. de Haan.” The initial section summarized two articles which had recently appeared in the Jerusalem-based anti-Zionist periodical Kol yisrael.[22]

The first article was a sympathetic obituary for de Haan followed by an emotive attack on those who had sought to besmirch him and blacken his name during his life and after his death. It also detailed the prominent and well-attended public eulogies delivered in Jerusalem by Rabbi Sonnenfeld and other senior figures within the anti-Zionist separatist movement, who had all stressed de Haan’s unique qualities and unquestioning dedication to the cause of Orthodox Judaism.

The second article summarized by Shapotshnick consisted of an attack on those de Haan had fought so forcefully during his lifetime, in a quest that was characterized by the author of the Kol yisrael article as a singular battle to free those who strictly observed halacha from having their religious life controlled by sinners and heretics.

Shapotshnick followed this piece with his own article, attacking the London rabbinate for not having organized a public event to memorialize de Haan. Without mentioning any names, he accused his colleagues of deliberately conspiring to prevent such an event from taking place, and attacked them for their hypocrisy.

Shapotshnick expressed amazement at the lack of integrity among his colleagues, who would not even bother to deliver eulogies for fellow rabbis – because for such eulogies there was no financial reward. This, he added, is what happened when Rabbi Hayyim Zundel Maccoby, the Kamenitzer Maggid,[25] had passed away in 1916. According to Shapotshnick, it had only been as a result of his instigation that any public memorial event had taken place – a startling claim that was almost certainly without foundation.[26]

While it was probably fair to say that many of London’s immigrant rabbis relied for their livelihood on the inadequate fees paid to them for their public speeches, and it was also the case that immigrant rabbis were reluctant to donate their services for free, both of these factors were superfluous to the lack of eulogizers for de Haan, as they were almost certainly not the reasons behind the lack of a public memorial event.

Rather, the whole de Haan episode was divisive and politicized, and despite Shapotshnick’s protestations to the contrary, any event that would have idolized de Haan in the wake of his murder would have been perceived as partisan, contentious, and provocative across the board, both within and beyond the East End community. So, if anything, it was the first part of Shapotshnick’s tirade that was true – namely, it was entirely plausible that his rabbinical colleagues had formed a consensus that a memorial event for de Haan would be out of place, and that it was best not to have one.

Clearly such concerns did not bother Shapotshnick, who announced that he would deliver a public eulogy for de Haan – a man he had never met – at his personal synagogue, Beit ha-Midrash vi-Yeshivat Beit Yosef in Fieldgate Street, on 15 September 1924. The eulogy went ahead as planned, and was reported in the final issue of the London Jewish Free Press as having been a success, with a near capacity attendance that included locals as well as visitors.

Attendees were treated to Shapotshnick’s rousing tribute to de Haan, and to a rendition of the memorial prayer sung by a local chazzan, Cantor Brodsky.[27] According to the report, which was penned by Shapotshnick himself, none of Shapotshnick’s rabbinic colleagues participated in the event, despite (or perhaps as a result of) his previously published criticism of their failure to publicly acknowledge de Haan’s violent death.

Shapotshnick’s final comment on the issue of de Haan’s murder concluded the report of the public eulogy. De Haan, he said, had comprised a unique combination of qualities for one individual: he was a great scholar of secular knowledge, a devoutly religious Jew, and a lover of the Land of Israel. As such, his death was a devastating loss for religious Jewry, who had relied so heavily on him to advocate on their behalf in their struggle to remain free of outside influences. His murder at the hands of those who were opposed to his efforts meant, therefore, that he had died as a martyr in the sanctification of God’s name.[28]

This concluded Shapotshnick’s foray into the public arena with reference to Jacob Israel de Haan’s appalling murder, which forever silenced the most colorful Jewish political activist of the interwar period. It is unlikely that Shapotshnick’s views on the de Haan assassination made much of an impression beyond his limited readership among the immigrant Jewish community of London.

Nevertheless, his views on the assassination in particular, and his perception of the prevailing views regarding pre-Israel Zionism in general, present an interesting insight into the impact of this jarring incident—the first political assassination in the Jewish world for almost 2,000 years—within a Jewish community that was geographically far removed from the location of de Haan’s murder, and yet very much connected to the issues at hand – and clearly divided on how to respond.



[1] The first person to chart Shapotshnick’s tempestuous life was Harry Rabinowicz, in A World Apart – The Story of Chasidim in Britain (London, 1997), pp. 56-66. According to Rabinowicz, who personally knew Shapotshnick, having encountered him while growing up in London’s East End Jewish community during the interwar years, Shapotshnick was a “religious anarchist” and “one of the best-known and most controversial Jewish clerics of his generation” (ibid. p. 56). The particulars of the Agunot controversy are extensively detailed in: Dunner, Pini, Rebel Rabbi of London – The Epic Battle Against Joseph Shapotshnick, Beverly Hills, Otzrot, 2021 (limited-edition pamphlet; see also:; and: Dunner, Pini, המבוהל מלונדון סיפור מלחמתו ביוזמה לפתרון גורפת להיתר העגונות (“The Madman of London: the story of a battle against an initiative for a sweeping solution for agunot”; in Hebrew), Kovetz Etz Hayyim, Year 15, Issue 1, pp. 493-506, Nissan 5781 (April 2021). See also: Henkin, Eitam, כי הכין בית חרושת להתיר עגונות – סיפורו של ר’ יוסף שפוצ’ניק מלונדון והמחאה כנגדו (“He set up a dispensation factory to free agunot: the story of R. Yosef Shapotshnick of London and the protest against him”; in Hebrew), Asif, Vol. 2, 5775, pp. 356-382.

[2] Kuntress Itunai, Warsaw, 1928.

[3] Die Londoner Yiddishe Freie Presse, 11 July 1924, Issue No. 1, 8pp; Die Londoner Yiddishe Freie Presse, 18 July 1924, Issue No. 2, 8pp; Die Londoner Yiddishe Freie Presse, 29 August 1924, Issue No. 3, 8pp; Die Londoner Yiddishe Freie Presse, 26 October 1924, Issue No. 4, 8pp. An original copy of the first issue is in the author’s collection of Shapotshnick related materials. The British Library has all four issues.

[4] Pijpelijntes (1904) and Pathologieёn (1906). After the scandal that followed the publication of Pijpelijntes, de Haan’s fiancé and future wife, Johanna van Maarseveen, attempted to buy up and destroy the entire print run, in cooperation with the Dutch anthropologist and homosexual-rights campaigner, Arnold Aletrino (1858-1916), who discovered to his horror that de Haan’s controversial novel had been dedicated to him. Despite their strenuous no-expense spared efforts to bury the affair, however, de Haan lost his teaching job, and the negative stir created by the two books hindered his professional advancement over the years that followed. After his death, de Haan’s anti-Zionist Orthodox colleagues vigorously denied that he had been actively homosexual during his years in Jerusalem, and even today this remains a highly controversial topic. In an essay titled A Martyr’s Message (London, 1975) marking the 50th anniversary of de Haan’s assassination, Dr. Emile Marmorstein (1909-1983), an Orthodox-Jewish academic who an avid adherent of anti-Zionist ideology and closely associated with Neturei Karta’s greatest publicist, Rabbi Yerahmiel Yisrael Yitzhak Domb (1915-2013), offered an opaque response to Zionist suggestions that de Haan was homosexual. De Haan, he wrote, was “meticulous [in his] observance of the Divine precepts” and had always displayed “flawless conduct, humility, compassion and contrition.” Even if one overlooks the fact that “contrition” is an odd word to use in this context, protestations of de Haan’s “flawless conduct” and “meticulous observance” of “Divine precepts” ring rather hollow in view of the fact that de Haan had openly referred to his liaisons with Arab boys in Kwatrijnen, a Dutch poetry book published in Holland in 1924, just a few weeks before his murder. For a detailed examination of de Haan’s alleged homosexuality, see: Nakdimon/Meislisch, De Haan, pp. 21-26 & pp. 207-218. See also: Leibovitz, Liel, Jacob de Haan, Israel’s Forgotten Gay Haredi Political Poet, in Tablet, October 1, 2014 (

[5] Rabbi Sonnenfeld was born in 1848, in Vrbové, Slovakia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Orphaned at a young age, he initially studied with Rabbi Hayyim Hirsch Mannheimer (1814-1886), the venerated chief rabbi of Ungvar (Uzhhorod); and then at the famed yeshiva in Pressburg (Bratislava), under Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer (1815-1872), author of K’tav Sofer. Following his marriage, Rabbi Sonnenfeld moved to the home of his in-laws in the tiny community of Kobersdorf, where he studied with the acclaimed rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Avraham Shag-Zwebner (1801-1876). Interestingly, despite Rabbi Shag-Zwebner’s position as one of Hungary’s preeminent rabbis, he was largely ignored when he took a strong stand against those who opposed any compromise with the emerging reform-style Neolog community. Perhaps as a result of his fading star, in 1873 Rabbi Shag-Zwebner decided to realize his lifelong dream of moving to Eretz Yisrael, and in this enterprise was joined by Rabbi Sonnenfeld, his most devoted student. It turned out to be a fateful move, resulting in Rabbi Sonnenfeld’s appointment as the undisputed rabbinic leader of the powerful community of Hungarian Jews in Jerusalem after Rabbi Shag-Zwebner’s death. Rabbi Sonnenfeld presided over this community for well over five decades, also becoming the primary leader of the anti-Zionist faction within Jerusalem’s strictly Orthodox community. This faction implacably opposed any aspect of Jewish nationalism or Zionist influence that threatened to creep into the lives of Palestine’s Jewish community, and was also determined to thwart the Zionist movement’s quest to create a secular Jewish state in Palestine. Unsurprisingly, this reactionary group was also the most uncompromising when it came to secular or even vocational education, and frowned upon inclusiveness for university-educated, cultured Jews, or for those who engaged in non-Torah lifestyles. It is against this backdrop that we must consider Rabbi Sonnenfeld’s embrace of de Haan, whose checkered history, illustrious academic and literary credentials, and barely concealed homosexual dalliances with Arab boys in Jerusalem, could not have been in greater contrast to Rabbi Sonnenfeld’s ideals. Moreover, the suggestion that their relationship was based on expedience rather than mutual respect is not supported by the evidence of their relationship while de Haan was alive, nor by the outpouring of genuine grief by Rabbi Sonnenfeld and his acolytes when de Haan was killed, followed by his cherished memory in that community for the almost one hundred years since his death.

[6] Alfred Charles William Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe, widely referred to as the “Napoleon of Fleet Street,” was proprietor of The Times, Daily Mail and Daily Mirror, as well as several other prominent British daily and weekly newspapers – giving him almost half of all the newspaper circulation in Britain during the early years of the twentieth century. He was an incorrigible iconoclast – forthright in his views, and in his pithy observations regarding the elevated world of British aristocracy. Memorably, he noted that when he wanted a peerage he would “buy one like an honest man.” Ennobled in 1904, he remained the scourge of polite society and of those in power, using his media empire to stoke strong feelings and to undermine accepted wisdoms of the class-ridden, paternalistic politics that had propelled Great Britain into the becoming the world’s most prominent superpower. After a health scare in 1921, he embarked on a world tour, which included – in February 1922 – a visit to the Middle East. Always resourceful, De Haan arranged to be on Northcliffe’s train from Egypt to Palestine, and by the time the journey was over had become his firm friend. Northcliffe returned to London and died a few months later, but the damage was done. De Haan, who had hitherto been nothing more than an insignificant gadfly, now had friends in high places, and his views infiltrated British political thinking vis-à-vis Zionist aspirations in British-controlled Palestine. See: Giebels, Lucy, “Jacob Israel de Haan in Mandate Palestine: was the victim of the first Zionist political assassination a ‘Jewish Lawrence of Arabia’?”, in Jewish Historical Studies (a publication of the Jewish Historical Society of England), Vol. 46 (2014), pp. 107-129.

[7] After de Haan’s murder, the Daily Express replaced him with Doar Hayom editor, Itamar Ben-Avi (1882-1943). The son of the Hebrew language revivalist Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922), Ben-Avi is often referred to as the “first native Hebrew speaker in modern times.” Despite his sterling credentials, Ben-Avi did not last very long as the Daily Express’s Jerusalem correspondent. In August 1924 he was fired for being “too Zionistic” in his news coverage. (See: The Sentinel, 15 August 1924, p.34.) Ben-Avi’s unceremonious dismissal puts the Daily Express editorial bias at that time into stark focus.

[8] William Maxwell Aitken, 1st Baron Beaverbrook (1879-1964), the pugnacious Canadian who presided over the Daily Express from 1916 until his death, is unquestionably one of the most powerful media figures in British history. Notorious in Jewish circles for his vigorous opposition to Zionism and its advocates, he defended his position by stating that he was supported in his views by many Jewish anti-Zionists who were his friends. For example, on 13 April 1923, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published an article publicizing a telegram they had received from Beaverbrook in which he defended the anti-Zionist stance of his flagship newspaper: “Opposition of the Daily Express to Zionism was started at the instance of a number of British Jews, according to a cable received … from Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the paper [who is] now visiting Palestine. Beaverbrook [adds] that he has conferred with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and other Arab leaders and announces his intention of continuing his attacks on Zionism.” There is no question that Beaverbrook’s position was actively encouraged by de Haan, his Jerusalem correspondent.

[9] See: Mary Christina Wilson, King Abdullah, Britain and the Making of Jordan (Cambridge, 1989), p.48-53.

[10] See: De Haan, “The King of Baghdad” [De Koning van Baghdad], Algemeen Handelsblad, 8 September 1923, as cited by Matthijs van der Beek in his article “From Zionist to Anti-Zionist: The Tragic Fate of Jacob Israel de Haan in Palestine Reconsidered” (Haifa, 2016).

[11] For an interesting vignette regarding this ground-breaking ultra-Orthodox gathering, see: Menachem Butler and Pini Dunner, “Rare Footage of the Chofetz Chaim Surfaces—From Fox News (reel),” Tablet, March 5, 2015,

[12] The political head of the Haganah at that time was Yizhak Ben Zvi (1884-1963), later the second President of Israel (1952-1963). In an interview published in 1985, Abraham Tehomi insisted that the order to eliminate de Haan emanated directly from Ben Zvi. See: Nakdimon and Mayzlish, De Haan, p.181. Tehomi told them: “I did what the Haganah decided needed to be done, and nothing was done without the order of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi … I have no regrets because [de Haan] wanted to destroy our whole idea of Zionism.” This admission by Tehomi contradicted earlier testimony by Joseph Hecht which appeared in the official history of the Haganah. Hecht, who was the local military commander in Jerusalem at the time of de Haan’s murder, maintained that it was he who had given the order to assassinate de Haan, without seeking approval from higher up. See: Shaul Avigur, Sefer toledot ha-haganah, vol. 2 (Jerusalem, 1959), pp.251-3.

[13] Tehomi was revealed as the killer in 1985 by Shlomo Nakdimon (b.1936) and Shaul Mayzlish (b.1951), two investigative journalists from Israel who interviewed Tehomi in Hong Kong, where he lived. They went on to author a book on de Haan and his assassination (see note 4).

[14] See the Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, dated July 1st, 1924: “The assassination of Israel DeHaan [sic] in Jerusalem has aroused great interest here, and the press is devoting much space to the occurrence… Official Zionist circles…heartily condemn the act. The Daily Express, of which DeHaan [sic] was the Jerusalem correspondent, states that the attempt to turn the funeral of the victim into an anti-Zionist demonstration failed. Both the Palestinian Government and the Zionist organization were represented at the funeral.”

[15] See JTA, 1 July 1924.

[16] Roshei alfei yisrael was one of Shapotshnick’s more successful attempts at publishing a periodical, coming out quarterly from 1915 until 1919, with 17 issues appearing in total. A rabbinic journal featuring both scholarly articles and opinion pieces, it included contributions from a range of rabbis, both local and from much farther afield. Among the British contributors were Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Lewis) Levene (1884-1954), rabbi of Jubilee Street Zionist Great Synagogue in the East End; Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch (Harris) Levin (1872-1933) of Manchester; Rabbi Elhanan Eliezer Gavron (1862-1941) of the Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin, who studied with Rabbi Yitshak Elhanan Spektor of Kovno (1817-1896), and at the Volozhin Yeshiva under the guidance of Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893) and Rabbi Hayyim Soloveichik (1853-1918); and Levi Yitzhak Brill (1851-1918), a layperson who combined a profound knowledge of Torah with a successful business career. More significantly, there were 3 articles written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook (1865-1935)–who spent three-and-a-half years in London between 1916 and 1919 as rabbi of the flagship strictly-Orthodox immigrant synagogue, the Machzike Hadath congregation – two articles in the eighth issue and one in the ninth, all of them in 1917. After Rabbi Kook returned to Palestine from London in 1919, and in the wake of his Zionist-sponsored appointment as Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in Palestine, he became the nemesis of Rabbi Sonnenfeld and de Haan, and the object of countless public condemnations at their instigation. During the notorious Shapotshnick agunot controversy of 1927-8, Rabbi Kook joined Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Hillman’s campaign to expose Shapotshnick as a fraud. In a letter to Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940) dated 13 January 1928, Rabbi Kook wrote: “I can inform you that I am familiar with this fellow [Shapotshnick] and his manner of discourse from when I lived in London … and he is a man who is not entirely normal. He constantly strives to make a name for himself. I have not seen his publication [containing his rulings for agunot to remarry], but what [you] sent me is enough for me to understand the [groundless] foundations on which he has based himself. Even before I received your letter I knew about this matter through our [mutual] friend the scholar Rabbi Moshe Mordekhai Epstein [Rosh Yeshiva of the Slabodka yeshiva in Hebron], and afterwards I was shown Shapotshnick’s filthy rag [newspaper], the one that is full of the most repugnant insolences. My heart weeps with grief over this terrible sedition, [and over] our generation [that] has sunk into the depths of audacity and degeneracy.”

[17] See: Roshe alfei yisrael, Issue 13, p.1, dated January 1918.

[18] Rabbi Barukh Meir Klein was born in Carei (Nagykároly), Hungary (today Romania). He immigrated to Canada and became a congregational rabbi in Winnipeg, later moving to New York where he served as rabbi to a range of communities of Hungarian origin. As a Hasid of Belz, Rabbi Klein was virulently opposed to Zionism in all its forms, and frequently participated in anti-Zionist activities and publications. Rabbi Klein was married and had eight children, one of whom, Samuel (1886-1942), became the founder and proprietor of a well-known early- to mid-twentieth century department store chain called “S. Klein On The Square,” or simply “S. Klein” (see: “Obituary of Samuel Klein,” Brooklyn Eagle, November 16, 1942, p.9). In 1895, Rabbi Klein published a book called Gedulat mordekhai about the life of the recently deceased R. Mordekhai Leifer of Nadvorna (1824-1894), in which he also including the teachings of R. Mordekhai’s youngest son, R. Yisrael Yaakov Leifer of Khust (1850-1929).

[19] Rabbi Klein’s book was called She’alu shelom yerushalayim fodert nit erets yisrael (New York, 1918), and Shapotshnick’s review appeared in Roshei alfei yisrael, Issue 17, pp. 5-10 (this issue is dated Ellul 1919, but was probably published several months earlier).

[20] A clue to Shapotshnick’s evolution into a zealous anti-Zionist might be found in his growing friendship with Rabbi Sonnenfeld in the years after having expressed his more benign views on the Balfour Declaration and Zionism. Starting in the early 1920s, Shapotshnick was in regular correspondence with Rabbi Sonnenfeld, sending him donations and seeking his assistance with various charitable cases in which he was involved. Although no correspondence has emerged in which Shapotshnick directly addresses the de Haan assassination, there is one letter, dated 3 March 1922, written by Shapotshnick in the immediate aftermath of Northcliffe’s visit. The letter amply demonstrates Shapotshnick’s conversion into a fulsome advocate for Rabbi Sonnenfeld’s anti-Zionist faction, although the puzzle remains as to how that conversion happened in the first place. “The newspapers of the accursed Zionists and Mizrahists are publishing the most disgusting things, doused in the venom of the primordial snake,” wrote Shapotshnick, “I can assure you that I will not remain silent regarding the slurs against Torah scholars.” He added, “but I do ask that you write to me [and give me] all the details regarding the conversations with Lord Northcliffe – tell me everything and I will know what to do.” He also informed Rabbi Sonnenfeld that “very shortly, I hope to publish a daily newspaper in London to battle against the evil ones.” (This letter is part of the author’s extensive private collection of Shapotshnick-related material.) That promise never materialized, and perhaps it took de Haan’s murder for Shapotshnick to actualize his desire to publish the pledged newspaper, in the form of the London Jewish Free Press – although it was never a daily newspaper, and only four issues were ever to see the light of day. No letters from Rabbi Sonnenfeld to Shapotshnick are extant.

[21] London Jewish Free Press, 11 July 1924, p.1.

[22] Kol yisrael, Issue 42, 24 Tammuz (26 July) 1924.

[23] The most prominent yeshiva in the East End was Yeshivat Etz Hayyim in Thrawl Street, established in 1905. Its principal was the recently arrived (1923) R. Eliyahu Lopian (1872-1970), a highly respected Talmud scholar who rarely, if ever, became involved in public controversies. 

[24] London Jewish Free Press, 29 August 1924, p.3.

[25] Rabbi Hayyim Zundel Maccoby (1857-1916) was one of London’s most dynamic rabbinic leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Kobryn, near Kovno (Kaunas), into a poor family, at an early age he showed aptitude as a public speaker, combining quotes and sources with a riveting presentation style, and keeping his audiences captivated for up to five hours at a time. After spending several years as the maggid (“preacher”) of Kamenitz (Kamyanyets, Belarus), Rabbi Maccoby was appointed the official maggid of the emerging Hovevei Zion movement in the early 1880s, a role he conducted with flair and dedication, traveling far and wide to promote Jewish immigration to Palestine, while also soliciting financial support for agricultural settlements there. His reputation as a speaker resulted in him getting mobbed wherever he went, but it also brought him to the attention of the Imperial Russian authorities, who feared he was an anarchist revolutionary with too wide a reach and influence. Frightened he would be arrested and exiled to Siberia, Rabbi Maccoby escaped to London, arriving there in January 1890. Within weeks he was delivering the keynote eulogy for Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler (1803-1890), the recently passed chief rabbi. It was a three-hour tour-de-force that “brought many a tear to the eyes of the congregation.” Rabbi Maccoby “quoted the Talmud by the yard – his sermon was a symphony… [and] that the congregation was able to hang on his words with delight for such a long time proved him to be an outstanding scholar and orator” (Julius Jung, Champions of Orthodoxy (London, 1974), p.44). But all the acclaim notwithstanding, Rabbi Maccoby was now in London, far away from the center of European Jewish life in Russia, Poland and Lithuania, and as a result he soon faded into obscurity. Deeply principled and often undiplomatic in his dealings with people, particularly with those in authority, he struggled to survive financially, living in abject poverty in London’s East End, even as he continued to draw crowds for his sermons from the local immigrant community. And truthfully, it wasn’t just his remote location that dulled his influence. In 1895, Theodore Herzl visited London, spreading his message of political Zionism. The masses were enthralled, but Rabbi Maccoby couldn’t fathom the idea of a self-declared atheist being at the forefront of a movement that promoted Jewish nationhood. Consequently, despite his longstanding support for Hovevei Zion, he became a bitter opponent of Zionism, an attitude that resulted in him becoming a marginal figure, with many of his former Hovevei Zion friends abandoning him for the Herzlian Zionism. For a devastating description of Rabbi Maccoby’s descent into oblivion in London, and of his mistreatment there by the Jewish community leaders who were his bosses, see: Meir Bar Ilan (Berlin), MiVolozhin ad Yerushalayim (Tel Aviv, 1971), Vol. 2, pp.381-2.

[26] Shapotshnick’s eulogies were notorious for their hammed drama. The advertisement promoting the Shapotshnick-sponsored Kamenitzer Maggid eulogy event proclaimed that “at the conclusion [of all the eulogies], Rabbi Joseph Shapotshnick…will read out a sermon from the Kamenitzer Maggid, of blessed memory, in exactly the way that he delivered it whilst he was alive. No Jew can ignore such an opportunity.” (Die Tzeit, 6 July 1916, p.3 and 9 July 1916, p.3)

[27] It is worth noting that there is no reference to a “Cantor Brodsky” in Michael Jolles’ exhaustively researched Encyclopaedia of British Jewish Cantors, Chazanim, Ministers and Synagogue Musicians: Their History and Culture (London, 2021).

[28] London Jewish Free Press, 26 October 1924, p.5.

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