Yossi Harel: Commander of the 'Exodus'

Yossi Harel, who as a young intelligence officer in 1947 commanded the illegal immigrant boat Exodus, was one of Israel's more anonymous heroes. Until the 60th anniversary of the epic voyage that bore about 4,500 Holocaust survivors from Europe to Haifa and back, he seldom talked about his role in one of the tipping points of Zionist history.

His daughter Sharon said after his death that she only learned about it in primary school when a teacher asked her to tell the Exodus story to her classmates. Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, eulogised Harel as "a very brave man, but a secret brave man". Yoram Kaniuk, Harel's biographer, said he was the kind of intelligence man who swore an oath of secrecy when they joined and kept it "even when they didn't need to any more".

The Exodus, a converted 200-berth Chesapeake Bay steamer originally called the USS President Warfield, was one of four boats Harel commanded in an attempt to run the British blockade of Palestine, which they ruled under a League of Nations Mandate. Between them, the four ferried nearly 25,000 Jews from the displaced persons' camps towards the Promised Land.

After being commandeered as a troop carrier in the Second World War, the President Warfield was sent home to be sold for scrap. American Jews bought it for $40,000. One of them, who saw it in Baltimore harbour, scorned it as a hulk. "It was," Avi Livney recalled, "an embarrassment, not a ship." As the Exodus, it owed its fame to an extraordinary act of British insensitivity.

It sailed from the port of Sête, near Marseilles, on 11 July 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, and a mixed crew of American volunteers and Palestinian Jews. Yossi Harel was in overall command with Ike Aronowitz, a Polish-born veteran of the British merchant marine, as the captain. British destroyers shadowed it across the Mediterranean as soon as it left French waters. Harel had an elaborate plan to shake them off during the night, but the navy struck first.

On 18 July, some 22 miles off the coast of Palestine, the British ordered him to surrender. Instead, he ordered Aronowitz to sail for Haifa. One of the destroyers rammed the bow. A boarding party, wielding rifle butts and hose pipes, was met with a barrage of tinned foods. But when commandos seized the wheel Harel pulled rank on Aronowitz, who wanted to go on resisting, and surrendered. He didn't want the Holocaust survivors, poor people just out of the camps, to die fighting the Zionists' war. Two immigrants and a member of the crew were killed in the encounter and 30 wounded.

The Exodus was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced into three prison ships that took them back to France. When they refused to disembark at Port-de-Bouc, near Marseilles, for 24 days, despite rapidly deteriorating conditions, the French government declined to take them off by force. The British then ferried them to Germany, where they were detained in two former Nazi camps. The Zionist propaganda machine had a field day. The story inspired a (notoriously inaccurate) Leon Uris novel and a Hollywood blockbuster starring Paul Newman as the Yossi Harel figure.

Abba Eban, a young Zionist official and future foreign minister, had invited members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which was trying to find a solution for the mandated territory, to observe the struggle in Haifa port. "When they came back," he wrote in his memoirs, "they were pale with shock. I could see that they were preoccupied with one point alone: if this was the only way that the British Mandate would continue, it would be better not to continue it at all."

Yosef Harel (originally Hamburger) was born in 1918 in Jerusalem, where his family had lived for six generations. He joined Haganah, the clandestine Jewish defence force, at 15 and was recruited by the maverick British colonel Orde Wingate five years later for his Special Night Squads to counter an Arab revolt. In 1941, Harel joined the Palmach, Haganah's strike force, soon transferring to the Palyam, its naval unit.

In the 1950s he went to the United States to study naval architecture. Moshe Dayan, the Chief of Staff, summoned him home to investigate the "Lavon affair", in which an Israeli spy and sabotage ring was uncovered in Egypt. He recommended the Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, to dismiss the people responsible for the fiasco. Ben-Gurion assigned him to rebuild military intelligence from the ground up.

From there, he went into private business, at one point importing tinned meat from Ethiopia. Despite his penchant for secrecy, contemporaries found him handsome, charming and gregarious. From time to time he lent his services to the Mossad spy agency. In later years, he collected and dealt in avant-garde art.

Eric Silver

Yosef Hamburger (Yossi Harel), intelligence officer: born Jerusalem 14 January 1918; married 1950 Julie Berez (one son, two daughters); died Tel Aviv 26 April 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones