This article is dedicated to the memory of the IDF’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror on the eve of Israel’s 68th Independence Day
In one part of the military cemetery in Jerusalem stands a lone and unusual gravestone, marking the grave of David Raziel, Commander of Etzel (also known as the Irgun, a Zionistparamilitary organization that operated in Mandate Palestine between 1931 and 1948). Not many are aware that this is Raziel’s third resting spot, after he was first interred in a British military cemetery in Iraq and later moved to a Jewish cemetery in Cyprus.
David Raziel was a founder of Etzel and appointed its commander in 1938, under the code name “Ben Anat.” In May 1939 he was captured, imprisoned and released by the British. In the wake of the anti-British revolt in Iraq in 1941, Raziel headed a mission to Iraq comprised of four Etzel fighters to aid the British, and on May 21 was killed by a German bomb while on an intelligence mission prior to the capture of Fallujah. He was buried in the British military cemetery in Habbaniyah.
Efforts to move Raziel’s remains to Israel began immediately by his family. His wife Shoshana visited Habbaniyah to try to gain the assent of the British military authorities. Pressured by the family, the British government of Palestine (Eretz Yisrael) issued a formal request to the Iraqi government and it seemed as if the latter was willing to comply with the request. But, with the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence, the establishment of the State of Israel and the geo-political changes taking place in the region, the project became much less feasible.
Subsequent to the establishment of the State, the Raziel family made numerous attempts to advance their cause: they reached out to various bodies in London as well as the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who approached the Head of the Imperial War Graves Commission in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Iraqis stood firm in their refusal.
At each memorial service for Raziel held by Etzel, the hope was expressed that one day his remains would be brought to a final resting place in Israel. The anniversary of his death was marked each year at the settlement of Ramat Raziel on 23 Iyar, a separate Memorial Day for the Irgun and Lehi (the Stern Gang), until 1977, when these fighters were recognized as IDF soldiers.
In 1955, the matter took on added urgency in anticipation of the British withdrawal from Iraq, after which, it was feared, the mission would become impossible. The family argued that Raziel was essentially a citizen acting in Iraq and therefore British military procedure regarding fallen soldiers did not apply.
The British decided to remove Raziel’s remains to Cyprus, one of the last colonial outposts of the British Empire in the Middle East, thereby avoiding the political embarrassment that would result from moving him to Israel. On Dec. 19, 1955, Raziel’s coffin was brought to the Jewish cemetery in Margo, near Nikosia, where numerous illegal immigrants imprisoned by the British in Cypriot camps were also buried.
In March 1956, Consul Kidron, representing the family, approached the British governor of Cyprus and renewed the request. A positive response was received within a week, and the family sent a press release to the Israeli newspapers announcing the arrival of Raziel’s remains. Frantic preparations began for a widely attended funeral, which was planned for the Etzel Memorial Day on 23 Iyar (May 3rd). Letters were sent to families who had named their children after Raziel (David or Razi), requesting their attendance. Notices were also sent to settlements located along the route of the funeral procession, requesting that residents attend.
As great as was the anticipation of the event, so bitter was the disappointment when the Governor’s office in Cyprus canceled the permit to remove the coffin from Cyprus. The cancellation was due to the publicity in Israel; the British had allowed the move conditional upon secrecy throughout the entire process.
In late 1960, the Cypriot authorities, newly independent from British rule, indicated their willingness to allow the move. This may have been expedited by Menahem Begin’s clandestine approach to the President of the new Republic of Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios, “as one freedom fighter to another.”
On the morning of March 15, 1961, a chartered Arkia plane took off for Cyprus. Raziel’s coffin was disinterred in the presence of a small group. Israeli Ambassador Levine spoke: “Commander, this is the last part of your long journey. From here you will return to the homeland for which you fought and died. We all were with you over the years while you rested in foreign soil and our emotions will accompany you on your journey home. May you rest in peace in Paradise.” As the plane took off, Raziel’s widow turned to one of the reporters present, saying: “It is ironic to be bringing home a coffin and yet feel a sense of satisfaction.”
At about 1:00 P.M. the plane landed at the Sde Dov airfield. Emotions ran high as Menahem Begin and others approached the plane and received the coffin. Accompanied by singing of the Betarhymn, they bore the coffin upon their shoulders to an open car. The convoy arrived in Tel Aviv and the coffin was placed at Metzudat (fortress) Jabotinsky, where it stayed through the night under guard, while those present recalled Raziel’s endeavors.
The following day the coffin was placed on a military vehicle and covered in flowers. Following on foot behind the car were family members – Raziel’s aged father, his sister and brother-in-law. Behind them walked the leaders and fighters of Etzel, dressed uniformly in a white shirt, black tie and a beret adorned with theIrgun insignia; then the Luemit (National) Health Fund nurses all in white; Etzel veterans; four companies of Betar; and Etzelcompanies from Jerusalem, the Galilee and Samaria. Also marching in the procession were Kenyan exiles and former prisoners of the British.
Raziel’s father, Mordechai, had at first requested that his son be buried beside his wife in a family plot in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria Cemetery, in accordance with his wife’s last wishes. In the end, Mordechai agreed to the Herut Party’s proposal to bury his son in Jerusalem’s Military Cemetery. At the gravesite, eulogies were given by Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, and Menahem Begin. One of these said: “Above you lies the great visionary [Herzl], around you lay soldiers and heroes of battle, and Jerusalem the capital is spread before you. This is where you belong.” As the grave was being filled, the Hevra Kadisha added earth taken from the graves of Irgun and Lehifighters hung by the British and buried in Rosh Pina and Shavei Zion.
In May 1962, the stone marking Raziel’s grave was unveiled. On it appeared: “Captain David Raziel…Commander in Chief of the Irgun….who fell in the line of duty at Habbaniyah in Iraq, 23 Iyar 1941.” Forty years later this was changed to reflect Raziel’s posthumous promotion to the rank of General.
A tour of Mt. Herzl and the Military Cemetery will bring the reader to the graves of Theodore Herzl; Ze’ev Jabotinsky; WWII paratroopers Hana Senesh, Haviva Reik and Ephraim Reiss; Irgunmembers who died in Egypt; Avshalom Feinberg and Yosef Lishansky; and David Raziel. Common to all these is that they died and were initially buried elsewhere, but were brought for burial in Israel at a later date.
Prof. Doron Bar is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and an associate professor of Land of Israel Studies. His most recent book “Ideology and Landscape” describes the reburial of famous Zionist leaders in Israel between 1904 and 1967, including David Raziel. The book will be published in English in 2016 by De Gruyter.