Jonathan Wilson/SHARON KAITZ

‘The Red Balcony’ weaves story of early conflict in Palestine



‘The Red Balcony’ weaves story of early conflict in Palestine

Jonathan Wilson/SHARON KAITZ

Set in British Mandatory Palestine in 1933, Jonathan Wilson’s new novel “The Red Balcony” focuses on the aftermath of the murder of Haim Arlosoroff, a Jew in his early 30s who had helped to work out a deal with the Nazi regime to release German Jews to Palestine in exchange for lifting a Jewish boycott of German products imposed in response to the Nazis.

The novel centers around the trial of two Jewish Revisionists who are accused of killing Arlosoroff. The Revisionists favor an aggressive Zionist stance opposed to the Arlosoroff plan, contrary to David Ben-Gurion’s Labor Zionists.

The novel is based on actual history. Arlosoroff’s funeral was attended by an estimated 70,000 to 100,000 mourners. Abraham Stavsky and Ze’evi Rosenblatt were brought to trial but the case became clouded with temporary confessions by two recently jailed Palestinian Arabs. The trial ended in acquittal.

“The Red Balcony” is Wilson’s third novel about British Mandatory Palestine. “The Hiding Room” (1997) is set in Palestine in the early 1940s and “A Palestine Affair” (2007) is set in post-World War I Palestine. All three novels play upon the historical forces at work at those times involving tensions between the British Mandatory government, Palestinian Arabs, and the various factions of Jews, including the Socialist Zionists, the Revisionists, and the so-called cultural Zionists.

Now retired, Wilson, a resident of Newton, had been the chair of the English department and a founding member and director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University. Raised in England, he attended university there, spent some time on a kibbutz in Israel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and returned to Israel in 1977 to teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later, he came to the United States and joined the Tufts faculty.

In a recent interview, Wilson confirmed that the historic settings of these novels afforded him the opportunity to explore the political and cultural forces at work at these points in pre-independence Israeli history. Wilson also noted that the novel form offered the kind of freedom he found useful for exploring questions of character.

At the center of “The Red Balcony” is Ivor Castle, a young Jewish barrister from Britain who comes to Palestine to assist in the defense of the accused in the Arlosoroff trial. He quickly engages with Charles Gross, a Revisionist sympathizer from Britain, and a magnetic artist named Tsiona Kerem who has made portrait sketches of the accused that may affect the case but who may be operating with ulterior motives.

A picture from 1933 of a Nazi flag flying next to the Union Jack above the Hotel Fast in Jerusalem prompted Wilson’s interest in the Arlosoroff case. The flag did, in fact, fly in 1933 while the deal worked out by Arlosoroff with the Nazis enabled no fewer than 50,000 Jews to emigrate quickly from Germany to Palestine.

Though politically complicated, filled with drama, passion, and mystery, “The Red Balcony” steers away from one rumored historical possibility: an affair – in Germany – some years before, between Arlosoroff and Magda Ritschel, who was believed to be a close friend of Arlosoroff’s sister and may have had a Jewish father. If this is at all true, it is astounding that Magda later became the wife of Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels. Wilson indicated that documentation of this was far too hazy and uncertain to include in the novel.

Despite his foreshortened life, Haim Arlosoroff’s accomplishments went further than the emigration deal with the Nazis. He was an early supporter of the idea of a binational Israeli state, and, as a close friend of Chaim Weizmann, he put together in April 1933 what would be the first meeting of Jewish Zionist and Arab leaders. Two months later, Arlosoroff would be murdered.

Though not completely bound to fact, “The Red Balcony” embellishes history in an interesting and compelling way, prompting curiosity about this formative period in the history of Israel. It helps to provide, as Wilson confirmed, a strong sense of the conflicting forces that prevail in Israel to this day. Θ

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