A Murder in Mandatory Tel Aviv: The Orientalist as an Advocate

Buried in the archives of the scholar S.D. Goitein are papers which reveal his crucial intervention in a murder case which shocked thousands…

Hanan Harif
S.D. Goitein

During the years 2015-2017 I was hard at work, cataloging the archive of the German-Jewish historian and Cairo Geniza scholar S.D. Goitein (1900-1985), which is preserved at the National Library of Israel. One morning, while working on materials from the early 1940s, I came across a bunch of crumpled, yellowing papers, written in haste. After a few attempts to decipher the text I figured out that I was holding a draft of a deposition, submitted to the British Attorney General in Mandatory Palestine, William Fitzgerald. Soon enough I realized that I had rediscovered a forgotten criminal case which had shaken Jewish society during the British Mandate era, on the eve of World War II.

Sir William James FitzGerald, the British Mandate’s Attorney General in Palestine, photo: The National Portrait Gallery

On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1939, two Jewish high school students stumbled upon a body on the beach of Tel Aviv. According to their report, they noticed that something was buried in the sand, and thus began digging to uncover whatever was hidden beneath the surface. To their horror, they soon discovered a baby’s corpse, wrapped in a hospital blanket and a newspaper. They called the police, who were able to find a hospital bracelet nearby with the name of the baby’s mother on it. Soon enough, the infant’s father was arrested. The investigation revealed that the father had taken his five-day-old son from the hospital safe and sound, and buried him in the sand that same night.

It was revealed in court that the motive behind the murder was the fact that the young mother had given birth only four months or so after her marriage. The baby, therefore, was obviously conceived before the marriage took place. It also transpired that the couple moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in order to keep the birth a secret – the mother’s family had been unaware. There was no doubt about the father’s identity, nor about the fact that he was the one who buried the child in the sand. The question was whether the father had killed his son or not.

The father had claimed that the infant was sick, and that he died shortly after he was taken from the hospital. The father said he panicked and therefore buried the infant without reporting the death. The judges, however, were not convinced. Given the information available, the court found the young father guilty of murder: The judges believed that following the birth, he had felt the need to rid himself of the child, fearing the reaction of his and his wife’s families. The terrible crime was committed after he had picked his son up from the hospital, assisted by a friend.

The father was sentenced to death; an appeal was declined.

Many in the Jewish public in Mandatory Palestine refused to accept the capital punishment that was handed down by the court, leading to public protests. These bore fruit and early in 1940 the death sentence was commuted to life in prison.

However, this was not the end of the story; efforts were made to help the young parents – both under the age of twenty, and a particularly interesting effort was made by S.D. Goitein.

Shelomo Dov (Fritz) Goitein, a famed ethnographer, historian and Arabist with an expertise in Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages. His archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel

Who was Goitein? And what was his connection to the trial?

Shelomo Dov (Fritz) Goitein was born in Bavaria in 1900, and later moved with his family to Frankfurt, where in 1923 he also submitted his PhD. That same year, Goitein emigrated from Germany, leaving academia behind for a few years in the hopes of developing a career as a teacher and educator in the burgeoning Jewish community Palestine. However, in 1928, Goitein returned to his academic pursuits, accepting an invitation to join the School of Oriental Studies at the newly-founded Hebrew University.

Initially, Goitein was appointed a lecturer of Arabic and Islamic history, but over the course of the 1930s, he turned his scholarly attention, above all, to the spoken language and culture of the Jews of Yemen. Yet he was active in other fields as well. In 1938 he joined the British Mandate’s department of education, in which he served as a high school education officer until 1948. These two occupations made Goitein an especially valuable acquaintance to the convicted father.

The parents were both of Yemenite origin, and Goitein was called in to assist them with the father’s legal predicament regarding his prison sentence. This is where the forgotten draft enters our story. As a scholar of Yemenite Jewry, who also had some contacts within the mandatory system, Goitein was just the man the couple needed. He wrote a deposition in the hopes of mitigating the sentence imposed on the father for the murder of his child. In the text, he attempted to clarify the significance of an extramarital pregnancy for the traditional Yemenite community:

Life during 1500 years, at least, in the regions of South-West Arabia, in midst a society of strictly tribal character, had the effect that the Yemenites adopted both of the conceptions and the practice of the unwritten law of their neighbors. These, although being true Moslems, follow in family matters largely their own traditions [rather than?] the commandments of the Koran. It may be not superfluous to remind that the law of the tribes is in some respects close to that of old Israel, reflected in the bible.

Goitein explained that the young husband wanted to save his wife from the terrible punishment which the men of her family were likely to impose on her.

But there was yet another point which he chose to emphasize. Using several scholarly sources, he explained that for the Yemenite community of his time, a child whose mother did not immerse herself in a ritual bath (mikveh) before intercourse is considered a bastard, and is therefore doomed to be excluded from his community for his entire life.

“…that the child would be regarded as a bastard…” From the draft of Goitein’s legal deposition, the S.D. Goitein archive at the National Library of Israel

An unmarried woman would not be permitted to take the ritual bath and therefore her son was, without doubt, the offspring of an “impure woman”, for whom the misery of an excommunicated existence was to be expected.

Goitein argued that the adversity which the young father experienced in light of his child’s fate caused him to abandon reason and lose sight of his conscience – a kind of temporary insanity – which took hold of him when he committed the terrible murder:

“…most probably committed by one who did not know what he was doing…” From the draft of Goitein’s legal deposition, the S.D. Goitein archive at the National Library of Israel

In view of such implications, we may safely conclude that it was not pure selfishness – or more rightly exaggerated love for his wife – which induced the father to dispose of the newborn, but an unfortunate pressure of social beliefs. He simply lost his head when this child came into being for which the community had no use. His crime is, however, absolutely exceptional. I have heard about abortion, I have never come across, during the many years [in] which [I] am interested in the language and the literature of the Yemenites, about infanticide.[sic] The psychological […] preceding to the murder are fully to be explained by the impulse exercised by social belief. The murder itself was most probably committed by one who did not know what he was doing.


This was the concluding passage of Goitein’s text. Thanks to his access to senior officials in the British administrative and legal establishment, he was able to submit his statement to the Attorney General in person. Goitein hoped that his arguments might help the couple rebuild their life at some stage.

It seems the scholar had quite an influence on the Attorney General, even more than he could have hoped for. In fact, Goitein’s intervention was so successful, that only two weeks(!) after he submitted the statement, the father was released from jail; This was 1941, two years after the original death sentence had been handed down.

Goitein’s academic expertise was based upon German foundations, but it also involved long years of work in Mandatory Palestine and a deep acquaintance with local Eastern communities such as the Yemenite Jews. These, together with his position within the British administration, dramatically changed the life course of one member of the Yemenite-Jewish community, resulting in a surprising end to a tragic affair in Mandatory Palestine.


This article is the first in a series of guest articles which were written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


If you liked this article, try these:

How Did Jewish Children Learn to Write a Thousand Years Ago?

A Receipt for Funds to Redeem Captives Signed by Maimonides

The Enigmatic Researcher of the Magic of Music


Comments for this article

Loading more article loading_anomation