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Jacob Israël de Haan - A Stubborn Zaankanter Lost In The Holy Land

by Herman Cohen Jehoram in Films & Books , 22 oktober 2009


On the 4th January 1919 the first Dutch Zionist left on a one-way trip to the holy land, went for an “aliyah” as they say. It was Jacob Israël de Haan, the infamous novelist and in the meantime also famous poet. The son of a hard-working rabbi-gazzen (the cantor in the synagogue) in the Zaanstreek (area just North of Amsterdam) spent his youth in “het huisje aan de sloot” (the little house next to the ditch), the title of an early novel by his sister Carry van Bruggen.

Revolting against his parents he deserted the Jewish faith and enthusiastically joined the SDAP social democratic party. Amongst many other things he was also connected to the party magazine “Het Volk” (The People) in which he was responsible for the youth page. He completed a teachers’ college and took the admission exam to start a law study at the University of Amsterdam. Later he’d refer to himself as a self-taught teacher.


In 1904, when he was just twenty-two, he published the harshly realistic and dark homosexual novel “Pijpelijntjes,” that caused a lot of commotion, also within the SDAP.

The party leader, P.L. Tak, fired him instantly from his job at “Het Volk” and personally made sure he was thrown out of the party and was fired from his teaching job as well, so De Haan was left without income at all.

Tak thought it was essential to maintain a decent image and was convinced that a book like “Pijpelijntjes” “could easily persuade receptive individuals.” An even darker homosexual novel was to follow in 1908: “Pathologieën” (Pathologies).

After all this, according to a friend, De Haan received a mystical Jewish revelation one sultry summer evening in a little lane near the Vondelpark. He heard a voice urging him to return to his faith with a Dutch-Ashkenazic saying from a Hebrew text of Isaiah. He was to follow this voice and it ultimately resulted in the publication of his first pious release of “The Jewish Song” in 1915, which established him as a major Dutch Poet.

The first line was: “Sabbath I - If I didn’t love you, Sabbath, so much / Not held your joy for sacred, / How would I always find song / Of love in my heart wrecked by remorse?” He had also, however, published a collection of homo-erotic poetry in 1914, with the title “Libertijnse Liederen” (Libertarian Songs), which was followed by a similar collection in 1919: “Een nieuw Carthago” (A New Carthage).

[Photo]
De Haan in Arabic costume, a photograph which made the Zionists furious


In 1924, the year he was killed, a poetry collection called “Kwatrijnen” (Quatrains) was published, giving us a clear insight of his inner struggle in Jerusalem. Just one reference: “What am I watching here as evening falls, / Slinking around the town where sleepers nod? / A figure seated by the Temple walls - / Moroccan boy or God?”*

De Haan finished his law study eventually in 1916, with a paper on law and significa: essays on language and law, which had more linguistic than legislative merits. During the writing of this study, he visited czarist Russia twice to study their judicial system. Of course he later wrote a book on the subject “In Russian Prisons,” which was very critical indeed.

Within a year after he’d taken his doctoral degree, he became private-teacher of the Amsterdam University and produced a series of science articles. In 1917 he was candidate to become professor in criminal law but the Amsterdam city council denied him this. This seemed to be one of the reasons for his departure for Palestine. The journey itself, via Cairo, was a big adventure in 1919. On the 27th of February De Haan finally reached his destination: Jerusalem. Two quatrains: “In The Train - No name. No word. I know he laughed. That’s all. / He laughed, then pushed on past me hastily; / And now, through endless nights and days in thrall / That memory tortures me.” And “Seduction - I sat on deck absorbed in prayer. / He came and laughed and asked for me; / Things no one says showed in his stare - / I cast aside theology.”



Photo on the left: Jacob Israël de Haan at Palestina, 1919

The reality De Haan found in Jerusalem was a far cry from what he had expected beforehand. In a letter to his friend Frederik van Eeden he writes on the 20th of April: “Emotionally speaking Jerusalem is now much further away from Holland than before” and in a letter of two days later: “I should never have left Holland. I should have stayed with Hans [his wife, Johanna van Maarseveen] and with you and all other friends and acquaintances. But I can’t come back now because I’d embarrass the Zionist movement in Holland.” This doesn’t sound sincere because in reality he was already turning against the whole Zionist idea. He stayed on and acted like a real Zaankanter, dug in his heels and loudly voiced his nostalgia for Holland and the wide river Zaan, and Amsterdam. His famous Quatrain Unrest: “Who often said in Amsterdam ‘Jerusalem’ / And came driven to Jerusalem indeed, / He now says with reminiscing voice: / ‘Amsterdam Amsterdam’.”

Before his departure De Haan had secured an assignment from the “Algemeen Handelsblad,” a national newspaper, to periodically report on the developments in Palestine. This was also the economic base for his stay in Jerusalem. He wrote a lot and his travel letters were read with attention and concentration. These reports also paint a clear picture of the rapid mental and political development De Haan was going through in Jerusalem. He became ultra orthodox and anti-Zionist. Established close contacts with the Agoedas Jisroëel, the ultra orthodox sect that denied the Jewish state right of existence as they believed the Messiah had not yet returned. These travel reports increasingly irritated the Dutch Zionists and this also quickly became known in Palestine. The writer-poet encountered increasing opposition and was accused of treason.

Dutch Zionists started to write letters to the “Algemeen Handelsblad” to protest against the reports from Jerusalem and the newspaper started to censor his work. Eventually De Haan had to approach other newspapers to publish his articles.In the holy land itself he got in trouble because of two provocative performances. In 1922 the British press mogul and known anti-Semite Lord Northcliff visited Jerusalem and Jacob Israël de Haan had a meeting with him.

Photo: handwritten card by Jacob Israël de Haan



Things deteriorated even further when De Haan visited king Abdoellah of Transjordan, who was later to be killed because of his friendly relations with the Jews. De Haan was basically considered guilty of high treason by now. From 1920 he had been working at the law school of Jerusalem but students started to boycott him, so he got fired. De Haan published a letter in the “Algemeen Handelsblad” of the 25th of May, signed by The Black Hand, in which he was ordered to have left Palestine by a certain date lest he would be shot down like a dog. He was very worried by this and handed the letter to the police, but the only thing they advised him was to, indeed, leave the country.

De Haan couldn’t bring himself to do so. He wrote: “Many sensible people are telling me to comply with the demands of the Black Hand but I am stubborn and stupid.” It seems some personal court of justice had sentenced De Haan to death although it took a while to execute the verdict. The first two assassins refused the assignment but on the 30th of June 1924 two volunteers of Russian immigrant descent killed De Haan in a deserted Jerusalem street.




Photo on the left: Caricature of De Haan in "De Ware Jacob" approxima febr/march 1908

This first political murder in the holy land could count on the silent approval of the Jewish colony in Palestine, the Jishoev, which counted about 60,000 members at the time. They succeeded in keeping the names of the assassins a secret and as they knew this act of terror would be frowned upon, they started a decoy action claiming it was a homosexual crime of passion, something which would also engage another target group. It was very effective as for decades this was the only version told in the holy land itself.


In Holland he posthumously had the misfortune to fall into the hands of a bigoted biographer, the rabbi and historian Doctor Jaap Meijer. De Haan’s Sodom and Gomorrah lifestyle was a horror to the rabbinical mind, so he decided to ignore this element as much as possible.

Meijer wrote in his book “The Son of a Gazzen” from 1967 about “...all the disgusting details, the rabbinical way is to reveal as much as one fist-width, and cover up as wide as two.” He was only interested in the Jewish calling, the Jewish song, so he pushed De Haan’s torn life to the background. We are still waiting for a decent biography of this fascinating character from Dutch literature.

Photo: The Monument for Jacob Israël de Haan at the Amsterdam Jodenbreestraat in front of the Rembrandthouse.

[*The poetry translation are, if possible, taken from “The Eternal Flame. A World Anthology of Homosexual Verse c. 2000 B.C. - c. 2000 A.D.), Volume Two.” English Verse Translations by Anthony Reid. North Pomfret, Asphodel Editions]



 







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