Modern history

10

EUROPEAN CATASTROPHE

The situation of European Jewry continued to deteriorate throughout the 1930s. In 1935 the Nuremberg laws codified and extended anti-Jewish legislation in Germany. One year later official antisemitism was slightly relaxed; the Olympic Games were to be held in Berlin and the German government wanted to represent a respectable front. But the interlude was brief and repression became more intense once the foreign visitors had departed. In February 1938 an editorial appeared in the Schwarze Korps, mouthpiece of the SS, entitled: ‘What should be done with the Jews?’ The writer complained that emigration fever had obviously not yet infected the Jews. They were not behaving as if they were sitting on their luggage, ready to leave the country at any moment. To encourage them new draconian measures were adopted, culminating in the ‘Kristallnacht’ in November 1938, the burning of the synagogues, mass arrests, and a huge collective fine.

If during the first five years of Nazi power Jews had merely lost their livelihood and were reduced to second-class citizenship, they virtually became outlaws after November 1938. Yet Nazi policy in Germany was a model of restraint in comparison with their behaviour in Austria and Czechoslovakia. The process of eliminating Jews from German society and economic life which had taken five years in Germany was telescoped into as many weeks in Vienna and Prague. The stage of systematic extermination was reached only after the occupation of Poland and the invasion of Russia. Up to 1939 thousands of Jews were able to emigrate, but as the war spread the trap closed: At a high level meeting on 20 January 1942, at Grosser Wannsee in Berlin, it was decided to carry out the ‘final solution’, the extermination of European Jewry.

The rise of Nazism, at first limited to Germany, proved infectious. Fascist and antisemitic movements mushroomed all over the Continent. Even Italy, which had always proudly insisted that it was pursuing its own, the only genuine road to fascism, and had rejected antisemitism as alien to the Italian spirit, under German influence promulgated anti-Jewish laws in 1938. In Bucharest the Goga-Cuza government announced in January 1938 that the national status of all Rumanian Jews would be revised and that half of them would have to leave. Whether they would emigrate or drown in the Black Sea, was, as a government spokesman put it, a question of personal preference. According to the Teleki bill, introduced in the Hungarian parliament in 1938, three hundred thousand of Hungary’s Jews were to lose their jobs within the next few years. They were no longer to hold any position in the state or the municipalities, in the trade unions or on public bodies, and all trade licences were to be withdrawn. A numerus clausus of 6 per cent was to be introduced in all professions except in commerce where it was to be 12 per cent. The position of Polish Jews also continued to deteriorate during the 1930s. There were three million of them, about 10 per cent of the total population, concentrated in the five largest towns where they constituted 30 per cent of the total. Pogroms took place in several Polish cities, and small- and large-scale boycotts. Jewish students were under constant pressure. It was the declared policy of successive Polish governments to make the position of Polish Jewry intolerable and compel them to emigrate.

For those who did not live through that period it is difficult to realise the depths of despair reached during those black years. The western democracies were suffering from a paralysis of will. They tried to ignore Hitler, and when faced with open aggression attempted to buy him off. Appeasement was costly, humiliating, and ultimately, of course, ineffective. By 1938 it seemed as if Hitler would gradually conquer the whole of Europe without even encountering resistance. If the policy of the western democracies was shortsighted and dishonourable, the less said about Stalin’s and Russia’s part the better. America was immersed in its own problems and had no intention of intervening in European affairs.

The Jews of central and eastern Europe, under growing pressure to leave their countries of origin, had nowhere to turn. In a more tolerant age nations and governments had been willing to extend help to the homeless stranger. Britain had taken in 120,000 French Protestants in 1685 after the revocation of the edict of Nantes. By March 1939, in contrast, Britain had given entry permits to barely nineteen thousand Jewish refugees from the Continent. It could be argued that the country was no longer capable of absorbing immigrants on a massive scale. But what of the less densely populated countries overseas? ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free’; but since Emma Lazarus’s poem had been inscribed on the Statue of Liberty attitudes had changed. The United States in 1935 accepted 6,252 Jewish immigrants, Argentine 3,159, Brazil 1,758, South Africa 1,078, Canada 624. In the same year the number of legal Jewish immigrants into Palestine was 61,854.

These figures speak for themselves: the European countries, however reluctantly, gave shelter to more refugees than those overseas with the exception of Palestine, which absorbed more than all the others put together. By the time the war broke out thirty-five thousand had found temporary shelter in France, twenty-five thousand in Belgium and twenty thousand in Holland. But there was no real security for Jews in Europe, for many of those who had escaped were overtaken by the advancing German armies. In October 1938 twenty-eight thousand Jews of Polish nationality living in Germany were rounded up and dumped by the Nazis at various points on the German-Polish border. A few months later thousands of Jews of Hungarian origin were expelled from Slovakia.* Big new Jewish communities came into being in places such as Zbonszyn, of which no one had ever heard before. They were located in a no man’s land, without shelter or food, suffering from cold and disease, exposure and starvation. There were floating Jewish communities such as those on S.S. Sönigstein, Caribia, or St Louis. These had left Hamburg in 1938 for Latin America with many hundreds of passengers on board, but were not permitted to land in their countries of destination. The Nazis were willing to take them back - into concentration camps. And so these ghost ships continued their macabre voyage between Europe and Latin America, between the Balkans and Palestine, treated as if they were carriers of the plague.

To bring some element of order into an utterly confused situation, and to coordinate help for German refugees, President Roosevelt invited representatives of thirty-two governments to a conference in Evian, in France in July 1938. The British insisted that Palestine, the most important country for Jewish immigration, should not be discussed. When Weizmann asked permission to appear before the conference his request was turned down flat by the American presiding over the conference. The outcome was predictable. One speaker after another went to the rostrum and reported that there was no territory suitable for Jewish settlers. Some did so with expressions of regret. Others, such as the Australian delegate, said that they had no racial problem and were not desirous of importing one. The one surprise was the statement by the Dominican delegate that his country was willing to accept refugees. It was a generous gesture, even though it was not clear whether the area set aside for the refugees was suitable for any known form of settlement.

The conference resulted in the establishment of a permanent Inter-Governmental Committee on Refugees headed by Lord Winterton, a leading British anti-Zionist. The delegates were not callous men. They were carrying out the instructions of their respective governments, and the position taken by the governments reflected the state of public opinion. On the eve of the Evian conference the American Veterans of Foreign Wars passed a resolution calling for the suspension of all immigration for ten years. In London the Socialist Medical Association at their annual reunion complained of the ‘dilution of our industry with non-Union, non-Socialist labour’; the Conservative Sunday Express proclaimed editorially that ‘just now there is a big influx of foreign Jews into Britain. They are overrunning the country’.*

The outcome of the Evian conference was nil. Once the gates of Palestine had been all but closed, Jews from central Europe, unless they had close relations or special skills, could move without any restriction to only one place on the entire globe - the International Settlement in Shanghai. But the Japanese authorities, too, clamped down on Jewish immigration in August 1939. As the London Times in its ‘Review of the Year’ for 1938 succinctly put it, ‘the great surplus Jewish population remained an acute problem’. There were, in other words, too many Jews.

When Herzl had first thought of a Jewish state he had envisaged a gradual migration to Palestine; he had not imagined a catastrophe. Neither he nor any other Jewish leader after him, not even Jabotinsky, had claimed that Palestine could absorb all Jews. But the foundations had been laid in Palestine in the 1920s for the settlement of hundreds of thousands. In the middle 1930s, when ‘it was no longer a question whether Zionism was a good idea or a bad idea, whether it was desirable or not’, the community had grown to four hundred thousand; it was no longer a political theory but a fact. British experts, who only a few years earlier had been concerned about the absorptive capacity of the country, now conceded that the big immigration wave of 1933-5 (134,000 legal immigrants) far from reducing that capacity had actually increased it: the more immigrants, the more work they created for local industry.* Palestinian imports and exports rose by more than 50 per cent between 1933 and 1935. The consumption of electric energy, always an accurate index of economic growth, almost trebled during that period. While other governments at the time had deficits amounting to billions of dollars, the government of Palestine had a mounting surplus. Thirteen hundred firms were represented at the 1932 Levant Fair at Tel Aviv, a rapidly growing city. In 1935 it had 135,000 inhabitants. There were 160 Jewish agricultural settlements in that year and more were being established every month.

Immigration would have risen even more quickly but for the restrictions imposed by the mandatory government. Under an ordinance issued in 1933 different categories of immigrants had been established, the two most important being Category A (‘capitalists’) and the ‘labour schedule’. A capitalist, according to the standards of those days, was a person who had £500 to his name; later, the figure was raised to £1,000. The labour schedule became the main bone of contention between the Palestine government and the Jewish Agency. In 1934 the Agency asked for 20,000 certificates for labour immigrants and received 5,600. For the year starting in April 1935 it asked for 30,000 and obtained 11,200. In 1936, after the outbreak of the Arab riots, the government severely restricted immigration. Of the 22,000 certificates requested by the Agency, little more than 10 per cent, 2,500, were granted. The upshot was that in the years when European Jewry needed Palestine most its gates were gradually closed.

Year

New immigrants

1935

61,800

1936

29,700

1937

10,500

1938

12,800

1939

16,400

Eventually, in the White Paper of 1939, it was announced that five years later Jewish immigration was to stop altogether. The reasons were political, not economic in character. They had nothing to do with absorptive capacity. The Arab national movement was growing in strength. After the abortive general strike of October 1933 there were two years of peace, but April 1936 saw the outbreak of a rebellion which petered out only in 1939. No one doubted that the Arabs had benefited from Jewish immigration. Their numbers had almost doubled between 1917 and 1940, wages had gone up, the standard of living had risen more than anywhere else in the Middle East. The Jews had certainly not dispossessed the Arabs. ‘Much of the land now carrying orange groves was sand dunes or swamp and uncultivated when it was purchased’, the Peel Commission reported. Malcolm MacDonald, the colonial secretary, and no friend of Zionism, wrote that ‘if not a single Jew had come to Palestine after 1918, I believe the Arab population today would still be round the 600,000 figure, at which it had been stable under Turkish rule’. But the Jewish immigrants had come, and they had been instrumental in generating a Palestine Arab national movement.

The Arabs were afraid of becoming a minority in Palestine, and while they were divided into half a dozen political parties, all of them agreed on opposing Zionism. The Arab character of Palestine had to be retained, the establishment of a Jewish national home resisted. The militants among them resorted to violence and carried the more moderate forces with them. The movement drew encouragement from the successes of Nazism and Italian fascism, and from the impotence shown by the western powers in their attempts to stop the aggressors. The ineffectiveness of the League of Nations’ sanctions against Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia had a notable impact in the Middle East. Egypt had made a big step towards independence following the Anglo-Egyptian treaty of 1936, and the Syrians and the Iraqis, too, had made a marked advance. The Palestinian Arabs did not want to lag behind their Arab brethren.

Britain was in no mood to resist. The riots had, of course, to be put down, but at the same time a decision was taken to liquidate the Zionist experiment, or, to be precise, to freeze it at the existing level. These were the years of appeasement in Europe. As the clouds of war thickened, Britain needed Arab friendship more than the goodwill of the Jews, which was assured anyway. For, unlike the Arabs, the Jews could not opt for Hitler and Mussolini, nor for Stalin. The majority of the generation of British statesmen which had sponsored the Balfour Declaration had disappeared from the political scene; those few who still survived had more urgent preoccupations.

Winston Churchill, one of these survivors, certainly did not approve of the turn in British policy: ‘I cannot understand why this course has been taken’, he said in his speech in the parliamentary debate (23 May 1939) on the White Paper. ‘I search around for the answer. … Is our condition so parlous and our state so poor that we must, in our weakness, make this sacrifice of our declared purpose? Can we strengthen ourselves by repudiation? Never was the need for fidelity and firmness more urgent than now.’ He turned to the government front bench and said: ‘By committing ourselves to this lamentable act of default, we will cast our country, and all it stands for, one more step downwards in its fortunes. It is twenty years now that my Rt Honourable friend [Neville Chamberlain] used these stirring words: “A great responsibility will rest on the Zionists, who before long will be proceeding with joy in their hearts to the ancient seat of their people. Theirs will be the task of building up a new prosperity and a new civilisation in old Palestine, so long neglected and misruled.” Well,’ Churchill continued, ‘they have answered the call. They have followed his hopes. How can we find it in our heart to strike them this mortal blow?’ These were strong words, but they did not entail political action. Churchill was a back bencher at the time, in opposition to government policy. One year later he was back in power but did little to reverse British policy in Palestine. The international constellation could not have been worse for the Zionists. Never had the movement counted for less.

The Palestinian scene 1933-7

The years of prosperity in Palestine (1933-5) were politically uneventful. The Jewish Agency executive did not receive much help from the British government but it had, within limits, freedom of action. Weizmann, Ben Gurion and Shertok conferred from time to time with the colonial secretary and with the high commissioner, but these meetings had a routine character. There were occasional protests against searches and arrests of illegal immigrants by the police, but on the whole the Agency executive had little reason to complain. At a session of the Action Committee in March 1934 in Jerusalem, Ussishkin, as so often before, complained that not enough was being done to buy land. Forty thousand new immigrants had arrived but only sixteen thousand dunam had been bought. The occasion was memorable mainly because the proceedings were for the first time conducted in Hebrew.

There were no major surprises at the 1935 Zionist congress. Over the years a certain routine had developed: long reports were delivered by members of the executive on political developments, organisational problems, and the economic situation. These were followed by a general debate opened by the spokesmen of the various parties, with the second and third rankers filling in after them. The time at the disposal of the speakers was allocated according to an elaborate system and the main task of the chairman was to keep them within the allotted schedule. At the end of the meeting resolutions on many topics were read out and voted upon. The system was highly unsatisfactory, and since much of the important work was in any case done in committee, it was proposed to do away with the ‘general debate’. It seemed altogether pointless to try to cover all the important subjects in a parliament which met for a fortnight every other year. But the system, however defective, had grown roots. An entire generation of Zionist politicians had come to accept it and attempts to change it encountered strong resistance.

In his opening address at the congress Sokolow said that the movement had advanced all along the line. This claim was not altogether unjustified for, quite apart from the progress made in Palestine, Zionism had won many new adherents. Almost one million Jews had bought the shekel that year and thus acquired the right to vote. This despite the revisionist secession and the establishment of the New Zionist Organisation by Jabotinsky’s followers. Even so, Zionists were only a minority within world Jewry. Their most dangerous enemy, as Ben Gurion pointed out at the time, was the indifference of the Jewish communities.* In Palestine about one-third of the community had acquired the shekel, and in Lithuania, West Galicia, and Latvia the Zionist position was also relatively strong, with between 20 and 30 per cent of the local community adhering. More had expressed sympathy without taking the trouble to register. But the situation in the two largest communities was much less rosy: in Poland only one Jew out of ten had brought the shekel, and in the United States only one out of thirty.

To return to the proceedings of the Lucerne congress: Weizmann was elected president, Ben Gurion, in his keynote speech (given in Yiddish), said that while the present generation could not complete the work of Zionism it had an urgent and easily definable task: to settle one million families in Palestine. Ruppin, surveying twenty-five years of colonising work, defended the collective settlements against their detractors and said that agriculture was still lagging behind the general development of the country. Grossman, who with a few friends had split away from Jabotinsky, accused Mapai of strangling private initiative in Palestine and condemned the transfer agreement with Germany. The general debate was mainly between Mapai and the General Zionists. Mizrahi boycotted it since their demand to give the movement (and, above all, life in Palestine) a greater religious content had not been accepted. They were somewhat mollified when one of their leaders, Rabbi Fishmann, was elected to the new executive, the other members being Weizmann (Sokolow became honorary president of the world organisation), Ben Gurion, Brodetsky, Gruenbaum, Kaplan, Rottenstreich and Shertok - a coalition representing all the main trends in the movement.

Weizmann’s return after four years in the wilderness was the most important event. He wrote later that he was a little reluctant to accept the call because there had been no real change of heart in the movement. Many had simply reached the conclusion ‘that they had nobody who could do much better’. The American Zionists who had voted against him on past occasions now became his strongest supporters. The world situation had deteriorated and inside the movement there was growing impatience and less and less desire to face realities: ‘This impatience, that lack of faith, was constantly pulling the movement towards the abyss.’ Weizmann who, unlike the leaders of Mapai, lacked an organised power base inside the movement, had to rely on the alliance (the ‘unwritten covenant’) between a small group of faithful supporters among the General Zionist group and the ‘great mass of workers in the settlements and factories in Palestine which formed the core of the Zionist movement. This was the guarantee of our political sanity.’*

Less than a year after the nineteenth congress Zionism found itself in a mortal struggle against overwhelming pressure on three different fronts: the wave of antisemitism in Europe, the Arab attacks on Jewish settlements, and the decision of the British that Zionist work had to be suspended.

The riots began with armed attacks on individual Jews, probably uncorrelated. Unrest quickly spread and within a few days there was a whole series of murderous assaults. As the Arab Higher Committee, under the leadership of the mufti, declared a six months’ general strike, armed bands took up guerrilla warfare in various parts of Palestine. The evidence points to a secret understanding between the Arab political leadership and Fawzi Kaukji, who headed the largest private army, and that there was some coordination with other bands. The Zionists were inclined to belittle the whole affair, to accuse the government of lack of firmness, and to regard it as the work of a few professional demagogues who had mobilised the flotsam and jetsam of Arab society. But such explanations presented only part of the picture: true, the mandatory government appeared indecisive, and there certainly was a criminal element in the uprising; more Arabs than Jews were killed by the insurgents, either because they refused to collaborate or because they resisted the extortionists. But all the same it was a national movement with a broad popular basis in both the towns and the countryside. Moreover, it had not only the sympathy but the active assistance of other Arab countries, which in the past had shown no direct concern about the future of Palestine.

The high commissioner asked for reinforcements, and when some twenty thousand British troops were finally concentrated in Palestine, the Arab Higher Committee felt the need for a breathing space. In October 1936 it followed the recommendation of the heads of the Arab states to rely on the good intentions of the British and to end the general strike, but refused to give evidence before the royal commission, whose appointment had just been announced in London, so long as there was no total stoppage of Jewish immigration. The commission was headed by Lord Peel, a grandson of Robert Peel, a lawyer by training and an experienced colonial administrator. Unknown to most, he was already very ill at the time and died shortly after of cancer. His deputy was Horace Rumbold, who as ambassador to Berlin had seen Nazism at first hand, and was familiar with its ideas, practices and aims. The commission arrived in Palestine on 11 November 1936 and stayed for two months, in the course of which it held sixty-six meetings. Towards the end of its stay the Arabs changed their mind and decided to give evidence. The commission also held meetings in London and some of its members met Emir Abdulla in Amman.

It was the most high-powered of the various commissions of enquiry which had visited Palestine, and its report, published in July 1937, was a model of insight, precision and lucidity.* Seldom, if ever, has an intricate political problem been so clearly and comprehensively presented and analysed by men who had little previous knowledge of the issues. The Zionist position, as outlined in the memorandum submitted to the commission as well as in the oral evidence given by Weizmann and Ben Gurion, was that notwithstanding the riots, Jews and Arabs could reach a modus vivendi.* It reiterated the basic principle that, regardless of numerical strength, neither of the two peoples should dominate or be dominated by the other. Weizmann repeated that the Zionist movement was perfectly willing to accept the principle of parity: if a legislative council was established, the Jews would never claim more than an equal number, whatever the future ratio between the Arab and Jewish population. Ben Gurion in his evidence also emphasised that it was not the Zionist aim to make Palestine a Jewish state. Palestine was not an empty country. There were other inhabitants and these did not want to be at the mercy of the Jews just as the Jews did not want to be at their mercy: ‘It may be the Jews would behave better, but they are not bound to believe in our goodwill. A state may imply … domination of others, the domination by the Jewish majority of the minority, but that is not our aim. It was not our aim at that time [of the Balfour Declaration] and it is not our aim now.’

The position of the mufti, who appeared as the main Arab spokesman, was that the experiment of a Jewish national home should be discontinued, and immigration and land sales stopped. Hebrew should no longer be recognised as an official language, and Palestine should become an independent Arab state. There were some antisemitic undertones: Auni Abdul Hadi, a leader of the left-of-centre Istiqlal, said that the Jews were a more usurious people than any other, and if sixty million Germans, who were cultured and civilised, could not bear the presence of six hundred thousand Jews, how could the Arabs be expected to put up with the presence of four hundred thousand in a much smaller country? When the mufti was asked whether Palestine could digest and assimilate the four hundred thousand already there, he said flatly ‘No’.§ Were these Jews to be expelled or ‘somehow to be removed’? ‘We must all leave this to the future,’ said the mufti. ‘That is not a question which can be decided here,’ said Auni Abdul Hadi.

Weizmann gave a masterly presentation of the Jewish case on 25 November. It was one of the highlights of his career. He later described his feelings as he made his way to the speaker’s table between the rows of spectators in the dining-room of the Palace Hotel in Jerusalem:

I felt that I not only carried the burden of these well-wishers, and of countless others in other lands, but that I would be speaking for generations long since dead, for those who lay buried in the ancient and thickly populated cemeteries on Mount Scopus, and those whose last resting places were scattered all over the world. And I knew that any mis-step of mine, any error however involuntary, would be not mine alone, but would rebound to the discredit of my people. I was aware, as on few occasions before or since, of a crushing sense of responsibility.*


Weizmann surveyed Jewish history in modern times, and the development of Zionism as an answer to Jewish homelessness. He spoke of the spread of antisemitism all over Europe and how one by one all the gates had been closed to them. There were six million Jews in east and central Europe, ‘doomed to be pent up in places where they are not wanted and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places into which they cannot enter’. Seven years earlier Lord Passfield had told him that there was no room to swing a cat in Palestine, but many a cat had been swung since then; the Jewish population had in fact doubled. At the end of his speech he said the commission had come at a time when the Jewish position ‘has never been darker than it is now, and I pray it may be given to you to find a way out’.

In early January Weizmann appeared again before the commission, this time in closed session. Having listened to the spokesmen of the two sides, its members were inclining towards the idea of cantonisation. The Arabs were uncompromising, totally ruling out any idea of further Jewish immigration. One member of the commission, Professor Coupland of Oxford, a veteran student of Indian history, eventually reached the conclusion that cantonisation did not go far enough and that a more radical approach was needed. It appeared unlikely that harmony between Jews and Arabs could be restored in the near future. If so there was no other way to peace than the termination of the mandate by agreement. This meant the splitting of Palestine into two, and consequently the emergence of an independent Jewish and an Arab state.

Partition schemes

Weizmann reports that this was the first time the idea of partition was broached to him. As a good diplomat he did not reply immediately, but asked for time for reflection and to consult his colleagues. The more he thought about the idea, the more he liked it. A private meeting with Professor Coupland was arranged. To keep it secret, it was held in a hut belonging to the girls’ agricultural training farm in Nahalal.* Coupland was firmly convinced that no two peoples who had developed national consciousness could live together as equal partners in a single state. From this rule he was willing to except only the British who had established reasonably happy relations with the Afrikaners in South Africa. He told Weizmann that it was quite unrealistic in the given world situation to expect any decisive help from Britain for the future development of the Jewish national home. There had to be surgery; no honest doctor could recommend aspirin and a water bottle as a cure. Nine years later, in conversation with Abba Eban, the future Israeli foreign minister, Coupland said that his decision had been the right one, that it was the only solution compatible with justice and logic or, at any rate, the one involving least injustice. Coupland took it upon himself to persuade his colleagues that cantonisation, favoured by the mandatory administration, would not work, and that partition was the only way out. Weizmann was more than satisfied. When he left the hut in the evening he told the farmers assembled outside: ‘Hevra [comrades], today we laid the foundation for the Jewish state!’

The Peel Report was published in July 1937. Since its main recommendations were not accepted by the British government a very brief summary should suffice. In contrast to previous commissions, the Peel Commission realised that an irrepressible conflict had arisen between the two communities and that there was no common ground between them. The British people would have little heart to continue ruling the country without the consent of its inhabitants, nor could the problem be solved by giving either side all it wanted. After dismissing cantonisation, the commission recommended the termination of the mandate on the basis of a partition scheme which would have to fulfil three essential conditions: it would have to be practical, it would have to conform to British obligations, and it would have to do justice to both Arabs and Jews. The commission presented a plan (and a map) according to which Palestine was to be divided into three zones: a Jewish state, including the coastal region from south of Tel Aviv to north of Acre, the Valley of Esdraelon and Galilee; an Arab state, including the rest of Palestine as well as Transjordan; and a British enclave under permanent mandate, including Jerusalem, Bethlehem and a narrow corridor to the Mediterranean including Lydda and Ramle.

Some of the provisions made this plan very difficult for any Zionist to accept, quite apart from the question of Jerusalem: Haifa, Acre, Safed and Tiberias, though within the borders of the proposed Jewish state, were to remain temporarily under British mandate, Nazareth was to be part of the British enclave, and Jaffa part of the Arab state. British official reactions were at first favourable: the White Paper accompanying the report stated that the government adopted its recommendations since partition on the general lines suggested represented the most hopeful solution of the deadlock.* Pending completion of the details of the plans, immigration was to be drastically restricted. Only eight thousand certificates were to be granted for the next seven months.

The partition scheme was contemptuously rejected by the Arabs, and sharply criticised by most Zionists, while in Britain itself second thoughts produced grave doubts. In an impressive speech in the House of Lords, Viscount Samuel, the first high commissioner, pointed to the many contradictions of the new plan: there were to be 225,000 Arabs against 258,000 Jews in the proposed Jewish state. He ruled out a population transfer as entailing too much hardship. The scheme would have the effect of creating a Saar, a Polish Corridor, and half a dozen Danzigs and Memels in a country the size of Wales.

On 3 August 1937, less than a month after the publication of the report, the twentieth Zionist congress opened in Zurich. The delegates had barely enough time to study the bulky document and to ponder its implications, but passions were running high, for everyone believed, wrongly as it soon appeared, that the Zionist movement was facing a decision as momentous as at the time of the Uganda debate. Weizmann was the chief protagonist of the partition plan, or to be precise, of the principle of partition, even though his enthusiasm too had waned after studying the commission’s map. But he regarded partition as the lesser evil. Of the six million Jews waiting in Europe, two million, he thought, could be saved if there were a state to give them shelter. Through intensive cultivation of the fertile areas it would be possible to bring in one hundred thousand immigrants annually. It was easy to criticise the scheme, but what was the alternative? The restriction of immigration, with the Jews a permanent minority. Never had the Zionist movement faced a heavier responsibility.

Weizmann was opposed by many of his General Zionist colleagues, by Ussishkin and his followers, the Mizrahi, Grossman’s Jewish State Party, and the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair. Ussishkin, like most other opponents, attacked the scheme both in principle and on practical grounds: the proposed Jewish state would simply not be viable. Without Jerusalem it would be a body without a head, said Berl Katznelson, one of the Mapai opponents of partition (together with Golda Meirson). The Mizrahi opposed it because the basis of the Jewish claim to Palestine was the Bible, a covenant which could not be changed at will. Hashomer Hatzair, on the other hand, rejected the scheme because it had not abandoned the idea of a bi-national state. But what was the alternative to partition, a young Polish Zionist, Moshe Kleinbaum (Sneh) asked. The opponents answered that if the Zionist movement offered determined resistance to the British attempt to repudiate the mandate, Britain would be compelled to adhere to its original provisions. Rabbi Wise in a dramatic speech proclaimed his ‘non possumus’; there were some things which a people simply could not do. One delegate read out a letter from Field Marshal Smuts in which he, one of the architects of the Balfour Declaration, expressed his opposition. Even Brodetsky, usually one of Weizmann’s faithful followers, was doubtful: the absorption of two million immigrants was an illusion. Weizmann interjected that sooner or later things would in any case move towards partition, ‘even if we had sixty thousand immigrants annually over a period of ten to twelve years and if we had attained majority status’.

Those who supported partition, like Ben Gurion, emphasised that time, the most important factor, was working against the Jews. The international situation was deteriorating, so was the position of the Jews in Europe. The other ‘A’ mandates had been abolished. The only question was when it would be Palestine’s turn. A Jewish state, however small, would generate new faith, and at the same time create the possibility of saving many hundreds of thousands of Jews. It was not an end but a new beginning.* Gruenbaum, who on so many past occasions had been in the camp opposing Weizmann, now agreed with him. The alternative to a Jewish majority in a Jewish state was a Jewish minority in Arab Palestine. Shertok admitted that partition would be a cruel operation, but should they forgo an historical opportunity because, as someone had argued, Modi’in and Massada, those two symbols of resistance in Jewish history, would not be within the borders of the state? They had to make the greatest possible use of historical opportunities.* Partition was risky, Goldmann admitted, but there were no other solutions. He recalled that some Zionist leaders, such as Victor Jacobson, had envisaged it years before.

Ussishkin, in his final speech, reiterated his view that a state without land could not exist in the long run: the experience of Carthage and Venice should serve as a warning. Or would they be compelled to build skyscrapers in Tel Aviv for want of land? ‘We have to make the best of it,’ Weizmann replied. They had eight thousand certificates for seven months. How could the critics claim that the prospect of two million immigrants should count as nothing? Gruenbaum believed that Arab-Jewish relations would improve as the result of partition; the alternative was ‘permanent terror’. There was a struggle within the soul of each delegate, as Rubashov (Shazar) said. Old friends found themselves in opposed camps; even Hagana in Palestine was divided, with Eliahu Golomb favouring partition and Shaul Meirov (Avigur) opposing it.

Eventually 300 delegates voted in favour of the Weizmann resolution and 158 against. The majority was substantial but only because the resolution adopted was fairly vague, evading a clear stand on most of the critical issues. It rejected the assertion of the royal commission that the mandate had proved unworkable and demanded its fulfilment. It refused to accept the conclusion that the national aspirations of Jews and Arabs were irreconcilable, and condemned the ‘palliative proposals’ put forward by the commission. The strongest protest was directed against the decision of the British government to fix a political maximum for Jewish immigration. Thus the scheme of partition as put forward by the commission was rejected as unacceptable, but at the same time the Zionist executive was empowered to enter into negotiations with a view to ascertaining London’s precise terms for the establishment of a Jewish state.

The congress was followed, as usual, by a session of the Jewish Agency Council. There, too, strong opposition to partition was voiced, albeit for different reasons. The non-Zionist representatives were no supporters of the idea of a Jewish state. The point which had received most attention at the congress — that the state as envisaged would be too small — was not their chief concern. They suggested that an Arab-Jewish conference should be convened by the British government to seek a solution within the terms of the mandate.

What had started as a promising venture ended in a flurry of recrimination, and Weizmann’s patience was wearing thin. His British friends had not even troubled to send him an advance copy of the Peel Report. After some sharp words to Ormsby Gore, the colonial secretary and a friend, he was told ‘not to burn his boats and to go off at the deep end’. He replied bitterly:


I have no boats to burn. I have borne most things in silence; I have defended the British administration before my own people, from public platforms, at congresses, in all parts of the world, often against my own better knowledge, and almost invariably to my own detriment. Why did I do so? Because to me close cooperation with Great Britain was the cornerstone of our policy in Palestine. But this cooperation remained unilateral — it was unrequited love.*


Parliament, the League of Nations, and the Zionist congress had, albeit with great reservations, accepted the principle of partition, but the Palestinian Arabs mobilised the heads of Arab states against the scheme. At a pan-Arab congress in Bludan (Syria) in September 1937 it was resolved that the preservation of Palestine as an Arab country was the sacred duty of every Arab. Meanwhile riots broke out again in Palestine and became more intense. In October the British district commissioner for Galilee and his escort were shot in front of a Nazareth church. The British arrested five members of the Arab Higher Committee, while the mufti succeeded in escaping. The Arab attacks continued, and it took the authorities eighteen more months before the rebellion was suppressed. This failure has baffled many observers, and it has been said that it was due to lack of will rather than lack of resources. Fawzi Kaukji, the guerrilla leader, who in 1936–8 pinned down many thousand British soldiers, was routed within a few days by the small, badly trained and ill-equipped forces of the Hagana ten years later. But it is only fair to add that at the time both the British and the Jews lacked experience in guerrilla fighting. Armoured cars and planes were quite unsuitable for coping with irregular forces supported by the local population.

To recommend new boundaries for the Arab and Jewish states yet another commission was appointed in February 1938. This group was headed by Sir Charles Woodhead; most of his colleagues were, like its chairman, distinguished ex-Indian civil servants. According to its terms of reference, the commission was at full liberty to suggest modifications. It stayed in Palestine from late April to July 1938 but was boycotted by the Arabs. Moreover, its members must have been aware that London was already retreating from the idea of partition. The appointment of yet another commission may well have been an attempt to gain time while a new policy was worked out.

The commission’s report was published in November, but in the words of one commentator it is not easy to say precisely what it did, or did not, recommend.* It discussed three different projects. Plan A envisaged a Jewish state more or less within the boundaries suggested by the Peel Commission, in which, it was noted, 49 per cent of the population would be Arabs who would own about 75 per cent of the land. Under Plan B Galilee, mainly populated by Arabs, would be detached as well as some other areas from the Jewish state. Plan C envisaged a still smaller Jewish state, consisting of the coastal plain from Rehovot in the south to Zikhron Ya’akov in the north, four hundred square miles with a total of 280,000 inhabitants. It was essentially a Jewish Vatican, Tel Aviv and its suburbs. But even this mini-state was subdivided into two parts by the Jaffa-Jerusalem corridor. The four members of the Woodhead Commission failed to agree among themselves: one of them preferred Plan B, two had strong reservations about Plan C, and all rejected Plan A.

In essence the commission reached the conclusion that no Jewish state could be devised which, while including only a small number of Arabs, would be large enough to allow for new immigration. Instead of openly admitting failure, the commission felt under an obligation to produce a scheme of its own, however half-hearted and confused. Several weeks after the publication the British government, in yet another White Paper, turned partition down as impractical in view of the political, administrative and financial difficulties it raised, claiming that peace and prosperity in Palestine could be restored only if there was an understanding between Jews and Arabs. It was also announced that a conference would soon be held in London to which representatives of the Jewish Agency as well as Arabs from Palestine and the neighbouring states, would be invited. If no agreement was reached within a reasonable period, the government would be obliged to impose a settlement.

Various peace-makers volunteered their services to mediate between Arabs and Jews. Among the well-meaning individuals who took a hand in the search for a solution were A.A. Ayamson, the former head of the immigration department of the mandatory government; Colonel Newcombe, a well-known advocate of the Arab cause; Dr Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew university; and Nuri Said, the Iraqi foreign minister. Some of the blueprints produced were based on the cantonisation scheme, others on the concept of one sovereign Palestinian state in which the maximum Jewish population should be less than half — thus providing a Jewish national home but not a state. But these schemes aroused no interest among either Jews or Arabs: the Zionists had been unhappy about Lord Peel’s state and they rejected a fortiori the idea of permanent minority status. The Arabs, on the other hand, rejected not only partition but also a bi-national state based on parity. Nor were they willing to consider further Jewish immigration.

The London Round Table Conference opened on 7 February 1939 with a speech by the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. The feeling among the Jews was one of unrelieved gloom. The previous October Hitler had invaded Czechoslovakia and on the very day that parliament was debating the Woodhead Report, the big pogrom in Germany (the Kristallnacht) took place. Hitler and Mussolini openly supported the Arabs: fascist Italy had always regarded a Jewish Palestine as a danger to the Italian empire because it was bound to become a British imperial base, another Malta or Gibraltar. Zionism could expect no help from France or the United States. In so far as they were at all interested in Middle Eastern politics, the Soviet Union, and the Communist parties following its line, supported the Arab rebellion.

Zionism was thus totally isolated, completely dependent on British goodwill. Moving appeals reached London from German Jewry: ‘It is a question of life and death, it is inconceivable that Britain will sacrifice the German Jews.’* But the fear, grief and agony of a persecuted people counted for little in world politics. As Namier wrote at the time: ‘All the sacrifices were demanded from us, and all the gains were offered to the Arabs.’

There years earlier Namier had vainly tried to persuade the British that their interests and those of the Jews were inseparable, that the Jews, while numerous enough to be an irritant, were not at the moment sufficiently strong to serve as a defensive shield, that in a coming world conflict the Arabs would be against Britain anyway, and that it was therefore in the British interest to get the Jews to the other shore as quickly as possible. This was not how the British policy-makers saw it, and even after the appeasement policy in Europe was seen to have failed, the attitude towards Zionism did not change. The Arabs were many and the Jews were few. Precisely in view of the coming war, Arab goodwill had to be won.

The question whether British policy was effective as Realpolitik will no doubt be debated for a long time to come. It has been argued that if the pro-Axis elements in the Arab world failed in their bid for power in 1941, as in Rashid Ali’s revolt in Iraq, if Egypt was quiet even when Rommel reached El Alamein, this was the result of the far-reaching concessions made by London to the Palestinian Arabs. It seems, however, more probable that the revolt in Iraq would have been suppressed anyway, and that (like General Franco) the Arab rulers, whatever their sentiments vis-à-visBritain, were not willing to come out openly for the Axis until Hitler and Mussolini were sure of victory.

In his opening statement at the London conference Weizmann reiterated world Jewry’s belief in British good faith. Cooperation with the British government had always been the cornerstone of Zionist policy, and the movement was approaching its present task in the same spirit. The Jewish delegation was the most representative which had ever taken part in an international conference. All leading Zionists were present as well as some of the best known non-Zionist Jewish leaders. The Palestinian Arab delegation included Jamal Hussaini, its acting chairman, but not the mufti. Among the delegates from other Arab countries there were leading figures like Ali Maher, Nuri Said, the Jordanian prime minister, and Emir Faisal, Ibn Saud’s son. The Arabs refused to sit at one table with the Jews and arrangements were made for them to reach the conference hall in St James’s Palace by a different entrance. There were, in fact, two separate conferences. Only on two occasions did informal meetings take place between Jewish leaders and the representatives of Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian Arabs refusing any contact with the Jews.

The Zionists had gone to the conference with great misgivings. At the Inner Zionist Council meeting in December 1938 eleven members had voted in favour of participation and eleven against. It had been decided to leave the final decision to the executive, which agreed on participation because, as Ben Gurion wrote, they had been assured by Malcolm MacDonald, the colonial secretary, that the British were still bound by the Balfour Declaration and the mandate, that they rejected the idea of an Arab state, and that Jewish immigration would not be stopped.*Both Weizmann and Ben Gurion believed that London would not wash its hands entirely of the Jewish cause. They wanted, moreover, to use the opportunity to have direct talks with Arab leaders. Ben Gurion is reported to have said on one occasion that from the Arabs he would be willing to accept less favourable terms than from the British. He predicted at the time two historically inevitable processes: one making for an Arab federation, the other for a Jewish state. If the Arabs were willing to accept the Jewish right to immigration there would be room for fruitful negotiation, perhaps agreement on a Jewish state within an Arab federation.*

The meetings soon showed that Zionist hopes, modest as they were, had been exaggerated. The British had more or less accepted the Arab demand to terminate the mandate and to establish a Palestinian state allied to Britain. Under this plan the British would continue to administer the country for several years and the special rights of the Jews as a minority in an Arab state would be discussed during this transition period. The Egyptians, Iraqis and Jordanians showed a more conciliatory attitude than the Palestinian Arabs. They were willing to tolerate the existence of a Jewish community of four hundred thousand. But, like the Palestinian Arabs, they emphasised that they regarded Palestine as an Arab country with which the Jews had no special connection. What Weizmann said about the principle of non-domination was of no interest to them, since they stood for Arab rule, not for a bi-national state, however constructed.

The meetings between the Jewish delegation and the colonial secretary took place in a tense and unfriendly atmosphere. Much of the discussion concerned the situation likely to arise in the event of war. The Zionists stressed repeatedly that they constituted a military element that could not be ignored, whereas the British could not count on Arab help in a war against Hitler. But the British representatives were not impressed: the danger of an Arab revolt loomed much larger in their calculations than any benefit they could derive from Jewish support. Occasional veiled threats that there would be trouble if illegal immigrants were turned away did not impress the British: what alternative did the Jews have to support for Britain? As MacDonald told them, if they would not cooperate, it was a fair certainty that His Majesty’s government would leave them to their fate, and the results of that could easily be foreseen. To the Arabs this attitude was most welcome. They had told MacDonald that the Jews would not present a problem if Britain were to withdraw. But the British had no intention of doing so on the eve of a world war in which Palestine would be an important strategic base. They had accepted the Arab demand that the Jews should be reduced to permanent minority status, but insisted on their being given certain rights and on the continuation of limited immigration. At one meeting Weizmann announced that he was willing to accept restrictions on immigration if this would help to bring nearer an agreement with the Arabs. The other Zionist leaders were not happy about this concession but nothing came of it, since the Arabs did not take it up. MacDonald stressed time and again that the Jews would have to obtain Arab consent to immigration, which provoked Weizmann’s observation that the British, too, were not in Palestine by Arab consent.*

The Jewish delegates were most unhappy about the total repudiation of the Balfour Declaration. They felt that the British attitude worsened almost daily: at first parity had been suggested and the negotiations proceeded on the basis of the mandate. Later it was said that the number of Jews should eventually reach 40 per cent at most, a figure subsequently reduced to 35 per cent and then to 33 1/3 per cent. The renunciation of the mandate was also proposed at a later stage of the conference. In their counter-proposals in early March, Weizmann and Ben Gurion mentioned various possibilities: the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Palestine, or the establishment of a federal Arab-Jewish administration on the basis of parity, with the proviso that immigration would not be stopped. As a last resort they suggested a freezing of the situation: the immigration quota was to be fixed for the next five years, during which time all other outstanding problems were to be discussed.

MacDonald was dissatisfied with the Zionist reaction. Originally he had, he said, been opposed to the idea of an Arab veto on immigration but the intransigent attitude of some members of the Jewish delegation had made him realise that so long as the Jews had the British government behind them, they would never meet the Arabs halfway. The final British suggestions, made on 15 March, envisaged the establishment of a Palestinian state after a transitional period of about ten years, during which time self-governing institutions would gradually be established, a national assembly convened, and a constitution drafted. There would be guarantees for the Jewish minority and possibly even a federal structure of Arab and Jewish cantons. During the coming five years a maximum of 75,000 Jews were to be permitted to enter Palestine, so that the Jewish population would be one-third of the total.

The scheme was turned down by the Jewish delegation, and the Arabs, too, found it unacceptable. They had hoped for independence in the immediate future, were opposed to another ten years of British rule, and, above all, insisted on the total cessation of Jewish immigration. There was nothing more to discuss, and on 17 March the conference came to an end. Two months later, on 17 May, the British government, as it had intimated previously, announced that in view of the inability of the two sides to reach any agreement it would impose its own plan. It seems that London had all along assumed that the conference would end in failure but went through the motions of a full-scale conference in order to gain time to work out its plan.

The Zionist leaders without exception regarded this turn in British policy as an unmitigated disaster, a ‘death sentence’, as Weizmann, the most moderate among them, called it. Even the confirmed pessimists among them had believed that British behaviour was part of the general pattern of appeasement. Since it had been demonstrated beyond any shadow of doubt that appeasement did not work in Europe, was there not a chance that with a turn in the policies of the western democracies the British attitude towards Zionism too, would improve? This optimism, as events were soon to show, was misplaced, for Zionism had become a liability to Britain irrespective of events in Europe.

Various last minute attempts were made by the Zionist leaders to prevent the publication of the White Paper. Weizmann asked for an interview with Neville Chamberlain, but accomplished nothing: ‘The prime minister of England sat before me like a marble statue, his expressionless eyes were fixed on me, but he never said a word … I got no response.’* Weizmann went to Cairo and met the Egyptian prime minister without, of course, expecting any immediate outcome. A Jewish delegation met President Roosevelt in early April and was warmly received. The British were in a terrible state, Roosevelt said. The Balfour Declaration and the yishuv were to be sacrificed on the altar of appeasement. He promised to press for the postponement of the White Paper. In fact he did nothing of the sort.

The White Paper

The White Paper, published on 17 May 1939, consisted of a preface and three main sections dealing with constitutional issues, immigration and land respectively.* It repeated that it was the objective of H.H. government that an independent state should come into being within the next ten years. Some 75,000 immigrants were to be admitted over the next five years. After that, from 1 March 1944, immigration was to be permitted only with the consent of the Arabs. Moreover, Jewish settlement was to be prohibited altogether in certain parts of Palestine and to be restricted in others. In all essential points the White Paper thus followed the British plan communicated to the Zionist leaders during the St James conference. Reacting immediately, the Jewish Agency said that the White Paper was a denial of the right of the Jewish people to rebuild their national home in their ancestral country, a breach of faith, a surrender to Arab nationalism. But this blow, coming at the darkest hour of Jewish history, would not subdue the Jewish people: they would never accept the closing to them of the gates of Palestine, nor let their national home be converted into a ghetto. Weizmann, in a letter to the high commissioner, and Ben Gurion, in an analysis of the White Paper, were no less forceful.Weizmann registered the ‘strongest possible protest’ against the repudiation of the mandate. Ben Gurion wrote that ‘the greatest betrayal perpetrated by the government of a civilised people in our generation has been formulated and explained with the artistry of experts at the game of trickery and pretended righteousness.’

The Zionists were deeply angered by the sophistry of the British interlocutors: if they had been bluntly told that H.H. government had realised that the Balfour Declaration had been a mistake, not in the best interests of Britain, and that, in any case, the present British government was no longer strong enough to carry out this policy, it would, of course still have been a cruel blow. But such an open admission of failure would have caused less resentment than the cynicism of the White Paper. As Namier wrote of MacDonald’s performance on another occasion: ‘He soothed uneasy consciences. He earned gratitude, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the days of Godesberg and Munich.’

British opponents of the White Paper took a similar view. Herbert Morrison, later a minister in Churchill’s cabinet, said in the parliamentary debate on 23 May: ‘I should have had more respect for the Right Hon. Gentleman’s speech [Malcolm MacDonald] if he had frankly admitted that the Jews were to be sacrificed to the incompetence of the government.’ Morrison called the White Paper ‘dishonourable to our good name’, a ‘cynical breach of pledges’. There were other strong speeches in a similar vein: Leopold Amery said that he could never hold up his head again to either Jew or Arab if the British government were to go back on its pledge. Noel-Baker called the White Paper cowardly and wrong and said that the British people would not agree to it. Archibald Sinclair, a Liberal leader, said several months later in the debate on the land regulations: ‘What a moment to choose to inflict fresh wrong on the tortured, humiliated, suffering Jewish people, who are exerting themselves to help us in this war.’ But the Chamberlain government had a safe majority in both houses, and though its majority on this occasion was a hundred less than usual, it was not unduly worried. The British press, with one exception (the Manchester Guardian) either approved the government decision or gave it minimum coverage. There was a marked feeling of unease about the whole affair.

Nor was the British government greatly concerned about the reaction of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations. All the seven members present when the issue was debated expressed the view that the White Paper was not in accordance with the interpretation which the commission had always placed on the mandate. Three of them (including the British delegate) argued, however, that circumstances might justify a change in policy if the League council did not oppose it. The four other representatives simply registered their view that the White Paper was not in accordance with the mandate. After the outbreak of war the League council no longer met. Thus the White Paper was not ratified and it did not, strictly speaking, acquire international sanction. But after 1 September 1939 no one bothered any longer about legal niceties.

The Zionist leaders faced an impossible problem: to find an effective policy to combat the new British policy. Various suggestions were discussed at closed meetings. There was support for a campaign of civil disobedience in the Indian style, including the systematic violation of those laws designed to prevent the further development of the national home. Illegal immigration was to be intensified, new settlements founded, and stronger emphasis placed on military training for young people. For the first time Hagana carried out several acts of sabotage directed against the mandatory authorities, including the destruction of a patrol boat used to combat illegal immigration. But these activities were uncoordinated and on a small scale and were discontinued even before the outbreak of war.

There was no unanimity as to the strategy to be adopted. Ben Gurion maintained that the White Paper had created a vacuum which should be filled by the Jewish community: they were to behave as though they were the state of Palestine and should so act until there was a Jewish state. At another meeting he said they should no longer talk about the mandate as a possible and desirable solution but demand the establishment of a Jewish state. But with all this, it seems that at the time he still wanted to bring about a change in British policy rather than expel the British from Palestine.

Much has been made of the political differences between Ben Gurion and Weizmann in 1939 and later. Unlike Weizmann, Ben Gurion did not exclude the possibility of armed conflict in Palestine. In a cable to Chamberlain in April 1939 he said that the Jews were determined to make the supreme sacrifice rather than submit to the White Paper régime. If London’s object was pacification, it would surely be defeated, for the government would be compelled to use force against the Jews.* Weizmann, on the other hand, still favoured cooperation with Britain. As he saw it, the Jewish community in Palestine needed the help of a great power, and however inadequate British goodwill, they could rely even less on any other power. Ben Gurion seems to have reached the conclusion that there was no chance of making the British modify their policy unless Zionism demonstrated its nuisance value. If Arab resistance had inconvenienced the authorities, the yishuv could make things at least equally difficult.

One of the main issues at stake was illegal immigration. Between 1936 and 1939 the number of illegal immigrants had risen sharply: they came mostly in small ships from the Balkans hired either by the Hagana or by political parties, or, in a few cases, by private entrepreneurs. It was the policy of the authorities to arrest the ‘illegals’, some of them being kept in detention camps in Palestine, others being turned back. Ben Gurion at one stage in 1939 favoured open landings which would inevitably have led to armed clashes between the Hagana and the British. He thought that such a demonstration would have an impact on world public opinion and thus perhaps force the British to modify their policy. But most members of the Jewish Agency executive in Palestine opposed this course of action. They argued that the overriding aim was to save as many Jews as possible and that illegal immigration should therefore proceed in such a way as to ensure maximum numbers rather than maximum publicity.* Illegal immigration was quite openly discussed at Zionist meetings: Rabbi A.A. Ailver, subsequently a leading activist, opposed it at the congress in 1939, whereas Berl Katznelson, the Palestine labour leader, vehemently defended it.

The Geneva congress of August 1939 was the shortest on record and the most subdued. For the first time German was not the official language. ‘We met under the shadow of the White Paper, which threatened the destruction of the national home’, Weizmann wrote later, ‘and under the shadow of a war which threatened the destruction of all human liberties, perhaps of humanity itself.’ Up to 22 August, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed, there was still a faint hope that the general catastrophe could be averted, but on that date, with the congress still in session, the Jewish calamity, again in Weizmann’s words ‘merged with, was engulfed by, the world calamity’. The usual petty intrigues, warnings and manœuvre seemed out of place. The right-wing faction of the General Zionists threatened to walk out and join the revisionists if the general debate, as had been suggested, were to be omitted.

But the world situation was too serious for the usual party jockeying for position. Weizmann said in his opening speech that bitter injustice had been done to the Jewish people: ‘We have not failed, we believed in Britain.’ He reviewed the events of the past year, and said that it was again the almost impossible task of the Zionist movement to find the Archimedal point in a confused world. In spite of the White Paper the Jews would support British democracy in its present dark hour. Constructive work in Palestine would continue whatever the circumstances. Even in the straitjacket of the White Paper there were certain possibilities.§ This was challenged by other speakers: ‘For us the White Paper does not exist,’ Ben Gurion declared. Weizmann said in explanation that he was thinking, inter alia, of immigration. Surely no one would turn down the entry permits provided for by the White Paper?

The opposition speeches did not point to a real alternative: Grossman argued that Weizmann’s loyalty to Britain had suffered bankruptcy, so had his policy of evading conflict with the Arabs at any price. Zerubavel, representing the Poale Zion, appearing again for the first time in thirty years at a Zionist congress, told the delegates that they should never have tied their fate to an imperialist power. But how could they have built Palestine if not on the basis of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate? They should have relied on the Socialist revolution instead. Rabbi Berlin (on behalf of the Mizrahi) said they should trust in God. Such well-meaning exhortations apart, there was no practical advice. Even an outspoken critic of Weizmann such as Rabbi Silver admitted that much: not Weizmann but Britain had failed, and there was still hope that the White Paper policy would be nullified. Therefore extremist measures should not be adopted. It was risky to provoke an open conflict with Britain. Zionism in its despair should not put weapons into the hands of its enemies. It was dangerous to act as though the yishuv was the state, when it was not.*

There were delegations from Germany as well as from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and from Austria. The short speech of Dr Franz Kahn, from Czechoslovakia, was the most moving of all: ‘Palestine is our only anchor in these days of adversity. If the gates of Palestine are closed there is no hope left.’ In his political survey Shertok sharply condemned the revisionist terror which, he said, was without purpose, suicidal, damaging from the military point of view and morally reprehensible. The congress ended, earlier than originally envisaged, with a short speech by Weizmann whose leitmotif was ‘there is darkness around us’. He said that it was with a heavy heart that he took leave:


If as I hope we are spared in life and our work continues, who knows — perhaps a new light will shine upon us from the thick, bleak gloom. … There are some things which cannot fail to come to pass, things without which the world cannot be imagined. The remnant shall work on, fight on, live on until the dawn of better days. Towards that dawn I greet you. May we meet again in peace.


The annals of Zionist congresses always registered at this late stage in the proceedings joyful scenes and prolonged applause. The protocols of the twenty-first congress tell a different story: ‘Deep emotion grips the congress, Dr Weizmann embraces his colleagues on the platform. There are tears in many eyes. Hundreds of hands are stretched out towards Dr Weizmann as he leaves the hall.’ Old rivalries were forgotten for the moment at least. Weizmann’s heart was overflowing, he embraced Ben Gurion and Ussishkin as though he would never let them go, Blanche Dugdale, Balfour’s niece, noted in her diary.

Less than a week later the German armies invaded Poland. Most delegates had great difficulty in making their way home through a continent which within a few days had become an armed camp. By the time the Palestinians had returned, war had in fact been declared. In a letter to Chamberlain dated 29 August 1939, Weizmann had promised full support for Britain in the war against Germany and offered to make immediate arrangements for utilising Jewish manpower, technical ability and resources. The Agency executive in Jerusalem in its declaration a few days later said that ‘the war is also our battle’. Ben Gurion declared at a press conference ‘that we have no right to weaken our resistance to the White Paper’, but Shertok added that Jewish Palestine was in a state of armistice with Britain, and the Jewish offer of assistance was not necessarily confined to action within the boundaries of Palestine.* On 11 September the IZL announced in circulars distributed in the streets of Tel Aviv that it was suspending its terror campaign in order to join Britain in the fight against Hitlerism. But the conditions were inauspicious; two Jewish illegal immigrants on board SS Tigerhill were killed on 4 September when a coastguard cutter opened fire. The ship had won fame during the Spanish civil war as a blockade runner. It was discovered south of Jaffa while discharging its passengers, and fled on the approach of the coastguard cutter with about two hundred immigrants still on board. Those who had already embarked were taken to the Sarafend detention camp.

Within two weeks of the outbreak of war most of Poland was occupied by the Wehrmacht: it was the beginning of the end of the largest European Jewish community. Every Jewish community in Europe, and eventually in Palestine too, faced the danger of extinction. The First World War had given the Zionist movement its great chance, the charter for which it had striven for so long. As the Second World War broke, what was at stake was not further expansion but survival.

The Second World War

The thunder of the battle in Europe sounded only faintly in Palestine during the first year of the war. The Arab rebellion had slowly died down, and after September 1939 ceased altogether. Jews and Arabs again lived in peace side by side even though the conflict between the national aspirations of the two peoples remained unresolved. But the repercussions of the fall of France were soon felt: 1941 and 1942 were years of crisis. The German armies in a giant pincer movement reached the western desert and advanced to the Caucasus. In Syria the Vichy administration had taken over and the pro-Axis Rashid Ali coup endangered British bases in Iraq. The tide turned as 1942 drew to its close. With the German armies in full retreat both in the Soviet Union and in North Africa, the danger of invasion was averted. Apart from a few isolated air attacks, Palestine was not directly affected by Axis military activities. The country became an important base for the allied forces in the Middle East, and its economic development received a powerful impetus.

During the early part of the war the yishuv suffered severely from economic dislocation. Citrus exports ceased, all but paralysing the most important branch of the national economy. According to government estimates, the number of unemployed in the Jewish sector was fifty thousand in 1939–40, a staggering figure in a community of little more than half a million. But industrial activity and public works expanded at a rapid rate. Some thirty thousand men and women had been employed in 1936 in industry and manufacture; their numbers had more than doubled by 1943. The newly established Haifa refinery played an important part in the fuel supply for the allied war effort, a new diamond industry came into being, and the textile industry underwent rapid expansion.

Relations between the Jewish community and the mandatory authorities did not improve. The high commissioner and his assistants continued to carry out the White Paper policy, showing no willingness to adjust it in the light of the tragic fate of European Jewry. During the first six months after the outbreak of war, when immigration became a matter of greater urgency than ever, no permits at all were granted. The Land Transfer regulation of 1940 virtually confined the Jews to a new pale of settlement, 5 per cent of the total area of western Palestine. Not even land officially classified as ‘uncultivable’ was exempt from these prohibitions. It was a clear case of discrimination on grounds of race and religion, the Jewish Agency claimed, ‘such discrimination being explicitly forbidden by the mandate’.*

Violent anti-government demonstrations took place throughout Palestine and the tension was further exacerbated by the government’s unrelenting struggle against illegal immigration. Little ships packed with refugees succeeded in making their way to the shores of Palestine even after the outbreak of war in Europe. Thus in November 1940, 1,770 Jews arrived in Haifa on two vessels, but whereas British policy in the past had been to detain illegal immigrants in Palestine, it was now decided to deport these new arrivals to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. There were bloody clashes and eventually Hagana decided to carry out an act of sabotage on the Patria, which was to take the refugees to Mauritius. Because of an error in calculating the amount of explosive used, and an insufficient number of lifeboats aboard, more than 250 immigrants were killed.*The British government intervened at this stage and announced that those saved from the Patria would be permitted to stay after all, but the refugees from the Atlantic, about seventeen hundred in number, who had arrived at the same time, were to be exiled, ‘never be allowed to return to Palestine’.

This was not the last in this chain of tragedies. The Salvador sank in early 1941 in the Sea of Marmora with a loss of two hundred lives. There was the tragic case of the Struma, which left the Black Sea port of Constanza in October 1941 and reached Istanbul in December. But since the British authorities announced that the 769 passengers would not be permitted to land in Palestine, the Turkish government decided to turn the ship back. It was torpedoed in the Black Sea and sunk with the loss of all but one or two of its passengers. Such was the unwillingness of the mandatory authority to admit any further immigrants that when the transitional period specified by the White Paper ended in 1944, only about two-thirds of the 75,000 permits which had been set aside had been utilised. Nor was any encouragement given to the Jewish war effort, even though 136,000 young Jews had volunteered shortly after the outbreak of war to place their services at the disposal of the British military authorities. On the other hand, Hagana, the Jewish defence organisation, came under attack. In late 1939, forty-three officers were arrested (among them Moshe Dayan) and given long prison sentences. Searches and arrests were carried out in agricultural settlements, including Ben Shemen, the children’s village. All arms found were seized, despite protests that they were needed for self-defence. The searches and arrests continued, albeit with interruptions, throughout the war. In July 1943 Saharov, who had acted as Weizmann’s bodyguard, received a seven-year sentence for illegal possession of two rifle bullets. In November of that year a member of Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh was killed during a search at the settlement.

The mandatory government claimed that it was dangerous to permit aliens from Nazi-occupied Europe to land, for how could they be certain that there were no spies and saboteurs among them? (The same argument, incidentally, was used in the United States by those who opposed the admission of Jewish refugees, such as Breckinridge Long.)* As for the searches and arrests in the Jewish settlements, the authorities argued that the Jewish Agency was arrogating to itself the powers of an independent government, thus openly defying the government. This argument was unanswerable, unless the desire of the Jewish community to defend itself in the event of a German invasion was regarded as legitimate, overriding laws that had not provided for such an emergency. The mental response of the mandatory government, in the words of a British historian, was dull and flat-footed, turning people who had no other wish but to serve the allied war effort into enemies. Such resentment, which gradually turned into hatred, found little open expression while the war was in its critical phase, but it provided the background to the anti-British terror in the later stages of the war.

Zionism during the war

The subject of the present study is the history of the Zionist movement, not of Palestine, and it is to the activities of its leaders that we have to turn next. Weizmann, who had been re-elected president, was also in charge of the London office and, together with Professor Selig Brodetsky, headed its political department. David Ben Gurion was head of the Jerusalem office of the Jewish Agency, and with Moshe Shertok shared the responsibility for the political department there. Isaac Gruenbaum directed the labour department, Rabbi Fishman the department for artisans and small traders, and Emil Schmorak the section for commerce and industry. Ussishkin and Ruppin, both of whom died during the war, were attached to the Jerusalem executive in an advisory capacity, while Lipsky, later joined by Nahum Goldmann, represented the Jewish Agency in America with a seat on the executive, also in an advisory capacity. On the Jewish Agency there were also four representatives of non-Zionist bodies (Senator, Hexter, Karpf and Rose Jacobs), but three of them lived in New York and none played a leading part in wartime policies.

The 1939 Zionist congress had elected a General Council of seventy-two members, of whom twenty died or were killed during the war. This council met for the first and only time the day after the congress ended, on 25 August 1939. It elected (‘for the purpose of carrying out special and urgent tasks’) an inner council of twenty-eight, not counting the chairman of the general council and two representatives of the Va’ad Leumi (Ben Zvi and E. Eerligne), the central organisation of Palestinian Jewry. Thirteen of its members belonged to Mapai, eleven to the General Zionists, the rest to the smaller parties. The inner council met more than fifty times during the war and, together with the executive, became the central decision-making body of the movement. It discussed and voted on all important political issues, carried out legislative duties, engaged in various organisational activities, and confirmed the budgets of the Jewish Agency. It should be noted in passing that the budget of the Agency rose almost tenfold during the war, from £P 720,000 in 1939–40 to £P 6,500,000 in 1945–6. The two largest items of expenditure were immigration and agricultural settlement, accounting for 53 per cent over the period. The share of the political department was only 20 per cent, and this despite the fact that it included provisions for such special purposes as recruitment and soldiers welfare.*

Early in the war the centre of activities shifted from London to Jerusalem. In December 1939 Churchill had told Weizmann that he agreed with his view that after the war a Jewish state should be built with three or four million inhabitants. But Weizmann had few illusions: while the war was still undecided neither the British government nor public opinion was prepared to consider questions of major policy or to re-open negotiations on the future of Palestine.

Communication between New York, London and Jerusalem was difficult and hazardous, but the Zionist leaders continued to travel a good deal between these main centres of activity. Weizmann went to America in 1940 and again in March 1942, when he stayed for more than a year. On both occasions he met President Roosevelt. In 1940 Ben Gurion went to London and on to America, where he stayed till the early summer of 1941. He also spent most of 1942 in the United States. There was growing tension between the leading members of the executive, which cannot be explained entirely by reference to the difficulties in communication. Weizmann complained on many occasions that Ben Gurion did not keep him informed of important political moves and developments in Palestine and elsewhere. Ben Gurion took issue no less bitterly with the style of work of the president of the world movement. Weizmann had never been accustomed to take anyone into his confidence except for his closest colleagues in London, and he was not among Ben Gurion’s admirers. It is perhaps significant that the first time the name of the leader of Palestinian labour appears in his autobiography is toward the end of the book, when at the 1946 congress Ben Gurion demanded his resignation. Weizmann was moody, given to sudden changes of temper, to feverish activity followed by periods of indolence. As he grew older and suffered personal bereavement (his elder son was killed in action while serving in the RAF) he was certainly not an easy man to deal with.

The distrust between the two leaders was mutual. Ben Gurion’s style of work was no less idiosyncratic. If his moods changed less often, his political assessment of the situation was by no means consistent. Before 1939 he had had little experience of international affairs, and lacked Weizmann’s finesse in dealing with non-Jews. He was to show in later years the qualities of a statesman, but in 1941 he was still a beginner on the world scene, growing in stature, but unaccustomed to sharing power and responsibility and ill at ease on committees. He had one decisive advantage over Weizmann, a power base in Palestine. The longer Weizmann stayed away from Jerusalem (his first visit after the outbreak of the war was in 1944), the weaker his position became. Weizmann no doubt had Ben Gurion in mind when he complained in a letter to Stephen Wise of the constant heckling and badgering he had to endure from some of his colleagues in other lands, who thought that a ‘mere affirmation of our aims constituted an action towards the achievement of our objective’.* He had once made similar charges of ‘maximalist demagogy’, not without justice, against Ussishkin and Gruenbaum, and Ben Gurion, in his single-mindedness, must have reminded him of past quarrels in the movement. When Weizmann returned to Palestine after the war he noted certain phenomena which caused him grave concern: a relaxation of the old, traditional Zionist purity of ethics, a touch of militarisation, and a weakness for its trappings, a ‘tragic, futile, un-Jewish resort to terrorism’ and, worst of all, in certain circles, a readiness to play politics with terrorism. He must have sensed even earlier that he was losing touch with the yishuv, and may well have made Ben Gurion responsible for this estrangement.

Ben Gurion’s quarrels with Weizmann and some of his other colleagues led twice to his resignation, in February 1940 and again in October 1943. But each time Ben Gurion returned to office, the second time only after five months. The quarrels are not easy to retrace, for the issues were by no means clearcut. It is not that the two held at all times diametrically opposed views. In May 1940, for instance, Ben Gurion wrote from London that ‘the distance between us is far smaller than that between myself and some of the Zionists in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv’.* It is not the case, as was once widely believed, that Ben Gurion early reached the conclusion that the Zionist movement had to strive for a Jewish state whereas Weizmann continued to believe in other solutions. On the contrary, early in the war Weizmann began to refer more and more frequently to the pressing need for a Jewish state in western Palestine which would have involved the resettlement of at least part of the Arabs elsewhere. Ben Gurion at the time considered both partition and bi-nationalism, with complete equality for Jews and Arabs, as possible solutions. Even in July 1940 he doubted whether the time was right for making final plans. The differences between the two leaders were not unbridgeable, but they seldom reached similar conclusions at one and the same time.

During the early months of the war they failed to reach agreement on Zionist policy vis-à-vis Britain. Despite all disappointments and frustrations, Weizmann continued to believe that all hope was not lost, whereas Ben Gurion was pessimistic. He wanted the struggle against the White Paper to take precedence over everything else, envisaging ‘activism’ leading up to serious and protracted unrest. Several meetings of the executive between February and May 1940 were devoted to a consideration of proposals for intensifying resistance to the White Paper, but Ben Gurion, supported only by Ussishkin and Rabbi Fishman, was outvoted. This was the period of the ‘phony war’. The Nazi invasion of Holland and Belgium, the defeat of France, and the battle of Britain put an end to these schemes. The appointment of Churchill as prime minister was a source of encouragement to Weizmann, and Ben Gurion, too, became for a while more optimistic. He reported from London that three of the five members of the new war cabinet were friendly to the Zionist cause. In a letter to Lord Lloyd (‘a known pro-Arab but nevertheless an honest and sympathetic man’) he wrote that he was a convinced believer in the spiritual mission of the British empire, that it stood for something much greater than itself, for a cause wider than its own frontiers. But this interlude did not last. Two years later Ben Gurion bitterly attacked Weizmann for his one-sided pro-British stand which, he claimed, disqualified him from being the leader of the Zionist movement.

Ben Gurion’s growing disappointment was no doubt connected with the failure to obtain British support for the formation of a Jewish fighting force in the framework of the British army. The negotiations were protracted, with frequent ups and downs. General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote to Weizmann in late December 1939 that he agreed in principle to the raising of a Jewish division, but there was no further progress until after Churchill had become prime minister, when Weizmann was told by Lord Lloyd that Jewish units would be established in the British army. ‘A great day,’ Mrs Blanche Dugdale, Balfour’s niece and an ardent Zionist, wrote in her diary. ‘The walls of Jericho have fallen. Chaim just back from this interview elated and solemn.’ He said: ‘It is almost as great a day as the Balfour Declaration.’

The War Office appointed a brigadier as liaison officer with the Jewish Agency and another to command the Jewish division. Methods of recruitment, rates of pay and allowances had already been discussed, when Weizmann was suddenly informed by Lord Moyne, who had succeeded Lord Lloyd, that Churchill had decided that owing to the shortage of equipment the project was to be put off for six months. But the real obstacle was the opposition of the mandatory officials as well as of General Wavell, C-in-C Cairo. After six months had passed, Weizmann was informed that new technical difficulties had arisen which made it necessary to keep the project in cold storage for the time being. On 23 October 1941 there was a further communication from Lord Moyne: since the government had to give all possible help to Russia, shipping space could not be spared and it would not be possible to form a Jewish division.

There was no progress at all during 1942 and 1943. But in November 1943 Weizmann and Namier saw Grigg, secretary for war, who submitted the proposal for the creation of a Jewish fighting force to the cabinet. In August 1944 Weizmann was told by Churchill that the War Office would soon be in a position to discuss concrete proposals. A few days later a positive decision was reached and Palestinian Jewry were asked to help in mobilising 3,500 men and 150 officers for a Jewish unit. The brigade came into being and saw action in Italy towards the end of the war. A statement of the Jewish Agency executive, while noting the delay in the formation of the brigade, interpreted it as an acknowledgment of services rendered and of the Jewish desire for national recognition.

The creation of the brigade has been called an important achievement, the ‘greatest political accomplishment’ of Zionist diplomacy during the war.* But it was a modest achievement, and it came much too late. Nor did the existence of a Jewish fighting force have great political significance; it was by no means a guarantee that the Zionist movement would be represented at the postwar deliberations on the future of the Middle East. Even the more modest hope that the brigade would one day form the nucleus of a Jewish army was only partly fulfilled. For meanwhile Palmach had come into existence, the strategic reserve of the Hagana, which based on the kibbutzim, was to play the central role in the war of independence.

Although the war cabinet included a majority of sympathisers with the Zionist cause, the issue was not important enough to warrant a major effort in the middle of the war to overcome administrative routine and the anxiety of the local authorities to keep Palestine quiet. This consideration was given greater weight than the possible benefits of a course of action which might ‘upset the whole situation either by conscription or by favouring the nationalistic ambitions of one of the rival races’. This is not to say that the decision to form a Jewish fighting force, precisely because it was of marginal importance, might not have gone the other way in 1940 after Churchill came to power. But it is unlikely that it would have made much difference in Zionist postwar politics.

The overall picture of Anglo-Zionist relations was not, however, one of unrelieved gloom. When Weizmann lunched with the prime minister and Attlee, the deputy prime minister, in October 1943, Churchill, in one of his famous monologues, announced that the Jews would have to be established, after Hitler had been crushed, ‘where they belong … I have had an inheritance left to me by Balfour and I am not going to change’. Partition and the formation of a Jewish state seem to have been on Churchill’s mind, together with many other second-rank problems. In July 1943 a cabinet subcommittee was set up to consider the future of Palestine. In its report to the cabinet in December of that year it suggested partition on lines more favourable to the Jews than any previous British scheme.

Whatever British policy was going to be after the war, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that there was to be no return to the White Paper. As Churchill wrote in a memorandum to Lord Ismay in January 1944: ‘There cannot be any great danger in our joining with the Jews to enforce the kind of proposals which are set forth in the Ministerial paper. … Obviously, we shall not proceed with any plan of partition which the Jews do not support.’ In April 1944 the national executive of the Labour Party, a partner in the wartime coalition government, recommended measures for the establishment of a Jewish state which went further than the demands of the Zionist leaders themselves. If there had been a strong case for a Jewish majority in Palestine before the war, it said, the case had become irresistible after the unspeakable Nazi atrocities: ‘Let the Arabs be encouraged to move out as the Jews move in. Let them be compensated handsomely for their land, and their settlement elsewhere be carefully organised and generously financed.’* The resolution was pushed through — as usual on such occasions — by a small, active minority, but significantly it met no opposition.

Again, when Weizmann saw Churchill on 4 November 1944 the prime minister seemed very willing to discuss Palestine and said that he was in favour of the inclusion of the Negev in the Jewish state: ‘If you could get the whole of Palestine it would be a good thing, but I feel that if it comes to a choice between the White Paper and partition — you should take partition.’ Churchill stressed that active American participation was needed, whereas Weizmann was disturbed by rumours concerning a partition scheme which would result in a state too small to be viable. To reassure him, Churchill revealed that a government committee was dealing with the question and hinted that Lord Moyne, the minister resident in the Middle East, had moved to a position which the Zionists would find acceptable. Unknown to Weizmann, Moyne, who had been thought to be an enemy of the Zionist cause, had in effect recommended partition to the cabinet some time before.

Two days after this interview Moyne was assassinated in a Cairo street by two members of the Stern gang. All further discussions between the Zionist executive and the British government were suspended. The detailed memorandum submitted by the Jewish Agency at about this time was ignored, as was the appeal to inaugurate a ‘new era’ by drawing the logical conclusion from the Balfour Declaration and the demand for the quickest possible increase of the Jewish population as a prerequisite for Jewish statehood. Weizmann sent Churchill a long memorandum asking for an immediate decision to establish Palestine as a Jewish state, and for giving the Jewish Agency the necessary authority to bring to Palestine as many Jews as it might be found necessary and possible to settle. In June 1945 he received a brief and almost hostile reply: ‘There can, I fear, be no possibility of the question being effectively considered until the victorious Allies are definitely seated at the peace table.’ There was no mention of a commitment, of the many promises made before and during the war. It seemed the final failure of all Weizmann’s efforts and he intended to resign in protest. The victory of the Labour Party in the elections shortly thereafter induced him to change his mind.

The demand for a Jewish state, generally accepted by most Jews by the end of the war, had only gradually gathered momentum. Weizmann had been the first though not the most consistent advocate of a state that was to comprise less than the whole of western Palestine ever since he had voted in favour of partition in 1937. ‘We shall have on our hands [at the end of the war] a problem of at least three million people,’ he had written in 1941. ‘Even on purely financial grounds a Jewish state is essential in order to carry out a policy of such magnitude.’* In a long programmatic article in Foreign Affairs in 1942 he wrote that a Jewish state was more than the necessary means of securing further immigration and development, it was a ‘moral need and postulate, a decisive step towards normality and true emancipation’. As for the Arabs, ‘they must be clearly told that the Jews will be encouraged to settle in Palestine and control their own immigration’. Lewis Namier, Weizmann’s faithful supporter and collaborator in London, echoed his demand with reference to the situation likely to arise in Europe after the war. Most of the remaining Jews would want to emigrate, and in the Moslem countries, too, they were endangered by virulent nationalism. The transfer of two or three million was a formidable task but it was manageable if the refugees had a commonwealth of their own to go to.

Weizmann did not, however, envisage the emergence of a Jewish state as something isolated from other developments in the Middle East. Like Ben Gurion, he repeatedly predicted that at the end of the war an Arab federation and a Jewish commonwealth would emerge, and he stressed the desirability of close cooperation between them. Nor did he regard a state as an end in itself: ‘I do not think that any of us want a Jewish state for the sake of the paraphernalia which are bound up with a state,’ he declared at the 1944 annual conference of the British Zionist Federation. ‘We ask for the state because we believe that through the state we shall be able to do the maximum of good to the maximum number of people.’*

Ben Gurion’s conversion was more gradual, but once he had adopted the concept of Jewish statehood there was no more radical advocate. He too had been in favour of partition in 1937, but during the early phase of the war, as already mentioned, he thought that conditions were not opportune for discussing the Endziel. Only after his first wartime visit to America did he tell his colleagues that Palestine ought to be turned into a Jewish state, ‘not as a final goal, but as a means of moving millions of Jews to Palestine after the war, at the fastest possible rate’. In his view it was the only possible remedy for postwar Jewish misery, ‘and we are determined to achieve it’.

In their speeches Ben Gurion and his colleagues usually referred to a Jewish commonwealth or a Jewish authority in Palestine, but they clearly meant a state. As to ways and means, Ben Gurion was not dogmatic. At one time he considered dominion status in the British commonwealth, and at another advocated armed struggle if they failed to gain British support for Jewish statehood. He seems to have anticipated Arab opposition and favoured a voluntary exchange of population. But he promised that Arabs who did not want to leave would be assured of full civic, political and national equality. The Jews would make an effort to bring their standard of living up to the Jewish level in every respect.

On two vital issues Ben Gurion’s views differed from Weizmann’s; he emphasised more and more America’s growing importance for the future of Zionism. Weizmann had not been encouraged by his visits to the United States: he had found real sympathy with Zionism among the political leaders, but the State Department was hostile: ‘Our difficulties were not concerned with the first rank statesmen. … It was always behind the scenes, and on the lower levels, that we encountered an obstinate, devious and secretive opposition which set at nought the public declarations of American statesmen. And in our efforts to counteract the influence of these behind-the-scenes forces we were greatly handicapped because we had no foothold there.’* President Roosevelt had been friendly but non-committal, and Weizmann was too old a hand in the diplomatic game to give much weight to sweeping but vague professions of sympathy. Ben Gurion, on the other hand, was deeply impressed by America’s growing strength and confidence. He was convinced that at the end of the war the United States would be in a very strong position and that American Jewry, in view of its numbers and influence, would be able to play a decisive role in shaping the future of Zionism if only its energies were channelled in the right direction. Gradually he reached the conclusion that a change in British policy in Palestine could be brought about only as a result of American pressure.

The other point on which he disagreed with Weizmann was one of approach and emphasis rather than of substance. In his Foreign Affairs article Weizmann had written that two million Jews would have to be transferred to Palestine at the end of the war, and on another occasion he mentioned a figure of five million. But whereas Weizmann seems to have used these figures as a political slogan, Ben Gurion believed in the possibility of an immediate transfer to Palestine of millions of Jews. This in Weizmann’s eyes was sheer fantasy; Palestine was not capable of absorbing more than about one hundred thousand new immigrants a year. He thought that to use such enormous figures would antagonise potential supporters. It seems in retrospect that Ben Gurion might have understood American psychology better than Weizmann, whose way of thinking was more attuned to Britain. Ben Gurion instinctively felt that they would not make an impact on American public opinion unless there was a great vision, unless the Zionists were willing to ‘think big’.

Biltmore

Ben Gurion’s new programme was formulated between 6 and 11 May 1942, at the Biltmore conference, a gathering of some six hundred delegates representing the main Zionist groups in New York, who met to discuss and reformulate, inter alia, the aims of their movement. The eight-point programme adopted reflected the new militant thinking of American Zionism. Its demands were considerably more radical than those previously voiced outside the ranks of revisionism, and it was to play a central role in Zionist debates for years to come. The programme called for the fulfilment of the ‘original purpose’ of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate, and reaffirmed the Zionists’ unalterable rejection of the White Paper. It demanded recognition of the right of the Jews of Palestine to play their full part in the war effort and the defence of their country through a Jewish military force fighting under its own flag. The most important part was the last paragraph:

The conference declares that the new world order that will follow victory cannot be established on foundations of peace, justice and equality, unless the problem of Jewish homelessness is fully solved. The conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as a Jewish commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.*


Such outspoken language appealed not only to American Zionists; it fired the imagination of American Jewry in general. The majority of American Zionists had favoured the idea of a Jewish state since 1937; the three leading Yiddish-language papers had advocated it before the outbreak of war. It has been argued that Biltmore was a major defeat for Weizmann, who regarded the sudden conversion of American Zionists to revisionism as a setback to his policy. In the words of one historian, his seemed to the delegates a voice out of the past, ‘uttering unacceptable homilies more appropriate to a State Department man than to the president of the World Zionist Organisation’. Weizmann is said to have thought that nothing should be done to antagonise the Arabs any further and thus to damage the British war effort. That the Biltmore formula was almost identical with the sovereignty long demanded by the revisionists did not escape the attention of the British Embassy in Washington, which in an aide mémoire to the State Department noted with some concern that Zionist policy had become maximalist and that a rapprochement with the revisionists was taking place.

In fact, the background of Biltmore was far more complex. The record shows that the Biltmore formula was prepared by Meyer Weisgal, one of Weizmann’s closest political aides, and that Weizmann was by no means unduly worried by either British or Arab reactions. In a speech in December 1942 he reaffirmed his full agreement with the programme, calling for a ‘reinvigoration of Zionist purpose’ in support of its demands. The resolution was sufficiently vague to allow for many different interpretations. For Weizmann it was not a matter of immediate practical politics, since it left wide open the question of implementation. It was no more than the statement of a maximum demand. Ben Gurion, on the other hand, regarded the formula as the new platform of the Zionist movement. Biltmore was not a defeat for Weizmann: when Ben Gurion wanted to overthrow the president of the World Zionist Organisation soon after this meeting, charging him with being excessively pro-British, weak and unreliable, the American Zionist leaders rejected these accusations as baseless.*

In Jerusalem Ben Gurion was more successful in the struggle for his interpretation of the new programme; there his colleagues proved more receptive. The programme was not just an emotional response to the need for Jewish liberation and independence, as Yehuda Bauer has noted. It also seemed to point the way out of the confusion that had reigned in Zionist ranks since the beginning of the war. Several members of the Jerusalem executive had their doubts about its feasibility. Kaplan regarded it as no more than a slogan, and Shertok also thought it utopian. But all agreed that the Jewish people should not be silent while other nations were putting forward their claims. In these circumstances it was no doubt better to ask for too much than for too little. If the whole of western Palestine could become a Jewish state, well and good; if not, they would have to think again. They agreed with Ben Gurion that the Zionist maximum had now become the Zionist minimum, and that even if Biltmore was only a political slogan, it was certainly a topical and powerful one.

The Zionist Action Committee adopted the Biltmore programme, at its meeting on 19 November 1942, by twenty-one votes against three, with three abstentions. The opposition came mainly from Hashomer Hatzair, on the ground that the new policy was likely to be interpreted by the powers as releasing them from their responsibility, and that in any case the mandatory government would not give real independence to the yishuv. This was a valid argument, for if Britain had been unwilling to carry out the mandate it seemed altogether unthinkable that it would help to establish a Jewish state. Hashomer Hatzair also argued that Biltmore was based on the assumption that no satisfactory solution was possible to the Arab question, a view with which it emphatically disagreed, suggesting a bi-national state as an alternative. But since it insisted at the same time that control over Jewish immigration should not depend on Arab goodwill, and since such goodwill was nonexistent, the Hashomer Hatzair proposal, however attractive in theory, was yet another exercise in political futility.

The debate continued well after 1942, but became more and more unreal in view of the destruction of European Jewry. At Biltmore Weizmann had estimated that 25 per cent of central European Jewry would be physically destroyed under German rule.* In November 1942 news reached Palestine that sporadic pogroms and expulsions had given way to the systematic physical extermination of European Jewry. In December of that year the State Department confirmed that two million had already perished and that another five million were in danger of extermination. The Biltmore programme was based on the assumption that there would be millions of refugees at the end of the war. After November 1942 it became clear that millions of refugees would not be left at the end of the war. ‘But at the same time the emotional underpinning to the plan grew all the stronger. It was out of the question that justice should not be done to the Jewish people, that it should lack a home, a state. … Just at the moment when the politico-diplomatic value of the Biltmore programme crumbled, the heart-touching summons, on which the programme rested, grew stronger.’

Both adherents and opponents of the Biltmore programme were mistaken in believing that it was a decisive turning point in the history of Zionism. It failed to materialise because it was based on premises that were not realistic. Nor did it do much harm, as its critics at the time believed. Churchill, for instance, seems not to have been deterred by it. In April 1943 he wrote to the colonial secretary that he had always regarded the White Paper as a gross breach of faith and that the majority of the war cabinet would never agree to any positive endorsement of this policy. The Arabs in any case believed the worst as far as Zionist intentions were concerned, and did not need the Biltmore programme to confirm their suspicions. In the last resort Biltmore was not a policy but a symbol, a slogan, reflecting the radicalisation of the Zionist movement as the result of the war and of the losses suffered by the Jewish people. It foreshadowed the bitter postwar conflict with the British government.

The progress of American Zionism

Shortly after Biltmore Ben Gurion noted in one of his speeches in Jerusalem that whereas until recently the American Zionist movement had concentrated on providing financial assistance to Israel, the situation had been radically transformed by the war. A review of Zionist policy during the war that was limited to London and Jerusalem would be quite incomplete, for with the destruction of European Jewry American Zionism had become the single most important factor in the world movement. With the steady growth of American influence in international affairs, Washington had become the most important centre in world politics, and consequently in Jewish politics.

American Zionism, it will be recalled, had undergone a severe crisis in the late 1920s, and it was not until 1932 that its fortunes picked up again. Membership of the Zionist organisation of America (ZOA) rose from 8,400 in 1932 to 43,000 in 1939. By the end of the war it had topped the 200,000 mark. Funds remitted to Palestine by the United Palestine appeal increased almost sevenfold between 1932 and 1939.* The income of the United Jewish Appeal rose from $3.5 million in 1940 to about $50 million in 1947. Critics of Zionism have always attributed enormous strength and unlimited financial resources to American Zionism through its alleged connections with Wall Street. Its task would have been much easier had this been true. In fact the multi-millionaires cared little, if at all, about Palestine. Nor was public response encouraging: when ZOA tried in 1935 to carry out a national roll call to get the signatures and one dollar from each of its 250,000 registered sympathisers, the results were deplorable; less than one-tenth, about twenty thousand, responded.

The real upsurge in American Zionism came only after 1936, when prominent Jewish organisations such as the Bnai Brith and some of the leading Reform synagogues began to show an interest in Palestine. There was a marked shift towards Zionism as a result of the Nazi persecution of German Jews. The events in Europe after the outbreak of war and American reluctance to admit Jewish immigrants to the United States gave further momentum to this process. Sympathies for Zionism and Palestine increased even more quickly and more extensively than is reflected in the growth of ZOA membership. American Jewry became overwhelmingly pro-Zionist, whereas in the past the majority had been indifferent or even actively hostile.

During the first years of the war this goodwill did not amount to a political force. Eliyahu Golomb, the chief of Hagana, wrote to Ben Gurion: ‘When I tell you all I saw in Jewish and Zionist circles in America I would paint a rather dismal picture. … A force can be crystallised from among American Jews for political action and practical aid for our cause. But so far it does not actually exist — it is only a potential force.’*

At the time of the Geneva congress, shortly before the outbreak of war, a Zionist emergency council had been set up to fight the White Paper, with Rabbis Stephen Wise and Abba Hillel Silver as cochairmen. But during the first eighteen months of its existence it did little. In fact, until late 1940 it did not even have a full time secretary or a New York office of its own. The circumstances were not favourable; the United States was not yet at war and there was a strong isolationist current in American public opinion. The country was, as Weizmann put it after a visit in 1940, ‘violently neutral’ and making an extraordinary effort to live as though nothing unusual was happening. Mention of the Jewish tragedy was associated with war-mongering: ‘It was like a nightmare which was all the more oppressive because one had to maintain silence; to speak of such things [the danger to European Jewry] in public was “propaganda”.’

The turning point came in early 1941. More Americans became reconciled to the idea that their country would not be able to remain neutral indefinitely. Rabbi Silver, the stormy petrel of American Zionism, decided to speak out at a fund-raising dinner in New York in January 1941: only by the large-scale settlement of displaced Jews in Palestine, with the aim of its reconstruction as a Jewish commonwealth, could the Jewish problem be permanently solved. He ended his fiery speech by quoting Daniel O’Connell, the hero of the Irish struggle for national liberation: ‘Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!’, and Danton’s ‘L’audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace!’

The same month Emanuel Neumann took over the department of public relations and political action of the emergency committee and gave fresh impetus to its work. It revived the American Palestine committee, a group of pro-Zionist Christian public figures which was instrumental in gaining support for the Zionist cause. A statement published on 2 November 1942, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, calling for the establishment of a Jewish national home, received the signature of 68 senators and 194 congressmen as well as hundreds of other communal leaders and public figures.* These and other initiatives were a cause of much concern to the State Department, and even more to British diplomats: if before Pearl Harbour the Zionists had been under attack for trying to draw America into the war against Hitler, after December 1941 they were accused of harming the allied war effort by their partisan activities.

As news was received through unofficial channels of the fate of European Jewry, and as both government and the mass media seemed to draw a curtain of silence over the subject, a mood of impatience and bitterness prevailed among American Jewry. Weizmann, not given to overstatement or excessive emotionalism, said in a speech at Madison Square Garden on 1 March 1943:


When the historian of the future assembles the bleak record of our days, he will find two things unbelievable; first the crime itself, second the reaction of the world to that crime. … He will be puzzled by the apathy of the civilised world in the face of this immense, systematic carnage of human beings. … He will not be able to understand why the conscience of the world had to be stirred. Above all, he will not be able to understand why the free nations, in arms against a resurgent, organised barbarism, required appeals to give sanctuary to the first and chief victim of that barbarism. Two million Jews have already been exterminated. The world can no longer plead that the ghastly facts are unknown or unconfirmed.


There was in Jewish circles much resentment against an indifferent world which ignored the holocaust. There was also mounting anger against Jewish leaders who refused to speak out, apparently in fear of having their American patriotism questioned. These moods were exploited by a young Palestinian revisionist leader named Peter Bergson (Hillel Kook), who found a valuable ally in Ben Hecht, a successful playwright and Hollywood figure, with connections on Broadway and in Hollywood, as well as Madison Avenue. With the help of several devoted colleagues these two, initially operating on a small budget, organised a public relations campaign for the immediate establishment of a Jewish army which all but overshadowed the activities of the official Zionist movement. Bergson and Hecht received the support of the secretaries of the army and the navy, the chief justice, many congressmen. They put on mammoth pageants (‘We will never die - A memorial to the two million Jewish dead of Europe’), and in general created a great deal of commotion. The direct political results of these activities were nil, but, for all its self-dramatisation, shrill language, and distortions, the Palestine Liberation Committee (which at various times also called itself ‘Committee for a Jewish Army’ and ‘Emergency Committee to save the Jewish people of Europe’) helped at this stage to stir up American-Jewish awareness of the extent of the catastrophe.

There was the risk that the Zionist organisation would be outflanked by the revisionists, but a much more formidable danger facing American Zionism was the lack of unity among the various Jewish bodies. The Zionists had agreed among themselves on the Biltmore formula, but they understood - and none better than Weizmann and Ben Gurion - that they would be able to exert real political influence in Washington only if they succeeded in gaining allies. It was not too difficult to win over the powerful Bnai Brith, headed at the time by Henry Monsky, a Zionist; the American Jewish Committee, on the other hand, was much less willing to give political support. Ben Gurion had reached agreement with Maurice Wertheim, then president of the American Jewish Committee, to act in common for maintaining Jewish rights in Palestine. But the AJC was in no circumstances willing to subscribe to the Biltmore formula, and Judge Proskauer, Wertheim’s successor, showed no enthusiasm for any common action.

After much bickering and protracted negotiations, the various Jewish bodies agreed to convene a representative American Jewish conference in New York in 1943. Among the 502 delegates at this meeting the Zionists had a large majority, but they had agreed beforehand on a moderate approach, with the stress on the elements common to all Jewish groups rather than the divisive features. For that reason it was decided not to raise the issue of Jewish statehood but to concentrate instead on rescue operations. This gentlemen’s agreement was broken by Rabbi Silver, who was not scheduled to speak but who decided nevertheless to make the most of the occasion. In a fiery speech he asserted that to refrain from expressing their convictions was to show neither statesmanship nor vision, neither courage nor faith: ‘We cannot truly rescue the Jews of Europe unless we have free immigration into Palestine. We cannot have free immigration into Palestine unless our political rights are recognised there. Our political rights cannot be recognised unless our historic connection with the country is acknowledged and our right to rebuild our national home is reaffirmed. These are inseparable links in the chain. The whole chain breaks if one of the links is missing.’*

With this speech Rabbi Silver staked his claim to the leadership of American Zionism. It was received with thunderous cheers. Many wept, and at the end of the conference a resolution submitted by Silver was adopted by 497 votes against four. The political effect of the performance was problematical, for as a result the AJC withdrew from the united front and much effort had to be spent in later years to restore unity of action.

Rabbi Silver’s militant tactics caused division even within the Zionist ranks. He did not get along well with the Washington office of the Jewish Agency, headed by Nahum Goldmann and Louis Lipsky, which had been established in May 1943. There were constant disputes about prerogatives and the division of labour. He quarrelled with Stephen Wise in 1944 and was forced to resign in late 1944 for having by his impetuosity brought a major diplomatic defeat on the Zionist cause. Silver was a Republican, whereas Wise, a lifelong Democrat, had advised the Zionist movement to put its trust in Roosevelt’s goodwill. Silver believed in a bi-partisan approach, distrusted ‘quiet diplomacy’, and was firmly convinced of the wisdom of the maxim: ‘Put not your trust in princes’. Silver pressed for bringing a pro-Zionist resolution to Congress without the approval of the president and the State Department. The resolution was defeated and Silver had to resign, but since he had such strong support among the Zionist rank and file he was back in office by July 1945.

Despite the many activities of American Zionism, despite the sound and fury of Bergson and Hecht, the results achieved during the war years were meagre. Roosevelt and his administration had the confidence and the warm support of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry. He was the champion of the common man; a good many Jews were appointed to public office during his presidency. After his death a poem appeared in the Zionist New Palestine:

He was our friend when friends were few indeed

He raised his voice - when few his voice would heed

To stir the conscience of the world, to plead

That ancient wrongs be righted and our people freed.

Yet on the two most vital issues, on Palestine and the admission of refugees, Roosevelt said little and did less. His conduct was anything but unequivocal. By comparison with American policy on Palestine, the British record was, as one historian has put it, one of almost Buchmanite honesty and straightforwardness. David Niles, who was assistant to Roosevelt and later on to Truman, wrote that he seriously doubted whether Israel would have come into existence if Roosevelt had lived. Roosevelt was a consummate politician. He knew that a determined effort on behalf of the Jews would have reaped few tangible rewards, for the Jewish vote was in any case his. At the same time it would have caused a great many difficulties and complications both at home and abroad. Roosevelt’s attitude towards the Jews was certainly not unfriendly, he was simply unwilling to go out of his way to help them. There was in him nothing like the vision and the moral conviction which had motivated men like Balfour or Lloyd George. If even a confirmed Zionist like Churchill claimed that nothing could be done for Zionism during the war there was no reason to expect support from an American president who had no firm convictions on the subject.

Roosevelt was at his most charming when he saw Weizmann in June 1943 and proposed a Jewish-Arab conference at some future date, possibly in his and Churchill’s presence - as if such a meeting would have served any useful purpose. He authorised Wise and Silver in March 1944 to announce that the American government had never given its approval to the White Paper. He declared that when a decision was reached in the future, justice would be done to those who sought a Jewish national home, for which the American government and people had always had the deepest sympathy. Yet in his communications with Arab rulers at the same time, assurances were given that the president did not really mean what he said. When Sir John Singleton, a member of the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry of 1946, saw the State Department files, he commented that Britain had not been the only power to promise the same thing to two different groups.*

A good deal of effort was put into a bi-partisan resolution to be submitted to Congress expressing clear support for Zionist aims. It was tabled by representatives Wright and Compton, and Senators Wagner and Taft. It proposed that the doors of Palestine should be opened and full opportunity be given for colonisation ‘so that the Jewish people may ultimately reconstitute Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth’. But the initiative soon ran into trouble: anti-Zionist Jewish groups opposed it, as did Arab representatives. Above all, the State Department and the army registered their objections. General Marshall, the chief of staff, announced that he could not be responsible for the military complications in the Moslem world if the resolution were passed. Cordell Hull, secretary of state, said that it might disrupt negotiations with Saudi Arabia concerning the building of an oil pipeline. Hull suggested that the president himself should intervene if there was a real danger that the resolution would be adopted.*

The legislative decided to postpone hearings on the resolution for reasons of military expediency. Seven months later, the secretary of war informed Senator Taft that the military considerations which had led to his department’s veto were no longer so strong as before and that the issue should now be judged on its political merits. But the president and the State Department were still opposed, and Rabbi Silver’s attempt to circumvent them ended in failure. A third attempt to push the resolution through was made in October 1945 and succeeded (for what it was worth). President Truman, who had initially favoured it, withdrew his support when the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry was set up and it was feared that the resolution might interfere with its work.

In 1944 the Zionists succeeded in having pro-Zionist planks inserted in the electoral platform of the two big parties. It made little impression on President Roosevelt: when Senator Wagner suggested to him that Jewish displaced persons should not be returned to their countries of origin but allowed to proceed to Palestine, the president replied that about a million Jews were willing to go to Palestine, but that seventy million Moslems were eager to cut their throats, and he wanted to prevent such a massacre.

Roosevelt’s opposition was reinforced by his meeting with King Ibn Saud after the Yalta conference. He declared that he had learned more about the Jewish and Moslem problem in talking to the desert king for five minutes than in long exchanges of letters. Stephen Wise, as agitated as the other Jewish leaders about the absence of any reference to the Jewish tragedy in the president’s attitude, registered a protest. Whereupon the president assured him that he still favoured unrestricted immigration into Palestine. But again messages went out to Arab leaders that the United States would not countenance any change in the status of Palestine which would be objectionable to the Arabs.

The Zionists clearly were not very successful in their attempts to win Roosevelt for their cause, and it is tempting to speculate how the president, had he lived longer, would have retained the friendship of both Jews and Arabs. The Zionists managed to create a climate of opinion favourable to Zionism among legislators, church dignitaries, journalists and the public in general. The fate of European Jewry aroused sympathy among non-Jews, the efforts of a pioneering community in Palestine appealed to many Americans. But once the Zionists came up against the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House, they faced interests and forces superior to their own, and references to the tragedy of the Jewish people did not cut much ice. The president himself, a curious mixture of patrician and popular tribune, of naivety and sophistication, of honesty and duplicity, clearly regarded the whole issue as a minor nuisance.

The last stage

In Palestine during the latter part of the war things were going from bad to worse. Twenty members of the Stern gang escaped from Latrun prison camp, their leader having been shot by British police in a raid in February 1942. They carried out bank robberies and other acts of terror on a small scale. The highlights of their activities were the attempt to kill the high commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, in the course of which his aide-de-camp was seriously injured, and the murder of Lord Moyne in Cairo by two of their members. The Zionist authorities cooperated with the British police in rounding up the terrorists, whom they regarded as a menace not so much to British rule as to the Jewish community. The ultra-patriotism of the Stern gang had manifested itself even earlier in totally indefensible actions, such as their attempts in 1941 to contact German emissaries in Beirut in order to establish a common anti-British liberation front.

IZL, which decided in winter 1943–4 to renew its anti-British activities, was a problem of a different order. During the early part of the war it had participated in the war effort. Several of its leading members had been killed in special operations undertaken on behalf of the British army command. By late 1943 the new leadership of IZL thought the time was ripe for resuming its attacks on the British. The danger of a German invasion had faded, and the British authorities continued to carry out the White Paper policy. IZL attacked the Palestine broadcasting station at Ramalla and various police stations in the Tel Aviv and Haifa area during 1944. More than two hundred of its members were arrested and exiled to Eritrea. The British authorities demanded the full support of the Jewish Agency in stamping out terrorism. Such assistance was given, albeit with some reluctance. The IZL had the support not only of the revisionists, but also, to a certain extent, of members of the religious parties and the right-wing General Zionists. Even sections of the Zionist Left were so exasperated by the lack of any effective help for European Jewry on the part of the British that the terrorist acts were sometimes understood if not condoned in these circles. What induced the Zionist leaders to turn against the terrorists was the overriding political consideration: the dissidents were doing grave, perhaps irreparable harm to Zionist policy. How could a Zionist foreign policy be formulated and carried out if the terrorists refused to accept internal discipline, trying to dictate their own line to the elected leadership of the yishuv?

The acts of terror were defended by some as desperate attempts to draw attention to the plight of the Jewish people. The world had ignored countless Zionist memoranda and declarations. Perhaps it would be more responsive to bullets and bombs? It was a mistaken assumption: while the war was on no one was likely to be favourably impressed by the assassination of a few British policemen.

It was not, however, only among some hot-headed youngsters that frustration and despair was spreading. When Weizmann came to Palestine in November 1944 he sensed the prevailing bitterness of the yishuv, reflected in official policy statements: Ben Gurion declared that in contrast to Weizmann and the Hashomer Hatzair he was firmly convinced that a political solution could not wait and that the speedy transfer of the displaced persons to Palestine was a most urgent necessity.* Weizmann found it necessary to reiterate his belief in the coming of a Jewish state: ‘I don’t know when the Jewish state will come,’ he said in Tel Aviv on 30 November, ‘but it will not be long delayed.’ A few days later he was uttering words of warning against forcing the issue; a time of transition was needed; five or six years were nothing in a period such as the world was then going through. But this was exactly what the yishuv no longer wanted to hear. To a people not very patient at the best of times, five or six years now seemed an eternity. Weizmann again argued that he did not believe in sudden ‘jumps’. But how, the critics asked, was a basic change to be made if not by a sudden jump? Did he really believe that a Jewish state would somehow emerge as the result of patient negotiations, backstage diplomacy, hard work, persuasion and political pressure?

The psychological background to this mood was the profound horror caused by the murder of millions of Jews in Europe, and the absence of any effective reaction on the part of the civilised world. The liberal element in Zionism, the faith in humanity, suffered a blow from which it was not fully to recover. The appeals to fraternal help, to human solidarity, to which a former generation of Zionists was accustomed, no longer found a ready response. In the hour of their deepest peril few had stood by them, there had been pious platitudes and much hand-wringing but little real help. They had learned their lesson: no one could be trusted, it was everyone for himself.

The story of the holocaust has been told in great and dreadful detail. The first reliable reports of the mass murder were received in late 1942 from the representatives of the Jewish Agency in Switzerland. The State Department reacted by banning the transmission of such news through diplomatic channels from Switzerland. A conference in Bermuda in early 1943 called to deal with the refugee problem was a total failure. Even in July 1944, when the tide of war had finally turned and there seemed to be a real chance to save many thousands of Hungarian Jews, there was no willingness in the west to come to their help. Himmler and Eichmann had suggested that the dispatch of Jews to Auschwitz would be stopped in exchange for ten thousand trucks. But when Weizmann and Shertok saw Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, they were told that there must be no negotiation with the enemy. All they got from Churchill was a promise that those involved in the mass murder would be put to death after the war.

The Jewish Agency asked that the death camps at Auschwitz should be bombed if only, as Weizmann said, ‘to give the lie to the oft-repeated assertions of Nazi spokesmen that the Allies are not really so displeased with the action of the Nazis in ridding Europe of the Jews’.* But the answer was again that this was impossible. On 1 September 1944 Weizmann was told by Eden that the Royal Air Force had rejected the request for technical reasons. Similar attempts by Dr Goldmann in Washington, and by American officials such as John Pehle of the War Refugee Board, were equally unsuccessful. The answer of John McCloy, assistant secretary of the army, deserves to be quoted:

After a study it became apparent that such an operation could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations elsewhere and would in any case be of such doubtful efficacy that it would not warrant the use of our resources. There has been considerable opinion to the effect that such an effort, even if practicable, might provoke more vindictive action by the Germans.


It remained the secret of the War Department what more vindictive action than Auschwitz could have been expected.*

What shocked the Jews so much was not that the rescue operations were ineffective. It might have been possible to save more Hungarian Jews and to delay the process of extermination by direct air attacks. The oilfields of Ploesti in Rumania, equally distant from London, had been bombed despite technical difficulties. Whether these measures would have served their purpose is not at all certain. Once Hitler had set his mind on exterminating European Jewry, once the Nazi machinery was set in motion, rescue efforts could not radically affect the situation. The only effective way to rescue Jews was to defeat Nazism as quickly as possible. But for the allied victory Palestinian Jewry too would have been doomed. Zionism had no panacea for a threat of this magnitude. All this is true, but it does not explain, let alone justify, the absence of any serious attempt to help the Jews in their hour of mortal danger. There was a wall of indifference which shut off even the narrowest path of escape. The feeling among the survivors was that in their own country, in the case of a Nazi victory, they would have gone down fighting, not been led to the slaughter like cattle. It was this widespread mood which gave Zionism a tremendous impetus at the end of the war.

The extent of the Jewish catastrophe became fully known during 1944. But it was only in the last months of the war, when the first extermination camps fell into allied hands, that the full significance of the disaster was realised. Up to that time there had been a lingering belief that the news about genocide had perhaps been exaggerated, that more Jews had survived than originally assumed. By April 1945 there were no longer any doubts. Of more than three million Jews in Poland, fewer than a hundred thousand had survived; of 500,000 German Jews - 12,000. Czechoslovakia once had a Jewish community of more than 300,000, of whom about 40,000 were still alive. Of 130,000 Dutch Jews some 20,000 still existed, of 90,000 Belgian Jews - 25,000; of 75,000 Greek Jews - 10,000. The only countries where the losses were relatively lighter were Rumania (320,000) and Hungary (200,000), but there too the Jewish community had been more than twice those sizes before the war. It is estimated, though exact figures could not be obtained, that the Jewish population of the Soviet Union was halved as the result of Nazi mass killings. In a few countries, in Bulgaria, Italy and Denmark, the majority had survived, either because the local authorities had protected them or because of certain fortunate local circumstances. But these were countries with small Jewish communities; the big concentrations had disappeared. Roughly speaking, out of every seven Jews living in Europe, six had been killed during the war.

In the 1920s there had been widely read novels describing the exodus of Jews from Vienna and Berlin. The authors of these works of political science fiction had independently reached the conclusion that these two great capitals were not able to manage without the Jews and that eventually they had to implore them to return. The first part of the prediction had come true. In Vienna, once a community of 180,000, two hundred Jews had survived with the knowledge of the Nazis; eight hundred, as it later appeared, had been in hiding and lived to see the day of deliverance; 2,500 elderly people returned from the Terezin show camp. This was the total that remained of a community that had once helped to make Vienna one of the great capitals of the world. Hitler had lived in Vienna as a young man. It was there that he had become an antisemite, and the Viennese Jews were persecuted with special ferocity. Nor was it a matter of surprise that hardly a Jew survived in the capital of the Reich. But the Nazi bureaucratic machinery worked relentlessly everywhere: Hitler had never been to Greece and had no particular grudge against the Jews of Salonika. Nevertheless, of the 56,000 in that city, only 2,000 were alive when the war ended.

Of the remnant of European Jewry many were refugees from their native lands. Tens of thousands of Polish Jews had found temporary shelter in the Soviet Union but did not want to remain there, nor did they intend to settle in Poland. Switzerland had given refuge to 26,000, Sweden to 13,000, Belgium to 8,000. Britain had absorbed some 50,000 altogether and many had found shelter in France. The smaller European countries were eager to get rid of the aliens, but where were they to go? Few of them were ready to start life afresh in Germany, or indeed anywhere on a continent which had become the slaughterhouse of their families and their people.

As a result of the holocaust, the idea of the Jewish state seemed to have lost its historical raison d’être. Herzl and Nordau had thought of the Jewish state as a haven for the persecuted European Jews; Jabotinsky had written about the ‘objective’ Jewish question; the Biltmore programme had been based on the assumption that millions of Jews would survive the war. The prophets of Zionism had anticipated persecution and expulsion but not the solution of the Jewish question by mass murder. As the war ended Zionism seemed to be at the end of its tether.

There were victory celebrations on VE day in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, as in most European cities. The shops had sold out all flags and no material for banners could be had. A flag with black borders was flown in Tel Aviv in memory of those who had been killed. Chief Rabbis Herzog and Uziel declared a day of thanksgiving, on which psalms 100 and 118 were to be read, as well as a special prayer - that wisdom, strength and courage might be given to the rulers of the world to restore the chosen people to their freedom, and peace in the Holy Land. A hundred thousand people converged on the streets of Tel Aviv and shouted ‘Open the gates of Palestine’. In the night of this rejoicing and thanksgiving Ben Gurion noted in his diary: ‘Rejoice not, o Israel, for joy, like other peoples’ (Hosea 9, 1).*

The war in Europe was over, the world had been liberated from Nazi terror and oppression, peace had returned. For the Jewish people it was the peace of the graveyard. Yet paradoxically, at the very time when the ‘objective Jewish question’ had all but disappeared, the issue of a Jewish state became more topical than ever before. The countries around Palestine were all well advanced on the road to independence. The Jewish community in Palestine had come of age during the war; it was now to all intents and purposes a state within a state, with its own schools and public services, even an army of its own. The victors in the war had an uneasy conscience, as the stark tragedy of the Jewish people unfolded before their eyes. It was only now that the question was asked whether enough had been done to help them and what could be done for the survivors.

Before the war Zionism had been a minority movement - sometimes a small minority - in the Jewish community. But in 1945 even its former enemies rallied to the blue and white flag. Typical of this conversion was the May Day 1945 speech in Manchester, by the new chairman of the British Labour Party, Harold Laski. He felt like the prodigal son coming home, Professor Laski said; he did not believe in the Jewish religion and was still a Marxist; before the war he had been an advocate of assimilation and had thought that to lose their identity was the best service which the Jews could do for mankind. But now he was firmly and utterly convinced of the necessity of the rebirth of the Jewish nation in Palestine. They were all Zionists now.

* M. Mischnitzer, To Dwell in Safety, Philadelphia, 1948, p. 196 et seq.

 A.A. Aorse, While Six Millions Died, London, 1968, p. 211; H.H. Heingold, The Politics of Rescue, New Brunswick, 1970, pp. 22-44.

* E. Eearst, in Wiener Library Bulletin, April 1965; on Evian conference, ibid., March 1961: Sunday Express, 19 June 1938.

 A. Aoestler, Promise and Fulfilment, London, 1949, p. 21.

* Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd. 5479, London, 1937, para. 82.

* D. Den Gurion, ‘The Zionist Organisation and its Tasks’, Zionist Review, April 1936.

 Stenographisches Protokoll der Verhandlungen des XIX Zionisten Kongresses, Vienna, 1937, p. 84.

* Weizmann, Trial and Error, pp. 361, 363.

 Sefer Toldot Hahagana, vol. 2, part 2, p. 654 et seq; Sykes, Crossroads to Palestine, p. 184.

* Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd. 5479, London, 1937.

* Jewish Agency for Palestine, Memorandum to the Palestine Royal Commission, p. 5.

 Cmd. 5479, p. 143.

 Quoted in ESCO, vol. 2, p. 802.

§ Palestine Royal Commission, Minutes of Evidence, London, 1937, p. 297 (mufti), pp. 310–15 (Auni Abdul Hadi).

* Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 383.

* J.L. Meltzer, ‘Towards the Precipice’, in M.W. Weisgal (ed.), Chaim Weizmann, London, 1962, p. 240. Meltzer and C. Sykes, who quotes him, give the date as an ‘early Saturday in February’. But the meeting must have taken place earlier for the commission was back in London on 30 January 1937.

 Sykes, Crossroads to Palestine, p. 202.

 Meltzer, ‘Towards the Precipice’.

* Cmd. 5513, London, 1937.

 Kongress Zeitung, 5 August 1937.

* Ibid., 10, 11 August 1937.

* Ibid., 11 August 1937.

* Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 393.

* Cmd. 5634, London, 1938; Sykes, Crossroads to Palestine, p. 229.

 ESCO, vol. 2, p. 873.

 Cmd. 5893, November 1938.

* Jüdische Weltrundschau, 20 March 1939.

 ‘Palestine and the British Empire’, in In the Margin of History.

* Quoted in Y. Yauer, Diplomatia vemakhteret, Merhavia, 1963, p. 31.

* Ben Gurion, 12 February 1938, ibid., p. 28.

 Bauer, Diplomatia vemakhteret, p. 32.

* Ibid., p. 30.

 Ibid., pp. 31, 37.

* Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 410.

 N. Noldmann to Ben Gurion, quoted in J.J. Jchechtman, The United States and the Jewish State Movement, New York, 1966, p. 22.

* Cmd. 6019, 1939.

 These two documents, as well as other relevant ones, have been published several times. They are quoted here from the special White Paper issue of Jewish Frontier, October 1943.

 Manchester Guardian, 15 March 1940.

* Quoted in Bauer, Diplomatia vemakhteret, p. 41.

* Ibid., pp. 57–8.

 Eton Hakongress, 24 August 1939.

 Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 413.

§ Eton Hakongress, 21 August 1939: Jüdische Weltrundschau, 18 August 1939.

* Eton Hakongress, 24 August 1939.

* Daily News Bulletin, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 9 September 1939.

* Quoted in Jewish Frontier, October 1943, p. 29.

* Y. Yauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, Philadelphia, 1970, p. 108.

* Henry L. Leingold, The Politics of Rescue, New Brunswick, 1970, pp. 145, 159–66.

 Sykes, Crossroads to Palestine, p. 258.

* The Zionist Organisation and the Jewish Agency for Palestine, Reports of the Executive submitted to the 22nd Zionist Congress at Basle, Jerusalem, 1946, vol. 2, p. 13.

 Weizmann, Trial and Error, pp. 418–19.

 Political Report of the London Office of the Jewish Agency submitted to the 22nd Zionist Congress, London, 1946, p. 13.

* Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 267.

 Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 439.

* Quoted in Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 74.

* Ibid., p. 350.

 The Times, 30 May 1942; quoted in G. Girk, The Middle East in the War, London, 1952, p. 246.

 Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 267.

* The International Post-War Settlement, London, 1944, p. 7.

 Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 274.

* Zionist Review, 12 September 1941.

 ‘Palestine’s Role in the Solution of the Jewish Problem’, Foreign Affairs, January 1942.

 Zionist Review, 19 November 1943.

* Zionist Review, 4 February 1944.

 Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 231; Zionist Review, 2 January 1942.

 Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 231.

* Weizmann, Trial and Error, pp. 431–2.

 In a letter to Leon Simon in November 1941, quoted in Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 234.

* Full text in ESCO, vol. 2, pp. 1084–5.

 R. Rilverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, New York, 1970, p. 194.

 B. Balpern, The Idea of the Jewish State, Cambridge, 1961, p. 39; Foreign Relations of the United States, 1942, vol. 4, Washington, 1963, p. 552.

* Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 242.

* Zionist Review, 15 May 1942.

 Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p. 243.

* S. Salpern, The Political World of American Zionism, Detroit, 1961, p. 27.

* Quoted in Silverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, p. 184.

 Halpern, The Political World of American Zionism, p. 269.

 Weizmann, Trial and Error, p. 420.

* Silverberg, If I Forget Thee, O Jerusalem, pp. 187–9.

* Quoted in ibid., p. 228; Yeshayahu Vinograd, Abba Hillel Silver, Tel Aviv, 1957, p. 140 et seq.

 Quoted in Schechtman, The United States and the Jewish State Movement, p. 94.

* Ibid., p. 242.

* Ibid., p. 239 et seq; Schechtman, The United States and the Jewish State Movement, p. 74 et seq.

* Jewish Telegraphic Agency Bulletin, 3 December 1944.

* Quoted in Eban, ‘Tragedy and Triumph’, p. 273.

* Feingold, The Politics of Rescue, p. 257.

* D. Den Gurion, Medinat Israel hamekhudeshet, vol. 1, Tel Aviv, 1969, p. 65.

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