We will fight with the British against Hitler as if there were no White Paper; we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.
—David Ben-Gurion in 1939
In 1925, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf. The Jews intended to take over the world, he wrote, and when they did, they would destroy humanity. “If . . . the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.”
Zionism, Hitler declared, was part of the Jewish plot:
When the Zionists try to make the rest of the world believe that the new national consciousness of the Jews will be satisfied by the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine, the Jews thereby adopt another means to dupe the simple-minded Gentile. They have not the slightest intention of building up a Jewish State in Palestine so as to live in it. What they really are aiming at is to establish a central organization for their international swindling and cheating.1
In January 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. In March, elections were held and the Nazis remained the largest party in the Reichtag. Given that Hitler had published Mein Kampf almost a decade earlier, Germans had every reason to understand exactly what they had elected. “The Jewish people will be the first victim of the strengthening of national hatreds, of suppression, of the denial of freedom, and of dictatorship,” predicted David Ben-Gurion.2
David Gruen, who later changed his name to David Ben-Gurion, had been born in 1886 in the small town Plonsk (now in Poland but then part of the Russian Empire). Like many early Zionist leaders, he had been raised in a religious family committed to both secular studies and to Zionism. As a young child, he witnessed his father’s hosting Hovevei Zion meetings in their home. Influenced by those meetings and later by Abraham Mapu’s biblical and Zion-yearning novel, The Love of Zion, the young Gruen—who would come to see in the Bible a program for the moral basis of a Jewish state—became a committed Zionist.
When he was seventeen, Gruen learned of the Uganda Plan discussions at the Sixth Zionist Congress and was livid that the movement would even consider giving up on the notion of a Jewish state in the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland. Concluding that creating a Jewish state in Palestine required action, not words, Gruen decided to move to Palestine.
Gruen eventually arrived at the Jaffa harbor—the same harbor that Herzl had described in Altneuland—on September 7, 1906, and shortly thereafter was working the orange groves in Petach Tikvah. A believer that physical labor was key to building the Jewish state (following in the tradition of A. D. Gordon), he migrated through the Galilee, working on a number of different farms. In 1910, he moved to Jerusalem in order to serve on the editorial board of Poalei Zion’s official journal, Achdut (Unity). When he published his first article there, he did so under his newly adopted and Hebraicized last name, Ben-Gurion.
With the Ottomans in control of Palestine, Ben-Gurion decided that if he was to have any role in leading the Yishuv, he needed a Turkish education. In 1911, he departed Palestine for Turkey to study law (though he did not complete the degree) and then continued on to America to spread the word of the pioneering movement and to attend Poalei Zion conferences. While living in New York, he met Paula Munweis and married her in 1917. They would have a son and two daughters.
After the Balfour Declaration, Ben-Gurion switched his allegiance from the Turks to the British. He joined the British Army’s Jewish Legion and fought with the British against the Turks in the Palestine Campaign. Though he continued working with Poalei Zion, he also launched his own political party, Achdut Ha’avoda (“Unity of Labor”), composed mostly of the more left-leaning members of Poalei Zion after that party split. In 1921, Ben-Gurion became secretary of the Histadrut, the Yishuv’s labor union. He led the Histadrut for thirteen years, firmly establishing his place as a member of the Yishuv’s senior leadership. By the time Ben-Gurion predicted Europe’s disaster in 1933, he was widely recognized as the authoritative voice of the Yishuv.
THE SENSE OF IMPENDING HORROR in Europe evoked conflicting emotions in the Yishuv. To some degree, what was unfolding confirmed the fears of those who had come to Palestine; it proved their foreboding sense of history accurate. While that undoubtedly provided a measure of validation to those in the Yishuv who had left Europe earlier, many Jews living in Palestine were committed to doing whatever possible to assist European Jewry.
Some of them hoped that applying economic pressure and boycotting Germany might lead Hitler’s regime to relent and to pull back from its increasingly anti-Semitic, but not yet murderous, policies. Jabotinsky hoped that if a united Jewish front could inflict significant economic damage on Germany, that might both keep civil rights in Germany intact as well as promote Jewish emancipation.3
Much of the Yishuv was opposed to a boycott of Germany, however, and insisted that the most effective way to deal with Nazi Germany was through direct negotiations. There were several reasons for this position. The Yishuv feared that a boycott would infuriate Germany and only make matters worse for Jews there; it also hoped that negotiations with the Germans might encourage the immigration of Germany’s Jews to the Yishuv.
The controversy surrounding the boycott led to one of the more bizarre incidents in the history of the Yishuv, one still shrouded in mystery. Chaim Arlosoroff, then the head of the Jewish Agency’s political department and effectively its foreign minister, had moved with his family from Ukraine to Tel Aviv in 1924 to escape pogroms. On the way to Palestine, he spent time in Germany, where he earned a Ph.D. in economics.
While in Germany, he had an affair with a woman named Magda Ritschel, who would eventually marry Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis’ notorious minister of propaganda. In June 1933, after having risen to the top of the Yishuv’s leadership, Arlosoroff returned to Germany to negotiate with German officials, apparently using contacts through his former mistress to gain access to the people he needed to see.4 His mission in Germany was to advance a plan called the Ha’avarah (“Transfer Agreement”) that would allow German Jews to leave Germany without having to forfeit all their assets. Jews emigrating from Germany would deposit their money in a fund that was made available to Palestinian banks. Those banks would then purchase German goods that were shipped to Palestine. In Palestine, merchants would purchase the goods, and the money from the purchase would then be returned to the Jews who had emigrated from Germany.5 Everyone seemed to benefit. Germany got rid of Jews it did not want, the Yishuv benefited from an influx of immigrants, the Jews who departed Germany could keep some of their assets, and Palestine was able to import German goods that it desperately needed. Some twenty thousand German Jews availed themselves of this plan, and $30 million moved from Germany to the Yishuv.
Yet as Germany tightened the noose around its Jews, the Transfer Agreement became increasingly controversial. Arlosoroff, many said, had made a pact with the devil. Ben-Gurion defended the plan as a means of sustaining the Yishuv while increasing immigration, but others believed that Germany had to be boycotted, and that the Transfer Agreement would undermine the boycott’s impact. Jabotinsky railed against the Transfer Agreement; he thought it a foolhardy attempt to undermine Germany’s economic isolation. The Revisionist newspaper Hazit Ha’am (The People’s Front), ran a column on June 16, 1933, condemning Arlosoroff’s agreement, warning that the Jewish people “will know how to respond to this odious act.” The article personally identified Arlosoroff.6
Later that same night, Chaim Arlosoroff and his wife, Sima, went for a stroll on the Tel Aviv beach. Out of the dark, two men approached, one shining a flashlight in Arlosoroff’s face while the other pulled a gun and fired. Arlosoroff was rushed to the hospital, but died a few hours later on the operating table.
Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party was immediately blamed for the murder. Two days later, Avraham Stavsky, a member of the Revisionist movement’s organization Betar, was arrested, after Sima identified him as the man with the flashlight. Two other Revisionists were arrested, one as an accomplice and the other as the gunman. The Left blamed Jabotinsky both for having “primed” the gun as well as for masterminding the plan. Jabotinsky, in turn, invested tremendous effort and resources in defense of the three. Stavsky, who had initially been convicted and sentenced to death, was freed in July 1934 after his conviction was overturned by the British Court of Appeals in Palestine.
No one else was ever convicted of the crime, and Arlosoroff’s assassination remains a mystery. His murder, though, would not be the last time Jews killed Jews over political disagreements in the Jewish state.
AS SOME MEMBERS OF the Yishuv had anticipated, the worsening conditions in Europe were actually a boon for immigration. Arab violence had subsided, and the Yishuv’s infrastructure was developing. Slowly, life in Palestine was becoming less harsh. Because the United States had tightened its immigration restrictions (so, too, had the USSR, though Jews were hardly clamoring to go there), by the 1930s Palestine was becoming a central destination for Jewish immigration. The Jewish Agency, short of money and under pressure from the Mandatory government, limited the number of immigrants it allowed into Palestine. “Certificates” were required for immigration; competition for them sometimes became ugly, and there were accusations that the agency was admitting wealthier classes and those more likely to support Ben-Gurion’s political views. Immigration was a fraught subject that could explode at a moment’s notice; it would remain so throughout Israel’s history.
While the Fourth Aliyah (1924–1929) had been composed primarily of middle-class, city-dwelling Polish immigrants, those arriving now in the Fifth Aliyah (1932–1936) were perceived to be well-educated, wealthy Germans desperate to escape an increasingly frightening anti-Semitic environment in Europe. In fact, though, most of the immigrants of the Fifth Aliyah were from central and eastern Europe, like the members of the aliyot before them. The number of immigrants was growing, as well. In 1934, as it became clearer that Hitler’s vicious anti-Jewish policies would only intensify, the Yishuv witnessed the highest number of immigrants ever in a single year until that point; some forty-two thousand Jews made their way to the Land of Israel. The Yishuv was slowly moving toward the critical mass of Jews it would need for statehood.
WHEN CHAIM NACHMAN BIALIK had written “The City of Slaughter” after the Kishinev pogrom, neither he nor his readers could have imagined the darkness into which Europe would descend. Bialik had eventually left Russia for Germany in 1921 and then in 1924 moved to Palestine. Once in Palestine, Bialik devoted himself largely to public affairs and wrote much less than he had previously, but he remained the voice of an entire generation. In the summer of 1934, Bialik traveled to Vienna to undergo prostate surgery. He died on July 4, 1934, after the surgery failed.
The funeral of the Yishuv’s poet laureate shut down the city of Tel Aviv. Giant posters announced the time of the funeral, and even in the scorching heat of a blazing Middle Eastern summer day, in a scene reminiscent of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s mass funeral in 1922, many thousands of people took to the streets as part of the procession. Religious and secular, Ashkenazim and Mizrachim—they came not only from Tel Aviv but from all over Palestine. Blue-and-white flags, with black ribbons attached to them, adorned almost every building. Bialik’s coffin was taken to the local cemetery, where he was buried with Ahad Ha’am to his right and Chaim Arlosoroff to his left. The political activist (Arlosoroff), the poet (Bialik), and the philosopher (Ahad Ha’am) lay side by side—a fitting image of Zionism’s deep intellectual roots and many different voices, and also, of the ability of those many streams to come together at critical moments.
IN 1935, THE NAZIS passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped German Jews of their citizenship and outlawed both marriages as well as extramarital sexual relationships between Jews and Gentiles. Immigration to Palestine reached another all-time high of 61,000 Jews. In all, between 1933 and 1936, the Jewish population of Palestine grew in size from 234,967 to 384,078; Jews, who had been but a fifth of the population, now constituted almost a third.
A veritable explosion of cultural and intellectual development was changing the Yishuv, and very quickly, it reflected a blend of tradition and modernity, religious and secular Jews, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, socialists and the free-market city dwellers.
A Jewish folk culture began to emerge. In the late 1920s, for example, Tel Aviv hosted the Queen Esther Beauty Pageant, centered on the holiday of Purim.7 Designed to build bridges, it purposely included contestants from both Ashkenazi and Mizrachi backgrounds. Much more than a mere beauty pageant, the competition was intended to help officials select an unofficial representative of the Yishuv. The pageant was shut down in 1929 due to pressure from the Yishuv’s religious elements, but the European influences now shaping and changing the Yishuv were clear. Palestine had undergone a radical change; it was already entirely unlike the undeveloped land to which the First and Second Aliyot had immigrated.
In 1932, the Yishuv inaugurated the Maccabiah games, a nine-day sporting event with competitions for Jewish men and women from all over the world in categories such as gymnastics, basketball, track and field, swimming, and tennis. There were ideological motives for the games, as well. Nordau’s “muscular Jews” were on display, while Ahad Ha’am’s vision of Palestine as a center for Jewish culture also got a boost. The Yishuv also hoped that bringing many Jews to Palestine for the competition would increase immigration.
Dance, both theatrical and folk, became a pillar of Yishuv life. Theatrical dancers competed in the National Dance Competition while folk dancers showcased their talent at the then iconic Dalia Festival, first staged a few years later, in 1944.8 What began as a mere competition in the Yishuv ended up shaping much of Zionist culture for decades thereafter, as “Israeli folk dance” would remain a central feature of Zionist activity. “Already by the 1940s Israeli folk dances were exported and viewed as significant markers of the new Jew.” Folk dance became “an important symbol of Israeli identity and one of the most significant and successful exports of Israeli culture around the world.”9
Intellectual and economic life in the Yishuv also underwent a transformation. The influx of German immigrants led to a dramatic rise in the number of students at Hebrew University. Banking and finance also developed. Because German Jews and some middle-class Polish Jews had come to Palestine with substantial financial assets, Palestine soon had department stores and upscale cafés. Money from the Transfer Agreement (over which Arlosoroff had apparently been murdered) began to flow into the Yishuv. Jews purchased increasing amounts of land from local Arabs, many of whom were more than willing to exchange their property for cash.
YET WHAT LOOKED TO the Yishuv like great progress felt to the Arabs a profound dislocation. Many of the locals sensed that their way of life was being displaced by the rapidly increasing tide of Jewish immigration. Once again, Arab frustration exploded in violence.
On April 15, 1936, Arabs shot three Jewish drivers near Tulkarm (in what is today the West Bank, east of Netanya). One died on the spot. Another died five days later, while the third survived. Two days later, in response, a radical Jewish faction shot and killed two Arabs living in a shack in Petach Tikvah. That same day, during the funeral for one of the Jewish victims, anti-Arab and anti-British protests raged. An Arab was beaten, as was a police officer who came to his defense. Jews assaulted Arab shoeshine boys and peddlers. The Arabs then struck back. On April 19, unemployed peasants and migrant workers stormed through Jaffa, killing nine Jews and injuring sixty. Jaffa quickly descended into utter chaos, with Jews and Arabs searching for and fleeing from one another. Thousands of Jews fled to Tel Aviv.
The Arab revolt of 1936–1939 had begun.
Once again, the Arab community had decided to resist Jewish immigration and the Yishuv’s development with violence. During the revolt, violence would flare regularly. Arabs burned farmland and orchards that Jews had cleared and planted. They destroyed Jewish stores and attacked houses. The Arab community staged strikes in the hopes of harming the Yishuv’s economy, but the strikes had precisely the opposite effect—the Arabs unwittingly boosted Jewish business. Jewish shops and factories filled the vacuum, and the Yishuv’s Jewish economy expanded.
Whatever economic progress it might have made, the Yishuv was deeply worried by the phenomenon of continued Arab violence. Jews who had believed that they could live in peace with Arabs were now increasingly dubious. To make it clear that the Jewish population would not give up on its dream of statehood, even in the face of violence, the Yishuv established more villages.
With their attempts to demoralize the Jewish community failing, the Arab leadership used the revolt as an opportunity to press its demands with the British. They met in Jerusalem and demanded an absolute freeze on Jewish immigration. They also sought a prohibition on land sales and called for an Arab majority government. Even as they were making these demands, the violence continued.
At first, since the Arab revolt also targeted them, the British response to Arab violence was ruthless. They chased out the mufti and leveled portions of Jaffa. But then, they changed tactics. Desperate to avoid violence and hoping to keep the peace in an increasingly volatile region, they sought to appease the rioting Arabs. In mid-1936, they proposed limiting Jewish immigration to 4,500 in the following half of the year. In 1935, just a year earlier, 61,000 Jews had immigrated to Palestine. In proposing an annual limit of 9,000 Jewish immigrants, the British were effectively suggesting an 85 percent reduction in Jewish immigration. Astonishingly, however, the Arabs rejected even that offer, insisting that there be no immigration at all.
The violence continued. The British, hoping that the violence would subside on its own and not wanting to risk Anglo-Arab relations, responded to the Arab violence with restraint. But their policy was an utter failure. After six months, two hundred Arabs, eighty Jews, and twenty-eight British were dead. Something clearly had to change.
As immediate measures, the British responded by sending more troops to Palestine and providing arms to some Jews in order to make it possible for them to protect themselves. They also established a nightly curfew and guard patrol. Yet they also understood that the situation required a long-term solution. To explore what that solution might be, the British established the Palestine Royal Commission (better known as the Peel Commission, since it was headed by Lord William Robert Wellesley Peel) to study the situation in Palestine and to make recommendations.
The Peel Commission arrived in November 1936 to survey the land and to hear extensive testimony from both Jewish and Arab representatives. On July 7, 1937, the commission released its 404-page extensive brief, which (unlike the Balfour Declaration) included maps of its plan. The Peel Commission’s recommendation was that because Jews and the Arabs had fundamentally opposed interests, and since both claimed rights to the same land, they were unlikely to be able to share territory; the only possible solution was partition. (See Map 4.)
Peel was the first time that anyone had proposed a division of Palestine to accommodate the two peoples who claimed it. The coastal plain from Rosh Hanikrah to south of Be’er Tuvia, the Galilee, and the Jezreel and Jordan valleys would be assigned to the Jews. Aside from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which would remain under the Mandate’s control, everything else would be assigned to the Arab population. It also assumed that the Arab state within Palestine would be attached to Transjordan. Significantly, the commission called for a population transfer to separate the Jewish and Arab communities; in years to come, the subject of population transfers would remain a highly contentious issue in the region.
The area that Peel proposed assigning to a Jewish state was substantially smaller than what the Zionist movement had had reason to expect. While Balfour had not defined what was meant by “Palestine,” the Peel Commission itself acknowledged that “the field in which the Jewish national home was to be established was understood at the time of the Balfour Declaration to be the whole of historic Palestine.”10 That area included today’s Gaza, Israel, the West Bank, and all of what is now Jordan. Peel was proposing a Jewish state on a small fraction of that land; 20 percent was allocated to the Jews, while some 70 to 75 percent was allocated to the Arabs.11
Many Zionist leaders, including Jabotinsky and his followers, were outraged by Britain’s reneging on the map they believed had been implied in the Balfour Declaration, and they were despondent at the notion of giving up even more land after Churchill’s creation of Transjordan in 1921.
Once again, it was through poetry that Jewish dismay found expression. Uri Zvi Greenberg, one of the leading poets of the era, had been born to a Hasidic family in Austria-Hungary, but moved to Palestine in 1923 at the age of twenty-seven after he narrowly escaped being killed in a Polish pogrom. After the Hebron riots of 1929, his political position hardened. He eventually became a follower of Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement, so Greenberg was therefore naturally among those vociferously opposed to the Peel plan to divide the land.
In his “One Truth and Not Two,” written in 1936 as the Peel Commission proposal was being developed, he played off the classic, ubiquitous phrase in rabbinic literature, “Our rabbis taught,” and wrote:
Your rabbis taught, the Messiah will come in generations to come
and Judea shall rise without fire or blood . . .
And I say: if your generation lags
and does not force the end with blows and bare hands . . .
The Messiah will not come even in the distant generations.
Judea shall not rise.12
“Blood for blood,” Greenberg warns later in the poem, is the rule for Jews no less than for Gentiles. Jews will have to wage battle for Judea to rise. It was an ideological position that some Israeli leaders would espouse, even decades later.
While many agreed with Jabotinsky, only a minority of Jews actively opposed the plan. Weizmann and Ben-Gurion worked feverishly to ensure that the Jewish community rallied behind the Peel recommendation. As Ben-Gurion put it, implicitly reminding the Zionist community that this was an extraordinary accomplishment given that a mere forty years had passed since the First Zionist Congress, “Herzl would have accepted as a godsend a charter for any part of Palestine, and put his stake in a Jewish state, without any commitment that this and only this will always be the Jewish state.”13 As Weizmann noted, the Peel Commission recommendation intended a Jewish state significantly smaller than they had hoped it would be. Still, it meant that Herzl’s vision—at long last—would be realized. The Jews, Weizmann said pithily, “would be fools not to accept it, even if it were the size of a tablecloth.”14
In August 1937, the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich approved Peel’s recommendations. Though they were hardly enthusiastic about all its details, they were going to get a state, which was more than they could have imagined just a few years earlier.
While the Jewish community accepted the Peel recommendations, the Arabs rejected them outright. King Abdullah of Transjordan apparently favored the plan, since it would reunite Arabs in Palestine with his kingdom and allocate to it more arable land. The rank and file Arab population was inexorably opposed, however, and Abdullah understood that he could not ignore them. Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem (eventually a supporter of the Nazis), was also vociferously opposed and ensured that the Arab Higher Committee would reject it.
In what was already their standard pattern, Arabs responded to Peel with yet another round of violence, directing their venom not only at Jews but at the British as well. Among the dead was Lewis Andrews, the British official responsible for organizing the travel arrangements for Peel commissioners in Palestine. A known Zionist, Andrews was shot on September 26 on his way to church.
By mid-October 1937, the raging violence had surpassed that of a year earlier. Settlements, buses, Jewish civilians, and British patrols were all targets. The new airport at Lydda was burned, and oil lines were damaged. Much of the country’s public transportation had to be discontinued, and due to mines and explosives planted at the sides of roads, the British prohibited travel at night. They also brought in more troops and instituted the death penalty for those involved in the violence, a punishment to which they would frequently resort in the years to come. All those steps, though, were only minimally effective.
Palestine was sinking into war.
MEANWHILE, MATTERS IN EUROPE were growing ever more ominous. In February 1938, Ben-Gurion said, “Germany is swallowing up Austria and tomorrow it will be Czechoslovakia’s turn.”15 He was eerily prophetic. Nine months later, in November 1938, Europe’s major powers agreed to Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia (which the Germans called Sudetenland). While Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister, argued that his acquiescence to Germany’s aggression was preserving the peace, Ben-Gurion understood that it was nothing more than appeasement that would encourage Hitler. He wrote to Eliyahu Golomb, then responsible for Jewish self-defense in Palestine, and said, “In my opinion, today is one of the blackest days Europe has ever known and who is to tell if, after the ‘peaceful’ Czechoslovakia ‘settlement,’ it won’t be our turn soon.”16
As Ben-Gurion predicted, the West was far more interested in appeasing the Arab leadership than it was in protecting Jews. In December, the Yishuv presented to the British a proposal to save the Jewish children from Germany and bring them to Palestine. At the same time, the mufti asked the Mandate to release any members from the Arab Higher Committee imprisoned in the Seychelles so that they might serve as representatives on the Palestine Arab delegation in London. No lives were at stake in the request that the Arabs made; nonetheless, the British responded in the affirmative to the Arabs’ request and denied the Yishuv’s plea to save the ten thousand Jewish children.17
On November 9 and 10, 1938, the Nazi propaganda, rhetoric, and discriminatory laws bore their inevitable fruit. After a mentally imbalanced Jew killed a German official in Paris, Germany and Austria erupted in hate-fueled violence against Jews. Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses throughout Nazi Germany and Austria were destroyed. Two hundred sixty-seven synagogues were burned and seventy-five hundred Jewish-owned commercial stores were ruined. Firefighters were instructed to intervene only if the fire threatened non-Jewish-owned property. Nazi SS troops and Hitler Youth stormed into Jewish homes, attacking civilians. Many women were raped; others committed suicide rather than face the same fate. Twenty-six thousand Jews were sent to concentration camps, many dying almost immediately as a result of ruthless treatment. The attack, a return to the pogrom from decades earlier, is remembered as Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass.” In many ways, it marked the beginning of the Holocaust.
A month later, in December, when leaders of the Yishuv met to discuss what had happened in November, they used the term shoah for the first time in that context.18 It was a biblical term, taken from the Book of Zephaniah, in which the prophet predicts “a day of calamity and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of dense clouds.”19 The fact that they had to resort to a little-used biblical term, rather than use a more common word, meant that the Yishuv’s leaders, as had been the case with Jabotinsky and Herzl before them, foresaw a calamity with no historical precedent. Jewish history, they intuited, was about to change forever.
FIVE MONTHS LATER, in May 1939, the British issued a White Paper (a generic term for an official government policy document) that accepted most of the demands the Arabs had made in the wake of the 1936 riots. Europe was becoming a death trap for the millions of Jews who lived there, but the British decided nonetheless that Jewish immigration to Palestine would be restricted to seventy-five thousand people over a five-year period; any increase would require Arab consent. The White Paper also included a restriction on the sale of land to Jews in many areas and a ten-year plan in which Palestine would become an independent state with an Arab majority.
Astonishingly, the Arab Higher Committee rejected the White Paper, claiming that the length of the transitional period favored the Jews. To the Jewish community, of course, the limitations on immigration meant both that Jews who sought to flee Europe could not go to Palestine and that the growth in Jewish population that establishing a state would eventually require would be stymied. They held demonstrations in synagogues and public meetings throughout Palestine. In protest of the policy, a Jewish military group inspired by Ze’ev Jabotinsky—flaunting its disregard for the Haganah’s continued cooperation with the British—bombed a few government buildings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Subsequently, they attacked strategic elements of the British infrastructure, including electric facilities and radio and phone communication lines. They opposed the Haganah’s restraint, and to make their case to the people, they also established an underground newspaper and radio system. Even the leadership of the Yishuv sensed that it needed to alter its strategy. It began to endorse illegal immigration and exerted more effort in helping Jews to enter Palestine.
The Yishuv was now losing any real hope that the British would fulfill the promise they had made in the Balfour Declaration. Twenty-two years earlier, Lord Balfour had called for “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, but without immigration, no Jewish national home was going to be possible. And even with Hitler menacing Jews across Europe, Britain made it clear to the Nazis that the fate of the Jews was not its concern.
The Twenty-First Zionist Congress met in Geneva in August 1939. When Chaim Weizmann closed the Congress on August 24, there was a sense of impending tragedy. “It is with a heavy heart that I take my leave,” he said. “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, black gloom.”20 The audience wept.21
The First Zionist Congress in 1897 had closed with a sense of great promise; in 1939 there was dread. A week later, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. Most of the European delegates to the Twenty-First Zionist Congress would be dead by the war’s end.
With Britain now fighting the Nazis, the Yishuv found itself in an almost untenable position. The British were the enemies of the Yishuv because of their restrictions on immigration, but the British were also fighting the Nazis. With whom should the Yishuv side? In what became the de facto description of the Yishuv’s position, Ben-Gurion said famously, “We will fight with the British against Hitler as if there were no White Paper; we will fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”22
NOTHING BETTER CAPTURES the existential condition of the Jews across the globe during this period than the stories of three different refugee ships. One was the St. Louis. In May 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Hamburg to Cuba with 937 passengers. After Kristallnacht, the mostly German Jewish passengers understood that they needed to flee, so they had bought legal Cuban visas. When the vessel arrived at its destination, however, Cuban president Federico Laredo Brú refused to allow them to enter the country. The non-Jewish German captain of the ship, Gustav Schroder, committed himself to finding a home for each one of his passengers. Weeks of negotiations ensued, but when both America and Canada refused the immigrants a safe haven, Schroder had no choice but to return to Europe, where he negotiated with various European countries that agreed to take some of the passengers; 181 could go to Holland, 224 to France, 228 to Great Britain, and 214 to Belgium. For others, though, Schroder found no home. More than a month after they had set sail from Europe, the passengers disembarked back on European soil in mid-June. As the war progressed, many of them—though they had been just ninety miles from the shores of the United States—found themselves once again under Nazi rule. By the end of the war, 254 of the passengers, just over a quarter of them, had been killed in the Holocaust.23
The second ship in question arrived not in Cuba, but at the shores of Palestine. In November 1940, the SS Atlantic reached Haifa Bay from Romania, carrying 1,730 refugees from Germany. The Mandate refused to let them enter Palestine and ordered them onto another ship, the Patria,which would take them to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean. Members of the Jewish military resistance placed explosives on the Patria in order to delay its departure. But the plan backfired; as the first group of illegal immigrants was being escorted to the Patria the following morning, the explosives did significantly more damage than had been intended; the ship blew up and sank. More than 250 of the detainees drowned. The British sent the remaining immigrants who had arrived on the Atlantic to an internment camp in Atlit, not far from Haifa.
The third ship, the Struma, set sail from Romania on December 16, 1941, carrying 769 Jewish refugees to Palestine for what should have been a voyage of just a few days. Due to engine trouble, it anchored in the harbor of Istanbul. The Turkish government denied the passengers even temporary sanctuary, so the refugees lived on the boat for two months. The ship was equipped with only four sinks, one freshwater faucet, and eight toilet stalls that had no toilet paper. It had no life preservers.24 The Jewish Agency intervened and pleaded with the British to let the Jewish passengers enter Palestine, even temporarily, just to relocate them later to Mauritius. The British refused, and on February 24, 1942, the Turks ordered the Struma to leave the harbor. They towed the boat into the Black Sea, abandoning it there with no functioning engine. A Soviet submarine, operating under then secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping in the Black Sea (to prevent raw materials from making their way to Nazi Germany), torpedoed the boat.25 The Struma sank almost immediately, drowning almost all the men, women, and children on board. There was but one survivor.
The St. Louis, the Patria, and the Struma brought home a single point with terrible clarity. For Jews who had no place to go, a Jewish state—Herzl’s dream and Balfour’s promise—was more critically necessary than it had ever been before. The creation of a Jewish state was now literally a matter of life and death.
Twenty-seven thousand Palestinian Jews enlisted in the British Army. At the same time, the Yishuv resisted the White Paper’s immigration policy. To help those fleeing Europe enter Palestine, in late 1938, the Haganah established an organization, Mossad le-Aliyah Bet (Organization for Immigration B) to aid in this illegal immigration. The Mossad le-Aliyah Bet procured ships and crews, gathered the prospective immigrants, had them sail to Palestine, and arranged for them to be assisted and hidden once they had reached the state-in-waiting. In many ways successful, the project was still bittersweet; Benny Morris, one of Israel’s foremost historians, points out, “During the period 1934–38 about forty thousand Jews had entered Palestine illegally, and another nine thousand by September 1939. But less than sixteen thousand made it during the following six years, when the need for sanctuary was at its most acute.”26
Many of these illegal immigrants—ma’apilim as they were known in Hebrew*—succeeded in making their way into Palestine but were then caught by the British, who placed them in detainee camps. The largest such camp was in Atlit, where the Nili spy group had been active on behalf of the British.
Determined to stop Jewish immigration, the British also exerted diplomatic pressure on countries from which the illegal boats sailed and, as a punitive measure, drastically reduced the immigration quotas. Their excuse, which no one believed, was that Axis spies could have infiltrated Jewish refugees. For nineteen of the first thirty-nine months of the war, the British approved no Jewish immigration at all.
When these steps failed, the British resorted to force. Their coast guard attacked illegal ships and brought the refugees to internment camps. Initially situated in Mauritius and eventually in Cyprus, heartbreakingly close to Palestine (it was less than three hundred miles away), these internment camps were intentionally harsh. The initial hopes for the camps was that they “should be sufficiently punitive to continue to act as a deterrent to other Jews in Eastern Europe.”27 In a tragic historic coincidence, despite their obvious differences, both the Germans and the British were putting Jews into camps behind barbed wire.
WHILE THE YISHUV DID what it could to support the Allies’ war effort, some Arabs pledged their allegiance to the Axis powers. They saw the British as accomplices to Zionism and attributed to the British responsibility for defeat of the Arab uprisings from 1936 to 1939. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, pushed out of Palestine by the British in 1936, fled to Berlin in 1941, where he helped develop Nazi propaganda in the Middle East. When Churchill announced in the House of Commons that Britain would be training a Jewish legion to fight on the front lines, the Mufti wrote a letter to the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, proposing an Islamic army in Germany.
In no way dissuaded by the Mufti’s threat, the British helped train Jewish fighters, many of whom contributed to the British war effort. In 1943, a Jewish legion composed of men from the Yishuv formally joined the British Army. They fought in North Africa and Italy. In total, almost thirty thousand Jews from Palestine served in the British Army during the war. In the process, the British had also given training to many of the men who would form the backbone of the Haganah, and later, Israel’s army.
This military cooperation notwithstanding, many British policies struck Jews as arbitrary and dismissive. One in particular was the rule forbidding Jews to sound the shofar (ram’s horn) or to bring Torah scrolls to the Western Wall, which had been sacred to the Jews for two millennia.*
A few Jews resisted these policies as a matter of principle and pride. For example, on the holy day of Yom Kippur in 1930, Moshe Segal (one of the founders of the Irgun, the militant group inspired by Jabotinsky) defied British orders and sounded the shofar at the Kotel, as the fast ended at sundown as mandated by Jewish tradition. Though he was arrested and sent to jail, resistance continued; every Yom Kippur until 1947, young Jewish men somehow managed to smuggle a shofar into the area near the Western Wall and blow it—despite the warnings and patrols of British forces. Though some managed to escape, most of the shofar blowers were imprisoned. It was only after two decades passed—when Israel would capture the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan in June 1967—that Jews would again sound the shofar at their holiest site without fear of harassment or imprisonment.
AFTER THE GERMAN INVASION of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis began their systematic liquidation of Europe’s Jews. Einsatzgruppen, or special operating units, would round up Jewish communities and shoot them all—men, women, and children—destroying entire communities in only a few hours. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were murdered in just a few months.
That same year, the Haganah created a strike force called the Palmach.* Initially, the Palmach was designed to be an elite unit preparing for the possibility of a German invasion. It attracted the best and brightest of the young men and women in the Yishuv, and between 1942 and 1943, the British helped train them. When it first started, the Palmach consisted of 100 men; by May 1948, when the State of Israel declared independence, the elite unit had grown to 2,100 well-trained fighters with another 1,000 who had completed their training and could be mobilized if need be.28They would become the core of the elite echelons of Israel’s eventual army.
In January 1942, the Nazi senior officials met in Wannsee, Germany. The Wannsee Conference disseminated the new plan of action to Nazi leaders across Europe: Germany would round up Jews and send them to extermination camps in Poland to be gassed and incinerated. By the spring of 1942, one million Russian Jews and hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews had been murdered. Five million more would be killed over the next four years. By the time the war was over, one-third of the world’s Jews would be dead; in Poland, the Jewish capital of the world and a place where Jews had lived in a thriving community for six hundred uninterrupted years, 90 percent of the Jews would be murdered. As far as Polish Jewry was concerned, Hitler won the war.
Hitler’s forces extended their progress far beyond Europe. When Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s forces reached El Alamein deep in Egypt in 1942, the Yishuv was convinced that they might be next. In preparation for the dreaded Nazi invasion, the Yishuv’s leadership drew up plans to take over British fortresses in Palestine (believing that the British would abandon the Mandate in the event of a Nazi invasion), prepared to blow up strategic bridges and even to make a last stand against the invading Nazis.
The Nazis’ atrocities and the Yishuv’s fears led to a shift in the Yishuv’s attitudes to the fate of European Jewry. Years earlier, in December 1938 (a month after Kristallnacht), Ben-Gurion had said, “If I knew it was possible to save all the (Jewish) children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter—because we are faced not only with the accounting of these children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish People.”29 Zionism, it had then seemed, trumped any sense of urgency with regard to saving the Jews of Europe.
Now, though, as matters in Europe descended into a hell worse than anyone could have imagined, even Ben-Gurion—the hardened and single-minded Zionist—criticized the Yishuv’s complacent attitude to the unfolding disaster and warned against “Yishuvism,” a term he coined to define a state of mind that saw the Yishuv as responsible only for Jews in Palestine.30 He understood that the Yishuv and Europe’s Jews were too interdependent to allow for complacency. “The destruction of European Jewry,” he said, “is the death-knell of Zionism.”31 But there was little the Yishuv could do.
On May 6, 1942, as the British War Cabinet agreed upon an official statement that “all practicable steps should be taken to discourage illegal immigration into Palestine,” Zionist leaders met at an Extraordinary Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel in New York to express international Jewry’s resolve to create a Jewish state with or without British assistance. The participants agreed that Britain could not be trusted; the Jewish Agency, it decided, should replace the Mandate as the governing power in Palestine. It was now the official policy of the Zionist movement to bring an end to all restrictions on immigration and to establish a “Jewish Commonwealth” in Palestine.
The horrors unfolding in Europe had done what half a century of debate could not. For the first time, the Zionist movement had adopted an official policy that its goal was the creation of a Jewish state.32