World War II: Palestine--European Exodus


Figure 1.--These Jewish refugees are trying to get to Palestine in 1947. Many of the vessels they used were not very seaworthy even before the British Royal Navy ships attempted to stop them. The British trying to stop them have damaged their ship. The caption of this wire service photograph read, "Illegal immigrants, boys and grownups, stare from windows of tghe damaged vessel. Nesh screen was errected by passangers in an effort to keep British bparding party from jumping to lower decks." The photograph was taken July 22, 1947.

Large numbers of European Jews who survived the Holocaust were unwilling or unable to return to their homes after the War. Many wanted to go to American and were able to do so as aresult of changes in emigration laws. Many others wanted to go to Israel. This was more difficult. Palestinian Arabs strongly opposed this. British Mandate authorities out of desire to maintain order in Palestine and placate Arabs Governments strictly limited Jewish immigration. Jews attemoting to enter Palestine without authorization were arrested by the British and many interned in camps on Cyprus. Many Americans are familiar with this because of the Leon Uris novel Exodus. Uris explains that his book was fictional, but it was based on actual events. The Haganah obtained ships to get Jews to Israel. And one of them was Exodus. Yossi Harel was the ship commander. Harel as a teenager he joined the Hagenah served under Orde Wingate, the legendary British Zionist exponent of Jewish self-defense. Harel commanded four Haganah vessels that managed to get 24,000 Europe Jews to Palestine through clandestine maritime operations. The Haganah called the operation Aliyah Bet. The British called it "illegal immigration." The Exodus was a dilapidated excursion liner crewed by mostly American volunteers and captained by Isaac "Ike" Aronowitz--a 23-year-old Palestinian Jew who had served in the British merchant marine. Aronowitz at times argued with Harel. The Exodus was designed to accomodate 400 passengers and a crew of 58. The Hagenah managed to get Exodus out of a French port without permission and headed for Palestine (July 11, 1947).. It carried more than 4,500 Jewish refugees. A Royal Navy convoy seized the over-croded Exodus at sea while it was steaming to Palesine (July 18). The Hagenah resisted and three Jews were killed and 28 hospitalized. The British attempted to find the Hagenah leaders and ship captain, but they his in prepared places. The British brought Exodus into Haifa. A Jewish work detail Jews came aboard to clean the ship which because of the overcrowding was filthy. The Hagenah members walked off with the cleaning detail. This was not the first such incident and the siuation in the Mandate was becoming increasingly difficult. British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin decided to "teach the Jews a lesson". The British had been interning captured Jews in detention camps on Cyprus. These camps were becoming problems in themselves. Bevin announced a new policy of returning undocumented Jews to their port of embarkation, in this case France. This policy had the advantage that the British Government would not be respobsible for the refugees as they were on Cyprus. The refugeees refused to cooperate. There were 60 infirm and elderly Jews who went ashore when the Royal Navy returned them to France in a prison ship. The remaining Jews staged a hunger strike off the French coast and refused to leave the Royal Navy prison ships. The result was a highly publicized standoff which lastd 3 weeks which proved embarassing to the British. Finally after considerable press coverage, the Royal Navy ordered the prison ships to Hamburg, Germany. There Royal Marines put the Jews ashore by force (Septeber 8). Returning Jews to Germany was not the kind of image Britain's Labor Government wanted. This untenable situation in combination with the escalating violence in Palestine must have played into the British decesion to withdraw. Harel was quite a figure. After completing his assignments with the Aliyah Bet, he worked with Israeli intelligence and then as a private businessman. In a 1988 radio interview, Harel commented, "As someone who spent many years transporting refugees, I have special feelings on the subject. It doesn't matter to me if they are Jews, Vietnamese, Palestinians or Indians. It's necessary to help refugees and people who have been exiled from their country."

British Immigration Quotas for Palestine

The British White Paper of 1939 issued in the wake of Arab riots in Palesgine suggested that future Jewish immigration to Palestine would be limited to 75,000 people over the next five years. Any further Jewish immigration to Palestine woud be subject to Arab consent. At the end of World War II, there were still 10,938 immigration certificates that had not been issued despite the fact that the 5 years had expired. [Kochavi] The British government decided to issue 1,500 certificates per month, The number of Jews desiring to go to Palestine far exceeded that amount. The displaced person camps in Europe were full of Jews who wanted to reach Palestine. And as a result, many tried to reach Palestine in defiance of British regulations.

European Jewish DP Camps

Jewish survivors of the Holocaust were among the many displaced person (DPs) scattered througout Europe at the end of the War. The Holcaust, the German slave labor program, and the widespread destruction meant that ther were millions of displaced The DPs found temporary shelter in displaced persons camps. Their needs had been anticipated by the United States, which established in 1943 the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) to provide services for the postwar refugees and to help repatriate them to their own countries. UNRRA was in place when Germany surrendered in May 1945, and organized the homeward journey of most of the refugees. Unlike most DPs, large numbers of European Jews who survived the Holocaust were unwilling or unable to return to their homes after the War. Many wanted to go to American and were able to do so as a result of changes in emigration laws. Many others wanted to go to Israel.

North African Jews

Not all of the Jews trying to get to Palestine were European Jews. There were substantial Jewish minorities in many Arab states, including North Africa. Jews were ubject to priodic attacks in all Arab countries and desrimnatory treatment. There were periods of relative peace followed by violent episodes. This varied from country to country. Sultan Mohammed V in Morocco had not supported Vichy French repression of Jews. But even in Moroccvo there were Muslims who found non-Muslim people and worship, especially the Jews, offensive and prone to violence against them. This included both devout religious Muslims and the crimimally motivated seeking easy prey. News reports of conflict between Muslims and Jews in Palestine and the desire of Jews to establish a homeland in Palestine resulted in growing hostility against Jews throughout the Arab world. As a result, a range of attacks on Jews were reported. Thus the Royal Navy also encountred ships from North African ports with Jews attempting to get to Palestine. The Royal Navy intercepted the Shivat Zion with Jewish refugees from Morocco and Algeria. The numbers were relatively small. For the Jews in Arab countries there seemed no place to go and they simply had to endure their lot. Their situation worsened as Muslim zelots and criminals escalated attacks on defenseless Jews throughout the Arab world. The situation in Egypt became especially bad. The Gand Mufti was influential thre and Egypt was on of the Front Line countries which attacked Israel (1948)And as the British and French departed Middle Eastern and North African countries, Jews in those countries were even more endangered. What changed, however, was the creation of Israel. Jews in these countries now had a place of refuge. Eventually the number of Jews fleeing Arab desrimination and attack, the Mizrahim, would exceed the number of Jewish refugees from the European Holocaust.

Getting to Palestine

Getting to Palestine for Jews was more difficult. Palestinian Arabs strongly opposed this. British Mandate authorities out of desire to maintain order in Palestine and placate Arabs Governments strictly limited Jewish immigration. Jews attemoting to enter Palestine without authorization were arrested by the British and many interned in camps on Cyprus. Many Americans are familiar with this because of the Leon Uris novel Exodus. Uris explains that his book was fictional, but it was based on actual events. The Haganah obtained ships to get Jews to Israel. And one of them was Exodus. Yossi Harel was the ship commander. Harel as a teenager he joined the Hagenah served under Orde Wingate, the legendary British Zionist exponent of Jewish self-defense. Harel commanded four Haganah vessels that managed to get 24,000 Europe Jews to Palestine through clandestine maritime operations. The Haganah called the operation Aliyah Bet. The British called it 'illegal immigration'. The Exodus was a dilapidated excursion liner crewed by mostly American volunteers and captained by Isaac "Ike" Aronowitz--a 23-year-old Palestinian Jew who had served in the British merchant marine. Aronowitz at times argued with Harel. The Exodus was designed to accomodate 400 passengers and a crew of 58. The Hagenah managed to get Exodus out of a French port without permission and headed for Palestine (July 11, 1947).. It carried more than 4,500 Jewish refugees. A Royal Navy convoy seized the over-croded Exodus at sea while it was steaming to Palesine (July 18). The Hagenah resisted and three Jews were killed and 28 hospitalized. The British attempted to find the Hagenah leaders and ship captain, but they hid in prepared places. The British brought Exodus into Haifa. A Jewish work detail Jews came aboard to clean the ship which because of the overcrowding was filthy. The Hagenah members walked off with the cleaning detail. This was not the first such incident and the siuation in the Mandate was becoming increasingly difficult.

British Policy Change: Bevin's Lesson

British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin decided to 'teach the Jews a lesson'. The British had been interning captured Jews in detention camps on Cyprus. These camps were becoming problems in themselves. Bevin announced a new policy of returning undocumented Jews to their port of embarkation, in this case France. This policy had the advantage that the British Government would not be respobsible for the refugees as they were on Cyprus. The refugeees refused to cooperate. There were 60 infirm and elderly Jews who went ashore when the Royal Navy returned them to France in a prison ship. The remaining Jews staged a hunger strike off the French coast and refused to leave the Royal Navy prison ships. The result was a highly publicized standoff which lasted 3 weeks which proved embarassing to the British. Finally after considerable press coverage, the Royal Navy ordered the prison ships to Hamburg, Germany. There Royal Marines put the Jews ashore by force (Septeber 8). The result was terrible publicity for Britain and the Royal Navy. The problem for the British was they were dealing with Jews that had survived the Holocaust and the NAZIs. There was nothing the Bevin and the British could do to these people to disuade thm from getting to Palestine.

Cyprus Refugee Camps (1946-49)

Cyprus is an eastern Mediterranean island south of Turkey. It has bheen fought over since ancient times, in part because of copper mines. The Ottoman Turks seized the island from the Venitians (1570). The island had a majority Greek population, but a Turkish minority gradually developed, Britian took over control of the island after the Russo-Turkish War (1878). The Germans during World War II seized Crete, but did not have the naval strength to reach Cyprus. And Cyprus bases proved useful to the British in the naval struggle with the Italians for control of the Mediterranean. Some Jews from the Balkans managed to reach Cyprus and safty during the War. Very few Jews in the Balkans unless they escaped survived the German Holocaust. The British interned Jews trying to enter Palestine without a valid immigratin certificate. At first they used Atlit detainee camp in Palestine and of all places a camp in the Mauritius. [Ofer] The British decided to use conviently located Cyprus to intern Jews intercepted trying to get to Palestine (August 1946). [Kochavi] Cyprus was located just north of Palestine and as it was controlled by Britain made for a convenient detention sites. The British had already interned a small number of Greeks working for independence as well as Balkan Jews in detention caps. [Wasserstein, p. 329] The numner of Jews intercepted at sea by the Royal Navy was increasing rapidly. And the Royal Navy needed som place to intern these peole. Frustrated Jews in the DP camps mostly located in occpied Germany attempted to reach Palestine by sea. The British eventually operated camps for intercepted Jews during 3 years on Cyprus (August 1946 through January 1949). The British opened 12 camps. A total of 53,510 Jews were held in these camps. Conditins in the camps were dreadful, although not homicidal like the German camps. The interned Jews were only able to get to Palestine after Israel declared its independnce and prevailed in the First Arab-Israeli War (1949-49). [Tucker]

British Decision to Withdraw from Palestine

Returning Jews to Germany was not the kind of image Britain's Labor Government wanted. This untenable situation in combination with the escalating violence in Palestine must have played into the British decesion to withdraw. Harel from the Exodus was quite a figure. After completing his assignments with the Aliyah Bet, he worked with Israeli intelligence and then as a private businessman. In a 1988 radio interview, Harel commented, "As someone who spent many years transporting refugees, I have special feelings on the subject. It doesn't matter to me if they are Jews, Vietnamese, Palestinians or Indians. It's necessary to help refugees and people who have been exiled from their country."

Sources

Harel, Yossi.

Kochavi, Arieh. "The Struggle against Jewish Immigration to Palestine," Middle Eastern Studies (1998) Vol. 34, pp. 146167.

Ofer, Dalia. "Holocaust survivors as immigrants - the case of Israel and the Cyprus detainees". Modern Judaism (1996). Vol. 16, pp. 123.

Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: A Political, Social, and Military History (2008).

Wasserstein, Bernard. Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945 (London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 1979).





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Created: 8:32 AM 2/28/2011
Last updated: 4:33 PM 7/31/2016