Jewish Palestine Early WWII


The Italian bombing by SM82 bombers of Mandatory Palestine in World War II was part of an effort by the Italian Royal Air Force (Regia Aeronautica) to strike at the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth of Nations throughout the Middle East.

On September 9 the European war reached Tel Aviv when Italian aircraft bombed the city killing 107 Jews. Yitzhak Rabin was returning home from the sea when the bombs exploded less than half a mile in front of him. He was horrified by the carnage, which he was to recall vividly while on a visit to London more than fifty years later.

Early in November 1940 two ships, the Milos and the Pacific, reached Haifa port with 1,771 ‘illegal’ immigrants on board. The High Commissioner, Sir Harold MacMichael, refused to allow them to land, and they were transferred to a French ocean liner, the Patria, which the British had specially chartered in order to deport them to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. On November 20, while the immigrants were still being transferred to the Patria, MacMichael broadcast a blunt communiqué setting out the new deportation policy. The British government, he declared, ‘can only regard a revival of illegal Jewish immigration at the present juncture as likely to affect the local situation most adversely, and to prove a serious menace to British interests in the Middle East. They have accordingly decided that the passengers shall not be permitted to land in Palestine but shall be deported to a British colony and shall be detained there for the duration of the war.’ The ‘ultimate disposal’ of the deportees, MacMichael added, ‘will be a matter for consideration at the end of the war, but it is not proposed that they shall remain in the colony to which they are sent or that they should go to Palestine. Similar action will be taken in the case of any further parties who may succeed in reaching Palestine with a view to illegal entry’.

On November 24, while the Patria was still at anchor o Haifa, another immigration ship, the Atlantic, with 1,783 refugees on board, was escorted into Haifa Bay by the Royal Navy. On the following morning as the first 200 of those ‘illegals’ were being transferred to the Patria, explosives, planted by the Haganah to immobilize the ship and halt the deportation, blew up more forcefully than intended, and within fifteen minutes the Patria had sunk, drowning more than 250 refugees.

Not knowing what their fate would be, the survivors of the Patria explosion, and the illegals on board the Atlantic, were taken ashore.

The scale of the Patria tragedy led the British government to announce that, whereas the remaining 1,600 refugees on board the Atlantic would still be deported to Mauritius, the 1,900 refugees who had been on the Patria when it sank would be allowed to remain in Palestine. This decision led to an immediate protest from the British Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East, General Wavell, who telegraphed to the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, on November 30: ‘Have just heard the decision re Patria immigrants. Most sincerely trust you will use all possible influence to have decision reversed. From military point of view it is disastrous. It will be spread all over Arab world that Jews have again successfully challenged decision of British government and that policy of White Paper is being reversed. This will gravely increase prospect of widespread disorders in Palestine necessitating increased military commitments, will greatly enhance influence of Mufti, will rouse mistrust of us in Syria and increase anti-British propaganda and fifth column activities in Egypt. It will again be spread abroad that only violence pays in dealing with British.’

The reply to General Wavell came, not from the War Office or the Colonial Office, but from Churchill himself, who telegraphed to the General on December 2: ‘Secretary of State has shown me your telegram about Patria. Cabinet feel that, in view of the suffering of these immigrants, and perils to which they had been subjected through the sinking of their ship, it would be necessary on compassionate grounds not to subject them again immediately to the hazards of the sea. Personally, I hold it would be an act of inhumanity unworthy of British name to force them to re-embark. On the other hand Cabinet agreed that future consignments of illegal immigrants should be sent to Mauritius provided that tolerable conditions can be arranged for them there.’

Churchill’s telegram continued, ‘I wonder whether the effect on the Arab world will be as bad as you suggest. If their attachment to our cause is so slender as to be determined by a mere act of charity of this kind it is clear that our policy of conciliating them has not borne much fruit so far. What I think would influence them much more would be any kind of British military success.’

Churchill’s telegram was decisive, and Wavell’s protest was overruled. The Patria deportees were allowed to remain in Palestine, first in the internment camp at Athlit then, within a year, at liberty. Nor was Churchill’s judgement at fault, for on December 14 a military intelligence report on the effect of the Patria decision on the Arabs concluded that it had been ‘remarkably small’.

The aftermath of this episode proved, however, a blow to the Zionists, for on December 26 the British government suspended the quota for legal immigration for three months, thus halting all immigration until March 1941. This decision was reached despite Churchill’s insistence only two days before that the government, as he minuted, ‘have also to consider their promises to the Zionists, and to be guided by general considerations of humanity towards those fleeing from the cruellest forms of persecution’. Having received this clear indication of Churchill’s attitude, the Permanent U nder Secretary of State, Sir John Shuckburgh, minuted, that same day, in deciding not to inform Churchill of the suspension of the quota, ‘Our object is to keep the business as far as possible on the normal administrative plane and outside the realms of Cabinet policy and so forth.’ Subsequently, the quota for April to September 1941 was also suspended, and no immigration certificates issued for that period either.

As the war continued, the Zionists were appalled by the mounting campaign of terror against the Jews of Poland, and by the continuing refusal of the British government to modify in any way the immigration or land purchase restrictions of the 1939 White Paper. In February 1940, in a book entitled The Jewish War Front, Jabotinsky argued that the Jews were also an integral part of the Allied war effort and, with copious and disturbing quotations, showed that the terrible Jewish sufferings in Poland, although played down in the British press, were well known to all those who read the news agency telegrams, and thus to all those responsible for government policy. The Jews, Jabotinsky argued, must now work towards full statehood; and he added, ‘The Jewish State is a true and proper war aim. Without it, the ulcer that poisons Europe’s trouble cannot be healed: for without it there can be no adequate emigration of the millions whose old homes are irretrievably condemned; without it there can be no equality; and without this no peace.’

Jabotinsky died a few months later, in the United States, at the age of sixty. Not since the death of Herzl thirty-six years earlier was there such a sense of loss in the Jewish world, even among Zionists for whom Jabotinsky’s Revisionism had been too extreme. His fund-raising activities in the United States in 1921, his prewar plan to evacuate one and a half million Jews from Poland to Palestine, his support for Jewish military units in both world wars, his writing and his oratory, marked him out as one of the giants of the Zionist movement. But the bitterness created by the Revisionist split and policies meant that when the State of Israel was established, eight years after Jabotinsky’s death, Ben-Gurion refused to allow his body to be reinterred in Israel. It was not until 1964 after Ben-Gurion’s retirement from politics that this decision was reversed. Today Jabotinsky’s remains are buried in Jerusalem, in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.


Soldiers of the Jewish Brigade during WWII

Jewish soldiers from Palestine had a part to play in the Middle East in the British war effort. For the military operation against the Vichy French forces in Syria, the British made use of specially trained Haganah ‘shock troops’ (Plugot Mahatz), known by their Hebrew initials as Palmach. One of those recruited by the Haganah to serve in the Palmach was Yitzhak Rabin, who was then with a group of Labour youth at a kibbutz north of Haifa, training to establish a new kibbutz. ‘At the end of May 1941,’ he wrote in his memoirs, ‘there were rumours that German units had reached Lebanon, with the knowledge and consent of the Vichy government, and the long-awaited order arrived. By dusk the next day, I was in kibbutz Hanita, on the Lebanese border, together with about twenty equally puzzled but eager young men. In the kibbutz reading room we were met by a group of top-echelon Haganah leaders, including Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Sadeh and Yaakov Dori.’

Rabin’s account continued:

Dori was the first to address us and told of the forthcoming British invasion of Greater Syria, including Lebanon, to prevent Axis forces from using the area as a spring-board for invading Palestine simultaneously from the north and south. In response to a British request, the Haganah had decided to co-operate in the campaign, and that is why we had been brought to the border area. I was elated: at last I was about to take part in a battle on a global scale.

In truth, that fantasy was a gross exaggeration. We were divided up into two- and three-man sections and began foot patrols along the border until early June. Then my unit was informed that our task was to cross the border in advance of the Australian forces and cut the telephone lines to prevent the Vichy French from rushing reinforcements to the area…

At nightfall we crossed into Lebanon. The route to our objective and back was about fifty kilometres—to be covered on foot, of course.

As I was the youngest, I was given the job of climbing up the telephone pole. We had only received our climbing irons that day and hadn’t had time to practise. Unable to use the irons, I took o my boots (which was the way I usually climbed), and shinned up the pole and cut the first wire, only to nd that the pole was held upright by the tension of the wires. The pole swayed, and I found myself on the ground. But for lack of choice, up again I climbed, cut the wire, made my way down and repeated the operation on the second pole. Our mission completed, we buried the pieces of wire and made our way back to Hanita by a short cut, covering the distance quickly.

The story of the Haganah’s participation in the invasion of Syria, Rabin re ected, ‘might never have been remembered, even as a footnote to history, had it not been for the fact that on that same night, in a clash with a Vichy French force, Moshe Dayan lost his eye’. There was also a tragedy for the new Jewish force, when a commando unit of twenty-three men was sent by sea to attack the oil refineries in the Lebanese port of Tripoli. They set off in high spirits, and were never seen again.

As war came even to the borders of Palestine, the Jewish Agency continued to establish new settlements. In 1941 a group of youngsters from Germany set up kibbutz Yavneh, equidistant from the Arab towns of Yibnah and Isdud. A religious group, their kibbutz was to become the centre of the religious kibbutz movement. That same year the Haganah conducted a two-month training course for officers in the Carmel mountains.

In opposition to the Haganah, the Irgun believed that it must continue to ght the British in Palestine, and try to seize power. Avraham Stern, who had formed a breakaway ‘Irgun in Israel’ movement (also known as the Stern Gang), tried to make contact with Fascist Italy in the hope that, if Mussolini were to conquer the Middle East, he would allow a Jewish State to be set up in Palestine. When Mussolini’s troops were defeated in North Africa, Stern tried to make contact with Nazi Germany, hoping to sign a pact with Hitler which would lead to a Jewish State once Hitler had defeated Britain. After two members of Stern’s group had killed the Tel Aviv police chief and two of his officers, Stern himself was caught and killed. His followers continued on their path of terror.

David Ben-Gurion, returning to Palestine having spent a year in Britain and the United States, asked Arthur Ruppin to prepare material for a postwar Allied peace conference on Palestine. ‘I hope that you will show that there is a way of bringing five million Jews to Palestine,’ Ben-Gurion told him.

During 1941, as the German army was advancing through the Western Desert towards Egypt, prewar immigrants from Germany founded a kibbutz in the Negev, ten miles east of Gaza. The idea was to have a number of such settlements that might serve as a Jewish presence, should the British be forced to withdraw from Palestine. The name of the settlement, Dorot (Generations), was composed from the initials of the Labour leader and pioneer aviator Dov Hos, his wife Rivkah and their daughter Tirzah, who had all been killed the previous year in a road accident.

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