Middle East History: It Happened in July; Meticulously Planned Exodus Saga Gained Sympathy for Zionist Cause

By Neff, Donald | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Middle East History: It Happened in July; Meticulously Planned Exodus Saga Gained Sympathy for Zionist Cause


Neff, Donald, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


MIDDLE EAST HISTORY: IT HAPPENED IN JULY; Meticulously Planned Exodus Saga Gained Sympathy For Zionist Cause

By Donald Neff

It was 48 years ago, on July 18, 1947, that a rickety former Cheasepeake Bay ferryboat sailed into Haifa harbor in northern Palestine packed with 4,554 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust. 1 British troops were waiting for the bedraggled Jews because they were trying to enter Palestine illegally. The world press also was there to watch the confrontation. In the melee that followed, three Jews were killed and scores injured as British troops forcefully removed them from the ship. Not unexpectedly, the incident received heavy media coverage, picturing brutish British soldiers manhandling weak and helpless Jews. 2 Thus began the saga of the Exodus, a piteous incident that helped win unprecedented sympathy for the Zionist cause.

The agony of the Exodus was not an accident. The old ferry boat, originally called President Wakefield, had been bought by a group of Jewish Americans called the Sonneborn Institute after New York Jewish millionaire Rudolf G. Sonneborn. Its main purpose was to circumvent U.S. laws against transferring weapons to the Jews in Palestine. 3

The voyage of the Exodus had been meticulously planned by Zionist leaders with an eye to gaining sympathy in the world press for the plight of hundreds of thousands of European Jews left homeless by World War II. Many of them wanted to migrate to Palestine. They were prevented, however, by the British, who in 1947 were concluding their 30th and final year as Palestine's master. During their occupation and rule, the British had made a number of promises to Palestine's majority community of Arabs to protect them from waves of Jewish immigrants. Among these promises was a pledge in the White Paper of 1939 that the Arabs would have a de facto veto over Jewish immigration into Palestine after 1944. 4

The Arabs were adamant after World War II that Britain keep its pledge against new immigrants. They pointed out that since the beginning of the century the demographic balance had changed from an Arab majority of more than 10 to 1 to the current level of 2 to 1. The balance would shift even more dramatically if displaced European Jews were allowed entry to Palestine. 5

But now, with all the unspeakable details of the Holocaust in full public view--the stark photographs of the concentration camps and crematoria, the shocking stacks of starved bodies, the astounding figure of 6 million dead--the Jews were demanding an open gate to Palestine.

It was a cruel dilemma for Britain. On one level, the two issues had nothing in common. The displaced Jews were a European problem, while immigration into Palestine was a local Middle Eastern problem. But Britain had responsibilities in both regions. Moreover, while it had a commitment to the Palestinians it also was caught up in the humanitarian outpouring of sympathy in the West for the Jews. It was because of such dilemmas that London only five months earlier had announced it was surrendering its Mandate over Palestine and turning the whole difficult matter over to the United Nations. 6 However, until the world body found a solution, British troops would be responsible for maintaining order in Palestine.

On their side, the Zionists launched an organized campaign to transport illegal immigrants to Palestine to challenge the British limits against immigration. As an indication of the magnitude of the operation, 69,878 Jews were sent to Palestine as illegal immigrants between 1945 and May 1948, and 51,500 of them were intercepted by the British navy and interned on Cyprus. 7

Predictably, the dramatic story of homeless Jews fresh from Europe's death camps and bound for Palestine in barely seaworthy vessels to face British troops was a running human interest story in the media throughout the immediate postwar years. 8 Little noted by the press was the fact that every able-bodied immigrant added to the military power of the Jews in Palestine, a consideration not overlooked by British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin. …

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