Blockading Palestine: Lessons from Exodus 1947

The IDF's blockade of the Gaza Strip and its interdiction of humanitarian flotillas is ironic in view of recent history.
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The IDF's blockade of the Gaza Strip and its interdiction of humanitarian flotillas is ironic in view of recent history. The end of World War II and the liberation of the Nazi death camps left a pool of 500,000 Jewish refugees in Europe. Many wished to emigrate to Palestine, but were barred by immigration restrictions contained in a 1939 British White Paper designed to ensure that a soon-to-be-independent Palestine "would be neither an Arab nor a Jewish state." At war's end, there were 600,000 Jews in Palestine and 1.2 million Arabs. If Europe's Holocaust survivors went to Palestine, they would tip the balance against the Arabs and inflame Muslim opinion throughout the British Empire.

Shut out of Palestine, the Jews reacted with flotillas, as well as an international press campaign designed to turn opinion against the British and Arabs. Ads like this ran in The New York Times: "Germany exterminates the Jews in Europe and Britain bars the way to their rescue."

Seeking a Switzerland-type solution for Palestine -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish cantons fused in a "future of mutual tolerance and goodwill" -- the British held their ground. Palestine's Jewish Agency -- a well-funded NGO -- purchased boats to transport European Jews to the Holy Land. The Hagana -- forerunner of the IDF -- was given naval training to land "illegal" Jews. The Royal Navy enforced a blockade of Palestine, to stop the Jewish immigrants and reroute them to camps in Cyprus or back to their ports of origin. The Stern Gang's paper Mivrak reacted by conflating the British and the Nazis: "the Thames flows into the Rhine."

A British intelligence officer assigned to study the new Jewish naval units discovered that they were intended to goad the British or Arabs into obstruction or counterattacks, "thereby releasing a storm of atrocity propaganda [that would] unite Jewish Zionists and anti-Zionists across the world and divide Britain and the U.S."

It worked. Against the advice of Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the U.S. House and Senate advanced what Hull called "alarming resolutions" that trampled on thirty years of Jewish-Arab negotiation in Palestine. Britain, Congress declared, had an "obligation" to throw open the doors of Palestine to "unlimited" immigration "so that the Jewish people may reconstitute Palestine as a free and democratic Jewish Commonwealth."

U.S. Army chief of Staff George Marshall and Navy Secretary James Forrestal pressed Congress to shelve or at least postpone the resolutions so as not to alienate Arab allies like Saudi Arabia's king, who expressed contempt for the U.S. action: "In the name of humanity it is proposed to force on the Arab majority of Palestine a people alien to them, to make these new people a majority, thereby rendering the existing majority a minority."

The Senate paused, but the House went ahead and resolved. New York Governor Tom Dewey, girding for a run at the White House, demanded that Palestine become a "Jewish Commonwealth." FDR then affirmed that a Jewish state swelled by unlimited European immigration would be a Democratic Party objective too.

When FDR died in office, Truman inherited the crisis. He curtly told British Prime Minister Clement Attlee (in August 1945) to tear up the pre-war White Paper and permit unfettered Jewish immigration to "further development of the Jewish national home." Attlee countered that such an influx of European Jews would cause "civil war" in Palestine and undercut British efforts to coax Egypt and Jordan into a pro-Western defense pact.

Attlee's government winced at the credulity or cynicism of Truman's, which made no effort to discover just what a "Jewish Commonwealth" would look like. Would wealth, land and citizenship be common to Jews, Muslims and Christians, or reserved for the former? The British knew the answer. A 1946 British report compared Palestine to South Africa: enriched by aid dollars from abroad, the Jews "behaved as a Herrenvolk" in Palestine, "a master race." And a classified British report on terrorist activities in Palestine found the Jews far more dangerous than the Arabs, for the simple reason that the Jews rejected all criticism - even the fairest kind - of their methods: "the totalitarian organization and regimentation of the [Jewish community] has negated free thought and speech."

In 1947, the British had a last stab at blocking the illegal Jewish flotillas trying to breach the immigration blockade of Palestine. The HMS Ajax intercepted the Exodus 1947, a twenty-year old U.S.-built passenger steamer, which was carrying 4,515 Jewish settlers from France toward Palestine. Aware that the Exodus was skippered by Hagana paramilitaries (not mere "activists"), British troops boarded the ship 20 nautical miles off the coast of Palestine. The British boarding party was attacked by the Jewish crew and passengers. The British commander on the scene described the melée thus: "Every available weapon up to a biscuit and bulks of timber was hurled at the soldiers. They withstood it admirably and very stoically till the Jews assaulted and in the first rush several soldiers were downed with half a dozen Jews on top kicking and tearing." He concluded: "It should be borne in mind that the guiding factor in most of the actions of the Jews is to gain the sympathy of the world press."

Dr. Geoffrey Wawro is the General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History and Director of the Military History Center at the University of North Texas. He is the author of Quicksand: America's Pursuit of Power in the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2010.)

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