Our Roots Are Still Alive - Chapter 6

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    The heroic men and women who died on the barricades of Warsaw belonged to a section of the Jews who held their home was in the countries where they had been born, had worked, and had contributed to wealth and culture.
    - American Jewish Newsletter, 1946

On September 1, 1939, almost two million German troops stormed out of Germany in a Blitzkrieg, or "lightning war," against Poland. Waves of aircraft and column after column of tanks swept over the half-million Polish defenders. Fascist Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, was on the march. Hitler's aim was to build the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Britain and France, their survival as world powers at stake, declared war on Germany. World War II had begun. France quickly fell to the Germans, leaving Britain alone to face Hitler's legions.

As German armies swept over Europe, Britain urgently prepared to defend the Middle East, its primary source of oil. Palestine became a major military garrison. British soldiers and war materials began arriving at Palestinian ports. But Britain's own troops were not enough; it needed the support of the Arab countries. Britain added to the promises of the 1939 White Paper a series of pledges to support independence throughout the Middle East.

Palestinian Arabs distrusted Britain's promises. As they reopened their shuttered shops and replanted their fallow fields, they remembered vividly the crushing of their recent rebellion. Already they had sacrificed many lives in the struggle for an independent Palestine. Now the fate of Palestine was tied to another raging worldwide conflict. World War I had taught many Palestinians that European wars were collisions of empires in which Arab peoples were used and then discarded. Would World War II be different?

As the war began, despite the promises of the White Paper, Britain made no move to form a representative government in Palestine. Instead, it tightened its grip over the country. Nonetheless, nine thousand Palestinians joined the British armies to fight against Germany. Some joined the other side. Haj Amin El-Husseini, the exiled leader of the Arab Higher Committee, made a bid to increase his power by cooperating with the Germans. Fleeing to Berlin, he made pro-Nazi radio broadcasts that emphasized British betrayal of the Arabs and promised Arab independence under the rising star of Germany. Husseini's path was followed by other Arab reactionaries. They thought it was better to curry favor with the likely winner of the imperial war than to break the grip of Europe over their countries. Haj Amin's small political party continued to operate in Palestine secretly, but his collaboration with the Nazis discredited him in the eyes of many Palestinians.

With most organizations shattered, people began to meet in small groups at their work-place or village to discuss the future of Palestine. The League of Arab Students, founded in Jerusalem during the war, proposed a program of fighting fascism, spreading progressive ideas among the people and teaching peasants to read. The League tried to unite around these goals with some Zionists it considered progressive. But the Zionists told them there could be no "common ground" with any Palestinians who opposed a Jewish state in Palestine.1

WWII: Turning Point for the Jewish State

The outbreak of World War II made many Zionists think their goal for Palestine might not be so distant. In 1938, David Ben-Gurion, who chaired the Jewish Agency in Palestine, predicted: "The First World War brought us the Balfour Declaration; the Second ought to bring us the Jewish State."2 He believed that the war would create the conditions for the Zionist movement to build up a Jewish majority in Palestine. Zionists knew that without a large Jewish population, there could be no Jewish state. Even if they could wrest control of Palestine from the British, a small Jewish population with even smaller landholdings would not be able to rule over the Arab majority. During the 1930s it had seemed likely that the wave of immigrants fleeing Hitler's attacks could soon create a Jewish majority. But Britain's 1939 White Paper cut off that immigration. In 1940, in a further effort to gain Arab support, Britain announced its policy of diverting Jewish refugees who tried to come to Palestine to "an alternative place of refuge in the Colonial Empire."3

Jewish refugees entering Palestine illegally

Zionists vowed to defeat this British policy. If it were allowed to stand and if Jews in other countries concentrated on pressuring their governments to admit Jews fleeing from Europe, the Zionist experiment would be doomed. Ben-Gurion had seen this as early as 1938. Describing how pre-occupation with rescuing Jews might hurt the work of building Jewish institutions in Palestine, he said:

    If Jews will have to choose between the refugees, saving Jews from concentration camps, and assisting a national museum in Palestine, mercy will have the upper hand and the whole energy of the people will be channeled into saving Jews from various countries. Zionism will be struck off the agenda... If we allow a separation between the refugee problem and the Palestine problem, we are risking the existence of Zionism.4

In order to achieve their goal of a Jewish state, the Zionists focused on getting the refugees to Palestine and Palestine only. Jews who accepted Zionist help in escaping from Europe became caught in a vicious crossfire. The Zionists were bent on getting them to Palestine at any cost, and the British government was equally determined to settle them anywhere except in Palestine or Britain. The refugees became pawns in the clash between the Zionists and the British, sometimes with tragic results.

In 1940 the British discovered two steamships carrying 1,171 illegal immigrants toward the coast of Palestine. In line with the White Paper policy on immigration, the mandate authorities transferred the passengers to another ship, the S.S. Patria, and ordered them taken to Cyprus. On the morning of November 25, most of the Jewish population of Haifa stood crowded on the docks, watching the preparations. Suddenly, an explosion rocked the Patria, and it sank in fifteen minutes. Two hundred fifty-two refugees and several Jewish police officers died.

Immediately, officers of the Jewish Agency announced that the refugees had sunk the Patria as an act of protest; they would rather die than be turned away from Palestine. This explanation dominated headlines around the world. The resulting international outcry forced Britain to allow the survivors to remain in Palestine.

A later commission of inquiry revealed a different chain of events. A commando group of the Irgun, a faction of the Zionist movement led by Menahem Begin, had been ordered by the Jewish Agency to plant a bomb on the ship to disable its engines. The commandos used too much explosive and sank the ship instead. The Jewish Agency invented the "mass suicide" story to cover up its role. The sinking of the Patria became a weapon in the Zionists' propaganda campaign against the British.5

Zionist Drive Turns to the U.S.

Stories like the Patria affair made good newspaper copy. They found a receptive audience in the United States where the Zionist movement was escalating its drive for support. With British support eroding, the Zionists needed a new imperial sponsor. Even before the war broke out, Ben-Gurion was convinced that the United States would play that role:

    For my part, I had no doubt that the center of gravity of our political efforts had shifted from Great Britain to America, who was making sure of being the world's leading power and where the greatest number of Jews, as well as the most influential, were to be found.6

When the Zionists launched their organizing campaign in the United States, they demanded free immigration of Jews to Palestine, not to the United States. They knew that American leaders, whom they wanted to win to the Zionist cause, ad a consistently callous disregard for the plight of European Jews.

In the late 1930s, before the Nazis sealed their borders, thousands of German Jews had applied to immigrate to the United States. U.S. immigration quotas were set primarily to serve the demands of American corporations for cheap labor. In the depression years, American business had no need of more workers. thus, immigration officials turned away Jewish refugees unless they had money, a good job prospect and a "certificate of good conduct" from Nazi officials. Even these did not guarantee admission.

The economic depression also intensified racism and anti-Semitism among Americans. A Fortune magazine poll indicated that 15 percent of all Americans thought that "Germany would be better off if it drove away the Jews." The hate-filled radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin blamed Jews for everything from strikes to lay-offs.7

In this environment, few American Jews spoke out against U.S. immigration policy. Zionism encouraged them to direct their attack at Britain. A Zionist historian, Robert Silverberg, observed:

    ...the fear of creating an anti-Semitic backlash stifled the urge to attack restrictive immigration laws. Yet something had to be done to save the sufferers in Germany. Among American Jews, Zionism became a comforting substitute for the domestic political agitation in which they did not dare indulge.8

The Jewish Labor Council, a group of progressive Jewish workers, was one of the few voices to challenge the "closed door" of the United States. Most Zionists were adamant about their loyalty to the United States and its policies. During the hearings on the Wagner Bill of 1939, which proposed admitting ten thousand German Jewish children to the United States, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a top Zionist leader, gave only timid testimony in its favor. He hastened to add his unconditional support for the current immigration laws:

    I have heard no sane person propose any departure or deviation from the existing laws now in force... If there is any conflict between our duty to these children and our duty to our country, speaking for myself, as a citizen I should say, of course, that our country comes first; and if the children cannot be helped, they cannot be helped.9

As Zionism gained ground among American Jews in the first years of the war, it became more open about its final goal. The vague diplomatic language of the "national home" in Palestine disappeared. In May 1942 David Ben-Gurion arrived in New York to chair the Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel. The six hundred delegates approved unanimously the "Biltmore Program" which demanded "the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine." For the first time since Herzl, the Zionist movement publicly stated its goal of a Jewish state.

Genocide in Europe: Who Can Be Saved?

In that same year, 1942, Adolph Hitler ordered what he called the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish problem": the murder of all European Jews. No longer did the Nazis harass and expel those they considered "racially unfit." The fascist storm-troopers began to round up Jews, Gypsies and Slavs and send them to concentration camps. In these grim slaughterhouses, efficient work crews exterminated millions of people in the next several years. Among them were most of Eastern Europe's Jews. The organized, political anti-Semitism that had festered inside the structure of European capitalist society since the Czar's pogroms, had reached its ultimate expression, genocide.

In the face of this vicious murder campaign, the Jews of Europe had to act. From the beginning of the war, some Jews had been active in the underground resistance against fascism. As the Nazis began the "Final Solution," building clandestine organizations became at once more difficult and more necessary. Jewish and non-Jewish resistance fighters organized underground escape routes to help Jews flee to safety. They tried to stockpile weapons for eventual use against the Nazis. They gathered intelligence on the Nazis' plans which they tried to share with the still disbelieving Jewish communities. Even as the Nazi death machine ground on, most European Jews did not know exactly what Hitler was doing. Up to the end of the war, many Jews boarded trains to the death camps unaware of their destination.

Jewish partisans at the barricades of Warsaw in 1944.

When they did know the true situation, they did not go peacefully. In 1943, in the Warsaw ghetto of Poland, Jewish fighters rose up against the Nazis who tried to evacuate them. They fought the Nazis for six months, hiding in bombed-out buildings and the maze of sewer tunnels below the city. German commanders recorded in their notes: "Over and over again we observed that Jews, despite the dangers of being burned alive, preferred to return to the flames rather than be caught by us."10 The Germans reported that, when surrounded, women came out with their guns blazing rather than surrender. Against impossible odds, Warsaw Jews fought to the end.

All along, they and the other underground resistance fighters of Europe hoped for direct aid from the Western Allies. It did not come. In 1944, the United States government refused to bomb the railroad tracks into Auschwitz and other concentration camps in order to save thousands of doomed people. A U.S. official said that such an operation would require "diversion of considerable air support" and would be of "doubtful efficacy."11 The United States made no effort to supply and assist the leftist partisans in occupied Europe.

The Zionist leadership in Palestine did little more. According to Uri Avnery, a contemporary Israeli politician who was then a member of the underground Stern Gang in Palestine:

    Throughout the war, nothing much was done by the Zionist leadership to help the Jews in conquered Europe about to be massacred... Many people think that things should and could have been done: hundreds of Haganah and Irgun fighters could have been parachuted into Europe; the British and American governments could have been pressured into bombing the railways leading to the death camps.12

But rescue and defense of Europe's Jews were not the Zionist priority. In 1943, the year of the Warsaw uprising, Itzhak Greenbaum, head of the Zionist Jewish Rescue Committee, declared:

    If I am asked could you give from UJA (United Jewish Appeal) money to rescue Jews? I say, "No, and again no." In my opinion, we have to resist that wave which puts Zionist activities in the second line.13

When Zionist leaders faced a conflict between the needs of the Jewish state and the needs of Europe's Jews, they usually decided in favor of the Jewish state. Almost a half-million Hungarian Jews paid with their lives for one such decision.

Dr. Rudolf Kastner was the vice-president of the Zionist Organization in Budapest, Hungary, during the war. He had cooperated with the Nazis through all phases of their "Jewish program," including the "Final Solution." In the early period, when the Nazis favored expelling Jews, he had been able to arrange for some Jews to leave for Palestine with Nazi cooperation. Later, when the Nazis prepared to evacuate Hungary's Jews to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, they approached Kastner. If he would help coordinate the evacuation, they would allow him to select a fixed number of Jews to emigrate to Palestine. In her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes the bargain:

    Dr. Kastner... saved exactly 1,684 people with approximately 476,000 victims. In order not to leave the selection to "blind fate," "truly holy principles" were needed "as the guiding force of the weak human hand which puts down on paper the name of the unknown person and with this decides his life or death." And whom did these "holy principles" single out for salvation? Those "who had worked all their lives for the zibur [community]" - i.e., the functionaries - and the "most prominent Jews," as Kastner says in his report.14

Dr. Kastner and his company of "prominent Jews" were able to go to Palestine. Unaware of their final destination, thousands and thousands of Jews who might otherwise have resisted, boarded the trains for Auschwitz.

As word of Nazi genocide trickled to the United States, it galvanized American Zionists into action. Zionist please for U.S. support of the Jewish state found a receptive audience, especially among government and business leaders. During the war, the U.S. government's interest in the Middle East and its oil had skyrocketed. By 1942, a year after America entered the war, C.L. Sulzberger of the New York Times was describing the Middle East as "the most important single geographic area of the war."15 Already U.S. leaders were intent on dislodging Britain from the region. The Zionists' anti-British campaign fit perfectly with their own plans.

Against the backdrop of Hitler's crimes in Europe, the Zionists were able to organize tremendous popular support for their cause. In the election year 1944, more than three thousand non-Jewish organizations, from church groups to labor unions, passed pro-Zionist resolutions. Telegrams and letters poured into Washington. Of the 534 members of Congress, 411 called for American approval of the Jewish state.

Many of the same anti-Semites who refused to open the doors of America to the Jewish refugees clamored for an open door to Palestine. Some critics of the Zionist goal questioned the ethics of making the Palestinians sacrifice their country for the sins of Europe and America. A Midwestern minister answered bluntly:

    To say it is internationally unethical to take Palestine away from the Arabs and give it to the Jews has about as much rightness to it as to say European settlers had no right to settle on what has become the great continent of America because it happened to be peopled by American Indians.16

President Roosevelt, responding to strong corporate interest in the Middle East and growing public support for Zionism, pledged support for a Jewish state in Palestine if he was re-elected. But less than six months after his re-election, Roosevelt met with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. Roosevelt told him that the United States would consult the Arabs before taking any action in Palestine. Clearly, the United States could not honor both pledges.

As the war drew to a close, fighting broke out in Palestine between the Zionists and the British. The Zionists intensified their campaign for American backing. The policy of the United States - now the most powerful nation in the world - had become a crucial factor in deciding the fate of Palestine.


  1. The Esco Foundation, Palestine, 2:1011.
  2. Michael Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion:The Armed Prophet (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: 1968), p. 69.
  3. Christopher Sykes, Crossroads to Israel (London: 1968), p. 223.
  4. Letter to the Zionist executive, 17 December 1938, cited in Bober, ed., The Other Israel, p. 171.
  5. Morning Freiheit (New York), 27 November 1950, cited by John and Hadawi, The Palestine Diary, 1:338.
  6. Bar-Zohar, p. 64.
  7. Robert Silverberg, If I forget Thee O Jerusalem:American Jews and the State of Israel (New York: 1970), p. 142.
  8. Ibid., p 141.
  9. Rabbi Stephen Wise, U.S. Congress, Senate and House Subcommittees on Immigration, and on Immigration and Naturalization, respectively, Admission of German Refugee Children, Joint Hearings on S.J. Res. 64 and H.J. Res 168, 76th Cont., 1st sess., 1939, pp.155-60, cited in Walid Khalid, ed., From Haven to Conquest:Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948, (Beirut: 1971), p. 452.
  10. Sachar, The Course of Modern Jewish History, p. 452.
  11. Henry Feingold, The Politics of Rescue:The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust 1938-1945 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: 1970), p. 141.
  12. Avnery, Israel Without Zionism, p. 141.
  13. Ben Hecht, Perfidy (New York: 1961), p. 50, cited by Tabitha Petran, Zionism:A Political Critique (Washington, D.C.: 1973), p. 6.
  14. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York: 1963), p. 118.
  15. C.L. Sulzberger, "German Reparation in the Middle East," Foreign Affairs (July 1942), p. 663, cited by the Esco Foundation, Palestine, 1:957.
  16. Cited by Wm. L. Burton, "Protestant America and the Rebirth of Israel," Jewish Social Studies (October 1964), p. 284.