A short history of the modern state of Israel: Part 4 (Second World War to birth of Israel)


On the eve of the Second World War, when Hitler’s hatred for the Jews became known, many tried to get out of Europe.  Desperate and homeless Jews were free to leave but had nowhere to go.  Roosevelt called an international conference in Evian, France to discuss the escalating Jewish problem.  Thirty two nations were represented including Britain; the latter attended on condition that Palestine was not mentioned as a possible haven.

British interest was purely political

British interest was purely political.  She needed to maintain control of the Suez Canal, and oil in Iraq was owned by BP.  Evidence of Jewish persecution in Europe was shown at the conference but the nations refused to allow them entrance.  After Crystal Night in Vienna (terrible violence and razing of synagogues) Britain was the only nation to respond, which she did by taking children aged 12-16 of Jewish origin into the country as refugees. The 273 refugees aged 16-60 who arrived in Britain were interned on the Isle of Man.

The Macdonald White Paper (see Part 3) effectively blocked European Jews’ escape route from the impending holocaust.  Of the possible 75,000 Palestine entry certificates granted by the White Paper, 36,000 were not issued.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were desperate to reach Palestine by any means.  Ha’apala was one clandestine operation to transport Jews there, some by air, some by sea.  Well over 100,000 Jews travelled to Palestine from 1934 onwards.  The Royal Navy intercepted the ships and they were deported elsewhere, e.g Mauritius, where 1 in 10 refugees died.  Some died on the ‘Patria’ and the ‘Struma’, refugee ships which were deliberately detained and sunk.  Those that got to the mainland were considered by the British to be illegal immigrants.   These would-be immigrants were sent to a purpose-built detention camp at Atlit.

Hitler sets his sights on Jerusalem

In 1942 Hitler set his sights on Jerusalem.  Hitler’s ally, al Husseini (Grand Mufti) signed an agreement with Hitler implying extermination of the Jews.  The main threat to the territory of Palestine was Rommel’s forces in North Africa.  Britain employed Palestinian Jews and Arabs to fight against the Germans.  There were 30,000 Jewish volunteers and a few hundred Arabs.  The battle of el-Alamein, led by Lord Montgomery, was the first major victory for the Allies in WW2, and a turning point against Hitler.

Britain denies Jewish refugees

In March 1943 Archbishop Temple appealed to Britain to open her doors to the Jewish refugees, but he was ignored.  Many in Palestine blamed Britain, in part, for the appalling loss of life and by the end of the war the majority wanted Britain out of the land.  Nazi Germany systematically murdered 6 million European Jews by the end of the war, 2 million died in Auchwitz alone.  

Randolph Churchill's plan

Towards the end of the war, Churchill’s son, Randolph, suggested a plan to his father, the Prime Minister, to rescue Jews from Nazi-dominated Europe.  His plan resulted in several hundred Jews being saved.  Churchill also decided that the restrictions on immigration imposed before the war should not prevent any Jew who was able to escape from Europe to go on to Palestine.  More than 6,000 did.

Labour's victory in 1945

However, Labour Clement Attlee won a landslide victory in the election in 1945, and his Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted on maintaining the pre-war restrictions on immigration.  He was determined not to help the Jews in any way.  The war left Britain dependent on Arab oil supplies at favourable prices.  Bevin’s policy was to appease the Arabs at the expense of the Jews. 

Jews in Europe becoming desperate

The plight of the Jews in Europe was becoming more desperate.  Those who survived the Nazi death camps were set up in displaced persons camps by the Allies, robbed of dignity and freedom; 97% of these survivors would have wanted to go to Palestine.  In every port in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea there were British spies reporting the movements of ships.  British naval vessels were commanded to intercept (i.e. destroy) all craft making for Palestine.  By 1946 all so-called ‘illegal’ immigrant camps in Palestine, including Atlit (the largest), were full so future immigrants, even some Auschwitz survivors, were deported to Cyprus or elsewhere.  50,000 Jews were interned in Cyprus and not released until British rule in Palestine ended in 1948. 

Anti-British feeling

Anti-British feeling ran high in Palestine, and, led by Menachem Begin, a future Prime Minister of Israel, the Irgun (short for Irgun Zvai Leumi, the National Military Organisation) started a military campaign against the British, believing that power should be seized by force from the British.  British soldiers and policemen were killed.  In 1946, following incidents initiated by the Palmach (Haganah’s special strike force) the British arrested 3,000 Zionist activists including one of Israel’s greatest future leaders, Yitzhak Rabin, then a young Palmach officer.

The saga of the Haganah ship ‘Exodus’ left Britain’s reputation in tatters.  World leaders called for the end of British rule in Palestine.  The event brought about freedom of Jewish survivors from camps in Middle East and Europe and made way for their homeland to be granted to them.  4554 people were on the ship which left France for Palestine.   Near Tel Aviv British destroyers attacked (with some deaths and casualties).  The British took control of the ship and took it to Haifa.  Refugees were put on 3 ships (1500 on each, plus some crew) and sent to Cyprus.  World attention was centred on this.  Members of UNSCOP (see below) were on the wharf and witnessed what happened, affecting their recommendations to the UN.  Bevin ordered that they be sent back to Europe instead of to Cyprus.  They refused to land in European ports until Bevin ordered they be forcefully removed and interned in  British-controlled camp near Hamburg, Germany. 

A wing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where the British had their military headquarters was blown up in an Irgun attack, killing prominent Jews and Arabs as well as some British, 91 people in all.  The tragedy undermined British rule in Palestine and getting them out became a priority.  In February the following year the British Government announced that it was handing back the Mandate to the United Nations (the post-war successor of the League of Nations).

United Nations Special Committee on Palestine

The UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) brief was to find a solution for the Palestine problem.  It proposed two separate sovereign states, one Jewish to replace the Palestine Mandate, one Arab, and that Jerusalem plus a large Jewish and Arab inhabited area around it should be retained by the UN.  The Jews accepted the partition plan but the Arabs swore to destroy any Jewish state as soon as it came into being.  Violent physical attacks erupted between Palestine’s Jewish and Arab communities the day the UN Resolution was passed.

Civil war

A civil war began, and the British struggled to maintain law and order before their withdrawal in 1948.  Arabs tried to cut off all access routes to Jerusalem and the city came under siege.  The Irgun attacked Deir Yassin, an Arab village on edge of Jerusalem, which was a centre of arms for Arabs.  110 people died, including 31 or 32 women and children.  False rumours spread that hundreds of Arabs had been massacred by the Jews.  Four days later, Arabs massacred a convoy from the Hadassah Hospital on the other side of Jerusalem.  The nearby British post did nothing.  78 people were murdered.  Arab armies were ready to attack as soon as Israel was formed.

The birth of the State of Israel

In the midst of British soldiers leaving Palestine, Ben Gurion declared the birth of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948.  With nationhood came an Israeli national army and air force, the Israel Defence Forces (DF).  The Haganah  became part of the national army.  From the first day, Jerusalem, the capital city of the new nation, came under siege.  Arab forces were determined to crush the new state and cut off its main city from the rest of the country.  The Seventh Brigade, consisting of Holocaust survivors recently returned from Cyprus, attacked the Arab forces at Latrun.  Among those wounded was Ariel Sharon.  The attack failed but the siege ended when vital supplies via the Burma Road which by-passed Latrun.  After leading Israel in the Arab/Israeli war, David Ben Gurion was elected the first Prime Minister in 1949.  Within a couple of years nearly 700,000 Jews entered Israel, more than doubling the country's Jewish population.

On the eve of the Second World War, when Hitler’s hatred for the Jews became known, many tried to get out of Europe. Desperate and homeless Jews were free to leave but had nowhere to go. Roosevelt called an international conference in Evian, France to discuss the escalating Jewish problem. Thirty two nations were represented including Britain; the latter attended on condition that Palestine was not mentioned as a possible haven

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