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Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

Lenni Brenner

Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

6. The Jewish Anti-Nazi Boycott and the Zionist-Nazi Trade Agreement

It was only the incompetence of his foes that allowed Hitler to come to power, and the new Chancellor still had to prove to his capitalist patrons that he could handle the responsibilities of running Germany. His position was by no means completely secure: the workers were still against him, and the industrialists still had to be shown that he could get the economy moving. Abroad the capitalists wavered between relief that he had crushed the Communists and fear that he would eventually start another war. Foreign opinion was now crucial: Germany was dependent on the world market, and Hitler’s anti-Semitism became a problem. The Jews were powerful in the emporiums of the world, particularly in two of Germany’s biggest markets – Eastern Europe and America. German business interests were by no means certain about their loyalty to the new Chancellor; together with their friends in the army they might have to curb him or even replace him, if they were themselves to suffer losses because the Jews and his other foreign foes united in a boycott of German exports. The regime’s own economic experts frankly discussed their grave weakness and were extremely concerned that the New Order might not survive resolute opposition abroad.

The Jews moved very slowly but finally New York’s Jewish War Veterans (JWV), after considering the consequences for German Jewry, announced a trade boycott on 19 March 1933 and organised a huge protest parade on the 23rd. The Mayor of New York took part and so did the Communists, whom the ex-servicemen refused to allow into the demonstration until they took down their banners. Spurning the thousands of Communists in New York’s Jewish community doomed the tiny veteran group’s efforts. Politically extremely naive, the veterans ignored the elementary fact that for a boycott to have even the slightest chance of success, it must have the broadest possible organised unity behind it. Soon after the veterans’ failure Abe Coralnik, a Zionist, and Samuel Untermyer, a sympathiser who had donated the money for the new stadium at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, put together what ultimately became the Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League. However, boycott picketing was illegal and Untermyer, a Tammany lawyer, would not break the law. Of course, without mass picketing a boycott cannot be enforced and those in the Jewish community who were determined to impose a boycott turned next to Rabbi Wise and the Zionist American Jewish Congress (AJC) to take the lead. At first Wise opposed both demonstrations and a boycott, but by 27 March even he was willing to fill Madison Square Garden for the rally that so disturbed Goering. A large assembly of politicians, churchmen and trade union bureaucrats duly denounced the tyrant in Berlin, but nothing was done to organise mass support. Wise, who had not mobilised the masses before Hitler came to power, was not the one to do it now. On the contrary, he wrote to a friend: “You cannot imagine what I am doing to resist the masses. They want tremendous street scenes.” [1] He opposed a boycott, hoping that a few demonstrations, alone, would press Roosevelt into intervening. But the State Department saw Hitler as a battering ram against Communism, and the domestic politicians, desperately wanting to end the Depression, craved for Germany as a market. The result was that the Democrats did nothing either against Hitler or for the Jews. As a Democrat himself, Wise continued to hold out against a boycott but, while he was in Europe in August l933, consulting German Jewish leaders and attending the WZ Congress, the more militant elements in the AJC managed to call a boycott. But the AJC was still a thoroughly bourgeois organisation without experience in mass mobilisation and, like the Anti-Nazi League, it timidly opposed picketing. Its boycott director did nothing more strenuous than issue splendid statistics on how the Nazis’ trade was being devastated by the boycott. [2] It was not until its youth group finally rebelled and picketed a department-store chain in the autumn of 1934 that the AJC allowed its affiliates to picket recalcitrant merchants.

Boycotts are almost never successful. Most people think they have done enough if they stop buying the goods, but a boycott can only work if there is a solid organisation prepared to disrupt trade seriously. The blame for the failure to build that movement lay with many: both Jewish and non-Jewish. Certainly the trade union leaders who pledged their opposition to Hitler, but did nothing to mobilise their ranks were to a large measure responsible for the lack of a serious boycott campaign. Certainly those Jewish groups like the JWV, the Anti-Nazi League and the AJC were ineffectual, but there were those in the Jewish community in America and Britain who specifically opposed the very notion of a boycott. The American Jewish Committee, the B’nai B’rith (Sons of the Covenant) fraternal order and the Board of Deputies of British Jews refused to back the boycott. They feared that if the Jewish workers, and others as well, took it into their heads to fight Hitler, perhaps they would stay in motion and come after their own rich closer to home. These worthies confined themselves to charity efforts for German Jewry and its refugees and prayed that Hitlerism would not spread. The Agudas Yisrael (Union of Israel), the political arm of the most extreme wing of traditional Orthodoxy, opposed the boycott on religious grounds as well as their social conservativism. They claimed that ever since the ancient Jewish kingdom was destroyed by the Romans, the Talmud had forbidden Jews to revolt against Gentile authority in the Diaspora; they interpreted the boycott as rebellion and therefore forbidden. However, of all of the active Jewish opponents of the boycott idea, the most important was the World Zionist Organisation (WZO). It not only bought German wares; it sold them, and even sought out new customers for Hitler and his industrialist backers.

The appeal of the blood idea

The WZO saw Hitler’s victory in much the same way as its German affiliate, the ZVfD: not primarily as a defeat for all Jewry, but as positive proof of the bankruptcy of assimilationism and liberalism. Their own hour was at hand. Zionists began to sound like tent-revivalists: Hitler was history’s flail to drive the stiff-necked Jews back to their own kind and their own land. A recent Zionist convert, the then world-famous popular biographer Emil Ludwig, was interviewed by a fellow Zionist on a visit to America and expressed the general attitude of the Zionist movement:

“Hitler will be forgotten in a few years, but he will have a beautiful monument in Palestine. You know”, and here the biographer-historian seemed to assume the role of a patriarchal Jew – “the coming of the Nazis was rather a welcome thing. So many of our German Jews were hovering between two coasts; so many of them were riding the treacherous current between the Scylla of assimilation and the Charybdis of a nodding acquaintance with Jewish things. Thousands who seemed to be completely lost to Judaism were brought back to the fold by Hitler, and for that I am personally very grateful to him.” [3]

Ludwig was a newcomer to the movement, but his views were in complete concord with those of such veterans as the celebrated Chaim Nachman Bialik, thought of then as the poet laureate of Zion. Because of his reputation, his statements were given wide circulation both by the Zionist movement and its left-wing enemies. The poet’s concern had long been the breakdown of Jewish unity resulting from the decline of traditional religious faith, and now he could not hide his happiness that Hitler had come just in time to save German Jewry from its own destruction.

Hitlerism, the poet feels, has rendered at least one service in drawing no lines between the faithful Jew and the apostate Jew. Had Hitler excepted the baptized Jews, there would have developed, Bialik contended, the unedifying spectacle of thousands of Jews running to the baptismal fonts. Hitlerism has perhaps saved German Jewry, which was being assimilated into annihilation. At the same time, it has made the world so conscious of the Jewish problem, that they can no longer ignore it. [4]

Bialik, like many other Zionists, thought of the Jews as something of a super race; if only they would finally come to their senses and stop wasting themselves on an ungrateful humanity and started working in their own vineyard.

Indeed it is quite true that Judaism, by penetrating into all the nations actually did undermine the remnants of that sort of idolatry ... but perhaps the strongest forces in this process were our “apostate” or “assimilated” Jews of all types, who entered into the very body of Christianity and stirred its very bowels, and went on slowly undermining the remnants of paganism as a result of their Jewish volition and their Jewish blood. I, too, like Hitler, believe in the power of the blood idea. These were the men – although often the names of great non-Jews are called in their stead – who smoothed the roads for the great movements of freedom all over the world: The Renaissance, Liberalism, Democracy, Socialism and Communism ... Anti-Semites sometimes have clear discernment. Jewish influence has indeed been very powerful in this connection; we ought not to deny it. [5]

However, by 1934 Zionism was a movement claiming over a million members world-wide and not all of them accepted the upside-down notion that Hitler really was a boon to the Jews. Some, like the American rabbi, Abraham Jacobson, protested against this insane idea, which was still quite widespread even as late as 1936:

How many times have we heard the impious wish uttered in despair over the apathy of American Jews to Zionism, that a Hitler descend upon them? Then they would realize the need for Palestine! ([6]

First Dealings with the Nazis

Certainly the WZO was quite prepared to try and use the Nazis for their own purposes. The first overtures to the Nazis were made independently in 1933 by one Sam Cohen, the owner of Ha Note’a Ltd, a Tel Aviv citrus export firm. Even under Chancellor Brüning the German government had put a flight tax on capital leaving the country and Cohen had proposed that Zionist emigres be allowed to avoid the tax by purchasing goods in Germany which would later be turned back into cash after sale in Palestine. Brüning had no interest in the idea, but in 1933 Cohen, on his own, presented the plan again. The Nazis were already worried about the effect even the spontaneous and lamentably organised boycott was having on their balance of trade, and Heinrich Wolff, the German Consul in Jerusalem, quickly grasped just how useful Cohen’s proposition could be. He wrote to his ministry: “In this way it might be possible to wage a successful campaign against the Jewish boycott of Germany. It might be possible to make a breach in the wall.” [7]

The Jews, he argued, would be put in a quandary. Further boycott would be seen as imposing problems on emigrants seeking to find new homes for themselves in Palestine or elsewhere. Because of his location, Wolff was one of the first Germans to perceive the growing importance of Palestine in the Jewish equation, and in June he wrote again to Berlin:

Whereas in April and May the Yishuv was waiting boycott instructions from the United States, it now seems that the situation has been transformed. It is Palestine which now gives the instructions ... It is important to break the boycott first and foremost in Palestine, and the effect will inevitably be felt on the main front, in the United States. [8]

In early May 1933 the Nazis signed an agreement with Cohen for one million Reichmarks ($400,000) of Jewish wealth to be shipped to Palestine in the form of farm machinery. At this point the WZO intervened. The Depression had badly affected donations and in March 1933 they had desperately cabled to their followers in America pleading that if funds were not forthcoming immediately they were heading for imminent financial collapse. [9] Now Menachem Ussischkin, head of the Jewish National Fund, got Cohen to arrange for the release of frozen JNF monies in Germany via Ha Note’a. The bait for the Nazis was that the cash was needed to buy land for the Jews whom Hitler would be pushing out. Cohen also assured Heinrich Wolff that he would operate “behind the scenes at a forthcoming Jewish conference in London to weaken or defeat any boycott resolution”. [10] Dr Fritz Reichert, the Gestapo’s agent in Palestine, later wrote to his headquarters reminding them of the affair:

The London Boycott Conference was torpedoed from Tel Aviv because the head of the Transfer in Palestine, in close contact with the consulate in Jerusalem, sent cables to London. Our main function here is to prevent, from Palestine, the unification of world Jewry on a basis hostile to Germany ... It is advisable to damage the political and economic strength of Jewry by sowing dissension in its ranks. [11]

Sam Cohen was soon superseded in these delicate negotiations by Labour Zionist, Chaim Arlosoroff, the Political Secretary of the Jewish Agency, the WZO’s Palestine centre. Arlosoroff was keenly aware of the movement’s problems. In 1932 he had concluded that they had failed to attract enough immigrants to overcome the Arabs’ numbers and they were not drawing enough Jewish capital. Hitler in power would mean war within ten years. To survive in Palestine and solve the Jewish problem in that period meant swift and vigorous action. Now, he thought, he had the way for Zionism to solve its difficulties: with Britain’s agreement, they could get both the immigrants and the capital needed through extending Cohen’s project. In an article in the Rundschau and elsewhere, he coldly explained that this could only be done in complete co-operation with Berlin:

Naturally, Germany cannot expose herself to the risk of upsetting her currency and exchange balance in order to meet the Jews, but a way out can be found to adjust these different interests ... It would be worth while, leaving all sentimentalities out of the question, to reach such an agreement with Germany.

The self-styled Socialist-Zionist then proposed the ultimate alliance, a deal between the Zionists, the Nazis, the Fascists and the British Empire, to organise the evacuation of Jewry from Germany:

It could also be possible to establish a company, with the participation of the German State and other European, primarily British and Italian interests, which would slowly liquidate the particular properties by issuing letters of credit ... [and creating] ... a guarantee fund. [12]

He felt his idea was particularly timely because world opinion would support a “constructive treatment of the Jewish question in Germany”. [13] Knowing the German Jews would not want to put all their money in Hitler’s hands, he proposed that the British should choose the fund’s manager. His comrade Yitzhak Lufban wrote later that “Arlosoroff suggested several names, and the Colonial Secretary picked one of them”.[14] In early May 1933, Arlosoroff and the Nazis came to a preliminary understanding to extend Cohen’s arrangements. He visited Berlin again in June, and returned to Tel Aviv on 14 June. Two nights later he was assassinated because of his dealings with the Nazis. The killing will be discussed below; it is sufficient to say here that it did not slow down the WZO’s accommodation with the Nazis, and a Zionist-Nazi pact was announced by the Nazis in time for the 18th Zionist Congress in August in Prague.

The WZO Justifies the Pact with the Nazis

Hitler’s shadow completely dominated the Prague Congress. The WZO’s leaders knew that the Nazis were interested in a deal and they determined to avoid offending Germany by limiting discussion of the situation there to the barest minimum.[15] The regime as such was not condemned. The League of Nations was asked to help in the “fight for the recovery of the rights of the Jews in Germany”, but the request was buried in a lengthy discussion of emigration and Palestine. [16] No plan was proposed to put pressure on the world body, nor was any specific action called for on the League’s part.

The Zionist-Nazi pact became public the day before a boycott resolution was to be debated, and it may be speculated that the Nazis did this so as to discourage endorsement of the boycott. The leader of the right-wing “Revisionists”, Vladimir Jabotinsky, presented the boycott case, but there was no chance of his proposal getting a serious hearing. The British had arrested several of his Revisionists for Arlosoroff’s murder and the prosecutor was putting evidence before the court while the Congress met. As the Revisionists had a history of violence against their Zionist rivals, most delegates were convinced of their complicity in the Arlosoroff affair. Their unsavoury reputation was enhanced when Jabotinsky’s own brownshirts accompanied him into the hall in full military formation, compelling the presidium to outlaw the uniforms for fear they would provoke Arlosoroff’s Labour comrades into a riot. Jabotinsky’s support for the boycott, and his opposition to the pact, was dismissed as the raging of a terrorist opponent of the democratically elected moderate leadership. His resolution was defeated by a vote of 240 to 48.

However, defeating Jabotinsky’s resolution did not necessarily mean that the delegates favoured a deal with Hitler and, when the Nazis announced that they had signed an agreement with the Zionists allowing German Jews to ship three million Reichmarks’ worth of Jewish wealth to Palestine in the form of German export goods, much of the Congress dismissed the statement as a propaganda stunt. When the truth became clear, pandemonium broke loose. The leadership had completely miscalculated and genuinely expected the pact to be immensely popular. Now, stunned by the hostile opposition, they tried to protect themselves by outright lying; the Labour leader, Berl Locker, brazenly proclaimed: “the executive of the World Zionist Organisation had nothing to do with the negotiations which led to an agreement with the German government”. [17] No one believed this crude fabrication.

Many delegates, particularly the Americans, were in favour of the boycott and voted against Jabotinsky, primarily because they felt the WZO was too preoccupied with Palestine to take on additional chores. Now Stephen Wise presented the leadership with an ultimatum: explain “how to prevent German ... propagandists from utilising the agreement”. His demand “was heatedly discussed all day ... by the Political Committee”. [18] In the end the leaders did not dare take official responsibility for the “Ha’avara” or Transfer Agreement, and pretended that it only bound Germany and the formal signatory, the Anglo-Palestine Bank. But, since the bank was their own bank, they only succeeded in making themselves look ridiculous to friend and foe alike.

The debate over the Zionist-Nazi pact continued angrily until 1935. The Ha’avara rapidly grew to become a substantial banking and trading house with 137 specialists in its Jerusalem office at the height of its activities. The regulations were always changing in response to Nazi pressure, but in essence the agreement was always the same: German Jews could put money into a bank inside Germany, which was then used to buy exports which were sold outside Germany, usually but not exclusively in Palestine. When the émigrés finally arrived in Palestine, they would receive payment for the goods that they had previously purchased after they had finally been sold. Fiscal ingenuity extended Ha’avara’s operations in many directions, but throughout its operation its attraction to German Jews remained the same: it was the least painful way of shipping Jewish wealth out of Germany. However, the Nazis determined the rules, and they naturally got worse with time; by 1938 the average user was losing at least 30 per cent and even 50 per cent of his money. Nevertheless, this was still three times, and eventually five times, better than the losses endured by Jews whose money went to any other destination. [19]

The top limit through the Ha’avara scheme was 50,000 marks ($20,000 or £4,000) per emigrant, which made the Ha’avara unattractive to the richest Jews. Therefore only $40,419,000 went to Palestine via Ha’avara, whereas $650 million went to the United States, $60 million to the United Kingdom and other substantial sums elsewhere. Yet if, in terms of German Jewry’s wealth, Ha’avara was by no means decisive, it was crucial to Zionism. Some 60 per cent of all capital invested in Palestine between August 1933 and September 1939 was channelled through the agreement with the Nazis. [20] In addition, the British set the annual Jewish immigrant quota, using the weak economic absorptive capacity of the country to limit their number; however, “capitalists” – those bringing in over £1,000 ($5,000) – were allowed in over quota. The 16,529 capitalists were thus an additional source of immigrants as well as an economic harvest for Zionism. Their capital generated a boom, giving Palestine a wholly artificial prosperity in the midst of the world-wide Depression.

At first the WZO tried to defend itself against the charges of boycott-scabbing and outright collaboration by insisting that the Ha’avara transfers did not really break the boycott, since Germany did not receive foreign currency for its goods as they were all purchased inside the country for marks. However, Berlin soon demanded part payment for some of the commodities in foreign currency and soon, too, the WZO started soliciting new customers for Germany in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. Eventually the Zionists began exporting oranges to Belgium and Holland using Nazi ships. [21] By 1936 the WZO began to sell Hitler’s goods in Britain. [22]

The WZO was not interested in fighting the Nazis, and every defence of the Ha’avara scheme demonstrated that. Selig Brodetsky, one of the members of the Zionist Executive and later, in 1939, the President of the British Board of Deputies, rebuked the world for scorning them:

Congress had risen to a level to which few Jewish bodies could have risen. It was a very easy thing to use violent words, to organise meetings, to call boycotts, but it was a far more difficult thing to speak calmly and use cool reasoning. It was said that the decisions concerning Germany were too weak. No! Non-Jews could afford to use strong words, but Jews could not. [23]

It was not the Zionists who were the traitors, it was everyone else that was out of step – or so at least Moshe Beilenson, a leading Labour Zionist, would have had the world believe. This had not been his first effort at collaboration with Fascism. In 1922 he had been one of the delegation that pledged Italian Zionism’s loyalty to Mussolini. Now he tried to present a theoretical defence of the Nazi pact:

after the Ghetto walls had been overthrown, our main weapon for the defense of our lives and our rights was the protest ... All our protests in the course of decades did not succeed in destroying the reign of persecution not only in the vast empire of the Tsars, but even in the relatively tiny Rumania ...

The Congress did not “betray”; it triumphed. It was not “afraid”; on the contrary, it had the courage to initiate a new Jewish statesmanship ... Verily, the Eighteenth Congress had the courage to destroy the assimilationist tradition whose chief characteristic is a reliance on others and appeals to others ... For generations we fought by means of protests. Now we have another weapon in our hand, a strong, trusty and sure weapon: the visa to Palestine. [24]

The great majority of Jews opposed the Ha’avara. It had no defenders outside the WZO, and trading with the Nazis was not popular with many inside its own ranks. Protests started pouring in while the Prague Congress was still in session. The pact was extremely unpopular in Poland, where the Jews feared that if there was no resistance to the anti-Semitism next door, their own Jew-haters would start demanding that the Polish government imitate the Germans. In America and Britain, each with a more or less democratic tradition, many Zionists, including some of the leading names in the movement, opposed it. The prominent Cleveland rabbi, Abba Hillel Silver, was one of the very first to complain, in August 1933:

Why the very idea of Palestine Jewry negotiating with Hitler about business instead of demanding justice for the persecuted Jews of Germany is unthinkable. One might think that the whole affair was a bankruptcy sale and that the Jews of Palestine were endeavouring to salvage a few bargains for themselves. [25]

Lamentations were heard even at the far corners of the earth. The Melbourne Jewish Weekly News protested: “they will make us a laughing-stock among the Germans, who will be able to declare that when it comes to a conflict between Jewish business and sentiment, business always wins”. [26] Rabbi Wise returned to the subject on innumerable occasions. In September 1933 he referred to Ha’avara as the “new golden calf – the Golden Orange” and continued:

“I think I speak the mind of Jews everywhere when I say we hold in abhorrence any Jew, whether in or out of Palestine, who undertakes to make any commercial arrangements with the Nazi government for any reason whatever”. [27]

In a speech at a World Jewish Conference at Geneva in 1934, Wise attacked the Labourites who had become the dominant force in Palestinian Zionism:

One leading Palestinian put it over and over again at Prague: Palestine has primacy. This conference must clearly state, that while Palestine has primacy over all other factors in the equation, its primacy ceases when it comes into conflict with a higher moral law. [28]

Wise had identified the rot in the WZO: the land of Israel had become far more important than the needs of the people Israel. Labour Zionism had become, in the fullest sense, a utopian cult. They saw a new Jew in the old Jewish land as the only way for a Jewish nation to continue to exist. The real Jewish people, the millions of Jews of the Diaspora, were no more than a reservoir from which they would pick young immigrants to build their state. The Diaspora, as such, was doomed: either the Jews would be driven out, as in Germany, or assimilated as in France. With this strange perspective that Jewish survival stood or fell with them in Israel, the Zionists were driven to seek more from the Nazis to make their vision into a reality.

In late 1933 they tried to revive Arlosoroff’s full-scale liquidation bank. Weizmann let Cohen propose to the German Foreign Ministry that he, the former President of the movement, now chairman of its Central Bureau for the Settlement of German Jews, should come to Berlin to discuss the liquidation scheme, but the Nazis declined to extend him an invitation. [29] They were always less interested in making a deal with the Zionists than the Zionists were to come to terms with them. The Nazis had achieved what they wanted, the Zionists had broken the boycott and showed no signs of resisting them; for the moment that was enough. But not even that rebuff could throw Weizmann off course. A year and a half later, on 3 July 1935, he wrote to Arthur Ruppin, director of the Colonisation Department in Palestine, and one of the most devoted apostles of further intimacy with the Nazis:

Dr Moses, as I hear, made contacts with the Reich Ministry for National Economy, and, following a number of talks he had there, submitted a memorandum demanding that eventual additional exports to England, if achieved at the request of our friends in Germany, be used in favor of the £1,000 people. [30]

Weizmann went on to make it clear that the Prague Congress statement about the “fight” for German Jewish rights was strictly lip-service. He discussed Prague in the context of the forthcoming 1935 Lucerne Congress:

I know very well that the Congress in Lucerne can by-pass and take no notice of the German Jewish question just as did the Prague Congress ... I dare to doubt if anyone, especially the German Jews and the German Zionists, will gain advantage from the German Jewish question being treated in all thoroughness, moreover in a special report. It will not achieve a positive useful effect especially today, in view of the readiness in the world to come to terms with Germany. On the other hand, I believe it is very possible that such a report may become dangerous to the only positive thing we have in Germany, the intensified Zionist movement ... We, being a Zionist Organisation, should concern ourselves with the constructive solution of the German question through the transfer of the Jewish youth from Germany to Palestine, rather than with the question of equal rights of Jews in Germany. [31]

“Constructive”, it will be recalled, was always one of Weizmann’s favourite cliches; after the First World War he had assured the capitalists at Versailles that Zionism was constructive, unlike the behaviour of those Jews who engaged in “destructive tendencies”. “Constructive” thinking with regard to Hitler, so widespread in capitalist circles of the day, was extraordinary coming from a Jew, but of course High Zionism was a world away from the ordinary Jewish mentality. Weizmann’s friend, the German-born Ruppin, was a good case in point. A race improver, it was he who was in charge of turning middle-class youths into “constructive” toilers on health-giving Jewish Boden. In 1934 his book, Jews in the Modern World, openly expressed the accommodationist line of the Zionist movement. In it he told the Jews, again, that it was their fault that things had occurred in the way they had, and he admonished them that:

Such an attempt at a peaceful settlement of the problem would have been possible if ... Jews ... had recognized that their peculiar position among the Germans was bound to lead to conflicts which had their origin in the nature of man, and couldn’t be removed by arguments and reason. Had both sides realized that the present position was due not to bad will but to circumstances, which had arisen independently of the will of either side, it would have been unnecessary to attempt the solution of the Jewish problem in an orgy of unbridled hatred.

His “misunderstanding” theory developed logically into his concluding: “Various intermediate and partial solutions will be required to reach a modus vivendi.” [32]

Lewis Namier, a former Political Secretary of the WZO, and a major historian of the British aristocracy, had prefaced Ruppin’s book. Knowledgeable Zionists, including Nahum Goldmann, saw Namier as an intense Jewish anti-Semite. [33] In his devotion to the gentry, he despised the Jews as the epitomy of capitalism, of vulgar “trade”. As might be expected, his introduction expressed his “understanding” of anti-Semitism – “not everyone who feels uncomfortable with regard to us must be called an anti-Semite, nor is there anything necessarily and inherently wicked in anti-Semitism”. [34] In fact the original draft was even stronger. Weizmann had read it and had to warn Namier not to be so open in expressing their mutual toleration of Nazism:

On p.6 the lines “but what has happened etc.” marked in pencil seem to me dangerous, although I agree with your conclusion. But it’s a book by Ruppin and a preface by you and it will be quoted in Germany and the “louts” will say, “the Jews themselves think that it will be all for the good, etc.” I would omit it if possible. [35]

Such were the minds of the leading figures of the Zionist movement in 1935 as they trooped into their summer Congress at Lucerne. Publicly on record as denying that the Ha’avara had anything to do with them, secretly they were doing all they could to extend it. In every respect their thinking and their policies were at odds with the immense majority of the Jews of the world.

“Trying to derive the utmost advantage from it in the Zionist sense”

The Zionist leadership still had to face one last internal battle over the Ha’avara and their general stance toward the Nazis. Jabotinsky and his Revisionists had split off from the WZO, but a remnant of his followers – now called the Judenstaat Partei (Jewish State Party) – had stayed loyal to the WZO and still demanded repudiation of the Transfer. Several journalists described the short but ferocious debate at the 1935 Congress. The Canadian Zionist reported that:

A vote was taken and resulted in Mr Grossman’s motion [for a debate on whether the Anglo-Palestinian Bank had caused the arrest of picketers who had protested the use of German cement] being defeated. Whereupon there were loud derisive cries of “Heil Hitler!” on the part of some of Mr Grossman’s supporters. This caused pandemonium. [36]

Paul Novick, the editor of the American Communist daily newspaper, the Morgen Freiheit, related that the “Histadrut delegates answered in kind, shouting towards the Judenstaat people: ‘Schuschnigg agents’ (meaning agents of Italo-Austrian Fascism)”. [37]

The Executive’s policy toward Hitler had stout defenders at the Congress. A theoretical defence was presented by Moshe Shertok, who had succeeded Arlosoroff as the organisation’s Political Secretary (their equivalent to Foreign Minister). The man who later became the second Prime Minister of Israel sternly told the delegates, and the listening Jewish world, that they just had to realise that:

The Jewish people had no greater hope for success in the struggle for existence than through the upbuilding of Eretz Israel, and they must, therefore, be willing to draw the consequences. They imitated the protests and boycotts practised by other peoples, but forgot that those measures were expressions of the force possessed by those peoples, whereas the Zionist movement had yet to create such a force for itself. [38]

Beyond the Congress some of the most important propagandists of the WZO’s strategy were the shliachim or emissaries sent out worldwide by the Labour Zionists in Palestine. Enzo Sereni, another graduate of the accommodationist Italian movement, had been the emissary in Germany in 1931-2, but he had done nothing to either mobilise the German Jews or assist the SPD in their fight against the Nazis. Sereni was one of those who saw Hitler as a scourge driving Jewry toward Zionism. He once informed Max Ascoli, an Italian anti-Fascist activist, that “Hitler’s anti-Semitism might yet lead to the salvation of the Jews”. [39] At the Lucerne Congress he was the vigorous exponent of the primacy of Palestine:

We have nothing to be ashamed of in the fact that we used the persecution of the Jews in Germany for the upbuilding of Palestine. That is how our sages and leaders of old have taught us ... to make use of the catastrophes of the Jewish population in the Diaspora for upbuilding. [40]

But by far the best example of the leadership’s unwillingness to resist the Nazis was Weizmann’s statement:

The only dignified and really effective reply to all that is being inflicted upon the Jews of Germany is the edifice erected by our great and beautiful work in the Land of Israel ... Something is being created that will transform the woe we all suffer into songs and legends for our grand-children. [41]

The presidium manoeuvred to keep any serious discussion of resistance off the Congress floor, and Wise’s name was struck from the speakers’ list for fear that he would denounce Hitler. He threatened to walk out of the Congress if he was not allowed to speak and, as the Congress knew they could not afford to have the most famous Zionist in America walk out on such a controversial issue, they finally gave way and let him speak. He duly got up, said that he was opposed to Hitler – hardly a statement that would have attracted attention in most other company – and sat down. He and Abba Hillel Silver had never really done much more than talk about boycott, and by 1935 there was nothing in America that remotely resembled an effective boycott organisation. In practice, they had no alternative programme for effective resistance; now, primarily focusing on Palestine as a refuge for German Jewry, they capitulated to Weizmann and endorsed the Ha’avara, and after the Lucerne Congress there were no longer any serious differences between them and the international movement. In the end the only official protest against Hitlerism made by the assembly was a half-day cancellation of one of their sessions, a meaningless gesture.

Weizmann had little real difficulty getting the Congress formally to endorse the Ha’avara, but the opposition was able to curb one of its activities. A Ha’avara subsidiary, the Near and Middle East Commercial Corporation (NEMICO), had been set up to solicit new customers for Germany throughout the Middle East. The Egyptian Zionist Federation had threatened to expose the scandal if the world organisation did not put a stop to it, and in the interests of preserving the larger scheme the leadership reluctantly had to sacrifice the NEMICO operation.

The capitulation of the Americans did nothing to quieten Jewish opposition elsewhere. Press criticism was immediate. London’s World Jewry, then the best Zionist magazine in the English language, excoriated their own World Congress: “Dr Weizmann went as far as to state that the only dignified reply the Jews could give was a renewed effort for the upbuilding of Palestine. How terrifying the proclamation of the Congress President must have sounded in the ears of Herren Hitler, Streicher and Goebbels!” [42]

The unofficial Zionist press in Britain shared the growing public feeling that war with Hitler was inevitable, and it could not understand the total lack of serious discussion of Nazism at the Congress. The magazine’s correspondent described the meeting as strangely depressing: “We have an agenda more suitable for a board of directors of a limited liability company than for a national conclave with the national destiny in its hands.” [43] Even the Jewish Chronicle, always the mouthpiece of the Jewish establishment, complained in the same vein: “the proceedings were almost as dull as a debate on the Colonial Office in the House of Commons on a Friday morning”. [44] It felt compelled to condemn the decision on the Ha’avara:

The spectacle is puzzling to the world, whose sympathy we bespeak and disheartening to Jews for whom the boycott is one of the few weapons to their hand and who now see themselves deserted by the Movement which they most have a right to claim as an ally in their fight. [45]

In America the opposition to the Ha’avara was particularly intense in the garment industry trade unions, with their hundreds of thousands of Jewish workers. Most of the Jewish labour leaders had always looked upon Zionism with contempt. Many of them were from Russia and knew about the fateful Herzl-Plehve meeting and how their old enemy Zubatov had backed the Poale Zionists against the Bund. As far as they were concerned the Ha’avara was just Zionism up to its old tricks, and in December 1935 Baruch Charney Vladeck, the Chairman of the Jewish Labor Committee, and himself an ex-Bundist from Poland, debated Berl Locker, the organisational head of the Palestinian Poale Zion, before an overflow crowd in New York.

Locker was compelled to take a defensive position, insisting that the agreement was purely in the interest of the German Jews. Besides, he argued, they would have brought the goods into the country on their own if there were no treaty. Why, if it had not been for the pact, he maintained, the situation would have been far worse in this regard: “Palestine was presented by a fait accompli ... The Transfer agreement prevents the country from being flooded with German merchandise, since goods come in only as there is need of them.” [46]

Vladeck was not to be put off by Locker’s obvious subterfuge, and he continued the attack. In New York the local Labour Zionists were simultaneously supporting the boycott in the United States while apologising for the Ha’avara in Palestine, and the old Bundist ridiculed their attempt to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds:

You may argue from now till Doomsday, but this is double bookkeeping of the most flagrant sort. That nobody should break the boycott but the Jews of Palestine! And nobody deal with Germany but the Zionist organisation! ... It is my contention that the main purpose of the Transfer is not to rescue the Jews from Germany but to strengthen various institutions in Palestine ... Palestine thus becomes the official scab-agent against the boycott in the Near East ... When the news of the Transfer Agreement first came out ... Berl Locker said: “Not a single Zionist agency has the slightest connection with the Transfer” ... From this I can conclude in only one vein: The Transfer Agreement is a blot on the Jews and on the world. [47]

If the majority of Jews did oppose the Ha’avara as treason, there was one at least who was willing to go on record as complaining that Weizmann and his friends were not going far enough. Gustav Krojanker, whose views on the Nazis were discussed in Chapter 3, was now one of the leaders of the Hitachdut Olei Germania (the German Immigrants Association in Palestine), and in 1936 the association published his pamphlet, The Transfer: A Vital Question of the Zionist Movement. To him Zionism was stark calculation, nothing more, and he was more than willing to draw the logical conclusions already inherent in the Zionist-Nazi pact. He claimed to see Nazism and the opportunities it opened up for Zionism in the authentic Herzlian manner:

His survey of the situation was devoid of any futile grudge-bearing; he perceived two political factors – an organisation of the Jewish people on the one side, and the countries concerned on the other. They were to be partners in a pact.

Krojanker berated the leadership for not having the courage to formally endorse the Ha’avara back in 1933. To him this was merely a capitulation to what he considered the “Diaspora mentality”. He wanted them to go much further:

The Zionist Movement should have endeavoured ... to influence the German Government to enter into a statesmanlike treaty, accepting the situation and trying to derive the utmost advantage from it in the Zionist sense.

He insisted that the necessary next step was to help the Nazis break the boycott in Europe itself through an extension of the Ha’avara. Germany “might even be ready to conclude agreements – if we ... prepared to extend the ‘Ha’avara’ system to other countries”. [48] But the WZO leadership needed no such coaching from Krojanker. He did not know that, secretly, they had already decided to do just that and now, in March 1936, Siegfried Moses’s negotiations had finally created the International Trade and Investment Agency (INTRIA) bank in London to organise sales of German products directly in Britain itself. [49] The Nazis had to content themselves with the satisfaction of the further demoralisation of the boycott forces, as fear of Jewish and general British hostility to boycott – scabbing made it impossible for INTRIA to go so far as to allow British currency to come directly into German hands. Instead, the goods were bought in Germany for marks and their value was credited to Jewish capitalists needing the £1,000 entry fee required of over-quota immigrants into Palestine. Zionist-Nazi trade relations continued to develop in other spheres as well. In 1937 200,000 crates of the “Golden Oranges” were shipped to Germany, and ½ million more to the Low Countries under the swastika flag. [50] Even after Kristallnacht – 9 November 1938, the terrible night of the broken glass, when the Nazis finally unleashed the brownshirts to smash Jewish stores – the manager of Ha’avara Ltd, Werner Felchenfeld, continued to offer reduced rates to would-be users of Nazi boats. His only concern was to reassure the squeamish that “competition with British vessels does not arise, as this transfer arrangement is valid for citrus being shipped to Dutch and Belgian ports, British ports being expressly excluded”. [51]

“What Matters in a Situation of This Sort is a People’s Moral Stance”

Of course it was the Nazis who were the prime gainers from Ha’avara. Not only did it help them push out a few extra Jews, but it was of immense value abroad, providing the perfect rationale for all those who still wanted to continue trading with the Germans. In Britain, Sir Oswald Mosley’s newspaper, the Blackshirt, loved it:

Can you beat that! We are cutting off our nose to spite our face and refuse to trade with Germany in order to defend the poor Jews. The Jews themselves, in their own country, are to continue making profitable dealings with Germany themselves. Fascists can’t better counter the malicious propaganda to destroy friendly relations with Germany than by using this fact. [52]

The final evaluation of the WZO’s role during the Holocaust cannot be made until the other interrelationships between the Zionists and the Nazis are properly dealt with; however, a preliminary appraisal of Ha’avara can now be safely attempted. All excuses that it saved lives must be strictly excluded from serious consideration. No Zionist in the 1930s thought that Hitler was going to try to exterminate the Jews of either Germany or Europe, and no one tried to defend Ha’avara during its operation in those terms. The excuse was that it saved wealth, not lives. In fact, at the very best, it directly helped a few thousand Jews with money, by allowing them to enter Palestine after the British quotas had been allocated and indirectly it provided an opportunity for others by boosting the Palestinian economy. But every genuine opponent of Nazism understood that once Hitler had taken power and had German Jewry in his claws, the struggle against him could not possibly be curbed by an over-concern for their fate; they were essentially prisoners of war. The battle still had to go on. Naturally no one wished those unfortunates any more grief than necessary, but to have brought the campaign against Nazism to a standstill out of concern for the German Jews would only have accelerated Hitler’s further march into Europe. While the WZO was busy saving the property, or, more properly, a piece of the property of the German Jewish bourgeoisie, the “£1,000 people”, thousands of Germans – including many Jews – were fighting in Spain, against Hitler’s own Condor Legion and Franco’s Fascist army. The Ha’avara certainly assisted the Nazis in that it demoralised Jews, some of whom were Zionists, by spreading the illusion that it was possible to come to some sort of modus vivendi with Hitler. It also demoralised non-Jews to know that a world-wide Jewish movement was prepared to come to terms with its enemy. Certainly the Ha’avara removed the million-strong Zionist movement from the front line of anti-Nazi resistance. The WZO did not resist Hitler, but sought to collaborate with him and, as can be seen in the proposals of Arlosoroff and Weizmann for a liquidation bank, only Nazi unwillingness to extend their linkage prevented the development of an even greater degree of co-operation. Those Zionists, as with World Jewry, who tried to oppose Hitler, must also be severely faulted for their own failure to create an effective Jewish, or even Zionist, boycott machine, but at least they must be credited with some moral stature in that they tried to do something to attack the Nazis. By comparison Weizmann, Shertok and their co-thinkers lose our respect, even if we only set them against their Zionist critics and ignore all other Jewish opinion. At best, it can be said of Weizmann and his ilk that they were the equivalent of Neville Chamberlain; moral and political failures. After the war and the Holocaust, a contrite and remorseful Nahum Goldmann, mortified at his own shameless role during the Hitler epoch, wrote of a dramatic meeting he had with the Czech Foreign Minister, Edvard Benes, in 1935. Goldmann’s vivid account of Benes’s warning to the Jews says all that will ever need to be said on the Ha’avara and the abject failure of the WZO to resist the Nazis:

“Don’t you understand”, he shouted, “that by reacting with nothing but half-hearted gestures, by failing to arouse world public opinion and take vigorous action against the Germans, the Jews are endangering their future and their human rights all over the world?” ... I knew Benes was right ... in this context success was irrelevant. What matters in a situation of this sort is a people’s moral stance, its readiness to fight back instead of helplessly allowing itself to be massacred. [53]


1. Carl Voss, Let Stephen Wise Speak for Himself, Dimensions in American Jewry (Fall 1968), p.37.

2. Moshe Gottlieb, The Anti-Nazi Boycott Movement in the American Jewish Community 1933-1941, PhD thesis, Brandeis University 1967, p.160.

3. Meyer Steinglass, Emil Ludwig before the Judge, American Jewish Times, (April 1936), p.35.

4. Palestine and the Press, New Palestine (11 December 1933), p.7.

5. Chaim Bialik, The Present Hour, Young Zionist (London, May 1934), p.6.

6. Abraham Jacobson, The Fundamentals of Jewish Nationalism, New Palestine (3 April 1936), p.3.

7. David Yisraeli, The Third Reich and the Transfer Agreement, Journal of Contemporary History, vol.VI (1971), p.131.

8. Ibid.

9. Palestine Drive to Continue, Israel’s Messenger (Shanghai, 1 May 1933), p.2.

10. Werner Braatz, German Commercial Interests in Palestine: Zionism and the Boycott of German Goods, 1933-1934, European Studies Review (October 1979), p.500.

11. Yisraeli, The Third Reich and the Transfer Agreement, p.132.

12. Dr Arlosoroff’s Plan, Jewish Economic Forum (London, 1 September 1933), p.9

13. Chaim Arlosoroff, What can Palestine offer to the German Jew?, Labor Palestine (June 1933), p.9.

14. Yitzhak Lufban, Arlosoroff’s Last Period, Labor Palestine (June 1934), p.6.

15. Zionist Congress in Prague, Zionist Record (South Africa, 1 September 1933), p.5.

16. The 18th Zionist Congress, New Judaea (London, September 1933), p.193.

17. Jewish Daily Bulletin (29 August 1933), p.4.

18. Zionist Congress Votes Inquiry Commission for Palestine Terrorist Groups, Jewish Daily Bulletin (1 September 1933), p.4.

19. Mark Wischnitzer, To Dwell in Safety, p.212.

20. David Rosenthal, Chaim Arlosoroff 40 Years Later, Jewish Frontier (August 1974), p.23.

21. Reflections, Palestine Post (14 November 1938), p.6.

22. Yehuda Bauer, My Brother’s Keeper, p.129.

23. Justification of the Zionist Congress, Zionist Record (South Africa, 4 October 1933), p.5.

24. Moshe Beilenson, The New Jewish Statesmanship, Labor Palestine (February 1934), pp.8-10.

25. Untermyer, Rabbi Silver Denounce Deals Reported Negotiated with Germany, Jewish Daily Bulletin (30 August 1933), p.4.

26. The Palestine Orange Agreement, Jewish Weekly News (Melbourne, 10 November 1933), p.5.

27. Clarence Streit, League Aid Asked for German Jews, New York Times (9 September 1933), p.5.

28. Dr Stephen Wise on Policy of World Jewry, World Jewry (London, 24 August 1934), p.395.

29. Braatz, German Commercial Interests in Palestine, p.504.

30. Chaim Weizmann, To Arthur Ruppin, 3 July 1935, in Barnett Litvinoff (ed.), The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, Letters, vol.XVI, p.464.

31. Ibid., pp.465-6.

32. Arthur Ruppin, The Jews in the Modern World (1934), pp.256-7.

33. Nahum Goldmann, Autobiography, p.112.

34. Ruppin, Jews in the Modern World, p.xiii.

35. Weizmann, To Lewis Namier, 1 October 1933, Letters, vol.XVI, p.54.

36. Nineteenth Congress Report, Canadian Zionist (September 1935), p.8.

37. Paul Novick, Zionism Today (1936), p.4.

38. Executive Defines its Policies in Reply to Opposition, New Palestine (20 September 1935), p.24.

39. Ruth Bondy, The Emissary: A Life of Enzo Sereni, p.141.

40. Novick, Zionism Today, p.5.

41. Barnett Litvinoff, Weizmann – Last of the Patriarchs, p.182.

42. Kiddush Hashem, World Jewry (6 September 1935), p.1.

43. Has Congress a Message to Deliver?, World Jewry, (30 August 1935), p.1.

44. Reflections on the Zionist Congress, Jewish Chronicle (London, 20 September 1935), p.24.

45. Zionists close their Ranks, Jewish Chronicle (London, 6 September 1935), p.9.

46. Debating the Issues of the Transfer, Call of Youth (January 1936), pp.3-12.

47. Ibid., pp.34.

48. Gustav Krojanker, The Transfer: A Vital Question of the Zionist Movement, pp.7-10 and 15.

49. Bauer, My Brother’s Keeper, p.129.

50. Reflections, Palestine Post (14 November 1938), p.6.

51. Werner Felchenfeld, Citrus on German Ships, Palestine Post (Letters) (17 November 1938), p.6.

52. Blackshirts Peeved at Reich-Zion Trade, Jewish Daily Bulletin (6 February 1935), p.5.

53. Goldmann, Autobiography, p.148.


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