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Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

Lenni Brenner

Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

23. Illegal Immigration

It is not known exactly how many illegal immigrants were smuggled into Palestine before and during the Second World War. Yehuda Bauer estimates that approximately 15,000 illegal immigrants entered in the years 1936-9. [1] He breaks down this number to 5,300 brought in by Revisionist ships, 5,000 by the Labour Zionists and 5,200 by private vessels. [2] The British listed 20,180 as having arrived prior to the end of the war. William Perl, the prime organiser of the Revisionist effort, doubles that figure to more than 40,000. [3] Yehuda Slutzky gives 52,000 as having reached Palestine during the war, but his number includes both legals and illegals. [4]

The first illegal boat, the Velos, organised by the Palestinian kibbutzim, arrived in July 1934. It tried again in September, but was intercepted and both the WZO and Labour Zionist leaderships opposed any further attempts; by 1935 the British were letting in 55,000 legal immigrants and they saw no reason to antagonise London for the sake of a few more. The first Revisionist effort was the Union, which was intercepted while landing in August 1934. These two failures discouraged any additional exertions, until the Revisionists tried again in 1937.

After the Holocaust, the post-1937 illegal immigration acquired a reputation as part of Zionism’s contribution to the rescue of European Jewry from Hitler. However, at the time neither the Revisionists nor the WZO saw themselves as rescuing Jews per se; they were bringing in specially selected settlers to Palestine.

“Priority Went to Members of our own Betar”

The Revisionists returned to illegal immigration during the Arab revolt. The immigrants were mostly Betarim brought in as reinforcements for the Irgun, which was engaged in a terrorist campaign against the Arabs. [5] The first three groups, comprising 204 passengers, left Vienna in 1937 before the Nazi occupation. Except for four Austrians, they were all Eastern Europeans. All had been given weapon-training earlier at their camp at the Revisionist estate at Kottingbrunn, in preparation for what they knew would some day be “the final battle against the British occupiers. [6] Their focus had always been the military needs of Palestinian Revisionism. Die Aktion, the Viennese group organising the “free immigration”, passed a resolution proclaiming that they would only take young people: “For the upcoming battle for the liberation of our Jewish homeland from the British colonial yoke, the first ones to be saved must be Jews able and willing to carry arms.” [7]

In the years to come there were occasions when the Revisionists did take others besides Betarim, but these were only accepted because of the contingencies of the situation. The money for the first expedition after the anschluss came from the Vienna Jewish community organisation, which was dominated by a right-wing Zionist coalition; Die Aktion was therefore sometimes compelled by political and financial considerations to include members of other groups among the passengers, but preference was always given to Betarim. William Perl, Die Aktion’s main organiser, later discussed their first post-Anschluss boat in his book, Four Front War, and he candidly admitted that:

Priority went to members of our own Betarim ... next, to those whom we expected to stand the strain of the trip, to adjust to life in Palestine. One day these youngsters would have to be ready and be able to rise up in arms with the Betar. [8]

In dealing with events during the summer of 1939 Perl wrote further of: “Jabotinsky himself ... who now took a most active role in trying to arrange the escape of more Jews from Poland, particularly of as many as possible of our Betarim there”. [9] Yitshaq Ben-Ami, who had come from Palestine to assist the operations in Vienna, and then went to the USA to raise money for their vessels, has recently spoken of “big arguments and tension” between himself and Jabotinsky over how to appeal to the American public. Ben-Ami knew there would be a war in Europe and wanted to organise a rescue operation, whereas Jabotinsky saw fund-raising as a party project. [10] Even in November 1939, two months after the outbreak of the war, Perl, far from rescuing Jews as such, was still thinking: “If paying fully, the Betarim always had preference.” [11] He mentions one case where they took “a few” Zionist-Socialists and he and other Revisionist writers list some members of the right-wing Macabbi sports club and General Zionist groups as part of their convoys, but there were only two ways non-Zionists managed to board a Revisionist boat. Either the Nazis – or some other government along the Danube – insisted that they be taken along or else, as in the case of some Agudists from Budapest, a shortage of cash obliged Perl to go outside the Zionist orbit for paying customers so that one of his stranded Betar contingents might continue its trip. Even here his Central concern for Palestine came through. Although the Aguda hated Zionism, he felt that “for the sake of the future state they were valuable. To them Palestine was not just a temporary haven.” [12] The 1947 statement of Otto Seidmann, the former leader of the Viennese Betar, who wrote that: “We had to save the lives of Jews – be they Communists or capitalists, members of Hashomer Hatzair or General Zionists”, was simply untrue. [13] Betarim were always preferred over any other Zionists, right Zionists over left Zionists, and any kind of Zionist over a non-Zionist.

“Whom a Jewish homeland in the process of construction needs most”

The German Zionist Federation opposed illegal immigration until Kristallnacht. They were legalists who had done nothing to oppose Nazism and they were not about to turn against the British. When the WZO re-entered the field of illegal immigration again, it was with great trepidation, and even after Kristallnacht Ben-Gurion warned the Director of the ZVfD Central Committee: “We shall never be able to fight both the Arabs and the British.” [14] Weizmann, after years of collaboration with the British, was instinctively against anything illegal. At first the WZO could not bring themselves to accept that a Britain seriously preparing for war could not afford to antagonise the Arab and Muslim world by any further patronage of Zionist immigration. What finally compelled the Labour Zionists to move was the prestige which the Revisionists were gaining inside the Zionist camp by their putting European Jews on Palestine’s coast. But even then their strictly selective approach remained unchanged. In 1940 the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs, the WZO’s official voice in America during the Second World War, published a pamphlet, Revisionism: A Destructive Force, which gave their full case for selectivity:

It is quite true that Palestine should be a refuge for every homeless Jew. Is there a Jew or Zionist who would wish otherwise? But we are faced by the tragic compulsion of facts. Only a number of those who seek entrance can for the present be taken. Selection is inevitable. Shall the choice be haphazard, dependent merely on the accident of who clambered abroad first, or shall profounder motives determine the nature of the immigration? We know that in emigration from Germany preference is given to the Youth Aliyah. Is the reason for this preference a brutal disregard for the aged, or does it spring from the difficult but honest effort to save those whose need is greatest and whom a Jewish Homeland in the process of construction needs most?

When the force of events places on human beings the terrible burden of allocating salvation, the question is not solved by a helter-skelter opening of doors to whoever manages to crowd in. That too is a choice – a choice against the present and the future. [15]

The selection process for WZO-chartered boats was later spelt out by Aaron Zwergbaum in his description of an expedition from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia:

The Zionist authorities treated this Aliya Bet like regular migration; it was highly selective, demanding [at least of younger people] Hakshara [agricultural training], a certain knowledge of Hebrew, affiliation to a Zionist body, good health, and so on. There was a rather low age limit, and the passage money was fixed on the principle that the well-to-do should pay not only for themselves but also for those without means. [16]

Again, as with the Revisionists, there had to be exemptions to the rules. Some veteran Zionists were rewarded for their services by a place in the boats, sometimes other forms of influence performed the necessary miracle, as with relatives of Zionists who were taken along, or a rich Jew, carried for financial reasons. And, of course, those imposed upon them by the Nazis and other governments. Not being nearly as military-minded as their rivals, children were less frowned upon; some day they would have their own children in Palestine, thus increasing the Jewish percentage of the population. But, for an example, a 45-year-old non-Zionist piano-tuner, without the ability to pay for someone else, and unrelated to a Zionist, would never be considered for such a voyage.

“They will co-operate with us in matters in which we are vitally interested”

The Revisionists were more daring in organising the illegal immigration, because they did not care what London thought. They had come to understand that they would have to fight Britain, if they were ever to realise their Zionist state; the WZO, however, still expected to get a Jewish state with the approval of the British at another Versailles Conference after the Second World War. They argued that Britain would only reward them if they accommodated to her plans during the war, and London most definitely did not want more refugees in Palestine. Therefore, in November l940, when the British Navy tried to deport 3,000 illegals to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Weizmann tried to convince the Zionist Executive that “they must not have anything to do with this business just for the sake of getting an additional 3,000 people into Palestine – who might later turn out to be a millstone around their neck”. [17] He claimed to be concerned about the Gestapo’s involvement in the voyages. [18] Obviously the ships could not have left German-held territory without their permission, but it is doubtful that he seriously believed the British imputation that the Nazis were putting spies aboard these squalid boats. However, Weizmann’s argument was consistent with his lifetime strategy of getting British patronage for Zionism. He knew that a serious illegal operation would jeopardise his relations with the British and, in particular, make it impossible to attain London’s assent for a Jewish Legion within the British Army.

The British, who had learnt from the experience of having worked with the Zionists for decades, decided to use the Zionist ambition for a Jewish state to eliminate illegal immigration. They knew the WZO hoped to attend the post-war peace conference with an impressive war record, so British Intelligence concocted an ingenious plan. The Mossad, the organisation behind the WZO immigration, owned one boat, the Darien II. In 1940, it had been arranged that the vessel would be sent up the Danube to pick up some refugees stranded in Yugoslavia. The British proposed instead that the ship should be loaded with scrap iron and explosives. Jewish refugee boats had become part of the river’s life, and no one would suspect the Darien. When it reached a narrow point upstream, it would blow up, thereby blocking Romanian oil and grain from getting to the Reich. The corollary to this would be that refugee boats would no longer be able to come down the Danube, and the Nazis, who had been co-operating with the Mossad by clearing out Zionist training camps, would blame them for the explosion. Despite the grisly revenge which the Nazis were likely to exact, the WZO leadership decided to agree to the ploy being executed. However, there was a hitch. Some of the Mossad workers involved refused to cooperate. The ship was registered in the name of one of their number, an American, and he refused to sign the boat over to the British. David HaCohen, a member of the Jewish Agency Executive, was rushed to Istanbul to try to persuade them to agree. Ruth Kluger, who was present with the Mossad, later gave HaCohen’s arguments in her memoir, The Last Escape:

“I’ve come with an order. From Shertok [Political Secretary of the Jewish Agency] himself ... Shertok would not have given the Darien so much time and consideration if he did not feel that the matter was one which came into his realm of operations. He feels, we all feel, that the plan proposed for the Darien will, without doubt, end the war sooner. And the sooner it ends, the more lives will be saved. Including Jewish lives. Furthermore – and this point I cannot stress enough – if we co-operate with British Intelligence in this matter, one in which they happen to be vitally interested, we have every reason to believe” – he repeated the words slowly, “every reason to believe that they will co-operate with us in matters in which we are vitally interested. [Yehuda] Arazi has mentioned a Jewish Brigade in the British Army ... There are many others which I’m not permitted to go into at this point. But I can say this, Zameret, the matter of the Darien is one which might even have bearing on our post-war future. Whether or not we Jews ever have our own nation may be in the lap of the gods. But it’s definitely in the hands of the British. If we go back on our promises to them and use the ship in direct contradiction to British law – if they see that the man who would be, in all likelihood our first Foreign Minister has no control over his countrymen in so vital a matter” – HaCohen let the sentence hang, like a noose around our necks. [19]

The local Mossad agents would not comply, and the WZO had to use the Darien for one more voyage to save some more of its own members. However, that last voyage was the last successful illegal expedition during the war. William Perl is of the strong conviction that the Darien proposal was designed to ensnare the WZO into a situation whereby the trickle of refugees would be stopped by the Nazis. [20] Certainly HaCohen could not have put the point more forcefully: “the matter of the Darien is one which might even have a bearing on our post-war future”. British Intelligence had appreciated the simple truth that the WZO would compromise their rescue operation, if it meant a significant step towards their supreme ambition.

The saga of the illegal immigrant ships ended on 24 February 1942, when the derelict Struma, carrying 767 Jews, was towed back into the Black Sea by the Turks, under British pressure, and sank with only one survivor. Dalia Ofer, an Israeli scholar, remarks: “there was still no real perception of the nature of events in Nazi-occupied Europe, and hence there were no attempts to reorganise”. [21] Rescue attempts did not start again until 1943, during the full fury of the Holocaust.

Dogs fight dogs, but they unite against the wolf

As long as America was neutral, it would have been possible to raise large sums from American Jews for the rescue and relief of their fellows in occupied Europe, but such fund-raising could only have been done on a strictly non-partisan and humanitarian basis. Instead, the WZO, through its Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs and other outlets, attacked the Revisionist involvement in illegal immigration. They denounced their rivals’ Fascist tendencies and accused them of not being selective about whom they let aboard their ships. Apparently the Revisionist propagandists concealed the political and even military basis of their selection process, and the WZO’s publicists were fooled. The Emergency Committee’s pamphlet of 1940 accused the Revisionists of “an incorrigible love of dramatic gestures”:

Among other things, the Revisionists made a virtue of the fact that their immigrants are not “selected”. They take all – the old, the sick, the psychologically unfit for pioneering – whereas the responsible Aliyah presumes to choose. [22]

By what authority could the WZO denounce anyone for trying to rescue the old and the sick, or even the psychologically unfit for pioneering? Had the WZO apparatus in America proposed unity with the Revisionists for a genuine non-exclusionary effort, the Revisionists would have had to live up to their propaganda or risk being exposed. However, the WZO was not interested in humanitarian rescue. Its leaders were openly picking and choosing strictly on the basis of what they saw as the interests of Zionism.


1. Yehuda Bauer, From Diplomacy to Resistance, p.391.

2. Yehuda Bauer, Illegal Immigration, Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, vol.I, p.532.

3. William Perl, The Four Front War, p.1.

4. Yehuda Slutzky, The Palestine Jewish Community and its Assistance to European Jewry in the Holocaust Years, Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust, p.421

5. Daniel Levine, David Raziel, The Man and His Times, pp.226, 229.

6. Perl, The Four Front War, p.16.

7. Ibid., p.23.

8. Ibid., pp.60-1.

9. Ibid., p.226.

10. Author’s interview with Yitshaq Ben-Ami, 16 December 1980.

11. Perl, The Four Front War, p.306.

12. Ibid., p.302.

13. O. Seidmann, Saga of Aliyah Beth, Tagar (Shanghai, 1 January 1947),

14. David Yisraeli, The Third Reich and Palestine, Middle Eastern Studies (May 1971), p.348.

15. Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs, Revisionism: A Destructive Force (1940), p.24.

16. Aaron Zwergbaum, From Internment in Bratislava and Detention in Mauritius to Freedom, The Jews of Czechoslovakia, vol. II, p.601.

17. Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe 1939-1945, p.65.

18. Ibid. 

19. Ruth Kluger and Peggy Mann, The Last Escape, pp.456-7.

20. Perl, The Four Front War, p.193.

21. Dalia Ofer, The Activities of the Jewish Agency Delegation in Istanbul in 1943, Rescue Attempts During the Holocaust, p.437.

22. Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs, Revisionism: A Destructive Force, p.24.


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