Palestine in World War II
Country study from Library of Congress
"In May 1939, the British published a White Paper that marked the end of its commitment to the Jews under the Balfour Declaration. It provided for the establishment of a Palestinian (Arab) state within ten years and the appointment of Palestinian ministers to begin taking over the government as soon as "peace and order" were restored to Palestine; 75,000 Jews would be allowed into Palestine over the next five years, after which all immigration would be subject to Arab consent; all further land sales would be severely restricted. The 1939 White Paper met a mixed Arab reception and was rejected by the AHC. The Jewish Agency rejected it emphatically, branding it as a total repudiation of Balfour and Mandate obligations. In September 1939, at the outset of World War II, Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency, declared: "We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war."
Ben-Gurion's statement of 1939 set the tone for Jewish Agency policy and operations during World War II. The Jewish Agency
represented the World Zionist Organization as its executive body, encouraged and organized immigration of Jews into Palestine. Haganah, or Irgun HaHaganah (defense), was the Jewish defense organization formed in 1919-20 by volunteers in early Jewish communities as home guards for protection against hostile bands. It became the military arm of the Jewish Agency and went underground during the British Palestine Mandate period (1922-48) when it was declared illegal. The Irgun, or Irgun Zvai Leumi (National Military Organization), was established in 1937 as an underground Jewish extremist organization, also known as Etzel, derived from the pronounced initials of its Hebrew name. A more extreme group, known as the Stern Gang (or Lehi, the Lohamei Herut Yisrael, literally, Fighters for Israel's Freedom), broke away from it in 1939. Both groups were especially active during and after World War II against the British authorities in Palestine. Both maintained several thousand armed men until all Israeli forces were integrated in June 1948.
In May 1940, when Winston Churchill, a longtime Zionist sympathizer, became prime minister, it appeared that the 1939 White Paper might be rescinded. A brief period of close British-Jewish military cooperation ensued, and there was talk (which never came to fruition) of establishing a Jewish division within the British Army. The British trained Jewish commando units, the first elements of the famous Palmach, or Pelugot Mahatz (shock forces), to provide the Haganah with a mobile force, it consisted of young men mostly from kibbutzim, who took military training while working part-time at farming, serving in cooperation with the British army, without pay or uniforms. The British gave Jewish volunteers intensive training in sabotage, demolition, and partisan warfare. Ironically, this training proved indispensable in the Yishuv's efforts after the war to force the British to withdraw from Palestine. Along with the Jewish Brigade, which fought with the Allied forces in World War II, the Haganah formed the nucleus of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) established in 1948.
The entry of Italy into the war in May 1940, which brought the war closer to the Middle East, convinced Churchill and his military advisers that the immigration provisions of the White Paper needed to be enforced so as not to antagonize the Arabs. Thus, the British strictly enforced the immigration limits at a time when European Jewry sought desperately to reach the shores of Palestine. Despite rising British-Jewish tensions, thousands of Jewish volunteers served in the British army, and on September 14, 1944, the Jewish Brigade was established.
The event that did the most to turn the Zionist movement against Churchill's Britain was the Struma affair. The Struma, a ship carrying Jewish refugees from Romania, was denied entry into Palestine, after which the ship sank in the Black Sea leaving all but two of its passengers dead. In the aftermath of the loss of the Struma in April 1942, young Menachem Begin, then a soldier in the Polish army-in-exile, first came to Palestine. Begin was a disciple of Jabotinsky, but he rejected Jabotinsky's pro-British sympathies. Upon entering Palestine, Begin immediately set out to draw together the whole underground, including Lehi, in preparation for a Jewish war of liberation against the British.
By 1943 as news regarding Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe increased, the Irgun and Stern Gang stepped up harassment of British forces in an attempt to obtain unrestricted Jewish immigration. In November 1944, Lord Moyne, the British ministerresident in Cairo and a close personal friend of Churchill, was assassinated by Lehi. Lord Moyne's assassination alienated the British prime minister, who until then had supported a Jewish national home in Palestine. Subsequently, no British government considered setting up a Jewish state in Palestine. The assassination also led the Jewish Agency's clandestine military arm, Haganah, to cooperate with the British against the Irgun.
Another result of the anti-Zionist trend in British policy was the Yishuv's increasing reliance on the United States. In May 1942, Zionist policy and objectives were clarified at a conference of Zionist parties held at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. This conference was called at the initiative of Ben-Gurion, who had come to solicit the support of American Jews. Ben-Gurion was determined to seek a resolution that Jewish immigration to Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state would proceed despite British opposition. Weizmann, who objected to the idea of severing ties with Britain, was outflanked at the conference. The Biltmore Program adopted at the conference and approved by the Zionist General Council in November 1942 called for unlimited Jewish immigration to Palestine and control of immigration by the Jewish commonwealth, the word commonwealth thus replacing homeland.
The British position in Palestine at the end of World War II was becoming increasingly untenable. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors temporarily housed in displaced persons camps in Europe were clamoring to be settled in Palestine. The fate of these refugees aroused international public opinion against British policy. Moreover, the administration of President Harry S Truman, feeling morally bound to help the Jewish refugees and exhorted by a large and vocal Jewish community, pressured Britain to change its course in Palestine. Postwar Britain depended on American economic aid to reconstruct its war-torn economy. Furthermore, Britain's staying power in its old colonial holdings was waning; in 1947 British rule in India came to an end and Britain informed Washington that London could no longer carry the military burden of strengthening Greece and Turkey against communist encroachment.
In May 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry unanimously declared its opposition to the White Paper of 1939 and proposed, among other recommendations, that the immigration to Palestine of 100,000 European Jews be authorized at once. The British Mandate Authority rejected the proposal, stating that such immigration was impossible while armed organizations in Palestine-- both Arab and Jewish--were fighting the authority and disrupting public order.
Despite American, Jewish, and international pressure and the recommendations of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, the new Labour Party government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee and his foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, continued to enforce the policy articulated in the White Paper. British adamancy on immigration radicalized the Yishuv. Under Ben-Gurion's direction, the Jewish Agency decided in October 1945 to unite with Jewish dissident groups in a combined rebellion against the British administration in Palestine. The combined Jewish resistance movement organized illegal immigration and kidnapping of British officials in Palestine and sabotaged the British infrastructure in Palestine. In response Bevin ordered a crackdown on the Haganah and arrested many of its leaders. While the British concentrated their efforts on the Haganah, the Irgun and Lehi carried out terrorist attacks against British forces, the most spectacular of which was the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in July 1946. The latter event led Ben-Gurion to sever his relationship with the Irgun and Lehi.
By 1947 Palestine was a major trouble spot in the British Empire, requiring some 100,000 troops and a huge maintenance budget. On February 18, 1947, Bevin informed the House of Commons of the government's decision to present the Palestine problem to the United Nations (UN). On May 15, 1947, a special session of the UN General Assembly established the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP), consisting of eleven members. The UNSCOP reported on August 31 that a majority of its members supported a geographically complex system of partition into separate Arab and Jewish states, a special international status for Jerusalem, and an economic union linking the three members. Backed by both the United States and the Soviet Union, the plan was adopted after two months of intense deliberations as the UN General Assembly Resolution of November 29, 1947. Although considering the plan defective in terms of their expectations from the League of Nations Mandate twenty-five years earlier, the Zionist General Council stated willingness in principle to accept partition. The League of Arab States (Arab League) Council, meeting in December 1947, said it would take whatever measures were required to prevent implementation of the resolution.
Despite the passage of the UN partition plan, the situation in Palestine in early 1948 did not look auspicious for the Yishuv. When the AHC rejected the plan immediately after its passage and called for a general strike, violence between Arabs and Jews mounted. Many Jewish centers, including Jerusalem, were besieged by the Arabs. In January 1948, President Truman, warned by the United States Department of State that a Jewish state was not viable, reversed himself on the issue of Palestine, agreeing to postpone partition and to transfer the Mandate to a trusteeship council. Moreover, the British forces in Palestine sided with the Arabs and attempted to thwart the Yishuv's attempts to arm itself.
In mid-March the Yishuv's military prospects changed dramatically after receiving the first clandestine shipment of heavy arms from Czechoslovakia. The Haganah went on the offensive and, in a series of operations carried out from early April until mid-May, successfully consolidated and created communications links with those Jewish settlements designated by the UN to become the Jewish state. In the meantime, Weizmann convinced Truman to reverse himself and pledge his support for the proposed Jewish state. In April 1948, the Palestinian Arab community panicked after Begin's Irgun killed 250 Arab civilians at the village of Dayr Yasin near Jerusalem. The news of Dayr Yasin precipitated a flight of the Arab population from areas with large Jewish populations.
On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion and his associates proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel."
Books and Articles:
- Beckman, Morris. The Jewish Brigade: an Army with Two Masters, 1944-1945. Rockville Centre, NY: Sarpedon, 1998.
- Blum, Howard.The Brigade : An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and World War II. New York: HarperCollins, 2001.
- Moore, Deborah. GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004.
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