Friday, September 1, 2017

The Happy Yidisher Curmudgeon: To the Shores of Palestine

Post-Holocaust Jews in Israel
Gezen di velt vi es zol zeyn

This is a continuation of post-Holocaust Jewish immigration; last week’s post was on the United States of America and New York’s Ellis Island, the week before that  was on Canada and Halifax’s Pier 21; this week’ post is on British-controlled Palestine.

“Vos ken vern fun di shof az der volf iz der rikhter?”
Shirley Kumove
Words Like Arrows: 
A Treasury of Yiddish Folk Sayings (1986)

About 100,000 European Jews left for Palestine after the Second World War, part of the Aliyah Bet program of illegal immigration, with 70,000 successfully making it to its shores before the founding of the Jewish State, Israel, in 1948. They were called the Sh’erit ha-Pletah (Hebrew: שארית הפליטה‎), “the surviving remnant.” Both Canada and the United States were slow during the initial post-war period in welcoming the European Jews, who were waiting (languishing actually) in displaced persons camps (DP camps)—administered by the Americans, British and French. Thus, Palestine became for many Jews their only hope of a better life, despite the fact that Britain didn’t want the Jews in Palestine, preferring it remain majority Arab.

Lawrence of Arabia helped romanticize the Arabs, who, although themselves not white Christians, were preferable to the Jews, who collectively bore all of the sins of mankind. (Even so, the British lied to the Arabs, too, making promises it had no desire to fulfill.) There was (and continues to be) little self-awareness coming out of Britain; consider this narishkeyt. When U.S. President Truman requested that Britain allow 100,000 European Jews freely and legally enter Palestine, Britain refused. Not surprising. Its record in allowing Jews to enter Britain is not great; it is not even good, either before the war or after it.

Yes, we are well aware of the much-publicized Kindertransport  (“children's transport;” 1938-40), where 10,000 European children—the majority Jewish—left their parents and were permitted to enter Britain, but this was primarily a Jewish effort from beginning to end. How traumatic this must have been for the children, many of whom never saw their parents again—lonely survivors. A PR facade will not alter the facts of their life in Britain. Those Jews that it did admit during the war were often placed in internment camps, including 1,000 children from the Kindertransport program. These were called “the prior-kinder” and ”friendly enemy aliens.”

There is nothing more to add to the ledger of doing good, but there is much more to be said on the negative side. Britain failed not only to rescue and welcome Jews post-war, it also hindered all efforts to rescue Jews and bring them to Palestine, which was under its mandate. In short, Britain made it official policy to not allow Jews entry at all places which it controlled—both at home and abroad. The Jewish reugees that the British caught in its naval blockades after the war were also put in internment camps in Cyprus [53,510 survivors; August 1946–February 1949]. Such is a small taste of British policy towards the Jews, one that in Yiddish says, Das bleter a zoyer tam in meyn moyl.

Again, not at all favourable; and in my view detestable and cruel, if not outright immoral. Not very “Christian” of them. Or, perhaps, it was their Christianity that informed such harsh views. For example, the British did accept 86,000 DPs, including at least 8,500 former members of the 14th Waffen SS Galizien, part of Nazi Germany’s Ukrainian division, to work as farm labourers. It is true that the enemy in this story are the British, but this is a well-earned condemnation. Britain has never really been good for the Jews; with so many shortcomings, it has hardly been a welcoming land, let alone Di Goldene Medina.

This knowledge is important, given how it is much easier to view history through the lens of modern events and not through the reality of the times in which they happened. It is also equally important to see and understand how British policy towards the Jews in general, gave no choice to the European Jews, who found it necessary and morally defensible to defy British rule of law. (What would you do?) Despite the obstacles, including a naval blockade, 120 ships made the voyage; less than half were successful, but they managed to land 70,000 Jews from Europe, evading the “British wolf.”

There is, of course, the famous cases of the Exodus 1947, [see also here] which was sent back to Germany’s DP camps (which the British controlled assiduously) with its 4,515 passengers, Jewish Shoah survivors. Disgraceful. This compels me to turn a well-known Yiddish expression around, I say, a shande far di Yidn. [“A scandal in front of the Jews,” which should convey a sense of Gentile embarrassment.]

If the British were embarrassed, they didn’t show it and they didn’t stop their blockades. Even so, despite this knowledge, the European Jews risked the voyage, since they had nothing to lose and so much to gain. (“We shall open the barred gates of Palestine.”) After all, they survived the Holocaust, and anything would be better than remaining in Europe. From my point of view, British policy then seems both heartless and cruel and without a doubt anti-Semitic.

Nu, what else is new? It’s wasn’t unexpected news for the Jews, so with moral courage and determination, the European Jews were able to defeat such a discriminatory policy and achieve a decisive victory: Israel became a nation on May 14, 1948 (5 Iyar 5708), a refuge for the Jewish People, a place where Jews themselves can determine their history, without the need to give credence to the narishkeyt of the goyim (“the nations,” i.e., the non-Jewish world). To their credit, Israel accepted more than 652,000 Jewish refugees by 1950.

Afterward, it continued to provide a safe haven for millions of Jews worldwide, and which continues to this very day—the only Jewish-majority nation in the world. Given the non-Jewish world’s harsh and often hateful views of the Jewish People, this is no doubt a good thing. Any rational person would agree. Israel has become a place where Jews can defend themselves, where Jews can prosper, and where Jews can be and live freely as Jews, in keeping with the expressed aims of Yiddishkayt, not necessarily in the ways of Europe or North America, but remade through the modern Hebraic model of a vibrant and living state.

Peretz ben Ephraim, September 1, 2017