World War II

Israel Table of Contents

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. In May 1940, however, 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Churchill, a longtime Zionist sympathizer, became prime minister, it appeared that the 1939 White Paper might be rescinded.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 (Pelugot Mahatz--Shock Forces)--the strategic reserve of the Haganah--and they also 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.

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.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress