When most people think of the refugee ship “Exodus,” the Paul Newman movie and Leon Uris novel on which it was based come to mind. But not many people know that one of the heroes behind the real-life Exodus was American businessman Dewey D. Stone.
Stone’s role in purchasing ships and weapons—under the nose of the FBI—and helping to orchestrate the founding of Israel is the subject of a new documentary, “The Dewey Stone Connection: From Exodus to Independence.”
The documentary opens with a 1970 speech given by then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in honor of Stone, who is from Brockton, Mass., and fellow Massachusetts businessman Harry Levine of Leominster. “I can think of no two other American Jews who have done more for the State of Israel—before and after its establishment,” the Prime Minister says.
The film is the result of a five-year effort headed up by Walter M. Newman, who grew up a few blocks from Stone’s house.
Newman—a retired official with the Environmental Protection Agency who helped supervise the Boston Harbor cleanup—was researching the founding of Israel and noticed that Stone’s name “kept popping up,” he said in a phone interview in January shortly after the film’s first public showing and a month before his death at age 76.
“I decided to investigate what the heck Dewey had been doing,” Newman said.
Newman scoured the records at the American Jewish Historical Society office in Boston, where Stone’s papers are archived. “There were so many things, so many wonderful things,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience.”
The Stone that Newman recalled from his youth was a charismatic leader in the Jewish community, hardly the kind of person one would expect to be part of what amounted to a smuggling ring. “There were whispers around Brockton that he was somehow involved with the state of Israel, but nobody knew exactly what he was involved in,” said Newman.
Stone was swept up in the cause of the Palestinian Jews after hearing a speech in 1940 by Chaim Weizmann, the head of the World Zionist Organization and later the first president of Israel. A renowned chemist, Weizmann was in Boston drumming up support for a research university in a future Jewish state.
After his talk, Weizmann invited Stone and a few others back to his hotel room, where they chatted until the wee hours of the morning. The next day, Stone drove Weizmann to Harvard University, where he was giving another speech. On the way, they stopped in front of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—the very model of the university Weizmann sought to build.
“It was at that moment that the seed of hope that this dream might really be achieved was planted within me—sitting in a stationary car with a silent visionary,” Stone wrote, as quoted in the documentary.
After the war, as the full extent of the Holocaust became apparent, Stone and Levine worked behind the scenes on both military and diplomatic efforts to forge a Jewish state.
Suspecting that the FBI was tapping his phone, Stone made calls from his sister’s house to procure ships and surplus U.S. weapons. In the documentary, nephew Ted Teplow, of Cambridge, Mass., recalls being up in his bedroom doing homework and overhearing his uncle on the phone. “We were all told not to talk about it,” Teplow, now 84, said in a phone interview.
Unlike in the 1960 movie, the real Exodus, carrying Holocaust survivors from France to Palestine in 1947, was rammed by a British destroyer just a few miles off the coast of Palestine, then under British control. Its 4,500 passengers were sent to a displaced-persons camp in Germany, the very nation that had persecuted them. Eventually, the majority of passengers settled in Israel. Meanwhile, worldwide outrage over the refugees’ plight helped bolster the push to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.
Stone also played an important role in that push. His brother Judge Harry K. Stone had become acquainted with Anastasio Somoza when the Nicaraguan dictator was in Boston for surgery in the 1930s. At the time, the Stone family owned Converse Rubber Co., maker of raincoats and shoes (and later, most famously, Chuck Taylor sneakers).
The brothers thought it would be good publicity for the company to host a reception for Somoza, complete with motorcade, band music, and State Police escort, Teplow said. Somoza, who had been miffed that the U.S. government had ignored his presence, was delighted by the attention and became close friends with Judge Stone, naming him honorary consul. That relationship paid off a decade later when Dewey and Harry Stone enlisted the Somoza regime to rally Latin American support that proved crucial for UN approval of the partition plan.
But just a few months before Israel was to declare independence, the U.S. State Department persuaded President Harry S. Truman to reject its recognition. Truman went so far as to shut the White House doors to Zionists. Weizmann, who was waiting anxiously in New York, expressed his frustration to Stone in a meeting on March 12, 1948. That night a visibly shaken Stone returned to Boston, where he was honored at a B’nai B’rith dinner along with Frank Goldman, the national head of the organization.
Goldman asked Stone what was the matter. Hearing about Weizmann’s predicament, Goldman said he might have a solution. He had just attended a Kansas City B’nai B’rith event recognizing Eddie Jacobson, who had been Truman’s partner in a clothing store business. Why not see if Jacobson would intervene with his old pal, Goldman suggested.
After collecting coins for a pay phone from fellow dinner guests, Goldman and Stone hustled into the lobby to call Jacobson. Stone arranged to meet Jacobson in New York and introduce him to Weizmann. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Jacobson hopped on a train to Washington to meet with Truman. The president agreed to see Weizmann, provided he came in the side door.
After hearing out the Zionist leader, Truman did an about-face and recognized Israel.
Weizmann “was a wonderful man; he was a leader, one of a kind you read about but seldom see,” Truman says in a remarkably candid interview he gave after leaving office and which is included in the documentary.
Newman found the footage through the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum. “To have the president of the United States tell the story firsthand—that was magnificent,” Newman said.
After the war, Stone continued to support Israel through numerous national leadership posts in the Jewish community. Perhaps dearest to him was the Chaim Weizmann Institute of Science, for which he served as chairman of its board of governors from 1949 through 1970.
Coincidentally, the director of the documentary, Michael Traub, grew up on the Weizmann campus, the son of a professor. Traub, 47, recalled that as a child he walked past the Stone Administration Building every day, without knowing anything about its namesake.
Building on Newman’s work, Traub plowed deeper into Stone’s story. For the film, he interviewed Stone’s large extended family and local Jewish leaders. Traub, who now lives in Jamaica Plain, traveled back to Israel as part of his research. He interviewed Suzy Eban, widow of Abba Eban. The famed Israeli diplomat had often stayed at Stone’s house, Traub said.
The filmmaker said that as a student in Israel he was taught little about the role of American Jews in helping to found the Jewish state. He said they had to remain in the shadows for fear of running afoul of U.S. laws against supplying foreign belligerents and of fanning anti-Semitism. The ship Exodus, for example, was purchased by a front organization, the Weston Trading Company, of which Stone was the sole stockholder.
In the early years of the Jewish state, another of Stone’s contributions was to encourage David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister, to issue Israel bonds for financing the fledgling nation.
Stone died in 1977 at age 77. He and his wife, Anne, had no children, but their 17 nieces and nephews considered the couple their second parents.
Teplow—one of the nephews—said Stone, who stood just 5-foot-3, knew how to work a crowd.
“There would be 50 people at an affair, and in the course of an evening he would be eyeball-to-eyeball with everybody… and in those few minutes you were the most important person in the world,” Teplow said.
For more information on showings of the movie, email Michael Traub at email@example.com. Steve Maas, a freelance writer based in Brookline, Mass., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.