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December 8, 2014 9:02 am

A Debate on Illegal Immigration – Into British Mandatory Palestine

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Louis D. Brandeis. Photo: Harris & Ewing - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

JNS.orgThe national debate on immigration is very much on the minds of some American Jewish leaders and organizations, and the same was true 75 years ago this month—when Louis D. Brandeis, then a recently retired Supreme Court justice, took a position that surprised many.

The immigration question in those days concerned “aliya bet,” the campaign to bring undocumented Jewish immigrants from Europe to British Mandatory Palestine. This was an effort initiated by Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Palestine underground militia associated with Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. With Nazism spreading across Europe and the British restricting the entry of Jews to the Holy Land, the Irgun began landing shiploads of Jewish refugees at deserted coastal sites late at  night, out of view of British patrols.

The rival Labor Zionists, headed by David Ben-Gurion, at first preferred a policy of friendly relations with the British, and opposed aliya bet. But by 1939, with the plight of Jews in Europe steadily worsening, the Labor-affiliated Mossad l’Aliya Bet joined the effort and began organizing its own ships of undocumented immigrants.

Most American Zionist leaders opposed taking any steps that might upset America’s ally, Great Britain. Veteran U.S. Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise told Ben-Gurion that he (Wise) was urging American Jews “to march shoulder to shoulder with England in the war against fascism,” and he would not deviate from this position even if the Zionist cause suffered.” Wise’s Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs went so far as to assert that the Irgun’s aliyah bet ships were so overcrowded that they “resemble concentration camps.”

But Louis D. Brandeis, elder statesman of American Zionism and one of the most influential Jews in America, dissented. Justice Brandeis explained his position at a meeting with a group of veteran American Zionist activists on July 31, 1939. One of the participants wrote, “Speaking on the question of immigration [Brandeis] said that Jews would continue to immigrate regardless of the White Paper [the British policy closing Palestine to most Jews].  When someone suggested that it was illegal, he said that the Jewish people considered it legal in view of the fact that any attempt to curtail immigration was in violation of the terms of the Mandate; that it may be considered illegal by Great Britain but that we Jews considered it to be legal.”

To Brandeis, the law was not just a collection of words on paper, but had to relate meaningfully to real life. The British policy of keeping most Jews out of Palestine was “legal” only in the dry, technical sense; it was not legal in any sense related to what was happening in the real world. A law that helped doom millions of innocent Jews could not be truly legal. And the modern-day “Underground Railroad,” which was taking Jews out of the Nazi inferno and smuggling them to freedom and safety, could not be truly illegal.

The conflict between American Jewish supporters and opponents of aliya bet came to a head 75 years ago this month, in December 1939. The Irgun purchased the S.S. Sakarya, an old Turkish coal carrier ship, and loaded it with 2,300 Jewish refugees—the largest single group of undocumented immigrants to seek entry to Palestine. But after learning at the last minute of the true nature of the voyage, the ship’s owners demanded an extra $10,000 in the deal in case the Sakarya would be intercepted and impounded by the British.

As the Sakarya sat stranded in the freezing Danube River, facing a fierce winter and dwindling food supplies, as Rabbi Louis I. Newman, leader of the Revisionists’ U.S. branch, and Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, a prominent supporter of the aliya bet effort, desperately sought to raise the necessary funds.

Newman’s appeal to Rabbi Wise failed. Wise responded by accusing the Revisionists of engaging in unfair “competition” with mainstream Zionist fundraising efforts. Rabbi Rabinowitz’s appeal to Henry Montor, executive vice president of the United Palestine Appeal (UPA, the forerunner of the UJA), elicited an unusually frank critique of aliya bet.

Immigration to Palestine should be governed by the principle of “selectivity,” Montor wrote to Rabinowitz. The only Jews to be sent there should be “young men and women who are trained in Europe for productive purposes… Sentimental considerations are, of course, vital and everyone would wish to save every single Jew,” but—in the UPA official’s opinion—it was more important to bring those who are “able to endure harsh conditions” in the Holy Land. Montor also (erroneously) accused the Revisionists of bringing “prostitutes and criminals” to Palestine.

Ironically, the UPA itself later published a fundraising brochure featuring a photograph of an Irgun ship, the Parita, which had brought 850 undocumented immigrants to Palestine.

Newman and Rabinowitz nonetheless managed to raise the funds to rescue the Sakarya. The donors were two prominent American Jewish philanthropists, Lucius Littauer and David Donneger. In late January 1940, the money arrived, and on Feb. 1, the ship left Sulina, reaching Haifa on Feb. 13. Although Littauer and Donneger were not Zionists, they, like Justice Brandeis, recognized that with the dark clouds of Nazism spreading across Europe, there was no time to be “selective” about who should be rescued.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,

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  • The UN must be dismantled. It is a criminal enterprise.

    As an example of the way in which the principles of pan-Arab national self-determination then applied to Israel, Stone cited:
    a letter dated February 20, 1980 to the Secretary-General, transmitted for UN circulation to the General Assembly and the Security Council in connection with item 26 of A/35/11000-S/13816 (Situation in the Middle East) [which] declared a propos of inclusion in the Charter of a principle of non-use of force:
    “The principle of non-use of force shall apply to the relations of the Arab Nation and Arab States with the nations and countries neighboring the Arab homeland. Naturally, as you know, the Zionist entity is not included, because the Zionist entity is not considered a State, but a deformed entity occupying an Arab territory. It is not covered by these principles.

    How many holidays do the Arabs-Muslims celebrate due to historical events in the land of ancient Israel and Jerusalem. r9
    The Jewish people celebrate most of their holidays and fast days in memory of Jerusalem and Israel since 70 AD (that is over 2,000 years).
    Jewish people pray at least 3 times a day, remembering Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple destruction. Pleading the Jewish goal and aspiration to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem – where it was before it was destroyed and desecrated by the enemies of the Jews. Most of the Jewish prayers for thousands of years recite the love of Israel and the Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral land and bring back its glory and holiness.
    At Jewish weddings they break a glass in memory of Jerusalem and the aspiration to return and build the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.
    Every day at the end of the meal the Jews recite a blessing and thank G-d for providing sustenance and beseech G-d to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
    Most Jewish prayers mention our glorious memory of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple and pleading to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple.
    YJ Draiman

  • Israel must be steadfast in protecting its rights and its people
    Many nations and people are questioning Israel’s control of its liberated territory.
    No one is mentioning that the Arab countries had ejected about a million Jewish people and their children from their countries, confiscated their assets, businesses, homes and Real estate. Many of the Jews ejected from Arab countries died while their forced departure from Arab countries, due to hardship, famine and starvation. 650,00 Jewish people and their children of these expelled Jewish people and their children were resettled in Greater Israel. The Land the Arab countries confiscated from the Jewish people 120,440 sq. km. or 75,000 sq. miles, which is over 5-6 times the size of Israel, and its value today is the trillions of dollars.
    The Jewish people and their children during the over 2,000 years living in Arab countries have suffered Pogroms, Libel claims, beheadings, beatings, false imprisonment and extreme hardship as a second class citizens. They had their businesses and homes pillaged, their wives and daughters raped, sold them as slaves, their houses of worship pillaged and burned, forced conversion to Islam.

    Today over half of Israel’s population are Jews expelled from Arab countries and their children and grandchildren.

    The Audacity of the Arab countries in demanding territory from the Jewish people in Palestine after they ejected over a million Jewish people and their children who have lived in Arab land for over 2,000 years and after they confiscated all their assets and Real estate 5-6 times the size of Israel (120,440 sq. km. – 75,000 sq. mi.), valued in the trillions of dollars.
    Now the Arab nations are demanding more land and more compensation.
    The Arab countries have chased the million Jews and their children and now the want to chase them away again, from their own historical land.

    Israel must respond with extreme force to any violent demonstration and terror. Israel’s population must have peace and tranquility without intimidation by anyone.
    The Jewish people have suffered enough in the Diaspora for the past 2,500 years. It is time for the Jewish people to live as free people in their own land without violence and terror.
    It is time to consider that the only alternative is a population transfer of the Arab-Palestinians to the territories the Arab countries confiscated from the Jewish people and settle this dispute once and for all. Many Arab leaders had suggested these solutions over the years.
    YJ Draiman

  • Operation Embarrass was, indeed, an embarrassing truth …
    The Times
    Sep 18, 2010 – When Keith Jeffery stumbled across documents revealing Operation Embarrass, he unearthed an explosive story in every sense.

  • I observe that a lot of commentators are aware of History and I thank them for their good comments! I am fighting for decades against my Democrats Jewish friends who seem blind mute and no-brained Jews facing their political submission to DEMs and Idealized America…….Brandeis was right but US Jews were mostly still diasporical cowards…..
    Let us avow that Israel brought us since, a Courage which should make us think about what HIGH and Great and amazing, was the courage of the fighting Jews in the 30-40ies….!!!!
    Gratulations everybody. That is the good way to love a certain America.




  • Britain allowing up to 10,000 Kindertransport children
    into their country notwithstanding, Britain was at best
    indifferent to the plight of Europe’s Jews, at worst
    outright callous. Nobody can tell me, even seventy five
    years afterwards, that Britain at the Evian conference,
    in July 1938, couldn’t have permitted desperate German
    Jews entry into Uganda, Guiana or India. India, a country
    with a huge array of religions and sects wouldn’t have
    even noticed the presence of a few hundred thousand
    Jews. They weren’t wanted. That was the bottom line.

  • Michael Chenkin

    The title of this article is absurd and anti-Semitic as it criminalizes Jews who had every right to immigrate into the territory that would become Israel. Great Britain’s temporary authority to act within this territory was governed by the Mandate for Palestine, a trust agreement established by the League of Nations for the benefit of the Jewish people that was administered by Great Britain. Under the Mandate Great Britain was obligated to facilitate Jewish immigration into the Mandate territory. The actions of Great Britain to curtail Jewish immigration were equivalent to a trustee stealing money from a trust the trustee administers. Great Britain’s actions were the illegal ones. To imply in any way that Jewish immigration into the Mandate territory was illegal is a complete and prejudicial falsification of history. Protecting the right of Jews to immigrate into the Mandate territory was a “sacred trust” under international law. To conflate this clear and unequivocal right with the illegal immigration into the United States is absurd.

  • Mr. Justice Brandeis was perfectly correct — it was indeed a flagrant violation of the 1922 Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations to bar Jews from entry into (and settlement in) “Eretz Israel.” During the British period (1922-1948), “Eretz Israel” was the official Hebrew-language term for Western Palestine, i.e. all the land west of the Jordan River. Still with legal effects today, the 1922 Palestine Mandate of the League of Nations is akin to a multilateral treaty that explicitly recognizes “the historical connection” of the Jewish People to Palestine and calls for “close settlement by Jews on the land” everywhere west of the Jordan River.

    But, that is far from the complete story. Between 1917 and 1923, a series of declaration, resolutions, and treaties had explicitly recognized the Jewish People’s pre-existing “historical connection” to Palestine. This was tantamount to international recognition of the aboriginal rights of the Jewish People. Already in 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte had issued a proclamation recognizing that the Jewish People is “the rightful heir” to Palestine and inviting Jews to hasten to return to their ancestral homeland.

    Jewish law (halacha) has always recognized the Jewish People’s right to its aboriginal homeland, where a specifically “Jewish” People was born some 26 centuries ago. From that time until today, there has never been a single year when some then self-identified “Jews” were absent from their aboriginal homeland, where today they are once again the majority of the local population.

    Among the distinct, self-identified Peoples now living in a country or region, the one with the best claim to be aboriginal is “the” People which was there first in time. Without reference to numbers, this now existing aboriginal People is distinguished from the other current local Peoples which subsequently either were formed in the land (indigenous) or came there via conquest, migration and settlement.

    For example, the Indian tribes in Canada are commonly called “the First Nations.” They are still the aboriginal Peoples there, even though some of these tribes now number only a few hundred individuals. Their status as “first in time” is not lost because they are now just a fraction of Canada’s population.

    Like the First Nations, the Jewish People for more than two millennia has always had the strongest claim to be “the” aboriginal People in its ancestral homeland — though for most of those centuries, Jews there were but a small percentage of the inhabitants. Nor is this persistent Jewish claim to be “the” aboriginal People there weakened because the majority of Jews have at various times lived elsewhere.

    Aboriginal rights are not invariably minority rights. However, in a minority context, aboriginal rights significantly contrast with majority rights, and limit the right of the current majority to decide all matters without regard to the aboriginal minority. This reminds us that “majority rules” is not a universal moral, political or legal principle that invariably applies to all subject matter, under all circumstances, and at all times.

    Consistent with the usual minimum content of aboriginal rights, Jews have always claimed, inter alia, the right to visit and/or dwell in their ancestral homeland. And, they have regularly done so for more than two thousand years. Across the centuries, some then self-identified “Jews” always lived in their homeland; and some other Jews, whether from the Mideast or abroad, persistently perceived a duty and desire to join them there. For close to two millennia, first Christianity and then also Islam — as kindred Abrahamic faiths — generally understood the broader context in which the Jewish People had a special connection to the land of its birth. Thus, minority status there did not in itself cancel these key aboriginal rights of the Jewish People.

    The Jewish People’s aboriginal rights make it clear that Jews have a right to enter into (and live in) “Eretz Israel.” This is something that should always be remembered when objections are now raised to Jews settling the land. Whether a thousand years ago or today, we should not confuse Jews returning to live with other Jews in the aboriginal homeland of the Jewish People with the 17th-century Pilgrim Fathers who went to build English “settlements” in America where they had neither native kin nor ancestors.

    And, the foregoing is what I call a real discussion about law.

  • It was not “powerful Arab oil pressure” which was virtually non-existent at the time that caused the British to turn back the refugees but flagrant British anti-semitism, especially that of Ernest Bevin who was then foreign minister and thus responsible for immigration to Mandate Palestine. Britain itself took in many Jewish refugees, unlike the USA. It has to be realised that the systematic slaughter of Jews was not widely known at the time, much was done, even by the Allied politicians to hide the fact for various reasons, if the general population of the Allied countries had known about the death camps there would have been a mass protest. Also, please do not confuse refugees with economic migrants, the Jews were fleeing for their lives, today’s refugees, even from Syria, are merely seeking a better life.

  • steven L

    It looks like the American Jews of today are not much different from those of 1935-45. Very sad.

  • British restrictions and blockade on Jewish immigration to Palestine 1938-1948 caused the death of over 2 million Jews trying to escape German extermination camps.
    The British in 1922 gave away in violation of the Mandate 77% of the land in Palestine allocated for the Jewish people to the Arabs as the State named Jordan of which 80% of the population is Arab-Palestinians. This is the Palestinian State and no other.
    British actions in Palestine during the Mandate 1918-1948 are the cause of the continued violence and terrorism in the Middle East. The British wanted to control the oil in the Middle East and they were willing and did cross anyone to accomplish their goals. In today’s time in history, nothing has changed.
    In less than 20 years England and the rest of Europe will be controlled by Muslims with Sharia laws in place.
    Prohibiting Jews for residing anywhere where the map of Mandate for Palestine territory of 1920 is a violation of International Law and the San Remo Treaty which was adopted by the League of Nations in 1920.
    Any housing, factories, goods and services produced by Jews in the area that was designated as the Mandate for Palestine is granted by the International agreements and treaties of the 1918-1920, which are in affect for perpetuity.
    Israel’s 2nd war of liberation of 1967 debunking the notion that Israel is an occupier.

    WW2 Britain Blew Up Jewish Refugee Ships

    A new book uncovers shocking secret attacks launched on ships bearing Holocaust survivors en route to Israel. Andrew Roberts on the violent lengths to which post-war Britain went to appease oil-rich Arab states.
    As Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, the pitiful remnants of History’s greatest crime, tried to make their way across an often hostile Europe at the end of the Second World War, toward at least a semblance of safety in the Holy Land, they had no shortage of problems with which to contend, including disease and malnutrition, Polish anti-Semitism, Soviet indifference, Allied bureaucracy, and Arab nationalism. Now we discover that they faced yet another peril in the shape of bombs planted on their transport ships by Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, better known as MI6.
    A new book to be published next week entitled MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, by the distinguished British historian Keith Jeffery, reveals the existence of Operation Embarrass, a plan to try to prevent Jews getting into Palestine in 1946-’48 using disinformation and propaganda but also explosive devices placed on ships. Nor is this some speculative spy story that can be denied by the authorities: Dr. Jeffrey’s book is actually, in their own words: “Published with the permission of The Secret Intelligence Service and the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.”
    It’s shameful that Britain blew up humanitarian flotillas after the Holocaust, but now condemns Israel for halting politically inspired flotillas to Gaza.
    When on June 1 this year the British government denounced as “completely unacceptable” the way that the Israelis landed troops on the Turkish flotilla to Gaza we did not know that its predecessor had done much the same, actually blowing up one ship and damaging two more vessels of a genuinely humanitarian flotilla that was trying to bring Jewish survivors of the Nazi death camps to their people’s ancient homeland.
    The Secret History of MI6. By Keith Jeffery. 832 pages. Penguin Press HC.
    Of course the hostility of the British establishment toward Jewish immigration into Palestine since long before the notorious 1939 White Paper on the subject is well-known—even King George VI wrote that year to say that he was “glad to think that steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin”—nonetheless this is the first indication of the violent lengths to which post-war Britain was willing to go in order to appease the oil-rich Arab states of the region. For it now emerges that in late 1946 the Labor government of Clement Attlee asked MI6 for “proposals for action to deter ships masters and crews from engaging in illegal Jewish immigration and traffic,” adding, “Action of the nature contemplated is, in fact, a form of intimidation and intimidation is only likely to be effective if some members of the group of people to be intimidated actually suffer unpleasant consequences.” Among the options contemplated were “the discovery of some sabotage device, which had ‘failed’ to function after the sailing of a ship,” “tampering with a ship’s fresh water supplies or the crew’s food,” and “fire on board ship in port.” Sir Stewart Menzies, the chief of the SIS, suggested these could be blamed on an invented Arab terrorist group called The Defenders of Arab Palestine.
    Operation Embarrass was therefore launched after a meeting held on February 14, 1947 between officials from MI6, the armed services, the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office, the last represented by William Hayter, the head of Foreign Office Services Liaison Department, a high-flier who later became ambassador to Moscow. I knew Sir William Hayter in later life, but needless to say he never breathed a word about this operation. In his defense, it must be said that Hayter did order MI6 to ensure that arson “must be arranged, if at all, when the ship is empty.”
    The Operation Embarrass team was told that “the primary consideration was to be that no proof could ever be established between positive action against this traffic and His Majesty’s Government [HMG].” A special communications network, code-named Ocean, was set up with a budget of £30,000 ($47,000), a great deal of money in 1947. The operation had three aspects: direct action against refugee ships, a “black” propaganda campaign, and a deception scheme to disrupt immigration from Black Sea ports. A team of former Special Operations Executive agents—with the cover story of a yachting trip—was sent to France and Italy with limpet bombs and timers. If captured, “they were under no circumstances to admit their connection with HMG” but instead claim to have been recruited in New York “by an anti-Communist organization formed by a group of international industrialists, mainly in the oil and aircraft industries,” i.e. to lay the blame on rich, right-wing, unnamed Americans. They were told that this cover “was their final line of defense and, even in the event of a prison sentence, no help could be expected from HMG.”
    During the summer of 1947 and early 1948, five attacks were undertaken on ships in Italian ports, of which one was rendered “a total loss” and two others were damaged. Two other British-made limpet mines were discovered before they went off, but the Italian authorities did not find their country of origin suspicious, “as the Arabs would of course be using British stores.” Operation Embarrass even considered blowing up the Baltimore steamship President Warfield when in harbor in France, which later became famous in Israeli history as the “Exodus” ship that “launched a nation.”
    The country that ought to be embarrassed by Operation Embarrass—indeed shamed—is Great Britain, which used explosives to try to stop truly humanitarian flotillas after the Holocaust, but now condemns embattled Israel for halting entirely politically inspired flotillas to Gaza despite her rights of legitimate self-defense. The depth of the animosity that Establishment Britain, especially the Foreign Office, felt toward the Jews of Palestine clearly went even further than we had ever imagined, and even 70 years later is by no means extinguished.

  • tom tuey

    And the inhumanity continues to date…remember
    that what goes around comes aaround…

  • Wolff Bachner

    and the blood of OUR six million is also on BRITISH HANDS, FOREVER!

  • art

    The “illegal” immigration to Israel by European Jews must not be compared to any amnesty in the US now. These Jews were fleeing DEATH not seeking economic gains or a better life They were running for life itself.

  • Although Churchill himself opposed turning back from Palestine ships with Jewish refugees, some Mandate officials were more concerned with the letter of the Law than with the spirit of the Natural Law which requires saving human lives, as with genuine asylum seekers. FDR closed the gates to America, with large quotas unfilled.Powerful Arab oil pressure caused Britain to limit the quota of Jews for Palestine, but the UK itself was processing 10,000 kindertransport children up until war was declared.