In honor of the state of Israel’s 62nd birthday this week, I’d like to recount some of the strange twists of fate that brought it about. So many unlikely things happened that when you look at it all, you have to stand back in awe.
Now, I ask you: of all individuals in World War Two, who is most responsible for the Allied victory? Who was Hitler’s most implacable foe? Who told the world, “We will never surrender”?
The answer, of course, is Winston Churchill. Churchill is an example of how a person is nurtured for the right moment in history. He comes, he does it, and he’s gone. For decades, Churchill had been in the wilderness of British politics, the odd man out. If anybody in 1935 had said that he would become prime minister, the pundits would have laughed. And if anyone had said that after the war, in a grand fit of appreciation, the British people would vote him out of office, it would also be hard to believe, but that’s exactly what happened. What’s more, it happened in the middle of the Potsdam peace conference. Churchill had to go back to England, and his successor Clement Attlee replaced him.
In my opinion, if Churchill had remained in power, the world would never have come to the position of creating the state of Israel. Why? Because Churchill would not have pushed the anti-Jewish line that the Labour party did. After the war, some 230,000-240,000 Jews were found alive in the concentration camps. The world Jewish leadership requested that 100,000 of them be allowed to emigrate to Palestine, which was under British control. They did not ask for their own state. But Attlee had appointed as his foreign secretary a tough labor organizer named Ernest Bevin who did not like Jews. That is not to say that he was an anti-Semite in the sense that the Nazis were. He was just a bigot. He said, “I will not allow the Jews to push to the head of the queue. England has other problems.” And he would not allow a single Jew into Palestine. He was afraid of Arab reaction.
The Arabs then began the propaganda that they have used so successfully until now. “It’s not our fault that six million Jews got killed in Europe. Why are you punishing us? Let them go to America. Let them go to England. Let them go back to Germany. What do you want from us?”
As though the Mufti did not sit in Berlin for six years during the war, as though the British did not have to put down a number of Arab revolutions on behalf of Nazis.
The reaction of many of the Jews in Palestine was to fight the British, and that was the beginning of what is today the Mossad. They infiltrated the concentration camps and organized the survivors. Jewish refugees marched hundreds and hundreds of miles to embarkation points where ships leased by Jewish organizations would take them to Palestine.
At first, the immigration was successful because England was not prepared to counteract it. Israel has a long coastline, and in the dead of night, you can land a few hundred people, unload them, and be gone in the daytime. The few hundred people were then absorbed into the kibbutzim and the Jewish cities. The Arabs began to scream bloody murder. So then the British navy blockaded the eastern Mediterranean and built a large detention camp on the island of Cyprus. The ships carrying the would-be Jewish immigrants were caught and the people were put in the detention camp. But the world now had sympathy for the Jews. That detention camp showed a terrible callousness to what they had gone through.
The most public incident was with the ship, the Exodus 1947. It was carrying almost 4000 Jewish refugees when the British intercepted it. They didn’t even unload in Cyprus; they brought the ship all the way back to Hamburg, Germany. They had to drag the Jews off the ship kicking and screaming. It may have been a British military triumph, but it was a public relations disaster. And this pressure was the beginning of the end for the British Mandate over Palestine.
For more on the aftermath of the Holocaust and the birth of the state of Israel, please see our documentary film Faith and Fate 6: The Miracle of Israel, 1945-1948.