Saturday, July 11, 2009

11 July 1947: The "Exodus" Sails for Mandatory Palestine (with a little excursus on the evolution of anti-Zionist discourse)

Two ships and their passengers embodied the fate of European Jews in the middle of the twentieth century. If the story of the St. Louis, denied entry to Cuba in 1939, encapsulates the plight of those trying to flee Nazi persecution, that of the Exodus serves likewise for the survivors of the Holocaust that the Nazis perpetrated.

the ship under British control in Haifa harbor, 20 July 1947

On 11 July, 1947, 4,515 Displaced Persons (DPs) who had survived the Holocaust set sail from France for British Mandatory Palestine on the former Chesapeake Bay steamer, President Warfield, now renamed the Exodus-1947. The Jewish Agency had been bringing refugee ships to Palestine, in violation of the British restrictions on immigration, as soon as postwar conditions allowed. The British intercepted 58 out of the total of 63 ships from 1945 to 1948, interning the passengers, usually on Cyprus. In this case, the Royal Navy, which had tracked the large ship since its departure from France, exercised more force than usual when it made its intercept off the coast of Palestine. The attack, which included machine-gun fire, killed three on board and wounded a hundred, over two dozen of them seriously. Finally, after the British rammed the Exodus, it surrendered.

Reporter Ruth Gruber described the scene:
The ship looked like a matchbox that had been splintered by a nutcracker. In the torn, square hole, as big as an open, blitzed barn, we could see a muddle of bedding, possessions, plumbing, broken pipes, overflowing toilets, half-naked men, women looking for children. Cabins were bashed in; railings were ripped off; the lifesaving rafts were dangling at crazy angles.
Infuriated at French support for the Zionist cause, the British shipped the passengers back to France, where they refused to disembark, and the French declined to force them to do so. Finally, after three weeks, the British sent the refugees to Hamburg. The irony of Jews being forced off the ship by club-wielding troops and forcibly sent in trains to DP camps in Germany, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, was not lost on the public.

The fate of the St. Louis arguably had little effect at the time: whatever sympathies it may have aroused, it did not change western immigration policies. The Exodus, by contrast, arguably did have a major impact on public opinion and policy alike. The crew of the ship radioed an account of the attack as it was in progress, and both the seizure of the ship and the subsequent peregrinations of its passengers made international headlines and sparked protests. The incident occurred just as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was investigating the increasingly tense situation in the final era of the Mandate, after the British government had rather disingenuously tossed the issue into the lap of the General Assembly. The opposition of the Arab states notwithstanding, UNSCOP insisted on considering the fate of the DPs and the question of Palestine together (nowadays we would call that: linkage). Concerning the Exodus case, the Yugoslav member of UNSCOP said, "It is the best possible evidence we can have."

For good reason, then, a recent award-winning documentary on the Exodus was subtitled, "The Ship That Launched a Nation." The saga epitomized David Ben-Gurion's message to inhabitants of the DP camps in Germany, "You are not only needy persons, you are a political force."

As the late Irish historian and diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien explains, the practice of bringing in illegal refugees in this manner was a win-win strategy: "Where the passengers got through, it was a gain for the Yishuv [Jewish community in Palestine; JW], in people. Where they were apprehended, it was a gain for the Zionist cause, in propaganda terms." There was of course no greater public-relations trump card than the spectacle of Holocaust survivors being forcibly sent back to camps in Germany. "If Whitehall had been working in collusion with the Zionist propaganda machine, it could not have contrived a more telling conclusion to the two-month saga of the passengers of the Exodus."

In a sense, the Zionist propaganda effort was perhaps too effective, and not simply because the Palestinians have at every possible turn appropriated its references and tactics, beginning with the focus on refugees.

Although the "Free Gaza" movement has been trying to replicate the success of the "Exodus" episode, no one really takes seriously the spectacle of the occasional boat setting sail from Cyprus and attempting to land supplies in Gaza, because it is just that: a spectacle. The comfortable celebrities and professional activists are not starved and stateless survivors of genocide, and their little nautical journey represents an outing rather than an odyssey, a destination rather than a destiny.

The "Free Gaza" movement is intimately related to the odious and increasingly successful attempt to re-figure Israelis as Nazis and Palestinians as their Jewish victims (which features prominently in these pages). Still, that rhetorical strategy, by virtue of its extreme nature and the dictates of Godwin's Law, will necessarily run up against certain limits in mainstream discourse.

No, the irony is related but different. The Zionist strategy had unforeseen consequences because, in the aftermath of the War, it so successfully called upon the moral conscience of the world that it made the linkage between the Holocaust and Israel virtually inseparable. (In some ways, it's the mirror image of the consequences of the Palestinian national liberation strategy: justifying terrorism as the only available means of "calling attention" to one's cause and then finding that people tend to identify one's cause with terrorism.)

The tragic irony is that many people therefore consider the Holocaust to have been the raison d'être for Zionism and the State of Israel, which is an altogether different matter. It is in fact a canard (need we recite the basics?): Jewish longing for the historic homeland was both ancient and enduring. Zionism, which gave expression to that longing in new practical and political form in the era of modern antisemitism, was an established movement when Hitler was still in short pants. The Balfour Declaration (1917) came at the end of World War I, not World War II. The Holocaust simply rendered the Zionist argument more clear and compelling, and the wartime and postwar refugee crisis added a new practical urgency to the existing logic.

Nowadays, however, not just the President of Iran and the most radical opponents of Israel's existence, but also growing numbers of mainstream politicians and commentators can be heard to say that the Palestinians "paid the price" (or words to that effect) for the Holocaust and what Europeans did. Ergo, the creation of the State of Israel—which is to say, the UN Partition vote (which, as many on both sides conveniently forget, also mandated the creation of a Palestinian state)—was illegitimate or at any rate the wrong answer to the problem. Ergo, the overzealous attempt to right one wrong back then calls for corrective measures today.

What is most intriguing and disturbing about what we might call this new discourse of regret (it deserves fuller treatment later) is that it is in essence just the "kinder, gentler" version of the Nazi analogy. It still delegitimizes Israel morally if not existentially and accords prime victim status to the Palestinians, with the key difference that it allows one to blame without really seeming to blame.

It would be a shame if these attempts to revisit the original "two-state solution" were to impede efforts to craft a new one today. Solving the Arab-Iaraeli conflict in the near future will be immensely difficult if not impossible, and the effort will not be helped by exercises in competitive victimhood or continuing attempts to delegitimize the one side or the other by refighting old battles. Here again, history has some lessons. Partition came about not because of the historical claims of the one side or the other, but instead because of a pressing contemporary crisis. To be sure, in order to make real and lasting peace, each side needs to understand the other's "narrative" of the past, but the task at hand involves the present and the future. Actually, the Zionists always understood that—and this in large part accounts for their greater success.


• Journalist Ruth Gruber's classic 1948 account, originally entitled Destination Palestine, now reissued under the same title as the recent documentary film:
• "Exodus 1947: The Ship That Launched a Nation" (Cicada Films and Maryland Public Television)
Exodus 1947 (includes textual and audio-visual documents)
Ruth Gruber interview (US Holocaust Memorial Museum)
The Haganah Ship "Exodus 1947" (University of Hamburg)
• Julie Fax, "Holocaust remembrance—Exodus redux" (Jewish Journal, 2007)

[updated images and links]

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