“By the sweat of your brow, shall you get bread to eat——-‘ [Gen. 3.19]
In reference to the above, Sidney Zion, one time high profile correspondent for the NY Times, comments “This extraordinary book is ‘must’ reading for the White House and for people everywhere who wish to understand the Middle East today.” He remarked further that at long last the story of the Hebrew Revolution that routed the British out of the Holy Land was on record. “Nobody handed the Jews a country – they fought for it.” That few knew the whole story is an historical tragedy, “now corrected by Ben-Ami who played a major role in the events.”
In the early pages of the book, Ben-Ami provides useful information on both the Jewish and Arab populations in Ottoman Palestine. During early 1890, only a few hundred Jews of the First Aliyah reached Palestine from Russia. By 1891, 20,000 Jews reside in the Old City of Jerusalem. The majority were self-supporting engaged in various trades and crafts.
During 1903-1903 pogroms swept Russia launching the 2nd Aliyah. The British attacked Palestine in 1917 and the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed on November 2, 1917. Around this time, Zev Jabotinsky and Col Patterson were on their way to Palestine. It was at a time that Jew and Arab accepted one another. Palestinian Arabs flocked to work in the growing Jewish cities and settlements; and Jews found friends among them. Ben-Ami understood their economics and social plight while having no blanket hatred for them.
However, an emerging Pan Arabism in 1920-1921 manifested itself in riots with more than 40 Jewish deaths. It is interesting to note that the Arabs in Palestine had many different backgrounds. There were the El Masris from Egypt, the Halabys from Northern Syria and the Houranis from Southern Syria. In addition, there were Bedouins always ready to loot and steal and hard-working Fellahin. So much for the modern day vacuous claims of the PA. Feisel, the son of respected Arab nationalist leader Sherif Hussein welcomed the Balfour Declaration and was in favor of Jewish immigration into Palestine. Whatever place Jerusalem’s Mosque of Omar occupied in the hearts of Moslems, Feisel believed the “Arab’s national interests were directed towards the traditional religious and cultural centers – Mecca and Medina, Bagdad and Damascus.” “From 1917 to 1920, Arabs in Palestine accepted as fact that “Palestine was to become a Jewish country.”
Yitzhag Ben-Ami’s remarkable journey covers events in Palestine, Europe and the US; and represents a personal tour de force. Briefly, his biography reads as follows. He was the first child born in Tel Aviv and his life span commenced in 1913, terminating in 1985. He joined the Irgun at an early age and engaged himself in protecting neighborhoods from Palestinian Arab terrorism in the 1930s. During 1937, the Irgun dispatched him to Europe to assist in organizing Aliyah Bet transports. At the end of 1938, Ben-Ami was sent to the US to seek political and finance support for the immigration campaign. He established the American Friends of a Jewish Palestine, the forerunner of the Bergson Group. Subsequently, he became one of the leaders of the Committee for a Jewish Army and the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe. After serving in the US army from 1943 to 1945, he returned to the US and his role with the Bergson Group.
Until 1931, Ben-Ami was largely associated with leftist movements. With the advent of the Arab riots in Jerusalem during 1929, following which the Arab gangs assaulted Jews and invaded Jewish settlements throughout Palestine, the siege of Be’er Tuvia, where Jewish farmers had lived peacefully alongside their Arab neighbors, and the lack of support from the British, his socialist ideology had been severely tested. Incidents such as a remark by the wife of the Colonial Secretary, Sidney Webb, to Zionist Establishment leader Chaim Weitzmann, “I can’t understand why the Jews make such a fuss over a few dozen of their people killed in Palestine. As many are killed every week in London in traffic accidents”, did not pass him by. But it was his recall of the catastrophic 1930 Passfield White Paper and his conversations with Mordechai N, whom he met while studying agriculture in Portici, Italy during Spring 1931 which finally decided him in “no longer [being] the innocent sheltered seven year old expecting all of Europe to embrace me in the struggle for universal brotherhood.”
The Passfield White Paper was undoubtedly a betrayal of the Balfour Declaration reiterating the cultural nature of the National Home as defined in the 1922 Churchill White Paper. It was clearly pro-Arab and anti-Zionist in tone. At this point Ben-Ami, “had already decided to look up acquaintances in the Jabotinsky movement and to do some reading.” He then recognized that neither Russian Marxists nor British socialists had stepped forward in support of their “brothers”. At the time, Mordechai N, a hardened revisionist, provided him an illuminating response in the form of a commentary. “We Jews everywhere are facing grave times and we are not prepared for them—-when [in 1917] the British made it possible to return home, the Jews of the Diaspora chose to stay in exile—-By 1920 the British reneged on their promises and it was too late—Now the Labor Zionists think that by obtaining a few thousand immigration certificates—by permission to buy some land, they will eventually build a society of select Jews who will live in harmony with all their neighbors— But this is all fantasy—-the British—-want just enough of us in Palestine to keep us and the Arabs at each other’s throats—-Divide and conquer is the rule of all good empires—-As long as they can keep the Jews and Arabs off-balance, they can have oil and the other resources of the area at their disposal—those Zionists who still talk in terms of ‘selecting’ Jews for immigration to Palestine are living in another world—-Germany and other European nations will not let Britain rule the world alone; vicious nationalism and a deteriorating economic situation will lead to war—And the Jews will be blamed for it, as they always have been—the British will see to it that Arab reactions are prompt, violent and in the interest of ‘security’, the door will once more be slammed shut on the Zionist dream—-When this happens, the only thing left for us will be armed revolt.”
Mordechai concluded his prophetic beliefs with an observation that the Jews would rebel against the British Empire and force it “out of Eretz-Israel” and requested Yitzhaq Be-Ami not to be discouraged by the “tiny toehold political Zionism has in Eretz-Israel”.
Be-Ami notes that for two thousand years—since the loss of “our” independence—-we have been exiles. “We” suffered terrible defeats. “Our” last great political leader, King Agrippa, was poisoned by the Romans [44CE]. Then came the Zealots’ Revolts and the Temple was destroyed. Finally, Bar Kochba’s Rebellion was crushed [135CE]. These defeats traumatized us permanently. We lost our home. We never forgot that more than half of the Jews of Judea were killed, enslaved or exiled. We came to abhor arms. We became unlike all other people. Ever since, we have been dispersed—–“I would say crippled——people”, held together only by threads of our spiritual heritage. It held us together, but never led us home.
On April 10, 1938, Ben-Ami left Vienna, nine months after Eri Jabotinsky and David Raziel had sent him to meet Moshe Galili there. The latter had served the Irgun in their illegal immigration efforts. It must be understood that the efforts towards ethnic cleansing of Jews was fully supported by the Nazis during that period, but considered illegal by the British who were engaged in restrictive practices to Jewish immigration to Palestine. The Gestapo even authorized the opening of an office for the purpose of aiding the Irgun in their efforts. According to Ben-Ami, not only did the Zionist establishment fail to help the Irgun, they actually increased their opposition. On the other hand, Adolph Eichmann’s moods were unpredictable , despite all the pyrotechnics, he cooperated with the Irgun. Following Kristallnacht, Britain had the groundwork to intensify its intervention against the Jewish immigrants along the Mediterranean through increased patrols. “It was doing its best to make sure that Hitler’s noose would not slip.”
As he traversed Europe in a strenuous effort to promote and assist Aliyah, this was Yitshaq Ben-Ami’s observations, “The Jews of Poland, the hundreds of thousands of small storekeepers, artisans and unemployed workers, the brilliant intellectuals and the handful of rich and the Orthodox—-the poor shtetl dwellers in their medieval garb—–what hadn’t they tried to keep alive? And yet how many would survive? ” His graphic description of the brutality exacted on early Holocaust survivors and what they had observed on those who perished is beyond belief.
We are invited to understand the differences between practical, political and military Zionism. In this, Zeev Jabotinsky is viewed as political with the author, Jabotinsky’s son Eri, Hillel Kook, David Raziel, Avraham Stern, Menachem Begin, Shmuel Katz, Shamuel Merlin, Mordechai Strelitz, Ben Eliezer, and Haim Lubinsky, the activists favoring a military option primarily directed at the British. Menachem Begin is quoted as stating that, “——if we create our military strength, the salvation of the diaspora will come. The world is indifferent—-its conscience ignores what is happening to our people. The League of Nations is impotent. We cannot continue on this road. We want to fight——–” “To win or to die.”
It was at a meeting in Paris during February, 1939 as darkness descended, shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland that the revisionists literally mobilized for the eleventh hour. The non-Jew, Josiah C. Wedgwood NO’s simple message to the group about fighting for their freedom apparently touched Jabotinsky, who until then could not see his way beyond diplomacy and political persuasion in the struggle for independence. It was felt that in addition thereto, he had been stirred by the June 29, 1938 execution of Shlomo Ben Yosef, the first Jew to have suffered this fate in the Land of Israel; and the British brutal torture of Irgun suspects. From this horrid story , two significant items emerged. Ben Yosef and his colleagues did not murder anyone. All they had done was to fire one revolver shot into the air and to throw a fake grenade at a speeding bus full of Arabs who did not live in the area. This occurred at a time following the Arab murder of five Jews in a taxi when the Jews in Palestine were being subjected to hundreds of murders in the face of British inactivity. It was a time at the crest of the 1936-1938 Arab Revolt. The British were determined to thwart all illegal immigration efforts by the revisionists.
They, the British, elected to make an example of Ben Yosef and his two friends while little was done by the Jewish establishment in their defense. Ben Yosef’s hanging triggered the beginning of a revisionist revolt that would grow over time until freedom would be won.
Wedgewood established himself as a true friend of the Jews in his opposition to the 1920 partition of Palestine and in the mid-1930’s was most critical of British appeasement policies and the limitation of Jewish immigration seeking to migrate to Palestine [White Paper of 1939]. “I want to see in Palestine once again a fighting nation, free and courageous like the Macacabees—-An army of forty thousand fit to defend what is dear to them and to me—-”
With the advent of a continuous struggle to raise funds in Europe in support of illegal immigration to Palestine, Yitzhaq Ben-Ami set forth for the US, arriving there on March 30, 1939. He was soon to learn that his myopic vision of America could only be described as mythical. Struggling to raise itself up out o a debilitating depression, the US suffered from a goodly share of anti-Semitism. Ben-Ami was to become aware of the active opposition to revisionist Zionism at the State Department, where too many of the Near Eastern experts served in Arab countries, or were connected with the oil companies, or the American University of Beirut.
In the early days of his time in the US, Ben-Ami found violent condemnation to the Ha’Apalah [illegal immigration] efforts from almost everyone, from the assimilationist “Bund” to the Zionist Abba Hillel Silver, to the ultra-orthodox Agudath Israel. Despite concerted efforts, the US Irgun group of 5 enjoyed little progress. After reading a column published in a 1941 liberal NY paper by Ben Hecht, an assimilated Jew, they were to enjoy their greatest recruiting achievement by winning him over. His immortal words are a testimony to the Jewish spirit. ” I write of Jews today, I who never knew himself as one before, because that part of me which is Jewish is under violent and ape-like attack. My way of defending myself is to answer as a Jew.” He was to become the most important exponent of the Irgun in America.
Following the formation of the Committee for a Jewish Army of Stateless and Palestinian Jews, the Irgun were able to launch their campaign through a Hecht created advertisement headlined, “Jews Fight for the Right to Fight”, published in many of the leading newspapers. It bore the signatures of a cross section of notable Americans. Parlor meetings were held in private homes and Congress was lobbied, despite severe financial crises. Sadly, Ben-Ami reports that, “by the end of 1940, our mass rescue work was nearing its end. Our mission in the US was a financial failure.” As late as 1938 and 1939, Ben-Ami recognized that the Germans were determined to rid Europe of Jews, but that they did not contemplate mass annihilation. However he idea grew on them as they observed the passivity of the nations around the world. Because the Jewish Establishment did not have the courage for an all out rescue campaign and the nations of the free world did not care——-the Jews of Europe gradually became worthless to the Nazis.
[Part 2 to follow in my next blog.]