On a hot July afternoon in 1945, a tight-lipped David Ben Gurion addressed a group of American Jewish businessmen in the Manhattan apartment of Rudolf Sonneborn. Sonneborn was a wealthy Jewish industrialist who had traveled to Palestine where he became friends with Ben Gurion and remained active in Jewish affairs upon his return to America.
Ben Gurion’s message to the assembled men was blunt: five Arab nations would soon wage war against the Jews of Palestine – and the Arabs would win. This dire forecast was because the Haganah had neither the weapons nor the money to buy them to counter an Arab attack. With the full horror of the Holocaust recently uncovered, the men gathered in Sonneborn’s apartment understood the urgency of Ben Gurion’s plea. There was no hesitation from the Jewish businessmen’ that day the Sonneborn Institute – really a Jewish-American arms underground – was born.
That Sonneborn Institute covered a program of arms procurement that was rampantly illegal. It was and is against the law for U.S. citizens to sell weapons to other countries without permits. Illegal or not, the Sonneborn Institute started buying and shipping weapons to Palestine. The timing was right; the war in Europe had ended and the government had mountains of surplus war material to be disposed of by auction. This made Jewish operators of salvage yards the most important members of the Institute because of their long experience in buying at government auctions. The Institute got busy buying a warehouse in New York to store the surplus goods and setting up a mining company as a front to justify buying explosives.
To get this contraband past the custom agents here and in Palestine, shipping containers containing small arms, ammunition and military supplies were labeled as “Agricultural Machinery” and “Industrial Equipment” and shipped to Haifa. But this was not enough; the Haganah would soon be fighting Arab armies equipped with tanks, artillery and planes and rifles and grenades. This arms imbalance was further complicated because the United States and Britain had established an embargo on weapons over still British-controlled Palestine. . This was no problem for the Arabs, they simply shipped arms to neighboring Arab states for truck transport into Palestine, but the embargo cut off heavy weapons for the Haganah. To solve the problem, the Institute came up with a solution that was imaginative and heroic. The solution was to buy a surplus aircraft carrier named the Attu, for $125,000 (this was 1947). The Institute’s idea was quite simple: on May 15, 1948, Israel would be a sovereign state with control over its coastline and ports. On May 16th the arms embargo would be lifted and the Attu, loaded with tanks, planes would arrive in newborn Israel with all the necessary heavy war material the Haganah would need to defend itself
But government bureaucracies can interfere with the best of plans regardless of how heroic they are and that was the case with the Attu. Before the Navy would release the carrier, it required the costly removal of the landing deck along with any gun turrets that would allow the carrier to be used as a warship. Besides these insurmountable government requirements, it became apparent that it was much easier and faster to obtain weapons from Europe than in a converted aircraft carrier from overseas. Like the U.S., Europe had a mountain of surplus war materials and the easier logistics of transporting this material across the Mediterranean became obvious. The Sonneborn Institute had done its work and was disbanded quietly; it was, after all, an illegal organization and could not attract attention. But when a member of the Institute was asked about his role in the Jewish underground, he replied, “It was a great period of our lives. I don’t think we’ll ever get over it …it gave us a feeling of accomplishment that nothing else we did before, that nothing we did since has equaled”.