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Documents Reveal Historic Debate over Jewish Refugees

by Hana Levi Julian

( A series of documents in the British National Archives released to the public on Monday reveals the fierce debate over the tattered remnants of European Jewry who desperately tried to reach Israel during the British Mandate.

The document, more than 400 pages long, showed how British diplomats around the world warned that the British Empire would face a public relations nightmare as a result of its decision to pander to Arab sensibilities.

Britain was loath to allow the thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing the ashes of post-war Germany to immigrate to the incubating Jewish State. Rather than allow the more than 4,500 Holocaust survivors to enter Palestine on the ship Exodus in 1947, for instance, the British officials decided to force the exhausted Jews back to German refugee camps.

On the other side of the debate, however, many of the officials were also concerned over the negative publicity they would cause by sending Jews back to the British-controlled zone in Germany so soon after the Holocaust had ravaged the Jewish People.

The cable they received in August 1947 from a British diplomat in France regarding the Exodus was clear: “You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press.” Then, as now, however, spin-meistering only went so far in terms of being able to manage damage control. A recommendation to deny that the Jews would be returned to former concentration camps, a telegram that German guards would not be present and that British guards would be removed once the Jews were screened, were of minimal value.

Within a week, warnings were received of possible terror attacks by the Irgun and the Stern Gangs. The two Jewish groups were both conducting special operations at the time against the Arabs and the British occupiers. They were determined to prevent the Jews’ forced deportation by any means possible.

The Stern Gang, led by Avraham Stern, was called “Lehi” – Lohamei Herut Israel, or Israel Freedom Fighters. The Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, was known as the Irgun Zva’i Leumi B’Eretz Yisrael – National Military Organization in the Land of Israel. Begin eventually became Prime Minister of the State of Israel.

Eventually Britain did indeed manage to force the boat back to Europe, in a move that officials saw as an operational success but as a military failure, according to the documents.

The refugees returned a year later, after the creation of the modern State of Israel.

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