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Immigration to Israel:
The Irgun’s Role in Illegal Immigration

by Prof. Yehuda Lapidot


Immigration: Table of Contents | Law of Return | Immigration Statistics


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In the 1920s, the British had already acceded to Arab demands and restricted immigration into Palestine, ostensibly on the basis of considerations of the country's economic absorptive capacity. In the 1930s, the British Government fixed a quota for immigration certificates and authorized the Jewish Agency to distribute them at its discretion. The Agency, which was dominated at the time by the socialist parties, tended to distribute the certificates to graduates of the hakhsharot (training kibbutzim), which had been set up in Europe to prepare young people for life in communal agricultural settlements in Eretz Israel. The distribution was based on a key agreed among the various movements affiliated to the Zionist Organization. The Betar youth movement had been affiliated since 1935 to the New Zionist Organization, and therefore did not receive its due share of certificates.

The urgent plight of European Jewry and the restrictions on immigration generated an "illegal" immigration movement, which commenced with the beginning of modern Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel. At first Jews entered Palestine by land, mainly by slipping across the northern border, where they were aided by the inhabitants of the border settlements, the settlers at Kfar Giladi and members of the Betar battalion at Rosh Pina.

In the early thirties, when crossing the northern border became more difficult, illegal immigrants found alternative routes, exploiting loopholes in the Mandatory government's immigration regulations. In addition to the certificate holders, the British permitted the entry of high-school and university students, and many young people enrolled at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and subsequently remained in the country. Young women often entered into fictitious marriages with Palestinian nationals and were thus permitted to enter the country. In addition, increasing numbers arrived as "tourists" and never returned to their countries of origin. In 1935, close to 5,000 Jews entered the country in this way.

The first attempt to bring in a large group of immigrants by sea occurred in 1934 on the initiative of activists of the Hehalutz (Pioneer) Movement in Poland, who were unwilling to wait years for certificates. Some 350 men and women sailed on a hired ship, the Vallos, without the permission of the heads of the Jewish Agency, who disapproved of any attempt to sidestep the Mandatory immigration regulations and certificate arrangements.

On August 25, the boat reached the shores of Eretz Israel, and the passengers disembarked with the help of the Haganah, who received special permission to assist them. The Jewish Agency did not waver in its opposition to illegal immigration in any form in the years after the Vallos attempt, and this opposition lasted, in effect, until the end of 1938. It was feared that illegal immigration would affect the granting of certificates for legal immigrants.

Jabotinsky denounced the Jewish Agency's stand and advocated mass immigration, which would exploit all possible measures, legal and illegal. He also strongly condemned the efforts of the British Government to restrict the immigration of Jews to Palestine on the pretext that immigration must be adapted to the country's economic absorptive capacity. He argued that the solution to the Jewish problem in Europe was mass immigration, and that if the British chose to restrict immigration, then the borders of the country had to be breached illegally.

In June, 1936, Jabotinsky exhorted Jews to liquidate the Diaspora through 'evacuation'. Later he coined the phrase "the national sport" and said:

"The national sport which I recommend wholeheartedly to Jewish youth, is called free immigration. This is undoubtedly the noblest sport in the world....it helps to win a homeland for homeless masses and transforms these masses into a nation... "

The renewal of illegal immigration by sea is linked to the name of Moshe Galili (Kriboshein), a Betarite (Betar member) from Eretz Israel who studied in Italy. In the summer of 1936, Galili visited a camp of Jewish refugees from Germany. The visit left a strong impression on him, and he decided to find ways to bring them to Eretz Israel, and named the project Af Al Pi (Despite). With the help of the leaders of the Revisionist Zionist Organization in Vienna, he succeeded in organizing a small, 50-ton vessel. It reached Eretz Israel On April 13, 1937, anchored off Haifa port, and the 15 young people on board disembarked and reached shore safely. In September 1937 an additional vessel reached Tantura (Dor) beach, and all 54 of its young passengers landed safely. Three months later a third group, consisting of 95 Betarites, also reached Eretz Israel. In June 1938, several months after Hitler entered Vienna, the largest group that Galili organized set out for Eretz Israel. The convoy of three boats carried 381 Betarites from Vienna, who disembarked at Tantura, where Irgun members loaded them onto buses and dispersed them throughout the country.

At this stage, disputes arose between Galili and activists in Vienna, and he abandoned his efforts. This marked the beginning of the second stage of Betarite immigration, when three main institutions took charge: the praesidium of the New Zionist Organization, the Betar administration and the Irgun command. The Irgun's task was to escort the ships and organize the disembarkation of the immigrants.

Two convoys of immigrants, one from Vienna and the second from Poland, 1,940 in all, made their way to the port of Fiume, Italy. They sailed from Fiume aboard the Draga and in October 1938 reached Eretz Israel. At Tantura they were met by Irgun members, who helped them on shore, and dispersed them throughout the country. From then on, the organization of immigration became the central activity of the Revisionist party and of the Irgun.

The following are some of the ships carrying illegal immigrants which reached Eretz Israel.

PARITA AND NAOMI JULIA

On July 13, 1939, the 1300-ton Parita sailed from Constanza in Rumania with 850 immigrants aboard, most of them Betarites from Poland and Rumania. The ship reached Tel Aviv on August 22 after a forty-day journey along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Under cover of darkness, it anchored some fifty meters from shore. Thousands thronged the beach and helped bring the immigrants to shore in small boats.


The Parita Immigration Ship

On September 1, the day war broke out, the 4000-ton immigrant vessel Naomi Julia left Sulina in Rumania with 1130 immigrants aboard. Nineteen days later it was intercepted off the coast of Lebanon by British aircraft. A British warship approached the vessel and troops boarded it, forcing the captain to change course for Haifa. The immigrants feared that the British would send them back to the open sea, and decided on passive resistance. They gathered on deck, poured away their drinking water and began to dismantle parts of the vessel and to throw them into the sea. Some even jumped into the water and began to swim ashore, despite being fired at by the soldiers. Eventually, the Mandatory Government agreed to bring the immigrants ashore and they were transferred to the Sarafand detention camp. A month later they were all released.

THE SKARIA

This was the last immigrant ship dispatched by the Irgun and the New Zionist Organization to reach its destination. Plans for its dispatch had begun before the outbreak of war. The 3,000-ton Skaria left Sulina in Rumania on February 1, 1940, with 2,300 immigrants aboard. Ten days later, after passing through the Dardanelles and leaving Turkish territorial waters, it was intercepted by a British warship and boarded by a British force, which diverted it to the shores of Eretz Israel. On February 13, the Skaria reached Haifa. The women and children were released, while the men were transferred to the detention camps at Atlit and Sarafand, where they spent six months before being released.

ALIYAH BET

In view of the success of the "Af Al Pi" operations, increasing pressure was brought to bear on the leaders of the Jewish Agency to organize illegal immigration and not to confine themselves to allocating legal certificates, but there was no response.

According to the History Book of the Haganah (vol. 2, p. 1038):

The political leadership of the Jewish Agency did not favor placing the immigration issue on the agenda at that moment. At the time, the Arab revolt was being revived, and the Jewish Agency was co-operating closely with the British authorities in the struggle against the Arabs. Many believed that, in view of the Peel Commission report, a Jewish state would be established very soon, and were reluctant to impede the political prospects by exacerbating relations with the authorities.

Despite the policy of the leaders, several ships, organized by Haganah activists, reached Eretz Israel without the authorization of the Jewish Agency.

It is with pain and bitterness that Levi Schwartz [one of the organizers of illegal immigration] writes about 'the two governments which remained hostile to us - the two governments within our country' (the Mandatory government and the Jewish Agency). 'It is the cry from Eretz Israel - stop!' he writes, 'which has, to a large extent, delayed our efforts and we have lost precious time. The summer months have passed, which are so convenient for our activities, without action. ("The History Book of the Haganah", vol.2, p.1040)

Only in late 1938, after the British government had abandoned the scheme to establish a Jewish state in part of Palestine according to the Peel Commission recommendation, and was openly supporting the Arab national movement, did a change occur in the Zionist leadership's approach to illegal immigration. The Mossad Le'aliyah Bet (Illegal Immigration Institution) was established, and began to set up a wide network in Europe.

By the beginning of the Second World War, some 24,000 men, women and children had arrived in Eretz Israel as illegal immigrants. Of these, some 18,000 were brought by the Revisionists and the Irgun, and the remainder, some 6,000, were brought by Aliyah Bet. It should be noted that some of the boats were organized by private individuals on a commercial basis. After World War two it was the Mossad Le'aliyah Bet which carried the brunt of the illegal immigration.

THE PATRIA AFFAIR

On October 1, 1940, three vessels sailed from the Rumanian port of Tulcia - the Atlantic, the Milos and the Pacific, carrying some 3,500 immigrants from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. At the beginning of November, the Pacific and the Milos reached Haifa, and their 1,800 passengers were transferred by the British to the 12,000-ton Patria. On November 20, the Atlantic arrived and 100 of its passengers were also transferred to the Patria. The British Government had decided to take drastic steps in order to put an end to the illegal immigration, and announced the following day that the immigrants were to be deported to Mauritius, and that their fate would be decided when the war ended.

The Haganah leaders decided to prevent the Patria from leaving port by sabotage. A mine was prepared at Haifa, concealed in a cloth bag and smuggled aboard the ship, where it was handed over to one of the Haganah liaison officers. On November 25, 1940, at about 9 a.m. the mine was detonated. The intention was to blast a small hole in the vessel's side so that that it would slowly take in water allowing time to evacuate all those on board. However, the mine blasted a large hole and water flooded into the hold. Within 15 minutes the ship began to list with only a small portion remaining above water. Some 250 people (200 of them Jews, and most of the remainder British soldiers) went down with the ship. This was the largest number of victims of any single operation conducted by an organization since the beginning of British rule in Palestine.

The Patria survivors were eventually permitted to remain in Eretz Israel, but 1,584 of the Atlantic's passengers were deported to Mauritius, and returned to Eretz Israel only five years later, on August 20, 1945.

THE "STRUMA"

On December 12, 1941, the Struma sailed from Constanza in Rumania with 769 immigrants aboard. The vessel, commissioned by the New Zionist Organization and the Irgun, was the last to leave Europe in wartime. The objective was to anchor in Turkey, and from there to await certificates for Palestine. When the ship reached its destination, the Turkish authorities prevented the disembarkation of the passengers for fear that the British would not give them certificates and Turkey would be forced to give them refuge. Despite the despairing appeals of the captain that the ship was unable to continue on its way, the Turkish authorities sent the ship back to the Black Sea on February 13 [23], 1942. On the following day a mighty explosion was heard and the ship went down. Only one of its passengers survived and eventually reached Eretz Israel.


Sources: The Irgun Site

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