In a virtually unknown episode after World War II, a small group of American and Canadian sailors participated in an operation that transported Holocaust survivors to Palestine. At the time, Palestine still was under British rule, and the British government continued a pre-war policy that limited Jewish immigration to several hundred persons a month, with the ultimate objective of barring it entirely. So a rescue operation was mounted by the Palestine Jewish underground, and conducted under clandestine conditions. It was called "illegal immigration."
All told, a fleet of 60 ramshackle ships transported more than 60,000 "illegal immigrants" from European ports between 1946 and 1948. Among them were 10 American ships, acquired as war surplus from U.S. boneyards and crewed by 250 volunteer sailors and contract officers. The ships carried 30,000 would-be immigrants.
Illegal immigration increased the Jewish population of Palestine by more than 10 per cent. Placed in a contemporary perspective, it was like adding 26 million people to the current U.S. population.
There were several dimensions involved in the "illegal immigration" -- the Israelis call it "clandestine immigration" -- campaign. The popular name for this campaign is "Aliya Bet" (with Bet being the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet), since it ran parallel to the "legal" immigration process (Immigration Aleph or Immigration A). Aliyah Bet was initiated in the early 1930s as the ultimate assertion of Jewish rights to settle in Palestine. Efforts to continue it as a method to rescue a handful from the killing machine during World War II proved to be logistically impossible and tragically frustrated.
Immediately after the war, Aliya Bet was resumed on an ambitious and urgent scale. Its intensification, beyond the objective of rescuing Holocaust survivors from all over Europe, was adopted as a tactic in the organized Jewish resistance in Palestine designed to end British rule. It was devised as a multipurpose operation to simultaneously rescue survivors and challenge the British military capability, with a potentially negligible loss of life on both sides. It represented the best of all possible worlds, with the overtone of idealism that characterized the Jewish resistance in Palestine. It served as a tangible precursor for the ethos that later was dopted by the Israel Defense Forces -- "purity of arms."
Only a handful of ships -- not one U.S. vessel -- penetrated the British air and sea blockade deployed to prevent any arrivals in Palestine. The blockade, backed up by an assortment of economic and diplomatic obstacles, extended from the Palestine coast through the Mediterranean, to the chancelleries of Western and Eastern Europe, and even to the U.S.
Upon reaching the Palestine Coast, the ships were routinely apprehended by the Royal Navy. With one exception, their passengers were transported to prison camps on Cyprus that had been constructed to house German prisoners of war. The exception was the "Exodus," an American ship, whose passengers were returned first to France, where they refused to disembark, and then to Germany, where they were forced off the ship. Earlier, when the "Exodus" attempted to make landfall in Palestine, marines from a British warship boarded the "Exodus." In the process, the marines clubbed to death Bill Bernstein of San Francisco, the second mate of the "Exodus." Numerous American and Canadian crewmen of the Aliyah Bet ships were interned in Cyprus, along with the Displaced Persons they were attempting to bring into Palestine.
Increasingly, as war in Palestine between Arabs and Jews appeared inevitable, the Aliyah Bet operation was redesigned to give priority to the transport of the young men and women who would comprise the Palestinian Jewish fighting force. This included not only candidates from the refugee camps, but also volunteers from lands of the Jewish diaspora. In fact, a number of Aliyah Bet crew members also later served in Machal, the name given to those Jews and non-Jews who volunteered from abroad to serve in the Israeli army, navy and air force.
All the Aliyah Bet ships and voyages involved unique experiences and high adventure. Except for the common experience of being harassed all the way from their points of departure, including the U.S., and captured off the Palestine coast, each ship was a story in its own right.
American and Canadian involvement in the campaign started with David Ben Gurion's visit to the U.S. immediately after World War II to launch a mobilization of financial and other resources on behalf of early Jewish statehood in Palestine. With an ambitious campaign established as a priority in the strategy of rescue and statehood, there was an urgent requirement for ships of higher quality, longer ranges, and larger carrying capacities than had been used in the pre-war period. Such ships were not available in the traditional markets of Southern Europe, where fleets of any kind had been devastated during the wrar. By contrast, the post-war shipping market in the United States was a bonanza of surplus ships of all varieties, available at fire sale prices in a buyer's market (see Aliyah Bet Ships below).
There was no love lost on the American sailors, and there were a variety of recommendations on how to deal with them. Writing to a Colonial Office official, Sir Robert Howe of the Foreign Office noted -- incorrectly -- that the "Ulua's" Master was an American. "I hope that if and when this vessel reaches Palestine . . . the Government will run both Master and crew in and bring them rapidly to trial . . . if some of the Masters and crews of illegal immigrant ships were to receive stiff prison sentences for breaking the immigration laws of Palestine, that might be expected to have a healthy deterrent effect on other seamen who otherwise be recruited for subsequent vessels." And in his operational report, Lt. R.J.G. McPherson, who commanded the "Exodus" boarding, wrote: "It is submitted that Boarding Parties may be most strongly warned of the danger of familiarity with American Jew-runners, and especially against accepting offers of alcoholic refreshment. They are extremely plausible fellows after they have ceased opposition, and it may be forgotten that they are criminals with a decided pecuniary interest in regaining control of the vessel if they see any chance of doing so."
Regrettably, the "plausible fellows" did not manage to regain control of that ship, nor any of the others. But with or without alcoholic refreshment, they kept the ships coming.
These are the Aliyah Bet ships and their dates of voyage
Sources: Aliyah Bet and Machal Virtual Museum