According to Jewish religious tradition, during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God judges each of us and determines who will be written in the Book of Life for a good year. It is a time for not only reflection, but repentance, and the depth of one’s repentance one hopes will be highly influential to God. At the end of Yom Kippur comes the Nielah service, this year at sundown this Saturday evening, and the “gates are closed”. God has sealed his book, and your ability to influence your fate for the coming year is no more.
For some reason, the image of closing gates this year reminds me less of God’s pending judgment than it does the intractable debate going on in this and other countries about sealing borders and stopping or limiting illegal immigration. It was with this in mind that I have read two books, both of which I highly recommend, about immigration policy – not in this country, where the issue is mainly one of Mexicans and Central Americans, not in Europe, where the issue is largely north African and Moslem, but Israel, which – as far as the Jewish people go – have never tried to close the gates, or to restrict open immigration.
The books are “Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945”, written by then Brandeis professor (and now University of Chicago professor) Bernard Wasserstein, first published by the Oxford University Press in 1979, and “Operation Babylon: the Story of the Rescue of the Jews in Iraq” by Shlomo Hillel, published in Hebrew in 1985 and in English in 1987.
Following World War I and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, Britain, under its Palestine mandate, was given the opportunity to fulfill the promise made for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration of 1917) and also to stabilize its imperial interests in the Middle East (keeping peace with the Arab populations, keeping access to and control over oil resources, and keeping the Suez Canal open to ensure sea passage from Europe to India and the east), competing interests which turned out to be impossible to maintain. Operating under the ostensible authority of the League of Nations, Britain soon learned that the Arabs just did not want the Jews in Palestine (or at least did not want a significant number of Jews in Palestine), and that, on the other hand, large numbers of Jews were equally intent on going there. Wasserstein’s book tells the familiar story of tragedies and successes in a clear, concise, readable and intelligent fashion which makes reading it worthwhile, no matter how many times you have heard the story. But he tells it from a perspective that may be unfamiliar to you – the perspective of the government and the people of Great Britain.
The organization of the book is straightforward. The first chapter talks of the early years of Nazi Germany, when Hitler’s government seemed to favor Jewish emigration and the number of Jews who relocated in Palestine were not at first significant enough to garner full scale Arab opposition, although obviously instances of conflict were not unknown. But pressure built from the Arabs (and from many British officials in the foreign and colonial offices who favored the Arab side, whether for emotional or political reasons) to crack down on immigration into Mandate Palestine just when anti-Jewish actions in Nazi Germany (after Kristallnacht) were growing, and even more so after Germany’s invasion of Poland, when not only Jewish comfort and equality, but Jewish lives, were now at risk. The second chapter of the book, Sealing the Escape Routes, discusses the adoption and effect of Britain’s infamous White Paper, and of various attempts (some successful, some tragically not) to bring refugees into Palestine illegally, largely by sea, in violation of British restrictions.
Chapter 3, The Home Front, switches topics, and relates the less-told tale of the fate of Britain’s domestic Jewish population during the war. Britain had been relatively generous in allowing Jewish refugees into the country in the period between the wars, but most of these people were citizens of countries that were now at war with Britain, namely Germany, Austria, and so forth. They were officially enemy aliens, in spite of their strong alienation from the countries of their birth. Further immigration from into the country was stemmed, some Jewish aliens living in Britain were shipped out to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries far from the action, debates within Britain about proper treatment of Jewish (and non-Jewish) refugees became more prominent (remember, this is when the US put its west coast Japanese residents, including citizens, into camps), and anti-Semitism actually seemed to grow within the country. The fourth chapter, The Final Solution, is not the story of what was happening to the Jews in Europe, but how knowledge of the Nazi atrocities crept into the British (and western) conscience, the extent to which it was believed, and what the British did, or failed to do, with this information. An interesting perspective, to be sure. This story continues in the next two chapters, The British Response and False Hopes, as British actions were (in spite of strong internal pressure to take more aggressive steps) limited, as were the responses at the time of the United States and virtually every other country in sealing off any possibility of large scale or even moderate scale rescue activities.
The seventh chapter, Resistance, speaks to the unsuccessful attempts to put together a Jewish army, to attack the concentration camps, to organize the remaining Jews of Europe for resistance activity, all of which was considered by the British military as diversionary actions, diverting men and equipment which needed to be focused on how to win the war, not just how to save the Jews. The final chapter, Unconditional Surrender, tells of a growing split between British and American opinion as the war was about to wind down – in the United States, belatedly to be sure, there was growing pressure to help, with all means possible, the remaining Jews of Europe. In Britain, things were not so clear, as they still had their position under the Palestinian mandate to deal with, and still had their own strategic interests in the Middle East. It was then that questions of partitioning Palestine between Jews and Arabs, raised years earlier, began to be discussed increasingly, in spite of Arab opposition, and when Britain began to seriously consider giving up its mandate, finding itself in a no-win position. It was unfortunately also, however, the time when Jewish terrorism in Palestine, through Irgun and the Stern Gang, grew, when various British officials were attacked and killed, most notably popular British Resident Minister of State in the Middle East, Lord Moyne (an heir to the Guinness beer fortune). His murder, by members of the Stern Gang, had a disastrous effect on British public opinion towards the Jews, giving support to the pro-Arabists in the British government just when balance seemed to be increasing in the country’s positions.
In a brief concluding section, Wasserstein attempts to explain why Britain acted as it did throughout this period. He is only partially successful, but it isn’t his fault. There were so many tendencies and counter-tendencies amongst influential British circles, and the situation of the world and the war was not only so complicated, but so uncertain, that a clear explanation of why what happened happened will never be able to be put together. Suffice it to say that some of the decisions reached by British officials seem in retrospect inevitable and understandable, and others certainly do not so. But who knows what would have happened if Britain kept the sea lanes open to Jewish immigration to Palestine in spite of strong Arab opposition – might it have tilted the balance in another way by stirring up the Arabs to be even more active allies of Hitler and brought the war directly to the Middle East? If attempts had been made to protect Jewish communities in Europe during the last stages of the war, would it have negatively affected the ability of the allies to win the war at all? (Wasserstein does not deal with the other set of issues – Europe’s treatment of Nazi Germany in the early years – when Germany was allowed to re-occupy Saar and the Rheinland, and allowed to absorb Czechoslovakia.)
So, while Europe, America and the rest of the world closed off immigration during the 1930s and 1940s (and of course there are many books on this overall topic), the Jews in Palestine worked hard to take in as many Jews as possible, illegally under the British mandate and then legally once the state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948. Of course, this meant allowing in those displaced European Jews who could now get out of Europe with the end of the war. It also meant supporting a major airlift bringing almost 50,000 Jews from Yemen (Operation Magic Carpet) into Israel within a year or so of the creation of the country. I had read a pamphlet written by one of the American pilots who flew during Operation Magic Carpet – learned about the planes used, the unfamiliarity of the Yemeni Jewish community with air travel or virtually anything else which belonged to the twentieth century, and the difficulty of flying through narrow international airspace in such a hostile environment. I wrote about that earlier.
This time, reading “Operation Babylon”, I learned how the Iraqi Jews came to Israel – another story of unending fascination.
Jews lived in Iraq forever – at least from the days of the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem, over 2500 years ago. This long history was not the focus of this book, which concentrated on the 20th century. For a short period of time, when Iraq was occupied by the British (yes, the same British who were in Palestine), there was hope amongst the Jewish community that its future in Iraq would be a bright one. Educated, urban Jews, and educated, urban Muslims, were working together, studying together and living together, hoping that their country would be transformed from a backward condition to that of a modern, secular state, where twentieth century progress would be the norm.
Of course, this was not to be. In 1932, the British left, and Iraq’s liberal King Feisal I died shortly thereafter, setting up a period of reaction, where Jewish intellectualism, Zionism, and relations generally with the Jews of Palestine were no longer tolerated. This was the time, as we know, if growing anti-Semitic actions by the government of Germany, and it was probably no coincidence when a pogrom broke out in 1941, at a time when Iraq’s government was avowedly pro-German, killing 180 Jews and destroying businesses, synagogues and homes. In that same year, however, Britain reoccupied Iraq, in part to protect oil supplies, and stayed there until 1945 and the end of the war.
It was during this time, well before the creation of the State of Israel, that Jews in Palestine began to think about encouraging and assisting Iraqi Jews to leave their homeland and join them. Between 1941 and 1945, it was not too difficult to move people in small numbers, as there was much overland traffic between British occupied Iraq and Mandate Palestine, although the movement had to be underground, not in the open, for obvious reasons relating to White Paper policy. In 1945, however, even this traffic stopped.
Shlomo Hillel was born in Baghdad in 1922, and had moved to Palestine with his family in 1934. When he was in his early twenties, he became involved with a group in Palestine interesting in assisting Jews from Iraq in coming to Palestine. “Operation Babylon” tells the extraordinary story of how this group operated, with a core in Tel Aviv, an underground movement not only in Baghdad but all around the country, with emissaries like Shlomo Hillel, who snuck into Iraq under assumed identities, living for months and sometimes years working with the underground, with Iraqi assistance (often for mercenary reasons: human smugglers and the like). And how this group managed to get numerous Jews, one by one, or two by two, overland through the Iraqi and Jordanian deserts into Palestine.
But the book also tells the story of political changes within Iraq, and the varying effects of these changes on the Jewish community there, which numbered well over 100,000. Around the time of , and after the creation of the state of Israel, even small scale cooperation became more difficult, transport by land across the desert even more dangerous, and the idea developed to use air transport. The story of how this first became possible, small planes with their human cargo having to sneak on board in the dark at the edges of the runway when no one was looking, the planes traveling first to neutral countries before being able to continue to Israel, where they landed first in makeshift air strips, and then at the main airport in Lydda (when it was open). All the while, with the active underground Iraqi Jewish movement and the emissaries with their false identifications continuing to operate – to arrange for the emigrants, to maintain radio contact with the outside world, to arrange the logistics for the illegal flights, to arrange for interim movement to Iran a country which had relations with Israel – quite an amazing story. (Hillel himself spent years in Iraq, under various false identities.)
And then something more amazing happened. The government of Iraq decided to cooperate with the exodus (after of course confiscating all of the assets of the Jews who chose to emigrate). The only condition was that Jews who wanted to leave Iraq had to renounce their Iraqi citizenship making them temporarily stateless. Both the organizers of the emigration and the Iraqi government authorities did not know how many Jews would decide to leave (the condition of the Jews had been deteriorating since the founding of the state of Israel, there had been a few riots, show trials, etc.). Their best guess was that maybe 20% to 25% would be the number. But it turned out that over 95% of the Jews renounced their Iraqi citizenship and said they were going to Israel.
All were stunned – in fact some in Israel (notably including future prime minister Levi Eshkol, then treasurer of the Jewish Agency) were opposed. Israel did not have the infrastructure to handle 100,000 Iraqi immigrants, he said, there was no money, there was insufficient food, there were not enough tents to house them. Ben Gurion disagreed – perhaps, he thought, in a few years, the opportunity would be lost. And besides, these 100,000 Jews were no longer Iraqi citizens, they no longer had any property or assets in Iraq. For better or worse, there was no choice, but to get them out of the country. It was Nielah for the Iraqi Jews – the gates were closing.
So, again, logistics became the issue – getting enough planes, getting cooperation of Iraqi authorities – all of this required money, and a lot of hard work. It took over a year for the Iraqi Jews to be brought to Israel – but Operation Babylon, like Operation Magic Carpet in Yemen, was a big success, helping make Israel the diverse country it is today.
So at this time of year, as we think of closing gates, let’s expand our thinking and remember the movement of Jews from Europe and from countries of the Middle East, how important it was to keep the gates open. Let’s reflect at the same time on our own immigration policies and wonder, when we close the gates, who we are excluding, and what that might mean.