World War II and the Holocaust
During World War II, the National Socialist (Nazi) regime under Adolf Hitler in Germany systematically carried out a plan to liquidate the European Jewish community. As the Nazi armies swept through Europe, Jews were persecuted, subjected to pain and humiliation, and herded into ghettos. From the ghettos, they were transported to concentration camps and murdered in mass shootings or in gas chambers.
In 1939, some 10 million of the estimated 16 million Jews in the world lived in Europe. By 1945, almost 6 million had been killed, most in the major concentration camps. In Czechoslovakia, about 4,000 Jews survived out of 281,000; in Greece, about 200 survived out of 65,000–70,000. In Austria, 5,000 of 70,000 escaped death. Some 4.6 million were killed in Poland and German-occupied areas of the Soviet Union.
During World War II, the yishuv generally pursued a policy of cooperation with the British in the war effort against Germany and other Axis powers. Some 32,000 Jews in Palestine volunteered to serve in the British forces. In 1944, the Jewish Brigade (composed of some 5,000 volunteers) was formed and later fought.
As a consequence, the yishuv leadership formed a mobile defense force to replace the Haganah members who had gone to fight with the British. The Plugot Mahatz (Shock Forces), or Palmach, was a mobile force designed to defend the yishuv, and the British helped train them. The Jewish Brigade and Palmach veterans would later constitute the core of the IDF officer corps.
After World War II
World War II and its associated horrors created a greater need for a resolution to the Palestine issue, and the struggle for Palestine intensified. At the end of World War II, hundreds of thousands of desperate Jews who had populated Europe’s concentration camps wanted relocation to Palestine, but the British were still unwilling to allow it.
A change of government in Britain brought Ernest Bevin, widely regarded as antiSemitic, into the position of foreign secretary, and he opposed any new Jewish immigration to Palestine. British policy united the various elements of the yishuv leadership, who saw no alternative but to launch a full-fledged campaign against the British, which took several forms.
One was diplomatic. Another was an appeal to the compassion of the world by launching an illegal immigration effort, bringing tens of thousands of refugees from Europe in refugee boats. The campaign against the British also used violence, with the first shots fired on British military and government facilities by armed underground groups.
On July 22, 1946, the southwest corner of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, headquarters of the British military and civilian command in Palestine, was destroyed by a bombing committed by the Irgun Zvai Leumi. A total of 91 people were killed in the attack: 41 Arabs, 28 British, 17 Jews, and five others.
According to the Irgun’s leader, Menachem Begin, the bombing was a political act, a demonstration that the Irgun could strike at the very heart of the British mandate in Palestine. The attack was condemned by the Jewish Agency leadership. Nevertheless, it prompted a crackdown by British security authorities on Zionist activities in Palestine.
During World War II, the focus of the Zionist movement’s activities and leadership shifted from Europe to the United States, creating a new set of opportunities to achieve the Zionist objective as well as a fortuitous linking of Zionism to the United States, which would emerge a superpower from World War II and help guide the creation of a new world environment.
The Biltmore Conference of 1942 marked the public manifestation of the move in Zionist focus to the United States. Subsequently, Chaim Weizmann secured U.S. support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, paralleling his role with the British during World War
The Zionist movement had been primarily a European one until World War II when its membership and leadership were destroyed and dislocated by the Holocaust and by the war. In the United States, the Jewish community, whose focus generally had not been on Zionism as a solution to anti-Semitism but rather on the civil rights concerns of American Jews, emerged as interested in and concerned about the fate of their coreligionists in Europe and Palestine.
The Holocaust and World War II emerged as public policy issues in the United States at the end of the war. The practical and humanitarian problems were faced by U.S. military forces confronting large numbers of displaced European Jews and the problems associated with their survival and future. It was at this point that U.S. president Harry Truman determined that allowing some of these Jewish refugees to find refuge in Palestine would make good sense and good policy.
Truman suggested the need to open the gates to Palestine for displaced Jews seeking refuge. The newly elected British government refused. In November 1945, an Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, composed of representatives appointed by their respective governments, was charged with studying the question of Jewish immigration to Palestine and the future of the British mandate.
After numerous meetings and hearings in the region and elsewhere, it issued a report on April 20, 1946. Among the recommendations was the immediate issuing of 100,000 immigration certificates for Palestine to Jewish victims of Nazi and Fascist persecution. Truman accepted much of the report; the British government did not and refused to increase the limits on Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Faced with continued British opposition, the yishuv decided to commence illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine. The goal was to move secretly, and primarily by ship, Jews from European camps for displaced persons to Palestine’s ports.
The yishuv sought to evade the British navy and land in Palestine where the arriving immigrants were granted refuge among the Jewish community in Palestine.This alternative immigration was referred to as Aliya Bet (Immigration B). More than 70,000 Jews arrived in Palestine on more than 100 ships of various sizes between the end of World War II and the independence of Israel in May 1948.