Finding Refuge: Why Palestine?

Finding Refuge: Why Palestine?

I’ve recently been asked to explain why efforts of Hannah Arendt–and others associated with the Zionist movement in the 1930s and ’40s–to facilitate Jewish immigration to Palestine were justified (asked presumably because this contributed to the tragic conflict with, and eventual widespread displacement of, the indigenous Palestinian-Arab population). The questioner mistakenly assumed that other destinations, such as South Africa and Latin America, were readily open to Jews. I’ve pulled together a variety of sources to respond.

Places where Jews could find refuge in the 1930s and ’40s were few and far between. Until the British imposed its infamous “White Paper” in 1939, limiting the legal entry of Jews to Palestine to a trickle, Palestine was the only destination where Jewish organizations could directly engage in mass rescue.

Early in the days of the Nazi regime, the Zionist movement negotiated to (in effect) ransom tens of thousands of German Jews. They broke an international boycott of Nazi Germany at the time with the “Transfer Agreement” to buy German goods to go with the 60,000 or more German Jews who found refuge in Palestine in the 1930s. There are anti-Zionists who argue that this episode proves that the Zionists were in league with the Nazis, but this is a very extreme and unfair interpretation.

The Nazis took heart from the difficulty German Jews found in being admitted almost anywhere else in large numbers, to move from expulsion and ghettoization to the “Final Solution” of genocide. In particular, the failure of the eight-day Évian Conference in July 1938 to agree on any plan for receiving Jewish refugees, or even to pass a resolution condemning Nazi antisemitism, reportedly emboldened the Nazis against the Jews.

In her blog (reprinting an article of hers in the Wall Street Journal), Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt describes James G. McDonald as “an American who served as League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and who passionately sought to sound the alarm about the dangers of Nazism.” In “Refugees and Rescue: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1935-1945” (Indiana University Press, 2009), McDonald documented that President Franklin Roosevelt had made efforts to persuade other Western countries to take in Jews.

McDonald contended that Roosevelt supported using European colonies in Africa and Palestine, as well as Latin American countries, as places of refuge. But with the exception of Bolivia (cited as having taken in 20,000 Jews), these efforts largely came to naught and were abandoned altogether in 1940 when other priorities displaced FDR’s focus.

I would add that FDR did not work for an American solution; he made no concerted effort for the U.S. to ease or lift its own quota barriers. It was only when faced with the threat of the public release of a scathing study from within his own Department of the Treasury, documenting the State Department’s hostility toward Jews, that the War Refugees Board was established as an executive agency in January 1944, providing some measure of relief—but clearly too little and too late.

Immigration to the U.S. was mostly closed off by the sharp quotas imposed on Southern and Eastern European countries in 1924 and the antisemitic policy directive imposed upon U.S. consular officials by Under Secretary of State Breckenridge Long in 1940. As disclosed by Professor David Wyman and other post-World War II historians, Long instructed consular personnel to process visas to Jews as slowly and parsimoniously as possible.

My own parents almost fell victim to this policy, as a consular official in Belgrade, Yugoslavia made my father go through totally unnecessary hoops before releasing the visas that were, by his own admission, already in his hand. If the Germans had attacked Yugoslavia just a bit earlier, this policy would have succeeded in getting my parents murdered. My father indicated to me that prior to this ultimate success, over two years of efforts to emigrate anywhere else—including England, Australia, Canada and South Africa—had all failed.

Historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper wrote “None Is Too Many,” on the near total closure of Canada to Jewish immigrants during this critical period. When I asked a Jewish acquaintance originally from South Africa, about the Nazi-era situation in that country, she indicated that the pro-Nazi sympathies of many Afrikaners, the most powerful ethnic group at the time, insured that this country too was mostly closed to Jews.

And when I inquired with Dr. Philip Mendes, an associate professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, about his family’s experience, he emailed that his mother’s aunt had to personally plead her case with the immigration minister in 1938, for his mother and her family to be allowed in from Czechoslovakia. Mendes wrote: “There was some rabid right-wing campaigns against Jewish entry both in the late 1930s and again after World War Two.”

By | 2010-07-27T11:05:00-04:00 July 27th, 2010|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Thomas Mitchell July 29, 2010 at 2:37 am - Reply

    The Afrikaans press in the 1930s and 1940s had a cartoon character named “Hoggenheimer”–the name taken from the Oppenheimer family–with obvious “semitic” features. Several of the future leaders of the National Party such as John Vorster were Nazi sympathizers during WWII. Oswald Pirow, a National Party minister during the 1930s, founded his own New Order party in the late 1930s.

  2. Al_Ar_Bee July 29, 2010 at 9:02 am - Reply

    All very well, but the people who promoted the Hoggenheimer slander were not in power until 1948. It was in South Africa in the 1930s that a court officially declared the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” to be a forgery created by anti-Semites in Russia. This was in a case were a South African rabbi sued an anti-Semite for defamation of character and the anti-Semite tried to use the protocols as a defence. A mini trial ensued to investigate the validity of the protocols as evidence and the book was rejected. So the situation for Jews in South Africa was not as clear cut as you are suggesting.

  3. Anonymous July 29, 2010 at 1:38 pm - Reply

    I don’t think the question is whether South Africa was totally antisemitic during this period. Apparently, this was a mixed picture. But the political climate was such that Jews were embattled and this evidently impacted South Africa’s openness to Jewish refugees.

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