The Exodus Incident: when emotion met geopolitics

A common view at the time was that he [Bevin] was antisemitic and this influenced his policies.1

Exodus 1947: The ship that launched a country

Introduction

In an act of imperial hubris, Britain accepted the Mandate2 for Palestine. It was meant to run from 1923 to 1948. Britain was fully aware of the Zionist desire for a Jewish Homeland but no-one appreciated its geopolitical significance. The inter-war period saw Palestine become attractive to young European Jews. This caused inter-communal challenges. The incoming Jewish population was relatively rich and highly educated, unlike the majority Arab population. Palestine became a refuge during the 1930s for large numbers of German Jews. The British had to impose quotas to manage Palestine’s transformation into an Arab-Jewish region. Those quotas remained in the immediate post-war period. The Exodus Incident was an attempt to breach those quotas.

The Palestine Mandate 1923-48

The Exodus Incident, 1947

The Exodus Incident was an attempt to bounce Britain into permitting open access into Palestine for survivors of the Holocaust. The timing was impeccable. The trials of Nazi war criminals were attracting worldwide attention as the genocidal persecution was revealed in all its horror.3 Europe’s Jewish population had suffered unparalleled violence far outstripping Tsarist pogroms and quite rightly, they wanted a Homeland for mutual safety.4

The Exodus Incident was a coup de theatre. The Exodus had 4,515 Holocaust survivors fleeing the world’s worst persecution, looking for a place of safety. Rational discussion was trumped by visceral emotion and the British were utterly cack-handed.

Not only was the Exodus 1947 attacked and boarded, but it was returned to France who refused responsibility. The Jewish survivors refused to disembark and the French wouldn’t force the issue. Then, unbelievably, the Exodus was redirected to Germany. Once there the passengers were forced to disembark. Jewish Holocaust survivors were ‘housed’ in a former concentration camp. This wasn’t an accident,

The British knew their actions would be unpopular. John Coulson, a diplomat at the British Embassy in Paris, cabled the Foreign Office in London in August 1947: “You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press. … Our opponents in France, and I dare say in other countries, have made great play with the fact that these immigrants were being kept behind barbed wire, in concentration camps and guarded by Germans.”5

Whatever moral authority the British had, was lost with the Exodus Incident. Jewish leaders wouldn’t negotiate and neither would the Arabs, which predictably led to the first Arab-Israeli war 1947-9. This established Israel as a nation-state and Britain’s Mandate ended in disaster. Earnest Bevin wasn’t anti-Semitic and neither was the British government. It was incapable of resolving the conflicting pressures of an indigenous Arab population and incoming European Jews. The British attempted to mitigate the problem with quotas, which failed under pressure from Holocaust survivors. Britain couldn’t resolve the challenges and neither has anyone else over the subsequent seventy-two years.

1 https://www.jstor.org/stable/41806170?read-now=1&refreqid=excelsior%3A3a294abdb12c71806238f9e93ceb5523&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents Earnest Bevin was the British Foreign Secretary 1945-51

2 The British Mandate in Palestine was created in part at least to facilitate a Jewish Homeland but this aspiration had absolutely no credibility on the ground. Land purchases by Jewish settlers meant that there were Jewish enclaves throughout Palestine which had to be consolidated. The post-war chaos exacerbated this problem and Britain baled out once the difficulty was seen to be intractable. See https://time.com/3445003/mandatory-palestine/

3 There were several Nazi war trials in addition to Nuremberg. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Axis_personnel_indicted_for_war_crimes

4 An important source is https://www.gale.com/binaries/content/assets/gale-us-en/primary-sources/archives-unbound/primary-sources_archives-unbound_post-war-europe_refugees-exile-and-resettlement_1945-1950.pdf Other Jewish survivors looked to begin new lives with families who’d settled in the west, principally the UK and the USA. In brief Palestine wasn’t the number one destination for all Jewish survivors.

5 https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/quot-exodus-1947-quot-illegal-immigration-ship

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