At this critical hour for mankind, let every Jew and Jewess utter a solemn vow that, come what may and whatever the trials in store, they will stand body and soul by Britain, giving all that they have, never despairing, determined that so far as they can achieve it, the crowning disaster of a desolate world under the heel of a cruel and remorseless master shall not be.
So stated the Jewish Chronicle editorial 75 years ago, following the fall of France in the summer of 1940 and in preparation for Operation Sea-Lion, Hitler’s plan to invade by landing forces on the south coast, from Rottingdean to Hythe. Paratroopers would land near Brighton, Franz Six would establish Einsatzgruppen to deal with British Jews and the Nazi seat of governance would be at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Churchills.
It was also at this time that British Jews heard about the death of Vladimir Jabotinsky at the age of 59 in the US due to a heart condition. More than 25,000 New Yorkers accompanied his funeral cortege.
He was acclaimed in death, neither because diplomatic niceties called for it nor for his nationalist zeal, but for his demand that Jews stand up for themselves – as the JC put it, ”to have done with the ghetto bend”.
In Palestine, Habimah suspended its performances and black-edged flags were flown at half-mast in Tel Aviv. His Labour political opponents described him as ”that highly gifted violin that ever seemed destined to play the first role in the orchestra of Jewish revival” while the writer Arthur Koestler regarded him as a successor to Garibaldi.
Jabotinsky was unequivocal in his support of Britain’s war effort – unlike his youthful followers, Menachem Begin and Avraham Stern. Both saw Britain as a major enemy because of its presence in Palestine. Stern believed that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and subsequently approached the German Legation in Beirut while Begin, who had escaped from Warsaw, did not want to align himself with the British in Palestine.
On the day after war was declared in 1939, Jabotinsky wrote to Chamberlain pledging the support of his New Zionist Organisation. Two days later, he saw the Colonial Secretary in an unsuccessful attempt to lift the quotas on Jewish emigration to Palestine, imposed by a White Paper the year before.
Jabotinsky realised what could lay in store for the three million strong Polish Jewry. The JC correspondent in Poland described ”the disastrous, last-minute panic trek, of vast masses of the civilian population, away to anywhere, so long as it was to safety, beyond the range of the merciless raiders who spared neither man nor woman, old nor young.” The devouring of Poland by Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia in September 1939 persuaded Jabotinsky to go to the US in early 1940 to rally support for the formation of a 100,000-strong Jewish army and to urge American entry into the war.
It was not by chance that he read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – a tale of the downtrodden – on the journey.
Yet Jabotinsky was not a well man. He had concealed his heart problems for many years. In 1940, the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway, the entry into Paris, the retreat from Dunkirk, and the black future of European Jewry under the heel of the Nazi jackboot, weighed heavily upon him. It seemed then that Britain, too, would go under. He formulated a synopsis for a book entitled Jews after the War. If the Nazis won the war, Jabotinsky predicted: “European Jewry will face either destruction or expulsion to some kind of big concentration camp; unless the conquerors prefer to let them rot slowly where they are under a reinforced ghetto regime.” Two chapters were to be devoted to the prospect of Nazi victory. He also contemplated whether there could ever be ”a negotiated peace between the Nazi phenomenon and the Jews as an entity”.
His response to the deteriorating situation in Europe was to urge the British High Command to establish a Jewish army, which would initially be based in Canada, expanding to 150,000 men and two air-force squadrons. The inaugural convention for the campaign was due to be held in New York at the beginning of September 1940. Neither his book nor his plans for a Jewish army convention were realised. Jabotinsky died suddenly on August 4, 1940.
Jabotinsky was also troubled by his inability to control his youthful acolytes. He often proclaimed that his hopes still resided in ”the conscience of the world”. Some of his supporters were not so sure.
In Palestine, many now viewed him as an outsider abroad and considered his approach similar to that of Labour-Zionism’s Ben-Gurion. In particular, there was a growing split in the ranks of the Irgun Zvai Leumi, of which Jabotinsky was the nominal head, which had conducted military attacks on both Palestinian Arabs and British officials.
David Raziel, the Irgun commander, aligned himself with Jabotinsky’s approach while Avraham Stern did not. Stern’s followers clearly felt that, despite the common Nazi enemy, Jewish national interests were not the same as those of the British. Britain had declared war against Germany, not to save the Jews but to defend and protect its own position and security. Moreover, while Britain was fighting the Nazis, it was doing its utmost to bar the gates of salvation to millions of Jews trapped in Europe.
In this unfolding situation 75 years ago, Stern signed Communiqué 112, regarded as the genesis of the group that the British labelled ”the Stern Gang”, later known as Lehi.
In 1936, in his poem, To the British Empire, the radical poet, Uri Zvi Greenberg, predicted the flight of “Amalek eagles over Westminster” foreshadowing the Battle of Britain. As history records, the pilots of the RAF ensured that Amalek did not conquer.
By 1945, Jabotinsky, Raziel and Stern were all dead and a Jewish brigade was formed only a few months before the war’s end. Despite their respect for Jabotinsky, and their appreciation of the British sacrifices to defeat Nazism, there was a cold understanding in Palestine of the abandonment of the Jews in Europe.
Different conclusions were drawn from it. For Menachem Begin, it formed the rationale for his proclamation of the revolt against the British, significantly a year before the end of the war when British forces were still fighting to defeat Nazism.
Jewish Chronicle 7 August 2015