Meticulously planned Exodus saga gained sympathy For Zionist cause

Washington Report on Midde East Affairs
July/August 1995, pgs. 46, 110

By Donald Neff

It was 48 years ago, on July 18, 1947, that a rickety former Chesapeake Bay ferryboat sailed into Haifa harbor in northern Palestine packed with 4,554 Jewish survivors of the Nazi Holocaust.1 British troops were waiting for the bedraggled Jews because they were trying to enter Palestine illegally. The world press also was there to watch the confrontation. In the melee that followed, three Jews were killed and scores injured as British troops forcefully removed them from the ship. Not unexpectedly, the incident received heavy media coverage, picturing brutish British soldiers manhandling weak and helpless Jews. 2 Thus began the saga of the Exodus, a piteous incident that helped win unprecedented sympathy for the Zionist cause.

The agony of the Exodus was not an accident. The old ferry boat, originally called President Wakefield, had been bought by a group of Jewish Americans called the Sonneborn Institute after New York Jewish millionaire Rudolf G. Sonneborn. Its main purpose was to circumvent U.S. laws against transferring weapons to the Jews in Palestine.3

The voyage of the Exodus had been meticulously planned by Zionist leaders with an eye to gaining sympathy in the world press for the plight of hundreds of thousands of European Jews left homeless by World War II. Many of them wanted to migrate to Palestine. They were prevented, however, by the British, who in 1947 were concluding their 30th and final year as Palestine's master. During their occupation and rule, the British had made a number of promises to Palestine's majority community of Arabs to protect them from waves of Jewish immigrants. Among these promises was a pledge in the White Paper of 1939 that the Arabs would have a de facto veto over Jewish immigration into Palestine after 1944. 4

The Arabs were adamant after World War II that Britain keep its pledge against new immigrants. They pointed out that since the beginning of the century the demographic balance had changed from an Arab majority of more than 10 to 1 to the current level of 2 to 1. The balance would shift even more dramatically if displaced European Jews were allowed entry to Palestine.5

But now, with all the unspeakable details of the Holocaust in full public view—the stark photographs of the concentration camps and crematoria, the shocking stacks of starved bodies, the astounding figure of 6 million dead—the Jews were demanding an open gate to Palestine.

It was a cruel dilemma for Britain. On one level, the two issues had nothing in common. The displaced Jews were a European problem, while immigration into Palestine was a local Middle Eastern problem. But Britain had responsibilities in both regions. Moreover, while it had a commitment to the Palestinians it also was caught up in the humanitarian outpouring of sympathy in the West for the Jews. It was because of such dilemmas that London only five months earlier had announced it was surrendering its Mandate over Palestine and turning the whole difficult matter over to the United Nations.6 However, until the world body found a solution, British troops would be responsible for maintaining order in Palestine.

69,878 Jews were sent to Palestine as illegal immigrants between 1945 and May 1948.

On their side, the Zionists launched an organized campaign to transport illegal immigrants to Palestine to challenge the British limits against immigration. As an indication of the magnitude of the operation, 69,878 Jews were sent to Palestine as illegal immigrants between 1945 and May 1948, and 51,500 of them were intercepted by the British navy and interned on Cyprus.7

Predictably, the dramatic story of homeless Jews fresh from Europe's death camps and bound for Palestine in barely seaworthy vessels to face British troops was a running human interest story in the media throughout the immediate postwar years.8 Little noted by the press was the fact that every able-bodied immigrant added to the military power of the Jews in Palestine, a consideration not overlooked by British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin. He early warned that new immigrants would be "the beginning of an army which would take Palestine away from the Arabs...." 9

The saga of the Exodus stands out because it was so successful in gaining sympathy for the Zionists. As Ike Aranne, captain of the Exodus recalled, Zionist intelligence officers "gave us orders that this ship was to be used as a big demonstration with banners to show how poor and weak and helpless we were, and how cruel the British were."10

Britain's frustrated foreign secretary inadvertently aided the secret Zionist scheme by making one of the most insensitive decisions of his distinguished career. Instead of ordering the Exodus's passengers interned with other illegal immigrants being held on Cyprus, he ordered that they be returned to France where the voyage had begun. Few decisions could have been more certain of retaining the attention of the world press. Worse, from Britain's view, the story commanded even larger coverage when many of the Jews refused to disembark when they arrived back in France and the French government declared it would refuse to force them off.

It was not until Sept. 8 that the Jews remaining on board finally were taken to the British zone of Germany and forced off the ships to which they had been transferred under the full glare of the press.11

A storm of criticism

Britain suffered a storm of criticism in the world press for all six weeks of the saga. Britain's government was accused of antiSemitism, and its officials were called heartless. The French were particularly bitter that the British had tried to throw the problem in their laps. The Communist newspaper Humanité charged that the ships returning the Jews were a "floating Auschwitz." Combat described them as "cages for wild animals." Figaro reported that tensions between London and Paris were higher than at any time since World War II.12

British historian Nicholas Bethell later wrote: "Far from 'making an example' of the Exodus and rallying the world against the organizers of illegal immigration, Bevin succeeded only in shocking the world community into deeper sympathy for the Zionist enterprise."13

The saga of the Exodus played out at a time when the United Nations was deciding whether to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews, and there can be little doubt that the world body's sympathy for the Jews was encouraged by the Exodus drama when it voted to create a Jewish state on Nov. 29, 1947. Reverberations of the Exodus did not stop there. In the early 1950s, an American public relations man, Edward Gottlieb, seeking to improve Israel's image in the United States, hit upon the idea of hiring a writer to go to Israel and write an heroic novel about the new country. The writer was Leon Uris, and his novel, Exodus, became a huge best-seller.14 Moreover, the highly romanticized novel later became a movie starring Paul Newman. It was a box office smash hit.

The fact that Uris's book totally distorted reality and ignored the basic injustice involved in the West imposing on the Middle East a solution to its own problems was completely overlooked. Instead, the movie inculcated in millions of Americans the image of Zionists as pioneers in search of freedom among fanatical Arabs and perfidious British officials, an image that lingered for many years, in part because of the saga of the Exodus.15

Recommended Reading

  • Cleveland, William L., A History of the Modern Middle East, Boulder, Westview Press, 1994.
  • *Cockburn, Andrew and Leslie, Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship, New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
  • Cohen, Michael J., Palestine and the Great Powers 1945-1948, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1982.
  • Grose, Peter, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
  • Lilienthal, Alfred M., The Zionist Connection: What Price Peace? New York, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1978.
  • Stevens, Art, The Persuasion Explosion, Washington, DC, Acropolis Books Ltd., 1985.
  • U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, The Near East and Africa, 1945 (Vol. VIII), Washington, DC, U.S. Printing Office, 1969.


  1. Bethell, The Palestine Triangle, p. 333. Also see Silver, Begin , pp. 85-86.
  2. Gene Currivan, New York Times, 7/19/47.
  3. Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, pp. 210, 234. Sonneborn was honored in 1972 by the American Friends of Hebrew University for providing arms to the Jews in Palestine in the late 1940s; see New York Times, 5/9/72.
  4. Cleveland, A History of the Modern Middle East, p. 242.
  5. FRUS 1945, "The Chargç in Egypt (Lyon) to the Secretary of State," Cairo, Nov. 11, 1945, 6 p.m., pp. 817-19.
  6. New York Times, 2/19/47.
  7. Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers 1945-1948, p. 250.
  8. Cockburn, Dangerous Liaison, p. 22.
  9. Cohen, Palestine and the Great Powers 1945-1948, p. 225.
  10. Bethell, The Palestine Triangle, p. 331.
  11. Ibid., p. 343.
  12. Ibid., p. 336.
  13. Ibid., p. 343.
  14. Stevens, The Persuasion Explosion, pp. 104-105.
  15. Lilienthal, The Zionist Connection, pp. 221-22.