The Holocaust confirmed all of the Zionist arguments concerning Jewish safety in the Diaspora and the need for a Jewish state. Influenced by basic humanity, American Zionist arguments and political considerations, President Harry S. Truman called publicly in September 1945 if not for a Jewish state, then for the admission into Palestine of 100,000 Jewish refugees, the number then thought to be in the DP camps.
Factually, by late 1946, perhaps a quarter-million Jews were in hundreds of displaced persons (DP) camps and other facilities in Germany, Austria and Italy alone. A congressional resolution in December called for unlimited immigration and the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth there. The British, who controlled Palestine, thought otherwise.
The British government’s perspective had undergone a major turnabout since they had issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 when they promised to use their best efforts to establish a Jewish home in Palestine. In 1922, Britain received a League of Nations mandate in this regard. Arab anger and violence, however, resulted in redefinitions of the promise.
In May 1939, with war looming in Europe, the British issued a White Paper that capped future Jewish immigration to Palestine at 75,000. Thus, when the Jews needed a haven more than ever before in history, Britain ensured that it was not available.
After the conclusion of World War II, Britain was weakened, broke, and facing a rising tide of Arab nationalism. Its global position depended on its strategic presence in the Middle East, namely control of the Suez Canal zone, naval and air bases in Egypt and Iraq, plus railroads, oil concessions, and pipelines. At this juncture, British interest in Arab oil far outweighed their concern for Jewish refugees.
Accordingly, in July 1945, the new Labour government and its Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, converted its old imperial dominance into strategic partnerships with the Arab world. More Jews in Palestine would make this task difficult, and therefore the fundamentals of the White Paper were to be maintained, allowing only a trickle of Jews to immigrate each month. Jewish DPs overwhelmingly wished to come to Palestine, but the British Mandatory Authority sealed its borders to Jews.
Bevin’s lack of concern for the plight of the refugees and his animus toward Jews was mirrored in the American State Department, which was rife with anti-Semitism. An outlier affiliated with American foreign affairs was James G. McDonald, who had fought tirelessly for Jewish refugees leading up to and during World War II. Though he was constantly thwarted by Roosevelt, McDonald managed to secure 2,000 visas for German Jewish refugees to enter the United States. This was an unconscionably small number, but had it not been for McDonald’s efforts, even those would not have been saved.
James McDonald was a fervent and essential advocate for the creation of the Jewish State, which meant battling with his Arabist State Department colleagues. He consistently argued for the admission of Jewish refugees to Palestine, and U.S. support and recognition for Israel.
On 23 July 1948, McDonald was appointed as the Special Representative of the United States to Israel, a position that would eventually turn him into America’s first ambassador to the nascent state. His appointment was a personal choice by President Truman that was opposed by Secretary of Defense James Forrestal and resented by Secretary of State George Marshall.
On his way to his appointment, McDonald had a meeting in London with Foreign Secretary Bevin. The ambassador reported, “I had to tell myself,” regarding his meeting with Bevin, “that this was not Hitler seated before me.” James McDonald was not employing hyperbole, but drawing upon his own personal experience. He had been one of the first Americans to meet Hitler in person in 1933 as chairman of the board of the American Foreign Policy Association, a rather august-sounding name for a body formed to promote President Wilson’s idea of a League of Nations. In the course of their conversation, Hitler had spoken of “wringing the necks” of Jews. Hitler also said, “I will do the thing that the rest of the world would like to do. It doesn’t know how to get rid of the Jews. I will show them.”
McDonald reported Hitler’s remark to the newly elected president, Franklin Roosevelt, who awarded no priority to the Jewish plight. It was clear to McDonald that Hitler’s utterances were more than an impassioned figure of speech. He left the meeting with no doubt that if Hitler only could, he would destroy European Jewry.
And just like Hitler’s ranting should not have been dismissed as mere rhetoric, Bevin’s determination to prevent Jews from reaching Palestine was not a policy that he would ever recant. Thus, when the British Mandatory Authority, with all of the dire consequences that it imposed, failed to stop illegal immigration, the British instituted a naval blockade of Palestine. They captured renegade ships and forced their passengers into crowded, miserable DP camps in Cyprus. The conditions were deliberately harsh, as an incentive, the British rationalized, to prevent others from attempting to smuggle themselves in.
In 1945, the head of the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion, met with Jewish businessmen in New York to support several projects, including a nautical plan to flood Israel with waves of immigrants with a floating underground railroad. This would be coordinated by the Haganah, the underground military force and precursor to the IDF.