The Yishuv Responds

The Jews in Palestine respond to Nazi anti-semitism and genocide, 1929-1945.

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In 1939, when Europe's Jews most desperately needed a haven, Britain issued another White Paper further limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Seventy‑five thousand Jews would be permitted to enter over a five‑year period, and then a fixed ratio of two Arabs per Jew would be maintained. This White Paper shattered the Yishuv's hopes of attaining a Jewish state under the British Mandate. The Irgun increased its attacks against British troops.

With the outbreak of World War II, the Yishuv found itself once again in conflict. [They believed it] was clear that the British would always double-cross them, and they were dedicated to saving Europe's Jews, despite the White Paper. However, armed attacks against the British would subsequently help Germany and the Axis Powers, which was unthinkable. Therefore the Yishuv joined forces with the British. As David Ben-Gurion declared, "We shall fight side by side with the British in our war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war." The majority of the Irgun also agreed to help the British. One group, however, led by Avraham Stem, determined that the British were as dangerous as the Arabs. Called the Stem Gang (or LECHI, an acronym for the Fighters for Israel's Freedom), this group continued terrorist raids against the British throughout World War II. One of LECHI's officers was Yitzhak Shamir, who later became prime minister of Israel.

The Arabs, meanwhile, wholeheartedly supported Germany. The Mufti of Jerusalem went to Berlin to help the Nazis. Between 1941 and 1945, he broadcast from Berlin in Arabic encouraging the Arabs to expel the British and slaughter the Jews.

Within the first week after the beginning of World War II, more than 130,000 Jews from the Yishuv had volunteered to enter the British army. The British refused to take Jewish volunteers without accepting an equal number of Arab volunteers. The Arab leaders, however, had already pledged their support to Germany. The British therefore reluctantly accepted Jewish recruits, but they balked at permitting the Jews to establish their own recognized brigade.

In 1941 the situation for the British in Palestine was very serious. Their major front was in North Africa, trying to stop Rommel. The Vichy French were in Syria and Lebanon, threatening Palestine's borders. The British turned to the Yishuv for help. Within the Jewish units were special fighting forces called the Palmach, the assault companies, famous for their bravery under Orde Wingate. [Their] personal hallmarks were thick handlebar mustaches. The Palmach was assigned to stop the Vichy French from crossing from the north into Palestine. They did so, suffering enormous casualties. Their reputation as courageous fighters was enhanced.

Throughout World War II, the Palmach trained rigorously and became the broad base of fighting reserves needed to provide the backbone of the Haganah. The Palmach cooperated closely with the British until after the battle of El‑Alamein in North Africa. With the German threat diminished, the British tried to dismantle the Palmach, knowing that the troops would eventually be used against them. The Palmach therefore went underground and continued to train and prepare the Yishuv for the struggle against the British which they knew was imminent. Many famous Israeli generals received their training and experience in the Palmach.

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