Ezekiel prophesied the formation of the State of Israel in the last days: “For I will take you from among the heathen and gather you out of all countries, and will bring you into your own land” (Ezek. 36:24).
But the long centuries rolled on and the promise was not fulfilled.
Students of prophecy insisted a time would come when the Jews would return to their homeland, and when the Zionist movement began to promote the settlement of Jews in Palestine some had the courage to identify this as the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy.
Others were skeptical. The movement seemed so small and the obstacles to its success appeared to be insurmountable. Propaganda against the Zionists by anti-Semites began to be circulated, associating the movement with a conspiracy to rule the world. It was not popular to be on the side of Jewish pioneers in Palestine.
Nevertheless, the settlement of the Jewish homeland continued. Although hampered by restrictive immigration quotas set by the British during their mandate, the Jews kept pressing forward, counting each new village as another step in the establishment of their long-awaited home. In the difficult years from 1939 to 1947 there were 94 new villages founded, making 349 Jewish settlements in that hostile land.
Hitler’s holocaust annihilated two out of every three European Jews, one-third of the entire Jewish race, and uprooted Jews who had become comfortable in their European homes. In their book, Israel, David M. Jacobs and Kees Scherer describe the impact of the holocaust as follows:
The shock of this terrible disaster finally gave the Jews the power of desperation so that against the logic of history and politics, a mere three years after the greatest catastrophe in their history, came one of their greatest triumphs: on May 15, 1948, the State of Israel was established.
But those three years were difficult ones.
Having given of themselves to the Allied war effort, the Jews had hoped for cooperation from the Allies in establishing their nation.
They were disappointed.
Balancing on the brink of bankruptcy, Great Britain was determined to cling to friendship with the Arabs for economic reasons, not wanting to lose their single most important resource: oil. Some of their pipelines ran through Arab lands and they were not willing to risk the loss of oil for the sake of the Jews. Consequently, the British continued to restrict Jewish immigration following the war.
Burdened by the plight of their countrymen in Europe and frustrated by the restrictive British mandate, the Jews went underground and began to prepare for a fight for freedom. Infiltrating several British military bases, they stole light arms. They also dealt in captured Axis weapons and engaged in pressure tactics designed to ultimately force the British out of their homeland.
In Europe, conditions for Jews remained difficult.
Although delivered from Hitler’s death camps, they were still in serious trouble.
By the end of 1946, more than a quarter of a million displaced Jews were packed into camps in western Germany. As a result, the British loosened immigration restrictions somewhat, but the trickle of immigrants allowed into Palestine was still tiny compared to the tens of thousands waiting in the crowded displaced-persons camps of Europe.
A Modern Exodus
Since they were unable to get realistic concessions from the British, the Jews tackled the problem themselves. Sending Jews from Palestine to infiltrate the displaced-persons camps, they began to organize the refugees and prepare them to enter Palestine under cover. They also took advantage of the poor conditions in the camps to draw world attention to the hardships still faced by European Jews.
Soon a modern exodus was under way from Germany to Palestine. Jews were taken from Germany to the French and Austrian borders, then through mountain passes on foot to the Italian or French coasts. It was a difficult route from Germany to Palestine, but these struggling people had been enroute to that land for nearly two thousand years. They had taken the most crushing blows tyrants could give and had survived. Terrain would not deter them now.
The chaos of postwar Europe cooperated in allowing the Jews to move across Europe to the Mediterranean. In Italy they found the hatred of British occupation working in their favor. This former Axis power now helped the Jews on their homeward trek.
Nearly all the ships that carried Jews from Europe to Palestine were Italian coastal vessels of prewar vintage. Few of these obsolete tubs were fit for the crossing. Nevertheless, they were repaired hastily at Italian shipyards and sent on their precarious voyages.
In Palestine the Jewish underground awaited the arrival of the immigrants and employed covert methods to smuggle the new arrivals into the country. They were often able to monitor official radio messages and then decoy the British while the refugees landed.
The success of the smuggling operation was short-lived. The British intensified their blockade, making it almost impenetrable; and by 1946, 80,000 troops patrolled the country.
Looking back, the scene seems unreal. These survivors of Hitler’s holocaust and the crowded camps of Europe were now crossing the Mediterranean in rickety ships only to be met by a mighty British blockade commissioned to keep them from entering the land of their dreams.
Once stopped by the blockade, the Jews were transferred to British transports on which they were taken to Cyprus, where more refugee camps waited. Long before this heartbreaking ordeal Solomon had written, “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick…” (Proverbs 13:12). The wise king’s observation must have described the experience of thousands of his people who were turned from their homeland after making the long journey to its very borders.
In spite of the blockade, however, the Jewish spirit was not broken. Palestine was still the goal of this persistent people, and they intended to reach it. Their determination was expressed by the immigrants on board the Beauharnais when their ship was towed into Haifa Harbor, having been captured by the British. Its passengers unfurled a long banner over the deck that said: “We survived Hitler. Death is no stranger to us. Nothing can keep us from our Jewish homeland. The blood be on your head if you fire on this unarmed ship.”
Records show that all but five of the sixty-three refugee ships were intercepted in efforts to reach Palestine between 1945 and 1948. Estimates of the number of displaced persons confined in the Cyprus camps ranged from 26,000 to 65,000.
In an effort to discourage immigration and attempts to run the blockade, the camps at Cyprus were anything but comfortable. They were extremely hot in the summer, water was generally short, and the food was poor and scarce. In spite of the risk, however, they continued their efforts to enter their land with the force of a battering ram, never relaxing their pressure on the British to allow them to come home.
We will continue our study in the birth-pangs of Israel in our next newsletter.
A MESSAGE OF HOPE FROM DR. JACK VAN IMPE