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World War II
five and a half years of the Second World War in Europe (September 1939 -
May 1945) were one of the darkest periods that the Jewish people had ever
known. Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Jews numbered a record 17
million; until the Nazis, with their mechanism of destruction, reduced
that number by six million.
The extent of the horror of the Holocaust only became known at the end of 1942, Until then it was assumed that in spite of the fact that the Nazis were not averse to killing and had ample opportunity to do so, millions of Jews would remain in Nazi-occupied countries, With hindsight, there are those who claim that the Jewish leadership throughout the free world, especially the Zionist leaders, did too little too late to save the Jews in occupied Europe, Those accused claimed that for a long period there was no clear information regarding the horrors being inflicted on the Jews, and therefore there was not much that they could do. This added to the atmosphere of disbelief, so that when the shocking reports began to filter through, few actually believed them ("Such a thing can't be!").
Zionist activity during the war focused on three places: London, Jerusalem and New York. Zionist leaders, especially Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Sharett, did all they could to enlist the support of the World Zionist Organization and the organized Yishuv in Eretz Israel to the British war effort. They proposed that the British recruit thousands of Jews in special units in the war against the Nazis. The British rejected the request, preferring to recruit, in the first stage, professionals without a national designation to different ancillary units. Only after the situation deteriorated, due to German successes, did they agree to establish Jewish infantry companies. In 1944, five years after the outbreak of the war, they agreed to allow the establishment of a Jewish Brigade consisting of more than 5,000 soldiers, with a Jewish national flag and insignia. The Brigade took part in the final offensive in Italy.
Zionist action during the war was led mainly by David Ben-Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive. He adopted a policy that called for the immediate establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, while cooperating with WZO president Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Ben-Gurion was of the opinion that just as World War I gave Zionism the Balfour Declaration, so World War II - after putting in place new political measures in the world - would produce a Jewish state. To this aim he invested all his time and energy. In spite of the war, he traveled a great deal between Palestine, England and America. Here he met with leaders and shapers of public opinion, as well as with Jewish leaders (especially in the US) and recruited Zionists and non-Zionists who supported the establishment of a Jewish state. Activities reached a peak in May 1942 when the Biltmore Program was approved at the Extraordinary Conference of American Zionists, which constituted the basis for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Six months later this program was adopted by the Inner Actions Committee of the World Zionist Organization in Jerusalem.
Jewish Eretz Israel developed impressively during the war years. At first there was a serious economic crisis with 10% of the Jewish Yishuv unemployed. But from 1942 the picture changed dramatically. The British turned Palestine into the first economic and logistic center of its kind. Industry developed at an astonishing rate in order to supply the myriad needs of the great British army; the immense building effort and the many services that the Jewish Yishuv provided the army and soldiers brought a prolonged period of prosperity. The standard of living rose and relations with the Arabs stabilized. In spite of the fact that there were differences of opinion on a number of subjects, like the continued White Paper policy, it was considered a positive time, from the point of view of achievements and future prospects. However, the terrible shadow of the destruction of European Jewry on the one hand, and the successes in Eretz Israel - where it was "business as usual" - on the other, only made the awkwardness of this special situation more apparent.
Throughout the war the Jewish defense force in Palestine took a number of important steps forward. The Hagana expanded its forces and its training, and established for the first time a permanent conscripted brigade - the Palmach. Tens of thousands of Yishuv members served in the British army and underwent advanced training in one of the best armies in the world. Etzel split at the beginning of the war due to its support of the British in the war. Those that left established Lehi (Lohamei Heret Israel). This small organization carried out acts of sabotage against the British, even during the darkest days when the Germans were close to conquering Palestine. In 1944, Etzel also began to operate against the British, and, consequently, clashed with the majority of the Yishuv and the Hagana.
In 1945, with the war at an end and the true extent of the Holocaust revealed, the Zionist heads and leaders of the Yishuv believed that the British would help them. Considering how badly the Jews had been treated in the war, they believed a change in British policy would result (first and foremost with regard to the White Paper of 1939), and that survivors of the Holocaust would be allowed to enter Palestine. In the months that followed these hopes were dashed.
David Ben-Gurion defines the short-term aim of the Yishuv and Zionism: "We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there were no war." Throughout the Yishuv in Palestine a "national census of volunteers in the service of the homeland" takes place. More than 135,000 men and women are counted who are ready to join the British army and serve the Yishuv.
The Hagana puts all its forces at the disposal of the struggle against the Nazis. Etzel also announces that it is ending its struggle against the British and joining the war against the Germans.
At the end of 1939, with a decline in the bloody riots
initiated by the Arabs, the "stockade and tower" project comes
to an end. Throughout the year, 17 settlements have been established by
Enormous progress for the WZO in the United States: within seven years the number of members grows from 8,000 to 43,000. By the end of the war, the number rises to 200,000. At the end of 1939, the Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs is established in neutral America in order to handle vital Zionist-related issues during the war.
During the first few months of the year, clandestine immigration continues, and thousands of Jews escaping from Nazi-occupied Europe look for ways to enter Palestine. The British do everything they can to put an end to this "illegal" aliyah and are unwilling to consider the danger to the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Spring - Summer
Information continues to arrive from Europe regarding
German treatment of the millions of Jews in the countries under their
The economic crisis in Palestine continues.
A low point for Jewish aliyah to Eretz Israel. Only 4,500 Jews arrive in Palestine during the year, including "illegal" immigrants - the smallest number in ten years.
News regarding killings, expulsions and forced labor of Jews in occupied Europe continues to reach Palestine. Unconfirmed reports claim that death camps are being set up.
In the January 1942 edition of the prestigious journal "Foreign Affairs", Dr. Chaim Weizmann publishes an article called "The Role of Palestine in the Solution of the Jewish Problem." In it he writes: "One must clearly say to the Arabs that the Jews will be encouraged to settle in Eretz Israel... [and they] can achieve freedom and self-rule by establishing their own state.. ."
June - July
In the Jewish Yishuv a state of emergency is declared and plans are made to fortify the Carmel in case of a German invasion. The advance of the Germans in Russia toward the Caucasus also raises fears of a German invasion of the Middle East from the north.
The number of volunteers in the Arab community of Palestine is far less.
Palmach units are sent to southern Palestine, and to its shores, in order to aid in thwarting an invasion or landing of Germans from the sea. Due to the tense situation, conscription to the British army increases.
The economic crisis comes to an end due to the great demand for manpower and goods by the great British army. Throughout Palestine dozens of army camps and airports are set up.
The institutions of the Yishuv declare a 30-day mourning period in light of the Jewish Holocaust in Europe.
In the Yishuv and throughout the free world, conferences, assemblies and demonstrations are held denouncing the Nazi slaughter in occupied Europe and the lack of intervention on the part of the Allies.
Throughout the year, the activities of Jewish soldiers from Palestine in the British army increase and they demand a blue and white flag, an insignia, and freedom to use the Hebrew language. This indicates their uniqueness as a national Jewish army. The British reject these demands. From their point of view the Jews are "Palestinian" soldiers. The struggle reaches its peak in October when the soldiers of the second battalion of the Buffs regiment in Libya wave their national flag without permission.
Yishuv leaders and the WZO continue to demand from the British that they concentrate the Jewish recruits from Palestine in their own division. The British refuse again and again.
Economic prosperity in Palestine continues due to the large amount of work needed for the war effort. The unemployment that marked the first years of the war is disappearing.
Towards the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, the Jewish Brigade, which is concentrated in Italy, trains in preparation for the upcoming battles against the German army.
With the end of the war, the terrible extent of the Holocaust becomes apparent: the Jewish nation has lost six million of its people in the war. The Jewish soldiers serving in the British army in Italy and other countries, dedicate a large part of their free time to taking care of Holocaust survivors and Jewish refugees.
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