Nathan Abrams reviews a new book which sheds light on an a forgotten snippet of British Imperial History.
In her new book, The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom After the Holocaust, Rosie Whitehouse explores that forgotten period in Britain’s history, the years between the end of the Second World War and the birth of the State of Israel in 1948 when Palestine (now encompassing Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories) was under the control of the British.
Following the end of the war, many Jewish Displaced Persons desired to make the journey to Palestine. Unfortunately for them, however, and if they hadn’t suffered enough, the British government was determined to restrict the number of Jewish refugees entering its territory. The horrors of the Holocaust and Britain’s commitment to the establishment of a Jewish state made in the Balfour Declaration in 1917 were of no consequence.
Cold Hard Realpolitik
While the restriction on Jewish immigration might seem harsh – and antisemitic – cold hard realpolitik played its part. As Whitehouse writes, ‘Palestine was not the most pressing problem facing the British Empire.’ The British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin was preoccupied by the situation in India, on the one hand, and the emerging Soviet threat of Soviet expansion in the nascent Cold War. Apart from these foreign policy concerns, which dominated Whitehall, the Labour government at home was prioritising its domestic social reform agenda. These factors combined to push the survivors needs off the political agenda. ‘They were part of yesterday’s story.’
Antisemitism and Christian Zionism
Antisemitism was certainly another factor. Two army rabbis, Herbert Friedmann and Philip Bernstein, travelled to London to put their case to Bevin. Friedmann recalled him ‘sitting at his desk all wrapped up in a fur coat, scarf around his neck, hat on his head and a little electric heater by his feet. This was the Foreign Minister of the Empire of Great Britain. He was in a ‘lousy’ mood and their conversation was ‘profane’, an ‘incessant barrage’ where, in his thick West Country accent, Bevin told them: ‘You Jews are the cause of all the troubles in the world; no wonder everybody hates you.’
The last remnants of Christian Zionist forces in British politics which had motivated the Balfour Declaration in the first place were disappearing. By 1946, the generation of 1917 had lost their influence and the role of the church in politics had faded in Britain, and with it, Christian Zionism which was overtaken by Jewish Zionism.
An Extremist Terrorist Threat
It must also be remembered that, by this point, the British Secret Service, as Christopher Andrew recounts here, did not yet view the looming Cold War with the Soviet Union as the primary threat to British interests, as one might think. Rather, this honour went to Jewish terrorism in the final years of the Mandate. The Irgun and the Stern Gang Jews had been pursuing a terrorist campaign against the British authorities in Palestine, believing that terrorism was both legitimate and justified in the pursuit of an independent Jewish state. The Stern Gang even described itself publicly as a ‘terrorist’ organisation. The Secret Service feared the extension of their operations to the British mainland itself. MI5 had warned Bevin that Jewish terrorists planned to assassinate him in the spring of 1946, as well as to launch a terror campaign in Britain like that run by the IRA in 1939-1940. This was the only time before the closing years of the Cold War that counterterrorism was a higher Secret Service priority than counterespionage, Andrew writes.
F *** Bevin Shipping
Survivors of the Nazi genocide in Europe, though, had other ideas and they were equally determined to reach the Promised Land. They wanted to flee to Palestine, despite the risks and so took on the task of smashing the Royal Navy blockade.
To do this, they needed to acquire boats. David Ben-Gurion was keen on ‘sending small, armed boats to break the British blockade, because he believed the British would not fire on small ships. But his advisers pointed out that the British public would have no stomach for images of large ships being fired on, emblazoned across the front pages of the newspaper on the breakfast table next to their tea and marmalade made from Jaffa oranges.’
As it was illegal, the purchase and equipping of such ships was a business that had to be conducted entirely clandestinely. So, several front companies were established one of which was known as FB Shipping, a play on the name of Ernest Bevin, as in F *** Bevin Shipping.
On such boats, some seventy thousand Holocaust survivors passed through ports in Italy, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea between 1945 and 1948. They came from fourteen different countries including as far afield as Belarus and Lithuania. This was on top of the other illegal immigrants who had begun arriving as early as 1934 where British policy was to arrest them and detain them in the Atlit detention centre twenty kilometres to the south of the city.
Whitehouse hasn’t traced all the ships and their passengers in her book. Instead, she focuses upon one such illegal immigrant ship, the Wedgewood, to illustrate the wider story of the thousands of refugees who made it to Palestine.
That the ship had such an English name may come as a surprise to many considering Britain’s treatment of Jewish refugees to Palestine. But its namesake, a British Labour politician, was an unflinching supporter of Zionism. Colonel Josiah Wedgewood began life as the great-grandson of the founder of famous china tableware factory in Staffordshire. He served in South Africa and at Gallipoli before becoming an MP. He was subsequently elevated to the House of Lords and died in 1943. Wedgewood was a representative of that fading remnant in British politics: a committed Christian and Zionist who opposed the limitations on Jewish refugees entering Palestine.
The Wedgewood embarked from the tiny and obscure port of Vado Ligure on the Italian Riviera in June 1946. Some 1,300 Jews were on board. They may have hailed from all over Europe, but they were united in their anger towards Britain’s refusal to recognise their plight.
Predictably, the British intercepted the Wedgewood and towed it into shore at Haifa where the passengers disembarked and were driven to Atlit. On arrival, they recalled their surprise at being taken to a ‘British concentration camp’. Its perimeter fence was patrolled by soldiers with dogs, men and women separated, sprayed with DDT and told to undress and enter the showers which many of them were frightened to do. Thereafter, as the camp became increasingly crowded, the British decided to ship illegal immigrants to Cyprus, where conditions were appalling.
Eventually, like many of those who travelled on the Wedgewood, the ship itself was integrated into the newly founded State of Israel. Fittingly, it joined the Israeli Navy as the renamed K-18.
The Larger Story
The Wedgewood is part of a much larger story which has since been forgotten by many. ‘Most people in the UK’, writes Whitehouse, ‘are totally unaware of this snippet of British Imperial history.’ It jars with the image Britain likes to present itself of a tolerant nation who accepted thousands of Kindertransport and subsequently helped to liberate the camps in continental Europe. Certainly, the Royal Navy blockade was a case of Whitehall defending its national interests, but it was mixed with a heavy dose of antisemitism despite what many of these Jews had suffered during the war.
The topic is further uncomfortable because it took place under a Labour government so lauded for its massive social reform package including the establishment of the NHS and so soon after the Holocaust.
It is also a difficult topic for the British Jewish community. In effect, British Jews were volunteering to go to Palestine to fight against the British who viewed them as fanatic extremists, a situation that Whitehouse compares to the issue of home-grown ISIS terrorists today.
The People on the Beach: Journeys to Freedom After the Holocaust by Rosie Whitehouse is published by Hurst, £20.
[Cover image: the Wedgewood, courtesy of Paul Silverstone, http://paulsilverstone.com/ship/josiah-wedgwood/.]