The success of Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” in theaters this summer is a welcome sign, amidst the usual summer cinematic fare, that history still interests us. Britain’s mettle in evacuating some 340,000 British and allied troops from French shores amidst the German attempt to destroy them remains one of history’s great inspirations, particularly when one considers the bravery of ordinary British sailors and fisherman who sailed into German fire to rescue their soldiers. For more than a year afterward, Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany and its allies.
But there was another series of maritime evacuations that the British simultaneously hindered: the many smaller seaborne attempts to move Jewish refugees from central Europe down the Danube River into the Black Sea and then to British-controlled Palestine. Having faced an Arab revolt in Palestine led by Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini, the British issued the White Paper of May 1939 to appease Arab moderates. The White Paper curbed Jewish immigration to 10,000 per year for the next five years. Even these numbers were not filled once World War II broke out. Jewish operatives turned to illegal immigration, chartering rickety ships with shady crews that could take limited numbers of Jewish refugees.
Dependent on strategic assets in the Middle East stretching from the Suez Canal in Egypt to airfields in Iraq, the British — as historian Dalia Ofer showed years ago — scotched these evacuations as best they could. Otherwise, as Sir John Shuckburgh of the Colonial Office put it at the time, “Every Arab … will be convinced that … we have surrendered to Jewish pressure.” London protested to the southeastern European countries from which Jewish rescue ships were launched; they impounded vessels and arrested the crews; and they interned Jewish refugees, ultimately counting them against the legal quotas.
News of seaborne tragedies was broadcast to dissuade further evacuations. The Salvador, a rotten wooden ship with non-functioning engines that was towed to sea and then put to sail, broke apart in a storm in December 1940. More than 300 Jewish refugees drowned. As one British official wrote, “There could have been no more opportune disaster from the point of view of stopping the traffic.” Germany’s 1941 decision to murder Europe’s Jews sealed the fate of millions. Still, Britain continued to thwart seaborne movement of Jews to Palestine after mass murder operations began.
The lessons of these contemporaneous evacuations were internalized by all. For Britain, Dunkirk demonstrated the wisdom of collective security. As the only country to fight from start to finish in both world wars, Britain moved to closer collaboration with Western European countries and the United States. NATO, the strategic pearl of postwar European stability, was formed in 1949 thanks partly to these efforts.
For Jewish leaders, the war years brought the unbending realization – after years of hat-in-hand requests — that like everyone else, they needed a state that would provide security from their many enemies. The same Jewish leaders in Palestine who worked feverishly on rescue operations during World War II – David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Eliezer Kaplan and others – formed the core of the Israeli government after 1948 and were determined to bring Jewish refugees to Israel despite the economic problems that mass emigration entailed. Ben-Gurion privately told the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, James G. McDonald, that Israel would only be “safe with a population of three million.”
The Israelis were also determined not to sacrifice their security to the illusory generosity of others. International indifference had simply been too pronounced. Most importantly, Israel would not agree, despite international pressure, to the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arab refugees as a pre-condition – insisted on by the Arab states — to peace negotiations. Most Arab refugees had fled during Israel’s War of Independence — and many had also been expelled — but all were seen as a security risk. They could hopefully be re-settled in Arab countries with the help of U.S. developmental aid. The money was offered, but the resettlements never happened. If tomorrow Israel were to end the occupation of the West Bank – an occupation that has been damaging to both peoples — the fundamental problem of Israel’s existence would still remain for much of the Arab world.
“Dunkirk” reminds us that World War II was indeed a world war, wherein a heroic battlefront in Western Europe could have profound implications hundreds and even thousands of miles away. It also reminds us that the global effects of World War II are still very much with us.
Norman J.W. Goda is the Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida. He is lead editor of Envoy to the Promised Land: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1948-1951 (Indiana University Press).