A Jewish debate on illegal immigration—in 1939

Click photo to download. Caption: Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (pictured) surprised many with his take on immigration in 1939. Credit: Harris & Ewing - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

By Rafael Medoff/JNS.org

The national debate on immigration is very much on the minds of some American Jewish leaders and organizations, and the same was true 75 years ago this month—when Louis D. Brandeis, then a recently retired Supreme Court justice, took a position that surprised many.

The immigration question in those days concerned “aliya bet,” the campaign to bring undocumented Jewish immigrants from Europe to British Mandatory Palestine. This was an effort initiated by Irgun Zvai Leumi, the Palestine underground militia associated with Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky. With Nazism spreading across Europe and the British restricting the entry of Jews to the Holy Land, the Irgun began landing shiploads of Jewish refugees at deserted coastal sites late at  night, out of view of British patrols.  

The rival Labor Zionists, headed by David Ben-Gurion, at first preferred a policy of friendly relations with the British, and opposed aliya bet. But by 1939, with the plight of Jews in Europe steadily worsening, the Labor-affiliated Mossad l’Aliya Bet joined the effort and began organizing its own ships of undocumented immigrants.

Most American Zionist leaders opposed taking any steps that might upset America’s ally, Great Britain. Veteran U.S. Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise told Ben-Gurion that he (Wise) was urging American Jews “to march shoulder to shoulder with England in the war against fascism,” and he would not deviate from this position even if the Zionist cause suffered.” Wise’s Emergency Committee for Zionist Affairs went so far as to assert that the Irgun’s aliyah bet ships were so overcrowded that they “resemble concentration camps.”

But Louis D. Brandeis, elder statesman of American Zionism and one of the most influential Jews in America, dissented. Justice Brandeis explained his position at a meeting with a group of veteran American Zionist activists on July 31, 1939. One of the participants wrote, “Speaking on the question of immigration [Brandeis] said that Jews would continue to immigrate regardless of the White Paper [the British policy closing Palestine to most Jews].  When someone suggested that it was illegal, he said that the Jewish people considered it legal in view of the fact that any attempt to curtail immigration was in violation of the terms of the Mandate; that it may be considered illegal by Great Britain but that we Jews considered it to be legal.”

To Brandeis, the law was not just a collection of words on paper, but had to relate meaningfully to real life. The British policy of keeping most Jews out of Palestine was “legal” only in the dry, technical sense; it was not legal in any sense related to what was happening in the real world. A law that helped doom millions of innocent Jews could not be truly legal. And the modern-day “Underground Railroad,” which was taking Jews out of the Nazi inferno and smuggling them to freedom and safety, could not be truly illegal.

The conflict between American Jewish supporters and opponents of aliya bet came to a head 75 years ago this month, in December 1939. The Irgun purchased the S.S. Sakarya, an old Turkish coal carrier ship, and loaded it with 2,300 Jewish refugees—the largest single group of undocumented immigrants to seek entry to Palestine. But after learning at the last minute of the true nature of the voyage, the ship’s owners demanded an extra $10,000 in the deal in case the Sakarya would be intercepted and impounded by the British.

As the Sakarya sat stranded in the freezing Danube River, facing a fierce winter and dwindling food supplies, as Rabbi Louis I. Newman, leader of the Revisionists’ U.S. branch, and Rabbi Baruch Rabinowitz, a prominent supporter of the aliya bet effort, desperately sought to raise the necessary funds.

Newman’s appeal to Rabbi Wise failed. Wise responded by accusing the Revisionists of engaging in unfair “competition” with mainstream Zionist fundraising efforts. Rabbi Rabinowitz’s appeal to Henry Montor, executive vice president of the United Palestine Appeal (UPA, the forerunner of the UJA), elicited an unusually frank critique of aliya bet.

Immigration to Palestine should be governed by the principle of “selectivity,” Montor wrote to Rabinowitz. The only Jews to be sent there should be “young men and women who are trained in Europe for productive purposes… Sentimental considerations are, of course, vital and everyone would wish to save every single Jew,” but—in the UPA official’s opinion—it was more important to bring those who are “able to endure harsh conditions” in the Holy Land. Montor also (erroneously) accused the Revisionists of bringing “prostitutes and criminals” to Palestine.

Rafael Medoff

Ironically, the UPA itself later published a fundraising brochure featuring a photograph of an Irgun ship, the Parita, which had brought 850 undocumented immigrants to Palestine. 

Newman and Rabinowitz nonetheless managed to raise the funds to rescue the Sakarya. The donors were two prominent American Jewish philanthropists, Lucius Littauer and David Donneger. In late January 1940, the money arrived, and on Feb. 1, the ship left Sulina, reaching Haifa on Feb. 13. Although Littauer and Donneger were not Zionists, they, like Justice Brandeis, recognized that with the dark clouds of Nazism spreading across Europe, there was no time to be “selective” about who should be rescued.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, www.WymanInstitute.org.

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Posted on December 4, 2014 and filed under Analysis, Features, U.S., Israel.