More than 80 years ago, the Haganah paramilitary organization that was the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces sank the British vessel Patria off the coast of Haifa in a horrible mistake. Nearly 300 illegal Jewish immigrants—including women, children and elderly refugees—drowned.
The capabilities of the anonymous agents—Mossad personnel, according to foreign media reports—that killed top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in Tehran last month are light years from the negligence, haste and lack of planning the Haganah forces demonstrated in November 1940.
Back then, the state was still forming. The Haganah leaders wanted to carry out a measured strike on the Patria to prevent the deportation of nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees who had been captured by the British after arriving on three ships a few weeks earlier. The British plan was for the Patria, originally a French cruise ship, to carry them to Mauritius, far off in the Indian Ocean. But the small bomb they detonated on the morning of Nov. 25, 1940, intended only to only delay the ship’s departure, tore off one of its old steel plates, and it quickly sank.
Some of those aboard who had been informed about the plan to carry out a “controlled explosion” jumped overboard. Others drowned in their cabins. Hundreds were rescued from the waters of the Haifa Port by the British and by Arab boats, though many died. At first, the extent of the disaster wasn’t clear. Many of those on board were declared missing, but for weeks, bodies washed up on shore daily. It was one of the biggest disasters in the history of Zionism; the result of an error in judgment that has been the subject of justifications, interpretations and explanations ever since.
Perhaps that is why as the years went by, it was forgotten. In Jerusalem and Haifa, there are streets named after the Patria, and part of the ship’s hull is on display at the Clandestine Immigration and Naval Museum in Haifa. There are also events held to commemorate the victims. Many researchers have studied the tragedy, but the school curriculum—apparently not by coincidence—devotes little time to the affair that rocked the Jewish Yishuv at the time.
The first issue raised by the sinking of the Patria was the question of how it would be defined morally: Were these people the victims of haste and error, or of a heroic struggle—fighters who gave their lives in the spirit of Masada?
Even before it was revealed who had given the orders for and approved the bombing (a matter of controversy even now), Davar editor Berl Katznelson declared it the greatest Zionist action of the recent era, adding, “Know that for us, the day of the [sinking of] the Patria is like [the battle at] Tel Hai.”
In the circumstances of the time and the way he saw it, even though the Patria action was a failure, the disaster itself and its victims were a price that had to be paid. Eliyahu Golomb, the unofficial leader of the Haganah at the time, expressed similar sentiments. Golomb said that for him, the day the Patria was sunk was not a black day, and that the dead had been victims of the battle for aliyah, “victims for a reason.” Yitzhak Tabankin, one of the founding fathers of the kibbutz movement, chose to define the victims as “heroic unknown soldiers.” Some three weeks after the disaster, the leaders of the socialist movement discussed whether or not to add the Patria casualties to the list of myths that bolstered the construction of a Jewish defense force.
Uncharacteristically, the poet Nathan Alterman remained silent. Only after his death was a poem he wrote about the event, “The Dead on the Beach,” discovered. One of the few people to take a stand against the official line was Yitzhak Lofben, the editor of the weekly newspaper Hapoel Hatzair. Lofben said that the day the ship was sunk was the worst of the 32 years he had spent in the Land of Israel, and that “it cannot be that Jews honor God by killing other Jews.” Hard as it might be to believe now, Lofben was punished by Amos Ben-Gurion, the son of David Ben-Gurion, who smacked him in the face in the newspaper’s offices. Lofben’s deputy editor, Yisrael Cohen, also stepped out of line by writing about the “bitter day” on which “the ship was maliciously sunk.”
For years, many claimed that the Haganah leaders had carried out the action without approval from the Jewish Agency’s policy department, the authority at the time. But then historian professor Meir Hazan of Tel Aviv University published eye-opening research in the journal Zion. Hazan revealed that David Ben-Gurion had been away when the ship was bombed and that Moshe Sharett had given a green light for the action. The smoking gun was a letter Sharett wrote in 1962 to rabbi and author Haim Bloch, which Hazan found in the files of the Zionist Archives. In the letter, Sharett explicitly admitted he was responsible for ordering the sinking of the ship.
“I must admit the fact … that the Patria was sunk on my orders, even if I never publicly admitted it,” wrote Sharett.
He went on to write that had he been asked in public about the role he played in the affair, he would “not deny the truth,” or “take pride in the act that claimed the blood of so many, but I would note it not as a thing that must be justified, but rather as a matter of fulfilling an obligation and taking responsibility … while the approval was given to a plan to damage the ship alone, and not for an action that would entail human casualties, in cases such as these the results cannot always be foreseen and anyone who approves the action carries responsibility for its expected and unexpected results … such results cannot be avoided in a political battle by a people fighting for its life, in which its sons are asked to sacrifice their lives for the sake of its future.”
After the disaster, the Yishuv took some comfort in the decision by the British to allow the surviving refugees into the country. But the British also made the infuriating decision to deport another 1,600 refugees from Europe who had arrived on the ship Atlantic, one of the three ships whose passengers had been loaded onto the Patria prior to it being sunk.
Over the years, the Patria affair became part of the debate in Israel about the limits of power and the price of struggle, as well as the place of the victims of disasters like these in the Zionist ethos. Still, the event itself has been largely excluded from the national historical memory. Along with other catastrophes in the history of illegal Jewish immigration both before and after 1948—the 767 victims of the Struma ship or the 44 victims of the Egoz—the Patria casualties are also worthy of being remembered as heroes.
Nadav Shragai is a veteran Israeli journalist.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.