Seventy-one years ago, this week, on July 17, 1947, a rickety old steamship named the President Warfield was renamed Exodus 1947. It was closely trailed by three British navy ships, but that didn’t stop it. The Zionist flag was raised, a wooden sign that read “The President Warfield” was flipped around to read “Haganah Ship Exodus 1947,” and Hatikvah, the future Israeli national anthem, was sung over and over by everyone on board.
With that, the Exodus 1947 became Israel’s first ship of state.
Forget what you saw in the movie. Paul Newman, Sal Mineo, and Eva Marie Saint had nothing to do with the voyage, and the British were more brutal than portrayed onscreen. In reality, they beat the Jewish refugees and took them back to Germany, not Cyprus.
With the White Paper of 1939, the British caved into Arab pressure, severely limiting the number of Jews who could enter then-Palestine and sentencing thousands of Jews to death in the Holocaust. The US refused to take them (FDR believed there were too many Jews in America). Churchill refused to allow them onto English soil or into the Jewish homeland.
Instead, the Jews themselves sought a way to bring European Jews into the holy land. One of the most famous of those missions was the Exodus 1947.
Decommissioned in 1946, the President Warfield was bought for $8,000 as scrap by the Western Trading Company, a front for the Haganah. Jewish American Sam Zemurray was instrumental in obtaining the ship, which would explain its Honduran registration. Mr. Zemurray’s United Fruit Company was so large it pretty much owned Honduras, or so people claimed.
The President Warfield was refitted in Baltimore and sailed for France on 25th February 1947 with a mostly American crew, where it picked up over 4,500 Jewish refugees.
During the journey, the people on the Exodus 1947 prepared for attack by the British Navy. The passengers practiced resistance sessions. The training came in handy; the night after the renaming ceremony, the “Exodus 1947” was rammed from three sides, damaging the hull, railings, and lifeboats, and was boarded by sailors and Royal Marines. The Jewish refugees fought back, using tin cans, screwdrivers, potatoes, bottles, wooden boards and metal.
As described by passenger Noah Klieger, “The clash had lasted several hours and resulted in three deaths — Second Officer William Bernstein, an American Aliyah Bet volunteer crew member; 15-year-old refugee Zvi Jakubowitz, and one other. Some 150 were injured.”
The British who today complain about disproportionate response to Hamas rockets attacked the Exodus with guns and clubs while the passengers fought back by throwing potatoes.
Dr. Elana Yael Heideman for The Israel Forever Foundation wrote, “After the fierce and unexpected battle, a taut voice was heard broadcasting in a fine American accent to all of Palestine on Kol Yisrael (the Voice of Israel), the Haganah secret radio:
“This is the refugee ship, Exodus 1947. Before dawn today we were attacked by five British destroyers and one cruiser at a distance of 17 miles from the shores of Palestine, in international waters. The assailants immediately opened fire, threw gas bombs, and rammed our ship from three directions. On our deck there are one dead, five dying, and 120 wounded. The resistance continued for more than 3 hours. Owing to the severe losses and the condition of the ship, which is in danger of sinking, we were compelled to sail in the direction of Haifa in order to save the 4,500 refugees on board from drowning.”
From that broadcast, the news began to filter out to the world.
After reaching Haifa, British soldiers transferred the exhausted passengers to three freighters, converted to prison ships, and departed Haifa. The refugees assumed that as “illegal emigrants” they would be interned on Cyprus, but the prison ships were sailing back towards France.
Conditions were harsh. The refugees were crammed together in the bare holds of the freighters. The British Government didn’t care that they were mistreating people who had just survived Hitler, many of whom survived concentration camps. After all, they were only Jews, just as the victims of Palestinian terror are today.
The British prison ships first landed at Toulon, France, where the passengers were ordered to disembark. They refused. French authorities were reluctant to forcibly remove them, so British authorities decided to wait until the passengers disembarked of their own accord.
The British Foreign Secretary threatened to send them back to Germany, but the passengers didn’t budge. They declared a hunger strike, so the British sent them to Hamburg, Germany, where they again refused to leave. This time, the British authorities compelled the passengers to disembark — violently. Many of them were brutally beaten with clubs. The British took the 4,500 passengers, about half of them survivors of concentration camps, and transferred to displaced person camps in Germany under German guard.
By this time, the ship’s ordeals had received coverage from international media, causing the British government much public embarrassment. Displaced persons all over Europe protested and staged hunger strikes. Massive protests erupted in the United States. Eventually, the former passengers made aliyah in small groups, and most were in Israel on May 15, 1948, when the nation declared its independence.
Britain’s public embarrassment played a significant role in the diplomatic swing of sympathy toward the Jews and the eventual recognition across the world of a Jewish state in 1948.
But not in Great Britain. In the UN Partition vote that created a Jewish state, Britain abstained. Just as they abstained in the recent UNESCO vote declaring that there is no historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem.
Britain also aided Arab attacks on the nascent Jewish State. In his 1979 book A History of Israel, Howard Sachar reported, “Jordan’s Arab Legion was armed and trained by the British, and led by a British officer. At the end of 1948 and the beginning of 1949, British RAF planes flew with Egyptian squadrons over the Israel-Egypt border. On January 7, 1949, Israeli planes shot down four of the British aircraft.”
Seventy-one years ago, the British appeased Arabs, denied Jews entry into the Holy Land, sent them back to the Germany they had just escaped, and placed them in refugee camps. Today Great Britain and its European allies are still appeasing radical Islamists, their calls for destruction, and the hatred they teach their children.
In 1947, the British physically attacked Jews. Today they attack Israel through diplomacy, such as the anti-settlement resolution they pushed through, and they attack Jewish heritage with cowardly abstentions in UNESCO votes.
The battle to save Israel no longer takes place on a rickety old steamship. The Jewish state now has a modern army for protection, but the Jewish people are in as precarious a position today as they were 1939 or in 1947. Anti-Semitism prevails in the Arab nations, Europe, and even in some places in America.
But thanks to an unbreakable spirit and the help of a loving G-d, Am Yisrael chai. The nation of Israel, both in the Holy Land and the Diaspora, lives!