On July 1,1942, Cairo was about to fall to Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s German and Italian forces. The British 8th Army defending Egypt had retreated 350 miles in 10 days.
Waiters in Cairo cafés painted welcome signs in German. Would-be refugees mobbed the railway station, trying to board trains south toward Sudan or east to Palestine. Jews besieged the Turkish embassy, seeking visas, and were turned down.
The British military drew up a list of 1,600 civilians—irreplaceable technicians, agents, anti-Fascist Italians—to evacuate by night train to Jerusalem. British officials in Palestine vetoed the hundred or so Jews on the list, as the 1939 White Paper drastically limited Jewish immigration. Jews’ fears were even more justified than they knew: The SS had already created an Einsatzkommando—a special command for mass murder—targeting the Jews of Egypt, and of Palestine, which was expected to fall next.
Despite the invasion, Egypt had yet to declare war on Germany and Italy—in part because its army’s junior officers couldn’t be counted on. Sixty years of direct or indirect rule from London had made them intensely anti-British, and many falsely believed that their enemy’s enemy would liberate them. In Palestine, by contrast, a secret British agency had trained the Palmach—the year-old military force of the Yishuv, the Jewish community—for partisan warfare against German occupiers. The Yishuv’s leadership meanwhile continued its recruitment campaign for the British army.
This chapter of history is almost absent from both American and Jewish memory of World War II. Yet it’s essential for understanding Israel’s birth, the need for Jewish independence and the limits of Jewish power.
First, to complete the story: Rommel never got to Cairo in 1942. At the battleground known as El Alamein, the 8th Army drove back the Axis forces. This, along with an espionage coup that remained secret for decades, ended the Nazi threat to the Middle East.
In Israel’s early years, legends overstated the role of the Palmach at the time. The some 30,000 Palestinian Jews who joined the British army played a more direct part in the victory, but as a small contingent in the vast forces of a great power.
Another piece of Israeli memory was more accurate. The Jewish homeland in fact served as a refuge for its population of 500,000 or more Jews. (Egypt was also a refuge, for the same reason: The British won at El Alamein.) Yet Palestine was less of a refuge than it could have been, because Britain decided its strategic interest required cutting Jewish immigration to a trickle.
Try a thought experiment: If a Jewish state had been created in less than a fifth of Palestine, as Britain’s Peel Commission recommended in 1937, its fate would still have depended on Britain’s defense of the Middle East. Yet that state could have taken in Jews who were instead trapped in Europe for lack of a destination.
Read the Yishuv’s wartime support for Britain in this light. Despite their fury at British immigration policy, Zionist leaders knew who the greater enemy was. They had no illusions that there was “no daylight” between their goals and Britain’s. But they knew they had to maneuver in a world dominated by great powers. They were pragmatists.
The very different choices made in Egypt and in the Yishuv had unexpected consequences soon after. In 1948, the Egyptian army invaded the newly declared State of Israel. Memoirs of Egyptian officers testify that they expected an easy victory—their army was fighting “volunteer groups… Zionist gangs.” Instead, they discovered they were facing “an experienced enemy.” They did not, however, acknowledge the reason for the experience gap: They’d opted out of the harsh schooling of World War II; the Jews of Palestine had not. This was one reason Israel won—and survived.
Since then a lifetime has passed. Israel is now a regional military power, a U.S.
ally—and the longtime occupier of the West Bank. For some Jews, especially on the hard right, Jewish political independence means that Israel can and should do exactly what it wants. And for some Jews, especially on the hard left, Jewish political independence is obsolete—too laden with moral challenges to be worth sustaining.
History is an ambiguous teacher, especially after so much change. Still, I suggest we can take two lessons from the forgotten chapter of 1942. On one hand, there’s no substitute for a sovereign Jewish state. No other country will give the same priority to Jewish lives or needs. On the other hand, we are still a small nation. We can’t ignore the interests of great powers, or even of another people subject to our rule.
It’s self-delusion to expect “no daylight” between Washington and Jerusalem, or, for that matter, to think Palestinians will abandon their aspirations. History should help us avoid the twin delusions of national megalomania and national self-abnegation.
Gershom Gorenberg is the author most recently of War of Shadows: Codebreakers, Spies, and the Secret Struggle to Drive the Nazis from the Middle East.
Opening picture: German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel with his staff in North Africa, 1942. (Photo credit: Bundeswehr Archives)
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