By Lauren Bairnsfather, Director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh

“Illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine prior to the founding of the State of Israel forms one of the most fascinating chapters in the history of Zionism and modern Jewish history. Bringing Jews from Europe to Palestine by land and by sea in defiance of restrictive British immigration policies was partly an undertaking of national rescue and partly a calculated strategy of political brinksmanship.”

Dalia Offer, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944

On February 25, we will be hosting Dr. Esther Raizen, who will be leading a discussion on Aliyah Bet entitled Escape From the Holocaust: Jewish Refugees and Aliyah Bet. Aliyah Bet was the clandestine Jewish immigration from Europe to the British Mandate of Palestine in defiance of official policy between 1934 and 1948. This week’s blog explores the historical context for this “illegal” immigration and the significance of Aliya Bet to the establishment of the state of Israel.

Why was Britain the deciding voice of European Jewish survival? British rule of Middle Eastern territory came as a result of the peace process after World War I, called the The League of Nations Mandate System. The Ottoman Empire, the Turkish dynasty that spanned Southeastern Europe and the Middle East for more than 600 years, had already been in rapid decline since the end of the 19th century.  During World War I, the Ottoman Empire fought alongside Germany and lost, signifying the demise of the Ottoman Period. Britain and France – the victorious European powers – split up regions of the former Ottoman Empire into Mandatory Territories, or Mandates.


Map of the shrinking territory of the Ottoman Empire. Source: Paperless History

Britain acquired the land that became known as the the British Mandate for Palestine, which included the land that is now known as Israel. Britain was then charged with governing the land with consideration of both Jewish and Arab citizens, and eventually facilitating the establishment of a Jewish National Home.

The original area of the British Mandate for Palestine

It was not just the promise of a Jewish National Home that spurred Jews to start settling in the Mandate. Starting in the early 20th century, a number of violent pogroms and rising anti-Semitism drove a large number of Jews out of Russia. During this time, a larger proportion of Jews actually migrated to the United States; it was not until the U.S. set strict immigration quotas in the 1920s that Russian Jews started to immigrate to Palestine. Jewish immigration to Palestine was a trickle until 1933, when German Jews, fleeing from Nazism, began to flood the Mandate.

The Jewish population of the Mandate rapidly grew, and Arab unrest began to spread. In response, British authorities restricted access to the Mandate for Jews fleeing Nazism. The official policy was articulated in the 1939 White Paper on Palestine, a document that lives in infamy.

Arabs in Mandatory Palestine protesting Jewish immigration, 1933. Source

Jewish immigration to the Mandate would be limited to 75,000 individuals over five years. After that, Jewish immigration would be controlled by Arab leaders in Palestine. It was a wartime gambit, the results of which were disastrous for the Jews of Europe, who found yet another port closed to them in the hour of their greatest need.

Opposition to the White Paper became a rallying cry from the Yishuv, the Jewish community of the Mandate. At the start of World War II, David Ben-Gurion, then a leader of the Yishuv, commented: “We shall fight the war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and the White Paper as if there were no war.”

David Ben-Gurion. Source: USHMM

Driven by the desperation of their situation, Jews began to immigrate illegally to the region. This was the operation called Aliyah Bet. Jewish refugees who made it to the Mandate via Aliya Bet in the first year of World War II were detained, or, in the most extreme case, deported to the reaches of the colonial empire. Immigration quotas would not be filled during the war, as Nazi rule spread across Europe, and escape became next to impossible.

Communication between the Yishuv and Jews across Europe all but ceased during the years of the Holocaust. Indeed, the unfathomable tragedy of the Holocaust was only discovered as Allies neared victory in Europe.

As the war drew to a close, a new Jewish refugee crisis was quickly developing in Europe. After liberation, hundreds of thousands of stateless Jewish Holocaust survivors settled temporarily in displaced persons camps. The Mandatory authority in Palestine quickly reinstated immigration quotas, and by 1946, Britain began to deport illegal immigrants to nearby Cyprus.

In light of this treatment, Aliya Bet became an important weapon in the post-Holocaust propaganda war the Yishuv waged against the British. The Yishuv won a decisive victory when the British sent the illegal immigrants aboard the Exodus 1947 back to Europe. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, the British immigration quotas – and this treatment of Holocaust survivors – could not be justified.

Jewish refugees being removed from Exodus 1947 for deportation. Source: USHMM/Central Zionist Archives

In 1947, Britain relinquished the governance of the Mandate to the United Nations. The UN recognized the state of Israel in May 1948. All limitations on Jewish immigration were immediately lifted.

Aliyah Bet, in short, is the reason that Holocaust survivors were present to help establish Israel as we know it today. During her talk, Dr. Raizen will look at the biographies of two extraordinary women who played leading roles in the Aliyah Bet endeavor: Ada Sereni and Ruth Klüger-Aliav. She will expand upon the determination, courage, and resourcefulness that they and others displayed, exemplifying the ethos of the time. She will also explore the media through which Aliyah Bet has been depicted and will discuss the ways that the story of this time period has been memorialized.

To register for Dr. Raizen’s talk, click here.


Further reading:

Dalia Offer, Escaping the Holocaust: Illegal Immigration to the Land of Israel, 1939-1944, Oxford University Press, 1990.

British Mandate for Palestine –

1939 White Paper –

Aliya Bet –

David Ben-Gurion –

Displaced Persons –

Exodus 1947 –

Refugees and the establishment of Israel –


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