Editor’s Note: As Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed according to the Hebrew calendar, the date varies from year to year in the Gregorian calendar.
Not Pharaoh or Haman or Hitler – not Hamas, nor Hezbollah – have driven the Jewish people from the face of the earth; but it has not been for a lack of trying. In the Holocaust, the German government and its satellites unleashed, between 1939 and 1945, the most demoniacal barbarism in human history. Working conscientiously and with ever increasing speed, the Nazis gassed, starved, shot, hung and tortured to death over six million children, women and men whose fate it was to have, at least, a Jewish grandparent. But had these people a place to go – like Israel – some, and perhaps even all, might have been saved: so says Ben-Gurion, in this extraordinary letter…
“If”, perhaps, is the most tragic word in history – and here, Ben-Gurion painfully acknowledges that if the Jewish state had been founded in 1937, before the Holocaust, rather than in 1948, after it, millions of Jews would not have been annihilated in Europe, and the situation in Israel, entirely different…
What Ben-Gurion was referring to, of course, was the British Royal Committee of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel (the Peel Commission) which had in fact proposed, in 1937, the partitioning of the Mandate into Jewish and Arab states. It would have divided the Mandate into three parts, leaving a slice for the British, with the Jews receiving a very small autonomous homeland, the Arabs a much larger one, and necessitating an exchange of population involving the transfer of some 225,000 Arabs and 1,250 Jews.
Opposition to the plan, headed by Golda Meir, was expressed at the 20th Zionist Congress, when a group argued the proposed Jewish state was way too tiny to absorb the millions of refugees from Europe: better to reject it, they said, and fight for something better. To Ben-Gurion, however, the Peel Commission offered a beginning. A Jewish majority in a small state was infinitely better, he felt, than a Jewish minority in a British or Arab one. But this battle, unhappily, was one Ben-Gurion – fighting alongside Chaim Weizmann – lost. Soon too the British, rejected by the Zionists and condemned by the Arabs – for whom any land given to Jews was anathema – resorted to form. Backing away from their own partition plan, they drastically limited immigration. Only 75,000 Jews would be allowed into Palestine over a five year period, they announced, and after that all immigration would be subject to Arab approval. Chamberlain’s government, it appeared, so eager to appease Hitler, as good as did his work for him in this – and the millions of Jews trapped in the Holocaust, who might have gone to Palestine, if not a Jewish state, were instead condemned to die in Nazi concentration camps. This, then, is the tragic point Ben-Gurion makes in answering a letter of a famous Talmudist:
I received your letter. All this would be correct if the State had been established not in 1948 but in 1937 – and if millions of Jews in Europe had not been annihilated, the situation of the State of Israel would have been entirely different. What, after all, are eleven years in the history of our people which stretches back thousands of years? But so short a time difference is of great and serious significance to our people and the future of Israel.
Ben-Gurion responded to the rejection of the Peel Commission and Britain’s draconian restriction of immigration by organizing a campaign of civil disobedience, ordering “special action squads” to harass the British military, and implementing plans to assist large-scale illegal immigration. But if only the Peel Commission recommendations of 1937 had been accepted…not only the past, but the future of Israel, would have been different.
DAVID BEN-GURION. 1886 -1973. Israeli statesman. Born before he had a homeland, he was a leader in a war before he had an army, and became a statesman before he had a state.
Typed Letter Signed, as Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, in Hebrew, 1 page, quarto, on the official letterhead of the Prime Minister’s office, Jerusalem, January 8, 1956. To Prof. Hanoch Albeck.