Season 2, Episode 24


Is This How Zionism Ends?

The last few years of the 1930s found the Zionist movement assaulted on all fronts: from the Arabs in Palestine, from the Nazis in Europe, and from British policies that were steadily closing the door to Jewish immigration. The extent to which the Jews were in dire trouble was made unmistakably clear in 1939 by both the fate of a ship called the St. Louis and a document known as the British White Paper. In short, 1939 really sucked for Zionism.


In 1936, as the Arab Revolt and the Peel Commission roiled Palestine, the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini arrived in Palestine to lead the inaugural performance of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. It was an event designed to use music to protest the fascist movements taking over Europe. But the beleaguered Jews were facing ever-more threatening perils.

On May 13, 1939, more than nine hundred people, nearly all German Jewish refugees, boarded the MS St. Louis in Hamburg, Germany, to cross the Atlantic. Having legally bought visas for Cuba, they were desperate to escape the persecution that had deepened after the infamous Kristallnacht episode a year earlier. But arriving in Havana, the Cuban government refused them entry and the ship was ordered to return to Europe. The captain, Gustav Schroder, refused, and sailed towards the United States. But America had a quota system in place and declined to make an exception for the St. Louis Jews. Eventually the ship had to return to Europe, but the Captain refused to go to Germany. Negotiations soon resulted in the refugees being sent to Britain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Although the majority of the St. Louis passengers ultimately survived the Holocaust, 254 of them were murdered.

Meanwhile, desperate to bring stability to Palestine before the coming war in Europe, the British tried to placate the Arabs by drastically reducing Jewish immigration. At the same time the St. Louis was traversing the Atlantic, the British issued the White Paper of 1939, slamming shut the doors of Palestine. The White Paper allowed for only 75,000 more Jewish immigrants over the next five years, none after that, and a complete freeze on Jewish land purchases in Palestine. 

The Arabs, though privately pleased with the results, rejected the White Paper as still being too favorable to the Jews. Nothing was acceptable except an immediate end to all Jewish immigration. “The British to the sea,” they said. “And the Jews to their graves.” The Zionists also rejected it. Ben Gurion warned that the White Paper would force the Jews to take up arms against the British. In any case, Zionist morale was low as they faced huge threats across Europe, and seemingly no way towards resolving them. As Chaim Weizmann said at the World Zionist Congress in 1939, “If, as I hope, we are spared in life and our work continues, who knows — perhaps a new light will shine upon us from the thick, black gloom….”

The Arabs now had no more need to fight either the British or the Jews, so the Arab Revolt ceased in the summer of 1939. The Jews and the Arabs wouldn’t fight each other again until 1947.


  • Arturo Toscanini: the world’s most famous conductor, he arrived in Palestine in 1936 to call attention to his opposition to European fascism. He stayed for a month, led nine concerts of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, and traveling throughout the region to show solidarity with the Jews.

  • Gustav Schroder: German captain of the MS St. Louis, he insisted that the Jewish refugees on board not be subjected to anti-Semitism. He also refused to return to Europe after being denied entry to Cuba, instead attempting to sail to the United States and Canada. He then reluctantly returned to Europe but would not go back to Germany, instead disembarking his Jewish passengers in Antwerp.


  • The fate of the St. Louis marked a transition from a dire situation in Europe to a truly desperate one, in which Jewish life was on the verge of extinction. If millions were at risk but the nations of the world weren’t willing to take them in, then the Jewish People really had nowhere to go but Palestine. The St. Louis was the symbol that exemplified the Zionist idea that building a Jewish homeland in Palestine was the only way to save Jewish lives

  • At the exact same time, the British slammed shut the door of Palestine to Jewish immigration. Thanks to Arab violence, they gave up on the idea of partition. The White Paper of 1939 repudiated the Balfour Declaration of 1917. It declared that that since the British could not keep the Mandate forever, and since it was never the intention of Britain that a Jewish State should be created over the objections of the Arabs, Britain’s new policy was now the creation of an independent Arab state in Palestine by 1949.

  • The Arab rejection of the White Paper locked them into an all-or-nothing strategic position, backed by violence, that did not serve them well in the ensuing decades. This made it impossible for the two sides to ever live together, since there would be no security, and it could only ever work if the future Jewish state never materialized. This zero-sum position became an integral part of the Palestinian national movement, but it boxed the Palestinian people into a strategy of total opposition to the Jews. 

  • The Zionists also made mistakes. The first was to continue ignoring Arab fears and aspirations, which led to lasting Arab frustration and resentment. The Arabs would probably never have accepted a Jewish homeland anyway, but the Zionist movement could have done a lot more to invest the Arabs more into the society they were building.


  • Toscanini refused any payment or compensation from the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, which was made up of Jewish refugees. He declared himself in solidarity with the Jews, and his time in Palestine as “a continuous exultation of the soul.”

  • Gustav Shroder of the St. Louis decided that the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policies would have no place on his boat. He covered up Hitler’s portrait, allowed the Jews to conduct Shabbat services, and ensured that children had swim lessons.

  • The Arab Revolt was so bad that some Arab leaders predicted the Arabs would continue fighting each other for fifty years over it. Another expressed his belief that the Arabs would make peace with the Jews long before they made peace each other. 

© Jason Harris 2019


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