Season 2, Episode 26


The National Sport

The British White Paper of 1939 all but cut off Jewish immigration to Palestine. With Europe’s Jews in peril, the Yishuv launched an extensive campaign of illegal immigration, termed Aliyah Bet. It was one of the largest clandestine rescue operations in history.


The beginning of World War Two put the Zionists in a difficult position. While they had to join the fight against Germany, they were also in a state of low-level conflict with the British because of the White Paper, and weren’t excited about helping them out. So what to do? David Ben Gurion declared a strategy: “We’re going to fight Hitler as if the White Paper didn’t exist,” he declared. “And we’re going to fight the White Paper as if Hitler didn’t exist.” For the first part, he envisioned a Jewish fighting force like the Zion Mule Corps from World War One, which would join with the Allies. And for the second, he wanted the Yishuv to smuggle as many Jews as possible into Palestine as an act of rebellion against the British occupation.

The Haganah and the Irgun, though often at odds over defense policy and ideology, joined together to manage this underground railroad-by-sea, called Aliyah Bet. They would charter an old, barely-floating ship, load it up with Jewish refugees in Europe, and send it into the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of Palestine. Then the ship would play a cat-and-mouse game with the British Navy, which blockaded Palestine to prevent the ships from discharging their refugees on shore. Vladimir Jabotinsky referred to this as “The National Sport.”

In November, 1940 the British intercepted a ship, unloaded the 1,900 refugees in Haifa, and attempted to reload them on another ship, the Patria, bound for detention camps elsewhere in the world. The Haganah planned to blow up its engines so it couldn’t leave port. But the bomb was too powerful and sank the ship as the refugees were loading, killing hundreds. The tragedy opened a debate about the risks of the Aliyah Bet operation.

In 1940 Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky, and Chaim Weizmann all made separate trips to the United States to drum up American Jewish support for an Allied Jewish fighting force. Ben Gurion found American Jewry fearful of publicly supporting Zionism, of intervening in the war in Europe, and of pressuring Britain to allow more Jews to immigrate. At the same time, while visiting a Zionist youth camp in the Catskills, Jabotinsky suffered a heart attack and died. 


David Stoliar: Nineteen year old sole survivor of the sinking of the ship Struma in 1942, which killed 786 people. He was emblematic of the desperate and courageous attempts of Jewish refugees to reach Palestine, often in ill-functioning boats passing through dangerous waters. 

David Ben Gurion: leader of the Yishuv who proclaimed a careful policy of both fighting against the British occupation of Palestine while also fighting for the British in the struggle against Germany. He traveled to America in a disappointing campaign to raise awareness, support, and money from the Jewish community.

Vladimir Jabotinsky: Revisionist Zionist leader and head of the Irgun. He agreed to cease the resistance campaign against the British for the duration of the war. Having influenced a generation of Zionists with his calls for Jewish sovereignty, self-defense, and humanistic values, he died of a heart attack in New York in 1940.


The Haganah and the Irgun joined forces to launch a massive rescue operation of Europe’s Jewish refugees. Called Aliyah Bet, the aim was to smuggle as many Jews as possible into Palestine, in defiance of the British White Paper. At a time of enormous peril for European Jewry, the Yishuv was determined to circumvent the British ban on Jewish immigration.

The Yishuv adopted a policy of resistance to the British occupation of Palestine following the 1939 White Paper restrictions. But the coming war also made it necessary to fight on the side of the Allies against Germany. Despite years of infighting between the Irgun and the Haganah, both agreed to suspend direct operations against the British for the time being.

Ben Gurion came to America in 1940 wondering what contribution “America’s Jews are prepared to make for the life of their people.” He was hoping for broad public support for the Yishuv’s efforts to persuade the British to rescind the White Paper and allow for the rescue of European Jews. But he found the American Jewish community’s support sorely lacking.


Sometimes the Aliyah Bet ships would race towards the coast near Haifa, crash the boat onto the beach, and try to unload everyone before the British showed up.

It wasn’t until 1957 that the Haganah operative who planted the bomb aboard the Patria admitted that it was a mistake, and not the intention of the Haganah to harm anyone to make a political point.

Upon arriving in the United States, Ben Gurion refused to tell the immigration officer the purpose of his visit. Several prominent American Jewish leaders had to interrupt their High Holiday services to go to Ellis Island and vouch for him. 

© Jason Harris 2018

An Aliyah Bet ship unloads Jewish refugees on the beach in Nahariyah, having successful run the British blockade. Photo source:

An Aliyah Bet ship unloads Jewish refugees on the beach in Nahariyah, having successful run the British blockade. Photo source: