When 4,515 Jews aboard “The Exodus” attempted to break the British blockade of then-Palestine, a British Navy cruiser and four destroyers were there to stop them in 1947. However, it became a public relations disaster for Britain and paved the way for the creation of the modern State of Israel.
Leon Uris’ 1958 book Exodus was secretly translated, distributed, and read with pride by Jews in the Soviet Union. The award-winning film with Paul Newman in 1961 was influential “in stimulating sympathy for Israel in the United States,” said Rabbi Hanoch Teller, keynote speaker at the Israel Memorial/Independence Day held at the Queens Jewish Center last week.
Rabbi Teller has spoken in 24 countries, written 28 books, and has a podcast, “Teller from Jerusalem,” where he lives.
David Ben Gurion ordered the Haganah to smuggle tens of thousands of Jews into then-Palestine “by any means possible.” Small boats were being used up to this point. “Now they set their vision higher and wider,” said Rabbi Teller.
“The Exodus” ship was built by the United States as a supply ship in 1928. America gave the ship to the British as part of the Lend-Lease Act.
Sold to a scrapyard in Virginia for $8,028 after World War II, the Haganah bought it for $50,000. The Haganah then found American Jewish volunteers with a Navy background to get it ready.
“There is no heat, no lighting, no life preservers. All it had, which was plentiful, are rats,” said Rabbi Teller. The ship’s original capacity was less than 500 people.
The Haganah picked up thousands of Jews from Displaced Persons Camps in France. The French tried blocking the boat from leaving their port, Sete. The boat got stuck on a sandbar, but Captain Ike Aronowicz freed her.
The plan was to land off Tel Aviv. Passengers would then swim or walk ashore, mix in, and avoid the British.
At 2:42 a.m. on July 18, 1947, the British Navy boarded The Exodus on the Mediterranean Sea. Three Jewish passengers died. “Dozens of warships surrounded the boat,” said Rabbi Teller.
Abba Eban had the chairman and four members of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine come to Haifa port where the British were using whips and truncheons to get the passengers off. The committee’s assignment was: What to do in Palestine? They see the British occupation as untenable.
British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin “wanted to teach them a lesson,” said Rabbi Teller, so he sent the passengers on three boats back to France and not to nearby Cyprus.
The French agree to take in the Jewish passengers only if they come off the boat voluntarily. They didn’t. “This is getting press everywhere. Paris and Washington were aghast at the embarrassment this was causing the British government,” said Rabbi Teller.
The Exodus was then sent to Germany, where the British beat passengers off the boat and sent them into Displaced Persons Camps.
“We should reflect upon those defenseless passengers of the Exodus 1947 who were willing to sacrifice everything just to make Israel its home.”
Before celebrating Israel’s independence, Memorial Day remembers the 24,068 soldiers and 4,217 civilians killed since 1881. Attendees stood in silence as a video showed Israelis doing the same, as a one-minute air raid siren sounded.
Ben Kohane, an organizer of the event, read his friend’s tribute to his 28-year-old infantry commander, Tomer Morad, killed by a terrorist in Tel Aviv on April 7, 2022.
“He was an honest man and a compassionate and effective commander. The things he taught my unit helped to keep us alive under trying circumstances.”
Morad trained Kohane’s friend’s unit hard, but none of them were ever killed. “He must have done something right, and I hope that he took pride in this.”
Kohane quoted Rav Kook: “Standing silently for the fallen soldiers of Tzahal contains within it the holy mitzvah of remembering the glory of the holy ones.”
A half Hallel, without a brachah, with harmonies from Israeli songs like “Al Kol Aleh” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” was led by Rabbi Judah Kerbel of the Queens Jewish Center.
Rabbi Ashie Schreier of the Young Israel of Forest Hills recited the Prayer for the Israel Defense Forces. Rabbi David Algaze of Congregation Havurat Yisrael recited the Prayer for the State of Israel. Rabbi Yaniv Meirov of Chazaq chanted T’hilim. Keil Malei Rachamim was chanted by Rabbi Yossi Mendelson of Congregation Machane Chodosh.
“Next Year in Jerusalem” and “Ani Maamin,” led by Rabbi Kerbel, concluded the program.
By David Schneier