Underground to Palestine

By I. F. Stone


When I reached Cairo after leaving Palestine I had luncheon with a group of friends I had made on my previous trip to the Middle East. The conversation turned, of course, to Palestine and the Jewish problem. Some of my friends have the Arab point of view, some the British Some favored one supposed solution, some another. I found myself curiously uninterested in all their talk.

I had begun to feel like a DP myself on my underground trip to Palestine, and I found myself reacting like a DP during that luncheon debate. In presenting these conclusions to my trip, I hope I may be pardoned if in taking leave of a memorable journey and memorable comrades I speak first as one of them.

For my comrades, for the Jews waiting in the DP camps of Germany and Austria, for the Jews fleeing across the borders of Eastern and Central Europe from new persecution, there is no longer a problem. Palestine is not a matter of theory.

Have they any choice? Is any country opening its doors to them? Has anything come of the endless conferences on refugees-the months of talk before the war, when many of the dead 6,000,000 might still have been saved; the endless negotiations and investigations since, when there are so few left?

Not all my comrades were heroes or idealists. Many of them would prefer life in a settled country like America or England to the hardships and struggle of the frontier in Eretz. But for most of them, Palestine is not merely the one possibility for a new life, is not merely a place of refuge, but the country to which they want to go. I met people in the DP camps and I talked with people on the boat who had relatives and affidavits for the U.S.A., but were going to Palestine instead.

Is this so hard to understand? They have been kicked around as Jews and now they want to live as Jews. Over and over again, I heard it said: "We want to build a Jewish country . . . . We are tired of putting our sweat and blood into places where we are not welcome .... We have wandered enough." These Jews want the right to live as a people, to build as a people, to make their contribution to the world as a people. Are their national aspirations any less worthy of respect than those of any other oppressed people?

I was impressed, on my underground voyage, with the vitality I found among these, my brethren from the East. What is the source of this vitality and strength? The source is twofold. The first lies in the Zionist idea, in this romantic dream of a Viennese journalist in the late nineteenth century, the dream of a Return. This has given them a goal, their lives a purpose, their shattered selves a focal point around which to reintegrate their personalities and to recover their moral health.

The second source of their strength is simpler. It is that lack of alternative to which I have already referred.

"For us," one of my friends had said to me on shipboard, "Palestine is the last stop. We can go no farther." They have nothing to lose, hardly life itself-for life for Jews in Poland and Rumania and Hungary today is too precarious to -be worth much, and life in the DP camps is hardly life at all, but a kind of waiting day after day in an open grave, from which one may or may not arise.

Such people, in such a mood, are not easily defeated. They who knew the SS are not terrified by the British. They who saw the gas chambers are not frightened by a naval blockade. They are going to Eretz.

I say here what I said in private to Azzam Bey Pasha, head of the Arab League, over coffee in Cairo. I did not say it in defiance, for I respect Azzam Bey, and I would far rather deal with that Arab statesman and patriot on behalf of the Jews than with Ernest Bevin. I said it as a simple statement of fact when he asked what I thought of the current situation: "Nothing will stop the people I traveled with from rebuilding a great Jewish community in Palestine."


I came back convinced that the Jewish people can expect nothing whatsoever from the British government, except disappointment, betrayal, and attack. I say that with apologies to the good friends the cause of the DP's and of Palestine has in each of the three British parties in England and even among British officialdom in the Middle East.

I want to set down in all soberness the simple statement that the British Empire is now waging a war designed to smash what the Jews have accomplished in Palestine and to break the hearts of the homeless in the DP camps and elsewhere by shutting off their one hope-the so-called illegal immigration.

I say so-called illegal immigration because the only right Britain has to the control of Palestine and TransJordan lies in a League of Nations mandate and a separate treaty with the United States giving Britain temporary trusteeship in order to establish a Jewish national home. To bar Jews from the Holy Land is to violate the mandate and the treaty.

I would not be reporting accurately if I left the impression that any such legalistic argument lies behind the determined migration of my old comrades across dangerous frontiers and blockaded seas. The British Foreign Office may consider this another bit of stubborn Jewish foolishness, but Jews - who have long historical memories -instinctively think of Palestine as a place in which they have rights older than a League of Nations mandate, embodied in a document which Christian Britain respects; though sometimes only on Sunday.

When I was in Jerusalem, I was told in one of the best informed sources in the Middle East that the British military had drawn up a three-part plan which was to culminate-if sufficient excuse could be found-in an offensive operation designed to smash Jewish settlements and cities. One high British military official told a Jewish leader frankly — I assure the reader this is not just gossip — The world took the killing of six million Jews and if we have to destroy half of Tel Aviv, the world will take that, too."

The British are too humane a people to send the Jews of Europe to gas chambers as the Nazis did, but their government can be very cruel in an absent-minded and complacent way when the supposed needs of the Empire are at stake. The British government doesn't intend to kill the homeless Jews of Europe — it just wants to destroy their hopes. But that. amounts to the same thing in the end. As one Jewish ex-Partisan said to me on shipboard, "The Germans killed us. The British don't let us live."

The British are not playing a pro-Arab game. I have heard the amused contempt with which British officials in Cairo react to talk of Arab aspirations. The British are trying to build an alliance with the Moslem upper classes in the Middle East against the Soviet Union, and also against France and the United States. They want to keep the whole area under their control and they are prepared to sacrifice not only the Jews but the Christian minorities of the East in that program.

I am not making demagogic flourishes. I know how fearful the Christian minorities in Egypt, the Lebanon, and Iraq are of present British policy.

The Moslem upper class on the whole — with the exception of some far-sighted men — share with the British:

1: The phobia about the USSR.
2. Fear of unrest among the miserable Arab masses, and
3. Dislike for the modern ideas and methods brought to the ancient East by the returning Jews.

The British are shrewder than the pashas and the effendis. The British realize the need for development in the East. But development is now only possible with American capital, and they want to keep the Middle East as their private preserve. Development also would antagonize the reactionary ruling class elements who are the only allies the British can muster. One distinguished British oriental expert said to me, " If we urge social reform of the effendis, they will say 'what difference is there, then, between you and the Bolsheviks?"'

The clue to this aspect of British policy is that instead of asking for an American loan to develop the Jordan Valley and similar water possibilities in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, they are asking us to provide a $300,000,000 loan for the Arab potentates who rule those countries. There are no more corrupt rulers in the world today and the money will go straight into their private treasuries. This is the politics of baksheesh.

The British government wants the Middle East to remain an area of backwardness, a territory of "natives" and "native rulers" whom they can handle in the traditional way. They want Palestine to be their military base in the Middle East, and they offer freedom neither to the Arabs nor to the Jews. They who pride themselves on sportsmanship and gallantry are prepared to use overwhelming force — as they did when they ludicrously mobilized 5000 troops with tanks against the 160 villagers (50 of them children) in Sadoth Yam near Haifa.

I know the Jews of Palestine and I know how they must have chuckled at that unconscious tribute to their bravery and fighting power. The world will yet see that this is a struggle from which Britain will emerge with shame, but not with victory.


The exodus of Jews from Europe, of which I was an eye witness, is the greatest in the history of the Jewish people, greater than the migrations of the past out of Egypt and Spain. To tell its story properly one would need to be not a newspaper reporter, but an ancient Hebrew prophet. The journey was a journey for a Jeremiah. For it is a story which should be told as Parable and Warning.

The Jewish problem is a minor problem; Hitler left Bevin all too few. But what happens to them will be a portent. One need not believe in any divine retribution to see that the conditions which make it impossible for Jews to live in most of Central and Eastern Europe, and the conditions which block their aspiration for a return to their ancient homeland, are also the conditions which threaten mankind with new and quite possibly final disaster.

In that sense one need not be clairvoyant to see that history will exact a price for the treatment accorded the remnants of European Jewry. Unfortunately there is little comfort for the victims in apocalyptic perspectives.

In a sane and orderly world, the U.S.A., USSR, France, and Britain would join in an international development scheme for the Middle East and in a context of rising living standards provide ample room for the Jews in Palestine. I myself would like to see a bi-national Arab-Jewish state made of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, the whole to be part of a Middle Eastern Semitic Federation.

I would like to see a ten-year international trusteeship for Palestine in the course of which first through consultative and then using representative bodies, Jews and Arabs, Christians and Moslems would begin to work together as they do so successfully today in the half-Arab, half-Jewish municipality of Haifa.

After seeing Europe I am more than ever convinced that Jews and Arabs can live together in peace. There is no such ill feeling in Palestine between Jew and Arab as exists in Czechoslovakia between Czech and Slovak, or in Yugoslavia between Croat and Serb.

I am also convinced that there isn't a chance of any such rational solution because the British don't want it, because it would set in motion a peaceful social revolution in the East, and because it would upset the potentates and pashas with whom the oil companies, American and British, do business.

I think the Jews must look to themselves and that they and those who are touched by their plight must put all their money and energies into the so-called illegal immigration. The only practical thing that can be done is to buy and man ships and with those ships to get the Jews out of Central and Eastern Europe.

What if the British catch most of the immigrants and send them to Cyprus? The answer is that Cyprus is only 180 miles from Palestine, that Jews are better off there than rotting morally in the DP camps, and that the job of the underground is to make their cruel blockade as costly and difficult as possible for the British.

This will be a crucial year for Jewry. There may be serious trouble in the camps, where morale is worse than ever. The British may widen offensive operations against Jewish settlements in Palestine. This is a war in which the lives and hopes of European Jewry and the accomplishments of the Yishuv in Palestine are at stake.

I believe that full support of the so-called illegal immigration is a moral obligation for world Jewry and a Christian duty for its friends. I believe that the only hope lies in filling the waters of Palestine with so many illegal boats that the pressure on the British and the conscience of the world becomes unbearable.

And if those ships are illegal, so was the Boston Tea Party.


Underground to Palestine, in which this epilogue appeared, was published in 1946, and re-issued in 1978. The 1978 edition also contained an appendix which I. F. Stone entitled Reflections and Meditations Thirty Years After.

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