Thursday, December 24, 2009

Yitzhak Ahronovitch, Exodus Skipper in Defiant ’47 Voyage of Jewish Refugees, Dies at 86

The New York Times is reporting that "Yitzhak Ahronovitch, the captain of the refugee ship Exodus, whose violent interception by the British Navy as it tried to take thousands of Jewish refugees to Palestine in 1947 helped rally support for the creation of the state of Israel the next year, died Wednesday in northern Israel. He was 86."

The story of the Exodus was huge first because of the worldwide reaction to the idea of returning Jews to Germany. It was very bad press for England, particularly when three Jews were killed in the incident. Perhaps no other single event -- I would not call the Holocaust a single event -- generated more sympathy for the plight of the Jews in the post-War period; and thus this "police action" by the British helped in a big way to move the United Nations to approve the Jewish State in Palestine.

It also caused a reaction among Jews, motivating those who had been quiet in their support for Israel to start taking action. After Hitler, Jews no longer wanted to live in a world in which other nations controlled their fate. This turning-back incident made Jews all too aware that they were still at the mercy of other powers:
The refugees had no legal authority to enter Palestine, and the British were determined to block the ship. In the battle that ensued, three Jews aboard the Exodus were killed. The ship’s passengers — more than 4,500 men, women and children — were ultimately deported to Germany.

Captain Ahronovitch was 23 when he took the helm of the Exodus. On July 11, 1947, he picked up the refugees at Sète, in southern France. On July 18, as the ship neared the coast of Palestine, the British Navy intercepted it. Captain Ahronovitch tried to break through, but two British destroyers rammed the ship.

Several hours of fighting followed, with the ship’s passengers spraying fuel oil and throwing smoke bombs, life rafts and whatever else came to hand, down on the British sailors trying to board, The Times reported at the time. Soon the British opened fire. Two immigrants and a crewman on the Exodus were killed; scores more were wounded, many seriously. The ship was towed to Haifa, and from there its passengers were deported, first to France and eventually to Germany, where they were placed in camps near Lübeck.

What is more in question in my mind is the notion that the British were wrong in their actions. Obviously, as a Jew and as a Zionist, I have great sympathy for the refugees. But the Brits were trying to uphold the rule of law in a land they ruled. And the Exodus was trying to break that law. In that sense, I see this much like I view it when our Coast Guard stops refugees from Haiti trying to enter U.S. waters. The Coast Guard is not unambiguously evil. They are just trying to enforce the law. Unlike refugee ships during the War which were transporting Jews out of Nazi-controlled lands where, if they returned, the refugees would be murdered, the Exodus was transporting immigrants who were in no danger in Europe at that point.

On a side note ... One book I have long meant to read but never have is Leon Uris's fictional account of this story:
The story of the ship’s thwarted journey formed the loose basis for Leon Uris’s novel “Exodus,” published in 1958. In 1960, the novel was made into a film starring Paul Newman as a character based on Yossi Harel, the overall commander of the Exodus operation. Neither book nor movie, apparently, included a character based on Captain Ahronovitch.

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