Hitler’s 1919 letter urging “removal” of Jews from Germany, an original copy of which was unveiled last week by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, launched his rise to political prominence in Germany. His progress was monitored nervously by Jews, labor unions, and lovers of freedom throughout the West. When he won the chancellorship in 1933, movements were launched in the United States and elsewhere for a boycott of German goods. The idea was to mobilize international pressure either to soften his threatened actions or to force him from power – exactly as international boycotts helped crush South African apartheid 50 years later.
Not everyone supported the boycott, though. In fact, many Zionist Jews not only actively opposed it, but welcomed Hitler’s victory, because it would accelerate the removal of Jews from Germany to Palestine – and teach them a lesson. The Zionist newspaper Hapoel Hatsair described Nazi persecution of the Jews as God’s “punishment” for having tried to integrate into German society instead of leaving for Palestine while it was still possible to do so.
The Zionist Federation of Germany welcomed the new Führer with a warm address:
Zionism recognized decades ago that as a result of the assimilationist trend, symptoms of deterioration were bound to appear, which it seeks to overcome by carrying out its challenge to transform Jewish life completely … Zionism believes that a rebirth of national life, such as is occurring in German life through adhesion to Christian and national values, must also take place in the Jewish national group. For the Jew, too, origin, religion, community of fate and group consciousness must be of decisive significance in the shaping of his life.
In Palestine, the Zionist labor magazine Davar affirmed that:
However, even if we suppose a return to the status existing before the Hitler revolution to be within the realm of political possibility, even then the Jewish democrat, liberal, socialist, assimilationist may perhaps be satisfied with his reinstatement in equal rights, but a Zionist cannot rest content with this, since he has a special conception, since this is not the ideal of Zionism nor the altar for its sacrifices. … Now we have a new goal and no longer content ourselves with “arousing world opinion.” Our ideal is not the obtaining of rights, citizenship rights or minority rights, for the Jews of Germany, but the obtaining of a Palestine visa for them, in addition to all that is necessary for such a visa so that it, too, may not become a mere scrap of paper.
In the ultimate “politics makes strange bedfellows” arrangement, Zionists actively collaborated with Germany’s Nazis, developing a scheme called “haavara” to facilitate legal movement of German Jews and a portion of their capital to Palestine despite restrictions on currency transfer, by selling German manufactured goods in Palestine. Haavara neatly undercut the international boycott by opening new markets for Nazi products. Once goods entered Palestine, it was then a trivial matter to resell them elsewhere; one pro-boycott Jew disgustedly described Palestine as “the official scab-agent against the boycott in the Near-East.” Businessmen fought over who would have the rights to skim profits from all the money movement; the winning firm was represented in Berlin by future Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.
From 1933 through the early years of World War II, the Hitler regime favored and actively promoted Jewish emigration from Germany to Palestine. Hitler cynically remarked that he’d be delighted to see the Jews leave “on luxury ships.” At one point, the Nazis even despatched future Final Solution organizer Adolf Eichmann on a mission to Palestine, to work out loose ends of the haavara scheme. Eichmann was impressed; he wrote that “Had I been a Jew, I would have been a fanatical Zionist. I could not imagine being anything else. In fact, I would have been the most ardent Zionist imaginable.” Propaganda minister Goebbels had a medal struck to celebrate the collaboration: on one side a swastika, on the other a Zionist star.
In 1938, President Roosevelt convened a meeting of the Western nations at Evian, France, to promote alternatives for Jews wishing to escape Hitler’s oppression. Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion was deeply concerned, telling his colleagues that he did “not know if the conference will open the gates of other countries … But I am afraid [it] might cause tremendous harm to Eretz Israel and Zionism. … Our main task is to reduce the harm, the danger and the disaster … and the more we emphasize the terrible distress of the Jewish masses in Germany, Poland and Rumania, the more damage we shall cause.” With no public pressure from the people it was trying to help, the conference produced few concrete results, other than an easing of red tape for German Jewish emigration to the United States and an offer from the Dominican Republic to take in 100,000 refugees – which the Zionists never seriously pursued.
Shortly after Evian, the Kristallnacht pogroms exploded across Germany; Ben-Gurion worried that “the human conscience” might induce more countries to open their doors further to Jewish refugees from Germany. He saw this as a threat and warned: “Zionism is in danger!” While the Holocaust raged, Ben-Gurion wrote that “If I knew that it was possible to save all the children in Germany by transporting them to England, but only half of them by transporting them to Palestine, I would choose the second – because we face not only the reckoning of those children, but the historical reckoning of the Jewish people.” He later blocked plans to transfer thousands of child Holocaust survivors in frail health from wretched camps for displaced persons to safe havens elsewhere in Europe, for fear that such resettlement “might weaken the struggle for free immigration of Jewish refugees to Palestine.” Even the Final Solution had not altered his view from the time that Zionists opposed the boycott in the early 1930s: “The Zionist role is not to rescue the survivors in Europe, but to rescue Eretz Israel for the Jewish people.”
Despite Ben-Gurion’s intensive efforts, though, far more Jews who escaped Germany in the 1930s chose to live in the Americas rather than in Palestine. According to some Zionists, that’s because they were bad Jews. “There is something positive in their tragedy,” Menahem Ussishkin said at a meeting of the Zionist executive, “and that is that Hitler oppressed them as a race and not as a religion. Had he done the latter, half the Jews in Germany would simply have converted to Christianity.”
Zionists not only talked the talk; some of them tried to walk the walk. In 1941, the Zionist “National Military Organization,” whose leadership included future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, delivered an astonishing offer to German diplomats in Vichy France:
It is often stated in the speeches and utterances of the leading statesmen of National Socialist Germany that a prerequisite of the New Order in Europe requires the radical solution of the Jewish question through evacuation (“Jew-free Europe”). The evacuation of the Jewish masses from Europe is a precondition for solving the Jewish question; but this can only be made possible and complete through the settlement of these masses in the home of the Jewish people, Palestine, and through the establishment of a Jewish state in its historic boundaries. … The establishment of the historic Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis, bound by a treaty with the German Reich, would be in the interest of a maintained and strengthened future German position of power in the Near East. …
Proceeding from these considerations, the NMO in Palestine, under the condition the above-mentioned national aspirations of the Israeli freedom movement are recognized on the side of the German Reich, offers to actively take part in the war on Germany’s side. This offer by the NMO, covering activity in the military, political and information fields, in Palestine and, according to our determined preparations, outside Palestine, would be connected to the military training and organizing of Jewish manpower in Europe, under the leadership and command of the NMO. These military units would take part in the fight to conquer Palestine, should such a front be decided upon. … The cooperation of the Israeli freedom movement would also be along the lines of one of the last speeches of the German Reich Chancellor, in which Herr Hitler emphasized that he would utilize every combination and coalition in order to isolate and defeat England.
The Nazis never replied. The founder of the NMO, Avraham Stern, was honored by an Israeli commemorative postage stamp in 1978.