The Ottoman Empire had control of the Middle East for some 400 years, from the early 16th century to the early 20th century (December of 1917). After World War I, the entire Middle East was split into two great land masses — one of which was given to France, becoming the French Mandate (it included what is today the territory of Lebanon and Syria). The other was given to England and wasm known as the British Mandate. The British called the entire share it was given “Palestine.”
This huge region included the west bank of the Jordan River all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as territory on the east bank of the Jordan River, an area known as Trans-Jordan. In 1922 the British created [the Hashemite Kingdom of] Jordan, and in 1923 the British installed Abdullah ibn Hussein as Emir of the new country. Jordan encompassed 75 percent of the total area of the British Mandate, which now became off-limits to Jewish settlement.
The November 2, 1917, Balfour Declaration (given by Earl Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary) sent waves of hope throughout the Jewish world. The document stated that His Majesty’s government would do its best to facilitate in Palestine the establishment of a national home for the Jews. “His Majesty’s Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievementm of the object.”
Yet, a careful reading of the 67 words of the body of the Declaration shows that the English were being two-faced, as they made sure to state a most important proviso: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Also contrary to popular belief, the borders of what was to be the Jewish state were not defined in the Declaration.
What is referred to as the third aliyah (between 1919 and 1923) brought 35,000 Jews to the Land. The fourth aliyah (between 1924 and 1928) brought 80,000 Jews to the country. The fifth aliyah (between 1929 and 1939, as Hitler [ym”sh] rose to power in Germany) brought 250,000 Jews to Eretz Yisrael.
Waves of Arab riots swept the land (1920, 1929, and 1936-39) in which many Jews were massacred
and wounded. The British 1930 Commission, led by Sir Walter Shaw, stated that the Arabs were responsible for the 1929 riots, but that the only way to curtail further trouble was to stop future large-scale Jewish immigration. In October 1930 Lord Passfield issued a so-called “White Paper,” which
effectively negated the Balfour Declaration. Publication of the series of British “White Papers” in the 1920s and 1930s showed clearly whose side the British were really on, and demonstrated their bias against Jews. After all, Esav is the mechutan of Yishamael, added to which England needed oil — and the mechutan had lots of it.
The British “Peel Commission“ (1936-37), formally known as the Palestine Royal Commission, also almost invalidated the Balfour Declaration. In July of 1937 they recommended a two-state solution and also a zone, including Jerusalem and Jaffa, to be governed by England. The entire Jewish population of the Land would be confined to a tiny state consisting of a sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast stretching from Mount Carmel to Be’er Tuvia, and a small piece in the north adjoining the western side of the Kinneret, i.e. the Jezre’el Valley and the Galilee.
The Arab state was to comprise the hill regions: Yehuda, Shomron, and the Negev. Until the establishment of the two states, Jews were prohibited from purchasing land in the area allocated to the
Arab state. The Arab response to the Peel Commission proposal was upheavals, which lasted until 1939. They were led by Haj Amin Husseini (c. 1893-1974), the English appointed Mufti of Jerusalem.
The British did not carry out the recommendations contained in the Peel report, but they did enforce one of its conditions, which severely limited Jewish immigration to the Land to only 75,000 over the five-year period 1939-1943.
The 1939 White Paper, issued by the British Colonial Office, strictly limited Jewish immigration to Palestine. At that point in history, when Jews were desperately trying to escape Nazi Europe, this
British policy doomed the many Jews under the Nazis’ control. Nonetheless, the British Mandate did all in its power to prevent more than the stated number from entering the Land. Only those with an
official certificate were allowed legal entry. The British knew quite well what the Germans were doing to the Jews; this was after the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht. Yet they chose to close off
an escape channel that could have saved millions.
In desperation, Jews tried to enter the Land “illegally” by the clandestine immigration network known as Haapala, Berihah, or Aliyah Bet. The British set up a blockade to keep them out. It is claimed that about 115,000 managed to outwit the blockade and get into the Land. However, this is a pathetic amount indeed in comparison to the 6 million who died in the Holocaust, many of whom could have possibly been saved if they had been allowed refuge in the Land of Israel.
At the end of the 1930s, the English authorities set up the Atlit detention camp on the Mediterranean coast of Palestine, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Haifa. Built originally as a British military camp in 1938, it served as a detention center for illegal Jewish immigrants seeking refuge in the Land. Tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants were interned at the camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers.
Many of the detainees during the 1930s and early 1940s were Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled Europe. The number of detainees who were released from the camp was deducted from the general yearly quota.
During World War II, 34 voyages through the Black Sea were organized, carrying a total of 18,500
maapilim. The haapalah actually began in 1934, with the arrival of 350 Jews on a ship named Vallos.
About 10 percent of the total number did not reach the shore of Palestine, as ships were sunk, including
the Struma containing 769 immigrants.
In November 1940, the British authorities decided to send 5,000 “illegals” to detention camps on Mauritius. On Nov. 25, in order to stop the deportation, the Haganah set off a bomb in the hold of the
Patria, one of the deporting ships. The size of the explosive charge was seriously miscalculated, and
the ship sank quickly. On board were 1,800 refugees; 216 drowned in the disaster. The survivors from the Patria were detained in Atlit, and as a special British gesture they were not deported to Mauritius.
They were released a few months later. In March 1941, 800 arriving refugees on the ship Darien II were detained at the Atlit camp until September 1942 (18 months!), when the camp was shut down.
After the nightmare of the Holocaust was over thousands of Holocaust survivors were stranded in DP (displaced persons) camps all over Europe. The living conditions in these camps were appalling, and sickness and depression haunted the inmates. The majority of these Jews wanted to leave Europe and go up to Palestine.
When Ernest Bevin became the British foreign minister in mid-1945, he immediately repudiated the prewar, pre-White Paper policy that had allowed 18,000 Jews into Palestine per year. Now, all but a token number of Jewish immigrants found the gates of their homeland slammed and sealed shut before them.
The Brichah (Escape) network was set in motion to attempt to smuggle tens of thousands of “illegals” into the country. In the summer of 1946, some 4,000 “illegals” managed to clandestinely enter the Land.
The British mobilized most of the Mediterranean Fleet of the Royal Navy — in addition to 100,000 English troops in Palestine itself — for the prevention of illegal immigration, in what was known as “the Blockade of Palestine.”
The Atlit camp was reopened in 1945. From this point on, most of the detainees at the Atlit camp were Holocaust survivors. Tens of thousands of European survivors of hell struggled greatly, enduring suffering and sacrifice, and endangering their lives to come by every conceivable route by air, sea and
land to Eretz Yisrael. They came through the Brichah and Haapalah (“Aliyah Bet”) clandestine immigration network only to be incarcerated, yet again, in camps with double-wire fences similar in
appearance to the Nazi camps of Europe.
Some interns stayed as long as 23 months in the Atlit camp. (An estimated 122,000 maapilim came
— about 20 percent of the entire population of Eretz Yisrael prior to Israel’s independence. The
majority of maapilim were European Jews, though a significant number of Jews from Arab countries
also made their way to Israel “illegally.”)
and then told to undress and enter delousing showers. (This was all so reminiscent of the Nazi
death camps! Imagine the fear of those who had endured seeing their families gassed by similar showers. The similarity to the Holocaust experience began, in fact, even before they arrived in Atlit. The maapilim were put on cattle cars to be transported to Atlit, as can be seen in photographs and actual evidence presented at the museum.
On Oct. 10, 1945 Yitzhak Rabin, then a young officer in the Palmach, was one of two company commanders in a raid on the Atlit camp which released 208 detainees. When they got close to Kibbutz Beit Ha’oren the English surrounded them. All the residents of Haifa came out and mingled with the now-freed prisoners. This created a situation where the British did not know who was “old” and who was “new,” and therefore allowed everyone to go free.
Following this event, until the establishment of the state, many illegal immigrants were sent to Cyprus internment camps. At least 52,500 maapilim were held in Cyprus, and 30,000 maapilim were freed by the British and brought to Palestine as their quota allotment came due. The process of liberating the refugees was concluded in the Atlit camp. The rest of the Cyprus detainees, most of those of draft age, were liberated only after the State of Israel was formed.
Sometimes even those who held legal entry certificates were also incarcerated in the Atlit camp. Rav Yisrael Meir Lau came to Palestine in 1945with a legal certificate, yet he was confined in the camp for two weeks.
When the State of Israel was founded, the 25- acre Atlit camp became a temporary shelter for the
absorption of new immigrants from all over the world, and served as such until 1970. One can see the mikveh built by these olim in the camp.
In 1986 the Council for the Preservation of Old Buildings and Settlements — a government agency — took upon itself to reconstruct this neglected location, and the following year it was declared a “reserved national site.” “Bentivei Hamaapalah” (in the pathways of immigration) is an educational museum telling the narrative of Aliyah Bet; the story of the struggle of Jews fleeing Europe from Nazi persecution and death, trying to reach British-controlled Palestine, only to be incarcerated in camps similar in appearance to the Nazi camps of Europe.
Recently, a small boat — the Galina — was brought from Latvia and is displayed on the grounds of the camp. Similar in size and appearance to those used to transport immigrants to Palestine at that momentous time, it represents a typical Aliyah Bet vessel. The ship gives a genuine feeling of what it was like to immigrate to Palestine during the British Mandate and be a maapil.
An excellent interactive display, using movies and puppets, is shown in the hold of the ship that is suitable for the whole family. For a small entrance fee, one can visit the camp and tour it on one’s own
or join a guided tour.
If you plan to visit, contact the offices of the camp to book: 04-984-1980.
Hours are Sunday-Thursday 9.00-17.00, and
Official Statistics Of Maapilim
Approximately 134,000 Jews attempted to reach Israel,
By sea: 107,464 — of whom 3,193 died
[2.97%]; 71,554 were caught [66.58%]; 32,717
118 different ships were used for 140 voyages.
The Exodus sailed to Palestine in the summer of 1947, with 4,500 Jews jammed onto its decks, and
was intercepted by the British immediately upon entering Palestinian territorial water. The British
escorted the Exodus back to its French port of embarkation. Since the Jews refused to leave the
ship in France, the British sent them back to the DP camps in Germany from where the maapilim
had come. This painted the British as the villains and proved to be a public relations disaster for
them. Thus, although no maapilim reached Israel on the Exodus, it turned out to be to be one of the
most important Ha’apalah ships. (All 4,500 Jews who sailed on the Exodus reached Israel after it was created)
The story of the first maapilim appears in the Torah in Parashas Shelach (14:39-45). Moshe related
that the punishment for the sin of the spies would be that the generation who left Egypt would have to spend forty years in the wilderness and would not enter the Holy Land. A group of people wanted to demonstrate their remorse by traveling to and entering Eretz Yisrael immediately.
Although Moshe warned them they would not succeed, as the Shechinah was not in their midst, they
recklessly disregarded these warnings and ascended the mountain that leads up to Eretz Yisrael … to
be completely wiped out by the Amalekim and Canaanim.
Their premature attempt to enter the Land of Israel is described by the word vayaapilu, they traveled
by force. This dissenting group is referred to as the maapilim, the brazenly obstinate ones who insisted upon having their own way. Through their foolhardy deeds, they caused a darkness (afeilah) and the desecration of Hashem’s Name, for when the nations saw the maapilim’s annihilation, they thought it was because Hashem was powerless against the local tribes and did not realize that these Jews were being punished (Bamidbar Rabbah).The lesson we need to learn from this episode is that all situations need to be approached from the standpoint of Torah.
How ironic, then, that in his dictionary, Ben Yehuda defines maapel as an act of bravery or daring.
I would like to thank Rav David Magence (tour guide) for his additions to this article.