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The Flotilla and the Exodus

By Paula Stern
6/6/2010, 12:00 AM
When I was 13 years old, I fell in love with Israel. Simple as that. It is a love affair that has lasted all my life, since that moment when I picked up a novel called Exodus by Leon Uris and read about a ship, a naval blockade, and people who wanted, just wanted a home.

I had learned all manner of Jewish history, but it was a bit distant and foreign to me, until I learned about the story of an amazing ship, and the people on it. Reading the novel wasn't the end, it was the beginning. I started reading everything I could find on Israel, its history, its people, its army, its actions, its beliefs. I read. I laughed. I read. I rejoiced. I was so proud.

Then I did something harder. I began reading about the Holocaust. I had been taught that Jews walked like sheep to their deaths, but I had never been taught about those many who did not. Worse, I had not been taught about the humiliation, the degradation, the hatred and all that came before. I read. I cried. I read some more, and I was so proud.

The story of the Exodus, no, not the one from Egypt, but the one of a ship of refugees trying to reach Palestine and the Jewish homeland they hoped to help build there, touched my heart, united these two quests for knowledge, and it too made me proud.

I was shocked to learn that some idiot...no, wait, that isn't appropriate language for an intelligent discussion...I was shocked to learn that George Friedman write that the Exodus was "told the story of a Zionist provocation against the British." From there, his meanderings into the realm of logic go even further astray. You see, he wants to use (and abuse) the history of the Exodus to justify the flotilla fiasco and the violent, pre-planned propaganda battle. But there are so many fallacies, so many errors, that the comparison does not work and is, in fact, an incredible insult. It is, to my mind, almost as ludicrous and the Turkish calling this their 9/11.

So let's begin. The Exodus truly did have innocents aboard. Most were Holocaust survivors, desperate to get away from Europe and the horrors they had experienced. They were not members of terrorist organizations, as Israel has already shown some on board the flotilla were. They brought along their meager belongings...not knives, bats, clubs and a hatred so deep. The goal of the people on the Exodus was to evade the British blockade, not ram right into it and challenge British soldiers.

It was known from the start, that if they were caught, they would be returned to displaced persons camps - a fancy enough word for what was, essentially, a concentration camp that differed from the Nazi concentration camps only in that they didn't murder the people inside.

When the British boarded the ship, they were challenged. No, not by knives and bats. No, they were not beaten, three assailants to each British soldier. In fact, I have found no reports of any injuries among the British at all, though two passengers and one of the crew, 1st mate William Bernstein, a U.S. sailor from San Francisco were killed before the British had finished beating the passengers.

Of all cruel ironies, the deportation camp to which the British sent the Exodus "prisoners" was in Germany. Did I mention that most on-board the Exodus were Holocaust survivors? That insensitivity, that lack of humanity characterized much of the British Mandate and its treatment of the Jews. Of course, the British knew this was a stupid move, but they had tried to remove the passengers to France. The passengers refused to cooperate. There are no records of battles, simply people, tired of abuse and perhaps tired of life itself, simply refusing to disembark and, amazingly enough, the French refused to cooperate with the British. This left the British, in their somewhat twisted minds, no other option but to dump these people back in Germany.

Britain's position was later explained up by John Coulson, a diplomat at the British Embassy in Paris in a message sent to the Foreign Office in London in August 1947. This is what Coulson correctly pointed out:

    You will realize that an announcement of decision to send immigrants back to Germany will produce violent hostile outburst in the press. The pros and cons of keeping the Exodus immigrants in camps ... there is one point that should be kept in mind. Our opponents in France, and I dare say in other countries, have made great play with the fact that these immigrants were being kept behind barbed wire, in concentration camps and guarded by Germans.


When they arrived in Germany, the women and children on board agreed to leave the ship, the men refused and were carried off. There were some scuffles on board. The British used batons and water cannons. Here, there were injuries among both the British and the Jews. Thirty-three Jews, including four women, were injured in the fighting. Sixty-eight Jews were held in custody to be put on trial for unruly behavior. Only three soldiers were hurt.

According to Lt. Col. Gregson, the commander of the operation, wrote "It is a very frightening thing to go into the hold full of yelling maniacs when outnumbered six or eight to one."

Yes, I'm sure the Israeli soldiers who boarded the flotilla felt the same way. Of course, in our case, the "yelling maniacs" weren't Holocaust survivors, but so-called peace-activists who quickly and systematically surrounded each soldier and simply started beating him with whatever was at hand, even tossing one soldier off the deck to fall 30 feet (after stabbing him, of course).

But, speaking of "whatever was at hand," comes the question - what did the Jews use to battle the British? Lt. Col Gregson wrote: "After a very short pause, with a lot of yelling and female screams, every available weapon up to a biscuit and bulks of timber was hurled at the soldiers. They withstood it admirably and very stoically till the Jews assaulted and in the first rush several soldiers were downed with half a dozen Jews on top kicking and tearing ... No other troops could have done it as well and as humanely as these British ones did."

However, one witness gave a different impression from the British report:
"They went into the operation as a football match ... and it seemed evident that they had not had it explained to them that they were dealing with people who had suffered a lot and who are resisting in accordance with their convictions. People were usually hit in the stomach and this in my opinion explains that many people who did not show any signs of injury were staggering and moving very slowly along the staircase giving the impression that they were half-starved and beaten up. When the people walked off the ship, many of them, especially younger people, were shouting to the troops 'Hitler commandos', 'gentleman fascists', 'sadists'.

One woman simply yelled "I am from Dachau." Perhaps assuming that the British soldiers would care that she too was a Holocaust survivor. The soldiers did not respond or react and so she called them "Hitler commandos." She did not, of course, stab any soldiers, crack any skulls, etc.

After world opinion rose against them, the British investigated and concluded that excessive force had not been used, though they did note one case in which a Jew "was dragged down the gangway by the feet with his head bumping on the wooden slats". Excessive? I guess not to the British.

So let's talk about the flotilla that George Friedman thinks we should associate with the Exodus and some of the monumental differences between these two ships. When done, I can only hope that you will conclude that these two instances are similar only in that they both involved ships that float in water.

1. The goal for the people on board the Exodus was clear. They wanted to reach the Jewish homeland and their deepest prayer was to avoid the British naval blockade. For the flotilla, the goal was publicity and propaganda. It was never about humanitarian aid. Both Israel and Egypt had already offered to off-load the supplies and deliver them to Gaza.

2. On board, the Jews took all their worldly possessions, the few precious things they had gathered - some books, some clothes, food for the journey. If they were lucky, perhaps they had pictures of loved ones they had lost. I know of one man whose grandfather jumped one of these ships and swam to the shores of Palestine when all the others were dragged off by the British. He had in his pocket, a small prayer book that was wrapped and wrapped and though it got a bit wet, to this day, his grandson takes it and shows it to people as a memory of how his grandfather's dream came true. On board the flotilla, well, we already know what they had on board.

3. We hear from the British themselves that the weapon of the Jew on the Exodus was "yelling and female screams, every available weapon up to a biscuit and bulks of timber was hurled at the soldiers". There are no references to metal bats, clubs or knives and one must conclude that people, in their anger, grabbed whatever was there - including biscuits - aboard the Exodus. While aboard the "Freedom Flotilla" they came much more prepared for battle. No ship parts were used, it seems...and certainly no biscuits. No female screams and yelling - why bother when the goal was to hurt the soldiers and get those propaganda pictures of a battle? They screamed on the Mavi Marmara that the Jews should go back to Auschwitz.

The inaccuracies for the comparisons go on and on, but the main point must be remembered - no one offered the people on the Exodus the chance to fulfill their deepest, truest mission - to make their homes in what would soon become the State of Israel. The flotilla proclaimed a goal of delivering humanitarian aid and this was offered to them by Israel AND Egypt long before the Israeli navy made any attempt to board the ships.

No, the goal of the flotilla was clear - it was to deliver to the world pictures of violence. There was violence - now it is left to the world to decide if it will be duped by the pictures the thugs spoke...or the pictures their eyes can see in the numerous videos.

Beyond all the above - no one on the Exodus stabbed a British soldier in the back; no one beat them unconscious with metal clubs. No one cut off the ear  of a British soldier...and no one claimed a purpose other than the truest one of all. The passengers on the Exodus were not paid $10,000 in cash as mercenaries to cause trouble. None of the passengers on the Exodus were later found to be key members of terrorist organizations...as have some of the passengers aboard the "Freedom Flotilla."

It goes on and on...but this comparison was a very personal one for me because my dream of coming to Israel began with the story of people, disheartened, abused, abandoned and almost defeated...rising up to try to find a new home.

They did not do it for political gains; they had no other options. They came from the gas chambers and the concentration camps and when the British finished with them, they all but sent them back there.

Israel declared a naval blockade and when our navy went to enforce that blockade, we were not met with screams, tears, and biscuits. The honor of being the newest member of the International Hall of Shame goes to George Friedman, who dared to compare the brave survivors of the Holocaust to the thugs of the Mavi Marmara.