By Nechemia Ben-Tor
The 18 Principles of Rebirth, as composed by Yair, required forging covenants with alliances interested in the war of Hebrew liberation and anyone who was ready to help directly. Before World War II broke out, Yair was, as it were, the foreign minister of IZL. He visited Europe and conducted negotiations with politicians mainly from the leadership of the Polish government, in order to assist the emigration of Jews from Poland, to acquire arms, and to lead military courses for IZL. Yair knew how to take advantage of the Polish government’s weak points, its urgent needs to get rid of millions of Jews for economic and anti-Semitic reasons, which dovetailed absolutely with IZL’s aims. Unfortunately, with the outbreak of war, the agreement was not put into effect. While he was still commander of IZL, in October 1939, David Raziel was presented with a proposal by a British intelligence agent, M. Rothstein, to sign the Jerusalem Agreement with Mussolini’s government in Italy. The agreement was based on joint interests: Italy would help IZL militarily, while the putative Hebrew government would help Italy get a toehold in the Middle East.
This proposal was presented for a second time to Yair after the split in 1940. Already at the beginning, the suspicion was aroused that this was an act by agents provocateurs from British intelligence, in order to fabricate a document and destroy the reputations of Yair and his movement, labelling them as co-conspirators with the enemies of Britain. At the end of the day, the proposal was rejected by headquarters and the agent provocateur, M. Rothstein, was condemned to death. However, he managed to flee, and the sentence was never carried out.
Another incident was the attempt by Yair and his associates to forge ties with Nazi Germany at the height of World War II. In early 1941, it became clear from information coming from Europe and published in the press that the situation of the Jews in Europe, much of which was occupied by Nazi Germany, was especially critical. Their rights were violated, they were fired from their jobs, their property was confiscated, they were evicted from their homes, they were imprisoned in ghettos and they had to put on yellow stars. But there still was not a feeling of impending doom. In fact, the Final Solution was a decision reached only at the Wannsee Conference in early 1942.
Yair believed that after Hitler captured Poland, he would want to banish the Jews from it, but he would not know what to do with them: to imprison them in ghettoes or transfer them to Madagascar. “We must speak with the Germans,” he would say time and again. He continued, “It is clear that if we cannot reach an accord with the Germans, the Jews of Europe will be exterminated! We must analyze the problem clearly: who are our enemies? What good is the war to us, and whom is it worth it to fight for the liberation of our land, for the salvation of our land, for the salvation of the million in Europe? It is clear to me:, the enemy is Britain. Saving millions was within its grasp, but she did not do it! On the contrary, she is interested in their extermination, so that she may preserve the Arab dominion in the land, which is the British dominion. There is not much worth to our helping the Allies. What good does it do us? Less than zero. That is why the only option left is for us to reach an agreement with Germans, to save the Jews of Europe by transferring them to Eretz Israel. Germany will do this in exchange for our war with the British. We cannot declare war against Germany while the Jewish people is prisoner in German hands.”
Yair believed that thousands of Jewish youths could be recruited for the army and armed, then transferred to the shores of Eretz Israel, in order to open a campaing against the British to liberate the homeland. This is how the Jews would get a country and the Germany would get rid of an important British base in the Middle East. Therefore, Yair claimed, it was exigent and urgent to begin negotiations with the Germans, at least the way Jewish leaders had done with “adversaries” in the past.
In 1921, Jabotinsky signed an agreement with Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian anti-Semite whose soldiers had carried out pogroms with tens of thousands of Jewish victims. According to the agreement, if he would return to the government, he would allow the Jews to form a militia for self-defense. This agreement was bitterly opposed by the Zionist movement and the Jews of the Ukraine.
In the era of Nazi Germany, there were a number of agreements reached between the Reich and the Jewish leadership, which influenced the fate of German Jewry.
The first real connections with Nazi Germany were accomplished by Dr. Haim Arlosoroff, Political Director of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, in 1933. This was a transfer agreement. This was an intercession agreement, not a political one, but ex post facto, it caused tens of thousands of German Jews to immigrate to Erez Israel, saving their lives and some of their property.
A much more serious connection, an evacuation program to relocate a half-million Jews from the hands of the Reich was planned by Georg Kareski, leader of the Revisionists in Germany. His proposal attracted the interest of the German foreign ministry. At that time, there were two schools of thought about the Jews and Zionism. One, the realpolitik school, wanted to banish the Jews from Europe, perhaps to Madagascar (the Madagascar Plan) or another place; the other school, the idealpolitik school, wanted to utterly eradicate European Jewry. Kareski wanted Jabotinsky’s approval for his plan, but Jabotinsky refused for ulterior motives.
Another agreement with the Germans was initiated by a Revisionist leader, Zvi Herman Segal, who saved the Jews of Danzig and even managed to bring their property to Eretz Israel a bit later.
Joel Brand, sent by Eichmann to Eretz Israel to conduct negotiations to save the million Jews of Hungary, was involved in another agreement with the Germans, but it was scuttled by the British.
Yair was not all talk; he got up and did something. He ordered his followers to contact the Germans, to set out his proposal to them. The man he chose for the mission was Naphtali Lubenchik, one of his closest confidantes, a well-educated man fluent in many languages, including German. After the fall of France, Syria and Lebanon were under the control of the Vichy government. At the end of November 1940, Dr. von Hentig was sent to Beirut, a professional diplomat from the German foreign ministry, who was the head of the Middle East division. Lubenchik, who was smuggled into Lebanon and arrived safely in Beirut, was received by von Hentig in late 1940. Lubenchik proposed to him to pass on to Berlin the proposal of Irgun Tzvai Leumi be-Eretz Israel, by which Germany would help establish a Jewish state in Eretz Israel and allow Jews from Nazi-occupied territory to immigrate and settle there. In the meantime, the organization would continue to fight to expel the British from the land.
According to von Hentig, this proposal was sent back to the foreign ministry in Berlin, but no response was received, beyond the statement by the Secretary of State at the Foreign Office Ernst von Weizsäcker, who told von Hentig: “Do your really think the Reich would be interested in establishing a Jewish state in Eretz Israel, while we are trying to acquire the support of the Arab and Muslim world for our military objectives?”
In the meanwhile, the lands of the Levant were conquered by the Allies, and British Intelligence caught up with Lubenchik. He was arrested, freed and arrested again, then brought back to Eretz Israel and imprisoned in the Mizra detention camp. In 1944, he was sent to a deportation camp located in Sembel (near Asmara, Eritrea), where he died after a long illness, due to his health being ignored.
But Yair did not give up. After Lubenchik’s failure, he sent in 1941 his aide, Natan Friedman Yellin-Mor (“Gera”), to Europe on a threefold mission: 1) to negotiate with the Nazis a joint plan to bring hundreds of thousands of Jews to Eretz Israel; 2) to contact some of the Balkan governments, as they had a bit of independence from the Germans, in order to convince them to send their Jews to Eretz Israel; 3) to persuade those Balkan Jews to make aliyah by any means possible.
Gera reached Syria, but then he was summoned back by Yair due to a crisis in the movement. On his way aback, he was arrested by the French and the British. He was brought to Eretz Israel and imprisoned in the Mizra detention camp. It was there that he learned of Yair’s murder.
This spelled the end of Yair’s attempts to make contact with and seek assistance from Nazi Germany in order to save European Jewry during the Second World War.
For Further Reading:
Banai, Yaakov, Hayalim Almonim, Tel Aviv: Yair, 1989
Ben-Tor, Nechemia, Sefer Toledot Lohamei Herut Israel, Tel Aviv: Hotzaot Yair, 2010
Eliav, Yaacov, Mevukash, Jerusalem: BaMahteret, 1983
Gilboa (Polani), Yaakov, Be-lekhtekha Bi-sdot Eima, Tel Aviv: Hotzaot Yair, 1986
Heller, Yosef, Lehi 1940-1949, Jerusalem: Keter, 1989
Yellin-Mor, Natan: Lohamei Herut Israel