In sharp contrast to the Arabs, the Jewish community of Palestine actively supported the Allied cause in both World War I and World War II. The Yishuv provided technical assistance, established espionage networks, assembled military production lines and even volunteered to fight in Europe. Future Israeli Defense and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan lost his eye while fighting Vichy forces in Syria. While much of the Arab world either fought with or cheered for the demise of the British and French, and the ascendancy of the Ottomans and the Nazis, Palestinian Jewry remained committed to the Allied cause.
NILI Spy Ring
In “Agents of Empire: Anglo-Zionist International Operations,” Anthony Verrier wrote that after Turkey joined the Central Powers during the First World War, the Jews in Palestine realized that a German victory, with its designs on the Far East, might preclude the restoration of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. This prompted the founding of NILI, a pro-British spy ring that provided critical intelligence about the state of the Turkish military, and the internal conditions in the region. By late 1915, NILI members exposed the low morale and the rampant illness in the military forces of Djemal Pasha on the Palestine Front, where he also served as military governor of Turkish Syria.
According to Verrier, in mid-1917, NILI gave the British the Turkish order of battle, an analysis of their organization and unit configuration, including the number of forces assigned to Mesopotamia. A report on the availability of water in the Sinai desert was invaluable to General Allenby, since almost half of his soldiers were cavalry and mounted infantry. Knowing where to find water allowed Allenby to assemble his cavalry, infantry and transportation at Beersheba, a town at the eastern edge of Turkish defenses, which was not as securely protected as Gaza. After Allenby captured Beersheba, he attacked from the east and outflanked Gaza. Two previous attempts to capture Gaza by Allenby’s predecessor, Sir Archibald Murray, in March-April 1917 had failed.
NILI was led by Aaron Aaronsohn, a world-renowned scientist, who directed the Jewish Agricultural Experiment Station at Atlit, approximately 12 miles south of Haifa; his brother Alexander, who attained a level of prominence as a writer in the U.S.; and Absalom Feinberg, an accomplished poet who was secretary of the Experiment Station.
Aaronsohn was aided by 23 active members who traveled throughout Palestine collecting information and transmitting it to EMSIB (Eastern Mediterranean Special Bureau in Egypt), with the aid of trawlers that went from Palestine to Port Said in Egypt, and by 12 individuals who took a less active day role. Aaronsohn was in regular communication with, among others, General Gilbert Clayton, chief political officer to General Allenby, and with Colonel Wyndham Deeds, of British intelligence service.
Historian Martin Gilbert noted that, after arriving in London in October 1916, Aaronsohn met with Sir Mark Sykes, a Conservative Member of Parliament, to explain the pre-war accomplishments of the Jews in Palestine. Consequently, and in large part because of these conversations, the British government sent a note to the Italian government, with whom they were in discussions, asking them to grant the British railway rights in the impending Baghdad-Haifa railway, and to “generally respect the civic and colonizing rights of the Jews in Palestine.
During his second premiership (1951-1955), Gilbert added, Winston Churchill praised the Jewish contribution in both World Wars, especially Chaim Weizmann’s development of a new way to manufacture acetone, used in explosives vital to winning the war, and Albert Einstein’s generation of the physics of the atomic bomb with which “we were able to put the seal” on World War II.
Jewish Military Assistance
In September 1940, the British established a Palestinian battalion attached to the East Kent Regiment, but the Jews wanted to fight under their own Jewish flag. The British wanted the battalion to be composed of equal numbers of Jews and Arabs, but this was unrealistic due to the large number of Jews who volunteered and the “greater proneness to desertion of the Arabs,” said Christopher Sykes, Conservative Member of the British Parliament.
Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer said that by the end of war, there were more than 26,000 Jewish men and women from Palestine serving in the British Air Force, Navy and Army. After six years of protracted wrangling by the leaders of the Jewish Agency, the British allowed the formation of the Jewish Brigade in September 1944. The Brigade fought in Italy in the last battles of the war.
Jewish efforts on behalf of the British amounted to little more than a moral victory, Bauer concluded, as they had little effect on changing British policy. The importance of the Brigade became apparent at the end of the war when the soldiers aided Jews in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps, assisting them to immigrate illegally to Palestine and to acquire arms.
In the spring of 1940, the Haganah, the Yishuv’s underground military organization, secretly offered to provide the British with Romanian-speaking agents to help incapacitate Romanian oil fields, but this turned out to be too ambitious a task. The contacts did lead the British military to training members of the Haganah in fighting behind enemy lines.
In May 1941, after the British defeated Greece but had not yet subdued Crete, members of the Haganah, under the command of a British officer, tragically failed to destroy the oil fields in Tripoli, Libya. Also in May, members of IZL (Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zeva’i Le’umi, National Military Organization) were involved in trying to kidnap the mufti in Baghdad, where he was inciting rebellion, according to journalist Pierre van Paassen.
On July 15, 1940, the Royal Air Force established the Haifa Investigation Bureau, an interrogation office headed by Immanuel Yalan and staffed by Jews, to interview escaped British prisoners who had found their way to the Middle East, Yehuda Bauer said. Later on, the escapees were mostly Jews. The bureau’s objective was to obtain information about Germany’s military aims and any economic and industrial secrets, as well as the temperament of the people under enemy control. By the time it closed in November 1944, 4,400 people had been interviewed. A similar bureau was established in 1943 in Istanbul to interrogate refugees coming from the Balkans.
Bauer added that, during 1941, the Haganah was in Syria and Lebanon, sometimes under British command, to gather intelligence and initiate clandestine propaganda campaigns. Free French radio broadcasts in Arabic and French, Bulgarian and Hungarian originated from the home of David Hacohen, director of the Histadrut Construction Company Solel Boneh, and continued until Syria was occupied. In June 1941, two Jewish saboteurs were sent to Aleppo, where they destroyed the railroad station and an army camp. Toward the end of 1940, the Vichy secret police in Syria captured 12 members of the unit and put them in prison where they were tortured, ending this chapter of their activities. When the British entered Syria and Lebanon in July 1941, a platoon of Haganah scouts guided them and acted as saboteurs.
When it appeared that the Germans would be advancing towards the Middle East, Bauer stated, Professor Yohanan Rattner, head of the National Command of the Haganah, who was a staff officer in the Russian army during World War I, was recruited to help the British in determining the vulnerable points along the possible route the Germans might take. Rattner targeted railroad tunnels in the Taurus Mountains and other strategic transport links in Turkey, Iraq and Syria. By the summer of 1941, the plans were complete.
By Alex Grobman