We Jews permit ourselves degrees of intolerance towards each other that we would
never exhibit toward others outside our community. The settings are numerous –
theology, Halacha, denominations, politics and more.
But nowhere are the
vehemence and the inability to actually listen to those with whom we disagree
more pronounced than with regard to the State of Israel.The great irony
of our age is that arguments about how to safeguard the Jewish state are a
significant part of what now threatens to destroy any semblance of unity among
the Jewish people. It is therefore helpful to have periodic reminders of just
how much is at stake in the survival and flourishing of this state.
week affords just that opportunity, for we are just days shy of the 70th
anniversary of the sinking of the SS Struma. Few people today remember the
Struma or its story; the young among us cannot even imagine the Jewish
existential condition that it reflected, a condition that the state has,
thankfully, completely eradicated.
The story begins in 1941, when it was
clear to many Eastern European Jews that they were destined for a horrific end.
In Romania, several Zionist organizations, Betar among them, commissioned a
Bulgarian ship to transport almost 800 Jewish passengers to Palestine – the
Like Europe, however, the Struma was a disaster waiting to
happen. The ship was barely more than a floating tub, 61 meters in length and
six meters wide, which had been built in 1830 for shipping cargo; it had
subsequently been used to transport cattle. It was powered by a motor that had
apparently been salvaged from the bottom of the Danube River. The immigrants
aboard had, according to some accounts, but a single bathroom.
sources of comfort were the knowledge that they were finally succeeding in
fleeing a burning Europe, and that the whole trip to Istanbul, the first leg of
their journey, would take merely 14 hours.
The Struma set sail on
December 12, 1941, but the engine gave out almost immediately. The tugboat that
had towed them out of the harbor eventually sent its navigator and engineer on
board, but they would only fix the engine for a large sum of money. The
passengers, however, had given all their money to the Romanian customs
officials. So they parted with their gold wedding bands in return for the
Four interminable days later, the boat limped into the Istanbul
harbor, where it would remain for months.
Turkey refused to allow the
passengers to disembark – what country would want a boatload of homeless Jews?
Nor did Britain want them to make their way to Palestine; the British were
anxious to assure an increasingly restless and sometimes violent Arab resistance
that limits on Jewish immigration would be enforced.
On February 12,
almost two months after the boat had left Romania, the British finally
acquiesced and granted Palestinian visas to the children on board. But His
Majesty’s government refused to send a ship to collect them, and Turkey refused
to grant them overland passage. The children thus remained on board. With
negotiations between Turkey and Britain at a standstill, Turkish officials towed
the disabled boat up the Bosporus Strait toward the Black Sea.
hung signs over the side that said “Save Us” in both English and Hebrew. The
signs were plainly visible to people on the shores of the Bosporus, but no one,
of course, did anything to help them.
When the hapless Struma reached the
Black Sea, the Turks abandoned the ship, leaving it to drift. The next morning,
on February 24, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Struma
, which exploded and
sank. Of the 769 people on board, only one survived, by holding on to wreckage
for more than 24 hours. His name was David Stoliar, and he was imprisoned in
Turkey for several weeks, then admitted to Palestine. Stoliar served in the
British Army during the war, and then in the IDF during the War of Independence;
he later moved to Oregon.
There is much we do not know about the Struma
catastrophe. Why did the Soviets sink the boat? Did they mistake it for
something else? Did the British actually encourage their Soviet allies to sink
the ship in order to “solve” the problem without putting pressure on Palestinian
immigration? Some people believe so, but we will probably never know with
The incident, now mostly forgotten, had all the iconic
elements of the Shoah. Human beings transported with equipment once used for
cattle. Subhuman and unlivable conditions. Helpless Jews, whom no one wanted,
with nowhere in the world to go. And finally, of course, mass death, with no
graves to mark the fact that these innocent people had even existed, and had
died for the simple reason that they were Jews.
Perhaps the most
important element of the story to remember is to be found in a British
governmental communication from 1941, referring to the Jews who were desperate
to escape Europe and who, the British rightly understood, would try to make
their way to Palestine despite British objections. “We should have some
alternative scheme in hand for disposing of these surplus Jews, who having
escaped from persecution in Europe, are going to be kept in detention camps in
British colonies,” the communication stated matter-of-factly.
Jews”: The phrase is used with no hint of embarrassment, no expression of
responsibility. “Surplus Jews,” as in human beings that are, for now, a
commodity – until they become literally worthless. “Surplus,” as in not needed,
as in a problem that needs to be disposed of.
No one uses this phrase
anymore. Not the British, nor the Turks. Not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nor Mahmoud
Abbas. People across the globe still have their beef with us; some are
justified, most are not. But whatever one might say about the State of Israel,
one thing is clear – the Struma
incident simply could not happen
It is simply impossible for today’s Jews to find themselves in a
world in which no one wants them or will have them. That, perhaps most
fundamentally, is the dimension of Jewish life that Israel has changed,
hopefully forever. Jews may be all sorts of things, but we are no longer
It is worth remembering now just how much has changed in the
past 70 years. And as we battle over how Judaism should be manifested in this
state, what its borders should be and how we can best protect it, the memory of
ought to serve as a chilling reminder of what we will lose if the
stridency of our debate rips our people – and then our state –
asunder.The writer is president of the Shalem Foundation and Senior
Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book,
Saving Israel: How
the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009
National Jewish Book Award. His next book,
The Promise of Israel: Why Its
Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually Its Greatest Strength, will be published