Moshe Greenfeld - Tomer Appelbaum
Former illegal Jewish immigrant Moshe Greenfeld pointing to himself in a photograph taken in a camop in Cyprus Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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It’s been a long time since tempers have flared in the Knesset as they did this week during a special session honoring the organizers of illegal Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine at the end of British rule.

Dr. Efraim Even, chairman of the association of former members of the Irgun, the right-wing military organization that operated during the mandate period, clashed bitterly with Tsvi Levanon, chairman of the association of former members of the Hagana, the centrist military organization that operated during the same period, over the question of which group deserves credit for initiating illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Levanon praised the Hagana fighters for starting the process. Even immediately protested the apparent injustice done to the Revisionist Zionist organizations, which, he said, had conceived the idea and were the first to carry it out.

The heated exchange, a bit puzzling after all these years, was the high point of the event, in which the Knesset paid its respects to the illegal immigration campaign. Dozens of immigrants and those who manned the ships that brought them to the shores of Palestine crowded into the Knesset’s modest auditorium in order to relive their journey.

Only about a third of the immigrants who arrived on those ships are assumed to be alive today, but the auditorium was packed. Many of those present fidgeted in their seats uncomfortably, as the brawl played out on stage. Some even heckled the speakers as they delivered their addresses, demanding corrections.

“In the name of the Hagana directorate, I would like to salute this gathering,” Levanon began his remarks. “In this auditorium sit the fighters who carried out the work. The Hagana began the enterprise of illegal immigration.” Levanon went on to praise the Hagana leadership, its members and others who took part in the endeavor.

A few minutes later, Even took the stage and challenged Levanon. “The Hagana’s ship Venus arrived in Palestine in July of 1934, but the ship called Star reached Palestine in January of that year.

"True, it only carried 50 immigrants, but you must admit that it was the first.” Even added that “organized illegal immigration to Israel was begun by the Revisionist organization, Brit Habirionim [the strongmen’s alliance]. It brought in 600 illegal immigrants who had earlier reached Beirut and were smuggled [from there] into Rosh Pina.”

Someone in the audience sitting in a back row appeared disturbed by what he had heard. He turned to a friend wearing a hearing aid and asked loudly, “Do you hear what he’s saying?” His friend replied, “I can hardly hear, but I’m not missing anything.”

Shaul Biber, the publicist, film director and former member of the Palmach’s sea unit, then took the stage and remarked sardonically: “Jealousy in the underground will attract many immigrants.” He drew out his harmonica and began to play familiar songs as the audience hummed along. “The Adler Trio plays better,” someone in the back row snickered.

Historian Mordechai Naor, who surveyed the period of illegal immigration, refused to take sides in the argument before delivering his speech.

Former Knesset members Yoash Sidon and Tamar Eshel, who were active in promoting illegal immigration during the mandate period, also attended the event, along with Deputy Minister of Senior Citizen Affairs Lea Nass ‏(Likud‏) and MK Uri Ohrbach ‏(Habayit Hayehudi‏).

Nass’s father and Orbach’s mother immigrated to Palestine on the Theodor Herzl ship. Nass, who organized the event with Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin ‏(Likud‏), was visibly moved when she welcomed the audience and told her father’s story.

Then the attendees shared fond memories of Yitzhak “Ike” Aharonowitz, the captain of the Exodus, who died a year ago, and praised comrades who had sailed on dilapidated ships that never made it to shore.

The Knesset plans to mark the legacy of illegal immigration annually. Before the special session, the Education Committee convened to discuss a proposal to officially recognize the immigrant detention camp in Atlit as a national heritage site.

“We hope the government will accept the society’s request and include Atlit in the national heritage database, including live testimony, documents, photos and other artifacts,” said Omri Salmon, chairman of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.

Members of the committee are expected to visit the site and rule on the matter soon.