The Untold Story of the Jews Who Left Mandatory Palestine

In the three decades before Israel’s establishment, some 60,000 Jews left the country for financial or ideological reasons. A new book reveals a dark corner of Zionist history, including the forced expulsion of ‘burdensome’ Jewish immigrants

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Jewish immigrants aboard SS Galila sailing to Haifa from Cyprus in 1949
Jewish immigrants aboard SS Galila sailing to Haifa from Cyprus in 1949. Jewish emigrants making the reverse journey have been undocumented, until now.Credit: GPO
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A highly unusual event took place in Warsaw in October 1926: A public trial was held against the Zionist movement for its treatment of those who had immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine during that period. Testifying were former immigrants who had unsuccessfully tried their luck in Mandate Palestine and then left. One of them, an industrialist named Rubin, left when the cigarette firm he established failed to penetrate the local market, because the smokers preferred imported brands, so he shut his factory and returned to Poland.

In his testimony, Rubin recounted how he was summoned to a meeting with the Brigade of Defenders of the Language – a group supporting the newly revived Hebrew language in Mandatory Palestine. They took him to task for his cigarette packs, which displayed wording in English, yet on the desk of the secretary reprimanding him sat a pack of Egyptian-produced Mabrouk cigarettes.

“The witness concluded by stating that in British Mandatory Palestine they simply boycotted the product of the Polish Jew – even if it was the best and cheapest,” reported the daily Doar Hayom.

The public trial sheds light on an unknown and, some say, deliberately hushed-up story in Zionist history: that of the Jewish people who immigrated but then emigrated during the growth period of the Jewish community (the Yishuv) in British Mandatory Palestine. Jews who had immigrated due to ideology or necessity, tried their luck, but left when things didn’t work out for them. (In Hebrew, those who leave the Jewish state are called yordim, which literally means “to descend.”)

Dr. Meir Margalit has researched the emigrants’ story and recently published a book in Hebrew, “Returning in Tears – Emigration During the British Mandate Period.”

Porters unloading immigrants' luggage at Tel Aviv Port in 1938. Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

Margalit, a former Meretz councilor in Jerusalem and immigrant from Argentina who’s often wondered whether he made the right choice to move here, wrote the study as a doctoral dissertation, first at the Hebrew University and later at the University of Haifa. The switch between universities relates to the subject of his dissertation and opposition to his preoccupation with the subject, he explains.

“They labeled me a ‘new historian,’” says Margalit, recounting how his research triggered many stormy debates. “For example, in the years 1927 to 1929, people wrote that the emigrants left because of starvation. My mentor claimed that, based on macroeconomic data, there was no starvation in pre-state Israel. Ultimately, we reached the conclusion that there was no starvation but there were hungry people.”

Margalit decided he had to stick by the principle of listening to the emigrants’ narrative as they themselves told it, without arguing with them.

“When the Mendelsohn family fled [Mandatory Palestine] in 1942 – after Erwin Rommel’s army had reached the outskirts of the country – explaining that they ‘didn’t flee the wrath of Hitler in Germany in order to fall prey to his wrath in Palestine,’ we won’t check whether in military terms the fear was justified,” says Margalit, offering an example.

He claims that these voices reveal a dark and unreported side of the Zionist narrative.

Significant phenomenon

In demographic terms, this is quite a significant phenomenon. According to estimates, during the First and Second Aliyahs (1882-1903 and 1904-1914, respectively), over half of all new immigrants had left the country even before World War I broke out in 1914. Margalit focused on the 60,000 or so Jewish immigrants who left during the Mandate era, from 1923 to 1948. In the peak years of Jewish settlement in Mandatory Palestine – on the eve of the establishment of the state in 1947 – about 10 percent of all new immigrants would emigrate.

Together with those who left before British rule began in 1917, the emigrants totaled about 90,000 people. Margalit stresses, though, that compared with other waves of immigration during the same period, this should be considered a success. For example, of the Italians who left their homeland during the same period and went to South America, about 30 percent later returned to Italy.

But unlike the Italians, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine faced far greater difficulties after emigrating. Of course, during World War II there was no possibility of returning to Europe, but even traveling to other destinations was a risky business.

Margalit claims there were thousands of people who wanted to emigrate from Mandatory Palestine, but lacked the means. “Sometimes they didn’t have 8 Palestine pounds to buy a ticket. There is evidence of people congregating at the ports and shouting to the new immigrants: ‘Why did you come?’ Or they would go to the offices of the shipping companies to see if it was possible to get into fourth or fifth class.”

Dr. Meir Margalit. "At some point when I was writing, I thought the question shouldn’t be why people emigrated, but why people stayed."Credit: Emil Salman

Other harsh testimonies depicted how some people were able to reach a European port, but were then stranded there without any hope of reaching their home towns, slowly dying of starvation and disease. These reports deterred those who wanted to leave Mandatory Palestine, Margalit notes.

One of the most astonishing stories concerning those wanting to leave Mandatory Palestine is the thousands of would-be emigrants who approached the United Nations refugee agency after World War II, asking to be included on the lists of refugees entitled to return to their homeland in Europe – similar to the displaced persons scattered throughout Europe.

A group called the Organization of Returning German Immigrants turned to the UN with a demand to return them to Austria and Czechoslovakia. In 1947, 485 requests for an Austrian passport were submitted in Mandatory Palestine. And the Polish consul in Tel Aviv spoke of 14,500 Polish Jews requesting visas to return to their homeland.

The Zionist leadership worked to prevent the Jews being granted the “right of return” to European countries, Margalit claims.

“There is evidence of a deal between the Jewish Agency and the Polish Consulate in Mandatory Palestine, whereby they would cause endless delays to the Jews who wanted to return so they would lose their desire to go back,” says Margalit. “It’s clear why the Agency didn’t want them to return, and it’s also clear why the Poles didn’t want them to return – there were many problems of anti-Semitism and hatred, as well as property issues. But it’s clear that if the door had been opened, the number would have grown substantially,” he states.

According to Margalit, it wasn’t only those who succeeded and stayed here who wrote the history of ‘pre-state Israel,’ but also those who didn’t remain. “It’s not only the winners who made history,” he says. “When I observed history through the eyes of the emigrant, I discovered things I hadn’t known.”

For example, he continues, “We generally describe the absorption of the first waves of aliyah as a success story – yet I suddenly realized this wasn’t true. The Jewish leadership in Mandatory Palestine simply lost control and anyone who remained – they remained thanks only to their own efforts.”

Sad and shameful

Margalit’s book relates that the saddest and most shameful affair regarding the Zionist movement was forced emigration – mainly of the chronically ill or social misfits, who were deported by Zionist organizations so they wouldn’t become a burden to the Jewish community.

Yehoshua Gordon was director of the immigration office in Tel Aviv during the Mandate era, and in 1921 he complained that not only were sick immigrants being sent back to Europe, they were not receiving the necessary treatment in Europe and were even “dying in the streets from illnesses.” But despite the criticism, sending back such immigrants became an official policy in 1926.

Margalit writes that a year later, instructions were published to the effect that an immigrant who was incapable of supporting himself could receive money to cover expenses for the trip back home, whereas those who chose to stay would receive “short-term financial assistance to make work arrangements – if they could prove that, with these arrangements, they would be able to manage permanently in the country.”

One of the immigrants, Moshe Ashberg, who was told he had to leave, actually pleaded for his life in letters to immigration office officials: “I’m afraid I can’t leave here, because I really have no one to go to,” he wrote.

But most of the emigrants left of their own volition. Among them were bourgeois industrialists who decided to seek their fortunes elsewhere, and also pioneers. Margalit found that financial difficulties were the main reason cited for people returning to their country of origin or emigrating to another country entirely. People who didn’t find work or who saw that their situation was steadily deteriorating chose to leave in order to “save what’s left,” as Margalit puts it.

British soldiers searching Jewish bus passengers on their way to Jerusalem in 1947.Credit: Hans Pinn / GPO

There were also those who fled because they feared for their lives – whether due to the Arab riots of 1929, the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, or fearing Rommel’s troops and a possible German occupation during World War II. And shortly before the 1948 War of Independence, the British helped the community of Messianic Jews flee the country, since they were fearful of both the Jews and the Arabs.

Ideological revolution

There are also those who left Mandatory Palestine due to plain and simple homesickness. “You see heartrending documents, people who write, ‘I dreamed of coming here, and suddenly I’m dreaming about home and the family.’” Others left for ideological reasons: Socialists who felt Zionism was betraying its mission to establish a model society; ultra-Orthodox [or Haredi] people who saw the pioneers as defilers of the land, and who preferred to observe Judaism in the Hasidic courts in Poland rather than in pre-state Israel.

“I understand those who left for ideological reasons more than the other people – I had similar thoughts,” admits Margalit. “At some point when I was writing, though, and saw the difficulties of the time, I thought the question shouldn’t be why people emigrated, but why people stayed.

“It was the Zionist movement’s luck that it was so difficult to leave the country,” opines Margalit. “Had it not been for the historical circumstances, we would have arrived at April 1948 far weaker than we were at the time. And then [David] Ben-Gurion’s decision [to declare the establishment of the state] would have been different.”

Margalit, 65, a father of three and with one grandchild, immigrated from Argentina in 1972 as a member of the (Zionist) Betar youth movement. Shortly after his arrival, he was drafted into the Israeli army and was one of the founders of the Netzarim settlement in the Gaza Strip. He was wounded during the Yom Kippur War, though, and during his recuperation in hospital underwent an ideological revolution, switching from right to left.

For years he was active in the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and worked on behalf of Palestinians in East Jerusalem while serving as a councilor in Jerusalem City Hall.

He concedes that the story of the Jewish emigrants touches him beyond the research aspect. “In 2012, I visited Argentina and met up with members of the [Betar] movement who had remained or went back, and I compared myself to them,” he recounts. “Everyone around me was comfortably off, but I’m one of those who on the fourth of every month asks where I’m going to get the money for the rent. I also ask myself what right I have to raise children in this dangerous country, on the edge of the volcano. This is something that goes through the minds of most of the sane Israelis I know.”

Porters taking immigrants' luggage to the terminal at Tel Aviv Port in 1938. Credit: Zoltan Kluger / GPO

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