Discover more from Israel from the Inside with Daniel Gordis
From the "Exodus" to the cabinet war room, one family's story reminds us why we're here
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant's mother passed away late last week while her son was conducting a war; she'd come to Palestine on the Exodus. Much hasn't changed. But much has.
Fruma Gallant, the mother of Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, made Israeli news back on March 26, the day Bibi Netanyahu fired her son. Massive rage over Gallant’s firing, you may recall, spontaneously brought hundreds of thousands of young Israelis to the streets in a spasm of anger directed at Netanyahu and his coalition. As a result of his willingness to speak out against his own government and then being fired, according to some polls, Gallant is now the most trusted member of the cabinet.
Not quite what Bibi had in mind when he axed him.
But as fast and furious as the news cycle in the midst of the judicial reform crisis was on March 26 and 27, Israeli reporting paused for a few moments to focus not on Bibi or the government or the proposed legislation, but on the fact that Gallant’s mother called him after he was fired, to tell him (as seen on a tweet1 that got a lot of play), “You have good judgement, courage, and I love you very much.”
In classic Jewish fashion, she then said to him, “when there is something good to report, call me.” It was so sweet, so classically Israeli, that it almost sounded like a Jewish mother joke. Call me—but only if you have something good to tell me.
Fruma Gallant’s name sadly returned to the news at the end of last week when Israeli news reported that she had passed away, surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Her passing at the age of 88, in and of itself, would have not been terribly remarkable, were it not for her story. But Fruma Gallant had come to Palestine in 1947 on the Exodus, a ship made famous by Leon Uris.
The reality of the Exodus was in truth a much less inspiring story than the one that Uris told.
On May 15, 1947 (almost a year to the date before Israel would be created), the UN created the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, better known by its acronym, UNSCOP. Composed of representatives of eleven countries, UNSCOP was charged with doing what the British had been unable to do—finding a solution to Palestine. The Arabs immediately announced that they would boycott all UNSCOP meetings and discussions. On June 2, UNSCOP committee members traveled to Palestine and remained there for three months of intensive study and investigation. As there were still hundreds of thousands of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust desperate for a place to go, illegal immigration continued apace.
While UNSCOP deliberated, a ship carrying homeless Jews to Palestine captured headlines. This ship was the Exodus; it was, like many other ships, part of the yishuv’s efforts at defying the British White Paper’s near zero-tolerance for Jewish immigration to Palestine. When the Exodus arrived, the British were once again unwilling to allow its passengers to disembark in Palestine.
Formerly named SS President Warfield, the Exodus had sailed from Port-de-Bouc to Sète, where some 4,500 Jewish survivors of the war from Germany and Poland embarked. With the ship filled far beyond capacity, its passengers slept on shelves with barely enough space to lie down, a painful reminder of the concentration camps where many of them had narrowly survived. It reached Palestine in July 1947.
The British had no intention of letting the thousands of displaced persons, survivors of hell, set foot in Palestine. They boarded the ship by force, and in the course of a brief skirmish, the British Royal Navy killed three Holocaust survivors; they had escaped the Nazis only to be beaten to death by the British with the shore of Palestine clearly visible. The passengers were taken off the Exodus and transferred by the British to the Empire Rival, which would take them not to Cyprus, where many other Jewish refugees had been taken before, but back to Europe.
Aubrey Eban (who later, as Abba Eban, became Israel’s ambassador to both the United Nations and the United States) convinced members of the UNSCOP committee to come witness the transfer. When they arrived, Eban later wrote, they saw “British soldiers using rifle butts, hose pipes, and tear gas against the survivors of death camps. Men, women and children were forcibly taken off to prison ships, locked in cages below decks and sent out of Palestine waters.” When the UNSCOP members returned to Jerusalem, he recalled, “they were pale with shock” at the British cruelty they had witnessed.
Golda Meir similarly wrote in her autobiography:
Before the shocked eyes of members of UNSCOP they forcibly caged and returned to Germany the 4,500 refugees who had come to Palestine aboard the Haganah ship Exodus 1947, and I think that by so doing they actually contributed considerably to UNSCOP’s final recommendations. If I live to be a hundred, I shall never erase from my mind the gruesome picture of hundreds of British soldiers in full combat dress, bearing and using clubs, pistols and grenades against the wretched refugees on the Exodus.
Fruma eventually made it back to Palestine, but only after Israel’s independence, when the British had gone.
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There was nothing surprising about the latest round of warfare between Israel and Gaza, this time with Islamic Jihad and not Hamas (whose leadership have likely noticed that the senior ranks of Islamic Jihad are now somewhat depleted after a series of Israeli targeted assassinations). It is not surprising, but it is still unrelentingly sad—for the Israelis who live in terror near the border as well as for the non-combatants in Gaza who are no less terrified and who live under a regime that could not care less about them.
It’s not going to end anytime soon, though, and the suffering on both sides will continue. It is grinding, brutal, depressing.
And it is, though we seldom think about it this way, the continuation of Israel’s very first war. It is, as I’ve noted in earlier columns, the “latest battle in the War of Independence.” Israel is still fighting against these Palestinians for its right to be. When they chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they say exactly what they mean. That chant is not about territorial compromise, or a two state solution, or even some intermediate arrangement (like the US has with Puerto Rico, which it captured in war in 1898, or Guam, or American Samoa). It is about wiping Israel out. Israelis understand what they mean, which is why even when the war is at its ugliest, the Israeli left does not protest the actions of the army. Those on the left, too, would be dead without the army’s actions—and they know it.
At the same time as the Israel left is not protesting, numerous American Jewish leaders—and I’ve spoken to many of them this week—declare that this “outdoor prison in Gaza” simply has to end. That it cannot be sustained. That there must be an alternative. Yet here’s what I never understand when obviously bright and thoughtful people say that to me. If there’s an obvious alternative, why are no Israelis pushing for it? If there’s a way to solve this, why does no one in Israel discuss it? Because none of us care? Because we’re all hopelessly calloused? Because no one here realizes how miserable life is on the other side of the border?
When people say to me, as they did this week, “there has to be a solution,” I now ask them about guns in America. Surely there’s a solution, no? What I want them to explain is why doesn’t America just fix the gun problem? Surely all problems have solutions, no? And while you’re at it, why doesn’t America fix the race issue, for once and for all?
Sure, that, too, could be solved, if people just cared enough, no?
America’s gun problem isn’t going anywhere. Americans are going to slaughter each other at schools, malls, places of worship, the streets, the subway and more—for as long as any of us are going to be alive. Why my American Jewish interlocutors acknowledge that that problem has no solution, but insist that the Palestinian conflict must, is simply beyond me.
But here is what I do know. The sad passing of Fruma Gallant is a reminder of how much has changed because Israel exists. Before Israel, the British could turn her away. Before Israel, there were thousands and thousands of Jews who had nowhere to go. The British at times called them surplus Jews, Jews they simply did not want and would not take.
No more. There are no more “surplus Jews.” No longer are there Jews with nowhere to go. Fruma Gallant would not be turned away now, nor would any other Jew. And when we are attacked, by Hamas or Islamic Jihad or Hezbollah or anyone else, simply because we exist, we are reminded that this conflict is a century old and that we are all sick of it, but we are also reminded that the following photograph is a picture of what is no longer:
Those are Jews of Khodorkov, not far from Kiev, in 1919 (yup, the Ukraine, but that’s another story) after a pogrom. What could they do after that attack, beyond pose for the photographer? They could wait for the next assault, or perhaps, they could try to leave. There was nothing else that they could do.
That was essentially the world that Fruma Gallant fled. Yet when she died, her son was Defense Minister, conducting a war against those people who seem to imagine that lobbing rockets at Jewish civilians will go unpunished. Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi plus thousands of other soldiers involved in the recent round of fighting were doing what they could to make clear that no, we still can’t always stop our enemies from killing Jews, but as Moshe Dayan once said, “we can make the price very, very high.”
From being a passenger on the Exodus who was sent back to the hell of Europe to her son being the Minister of Defense at the helm of one of the most powerful military forces on earth—that’s the difference this place has made. It’s a horrible conflict, a debilitating conflict, a moral mess and a source of endless suffering.
But still, compare the Exodus and the IDF “war room,” and you are reminded how much has changed. It is not perfect, far from it.
But it is much, much better, and at times like the week that just ended, that is more than good enough.
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