Monday, September 15, 2014

The British Mandate prepares for war

September 1 marked the 75-year anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, the start of the Second World War and the beginning of the Holocaust. The anniversary of this momentous event offers an opportunity to explore the part British-mandated Palestine played in the war.

The Munich agreement (September 29-30, 1938) is regarded today as the apex of appeasement towards Nazi Germany. At the summit in Munich, Adolf Hitler, Italy's Benito Mussolini, Britain's Neville Chamberlain and France's Édouard Daladier decided to hand over the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to Germany in order to prevent war in Europe. The Munich agreement went down in history as a symbol of cowardice and incompetence against cruel tyranny and of the peaceful delusions of the 30's.
The Munich summit, September 29th 1938 (Wikicommons/Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R69173)
Nevertheless, it seems that the British government (or at least the government of Palestine) saw the Munich crisis as a wake-up call and a sign to prepare for the eventuality of war. Immediately after the Munich crisis, the Jerusalem district commissioner, Edward Keith-Roach, wrote to the Chief Secretary of the Palestine government (the head of the British administration in Palestine) and reported that he had conducted a survey in the stores of his district, and found that they were not adequate and ready for an eventuality of war, in terms of foodstuffs and other essential supplies.
Eduard Keith-Roach (Wikipedia)
The Palestine government responded quickly. The High Commissioner, Harold MacMichael (March 1938 – August 1944) wrote to the Secretary of State for the Colonies regarding the limited stocks of wheat and maize under the supervision of the Palestine government. Due to Palestine's economic stagnation and estimates that a rise in taxes and tariffs would worsen the economic situation, MacMichael asked for financial help from Britain in order to prepare Palestine for an emergency situation. The reason for the declining economic situation was the Arab revolt of 1936-39, which damaged the economy of Palestine, one of the few regions in the world that was least hurt by the economic depression of the 30s.
(Harold MacMichael (Wikipedia

The next stage was forming supervision on supplies in Palestine. John Shaw, senior assistant to the chief secretary (later he became chief secretary and was known for his involvement in the controversy concerning the warning given before the bombing of the King David hotel in July 1946. We wrote about it here) wrote to Jeffrey Walsh, the economic adviser to the Palestine government (later killed in the King David hotel bombing) and asked him to conduct a survey of the situation of the supply of essential foodstuffs. A committee was formed to control supplies to Palestine and the director of Medical Services, Colonel George Heron was appointed as the Controller of Supplies, Walsh was appointed as his deputy. Other members of the committee were Keith-Roach; Frank Mason – Deputy Director of department of Agriculture and Fish; Donald Finlayson – Deputy Director of department of Customs, Excise & Trade; Donald Gumbly - Director of Civil aviation; Michel Abcarius – Senior Assistant Treasurer, the Arab representative in the committee; Bernard Dov Joseph – Head of the Political department of the Jewish agency, was the Jewish representative in the committee and Arthur Rawdon Spinney – as the representative of the merchants and distributers. An army officer was appointed by the General officer commanding in Palestine to liaison with the army.
Geffrey Walsh (Zoltan Kluger/Israel State Archives)
The committee researched the supply problems of different foodstuffs to Palestine and contacted different governments (such as Australia, Burma, Siam and other) in regard of supplying food and other essential supplies, studied the possibilities of supplying fuel of different types (following Joseph's warning to Walsh that supplying fuel must be of the highest priority – transportwise and regarding the operating of agricultural machinery), considered options of rationing of food and other supplies and started to form a special administration for the controlling the supplies. From the different reports it can be seen that the Palestine government was not the only British colonial government (although Palestine was not a colony but a League of Nations mandate) – the Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) and the Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore today) are also mentioned as beginning to store food in preparation for war. 
The Middle East map during WWII (Wikipedia)
The basic premises for the work of the committee are also interesting: the committee agreed that the Mediterranean Sea would be closed to shipping, and so would be the entrance to the Suez Canal from the north. The southern approaches to the Canal would be open as well as sea lanes to India, China and Australia. Overland highways and train lines to Syria, Iraq and Egypt would remain open and not hampered. These were very logical ideas – Italy was seen as a potential enemy (although it is strange that the ability of Italy to block the horn of Africa from her bases in Somalia and Ethiopia and Eritrea was not mentioned). Japan's entry to the war was not envisioned – but Japan itself did not plan to enter the war in 1939, and only her defeat in the Khalkhin Gol in August 1939 caused her to change its strategy and turn to south-east Asia and against the USA. The planners also could not envision the fall of France on June 1940 or the Iraqi revolt in May 1941.

In April 1939, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, explained in his letter to high commissioner MacMichael (regarding MacMichael's letter from October 1938) that he must expect problems of supply also in the Red sea (not only in the Mediterranean) – probably an indication that there was a threat that Italy would try to block the sea lanes in the horn of Africa. MacDonald also wrote that there was no guarantee that Britain would be able to assist the Palestine government financially and it would have to organize its own purchase of food; Colonial office would try to assist. While preparedness for war was regarded a theoretical but possible in October-November 1938, the annexation of Czechoslovakia (or what remained of it) in March 1939, made war look inevitable.

Another sign of the gathering storm was the forming of a new organization – Air Raid Precautions(ARP). The ARP started initiating preparedness for air raids – installing sirens, preparing bomb shelters and other measures. Here are orders for preparing the Haifa harbor against air raids – a possibility that became a reality a year later when the harbor was attacked by Italian, German and also Vichy-French bombers.
On September 1st 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, the Posts and Telegraphs department in the Palestine government issued a series of instructions on exporting records, films and restrictions on sending and receiving telegrams and letters to and from places abroad. Although Britain declared war on September 3rd, these instructions were for war time in the knowledge that war had just broken out.

The supply committee later evolved into the War Supply Board. Its director was Sir Douglas Harris, a member of the Palestine government's executive council and a veteran and well respected colonial office officer. The board was responsible on a series of different control offices, responsible for Industry, Food, Medical supplies etc. The Citrus control board was formed to help market one of Palestine's most important exports – the citrus fruit, which was hurt from war. Another interesting office was the controller of Salvage – an office responsible for recycling and repairing broken or derelict equipment of different kind. The War supply board cooperated with similar groups in the British Empire – one in east Africa, India and the "Spears mission" a supply group attached to the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon after they were conquered form Vichy France in May 1941 (named after General Edward Spears, the British laision officer with the Free French government in Syria and Lebanon). The War supply Board also cooperated with Middle East Supply Center (MESC) – the main Allied supply center outside Europe, situated in Cairo.

The Israel State archives hold a large collection of documents concerning the War Supply Board and its different bodies in Record Group 18 – The Emergency Economic Control. RG 18 gives us a fascinating look inside the economic activity in British mandated Palestine and its neighboring countries during WWII.   

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Update on the "Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy" Publication

Yesterday (September 9), the first part of the Hebrew publication on the Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy was published on our Hebrew blog.

Another post in English based on a booklet published in 1965 called "School Comes to Adults" appeared on our English website.

An illustration from the booklet:
Arab fathers and sons study together

Monday, September 8, 2014

World Literacy Day, 8 September: Israel's Campaign Against Illiteracy, 1964

Today is UNESCO World Literacy Day. To mark the occasion and the 50th anniversary of the first campaign in Israel against illiteracy, the Israel State Archives presents a new publication on adult education on its Hebrew website.
When mass immigration started after the establishment of the state in 1948 , many of the newcomers came from countries with a poor educational system or had missed schooling due to World War II and other upheavals. Although efforts were made to teach them Hebrew, it was often assumed that the first generation was a "lost generation" who would manage as best they could; their children would be educated and know Hebrew well.
 In 1961 a second wave of mass immigration began, mainly from North Africa and Romania. In the same year a census was held for the first time since 1948. The census also measured the level of education of Israel's citizens and showed that illiteracy was a serious problem, affecting almost a quarter of a million adults aged 14 and up. Over 162,000 could not read or write at all in any language, two thirds of them women. 96 thousand were semi-literate (defined as those who had attended up to 4 grades of elementary school). At the time there was free compulsory education only up to age 14.Most of the illiterate came from Asia and Africa, but there were also 20,000 illiterate people and 50,00 semi-literate people from Eastern Europe. Illiteracy was also found in the Israeli Arab community, which had lost much of its educated classes when they fled abroad during the war in 1948.
On the initiative of Education Minister Zalman Aranne, it was decided to take action against illiteracy and to teach Hebrew to adults. In January 1964, the "Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy" was launched, which continued into the 1970s. The first head of the campaign was Yitzhak Navon, then head of the Culture Unit in the Education Ministry and later Israel's fifth president. The participation of women soldiers was organized by Colonel Stella Levy , commander of the Women's Corps of the IDF.
Yitzhak Navon watches a mother of ten learning to read, 1 May 1964
Photograph: Government Press Office
The subject of tension between the Mizrachi immigrants (from Asia and Africa) and the old established, mostly Eastern European veteran population, which was in charge of absorbing them, is a sensitive one, even in Israel today. Navon came from an old established Sefardi family from Jerusalem, while Levy was born in Syria. The Campaign to Eradicate Illiteracy is an example of the efforts made as early as the 1960s to help the immigrants to improve their economic situation and social status and to overcome the gap which had opened up between them and their own children.  
Soldier teaching women students in their home.
Photograph: IDF Archives
Women soldiers doing their compulsory service, who volunteered to teach students in remote settlements where illiteracy was very high, played an important part in the programme. The soldiers were given a short preparatory course and further instruction at intervals. The documents in our collection shows that they learned about teaching reading and writing and how to prepare a lesson,  but also about the history and culture of the Jews in the Middle East.
The full publication, which includes 30 documents, photographs, films and a map, most of them presented to the public for the first time, will appear over the next few days. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Temporarily shutting down the Israel State Archives

"The Jews Stand By Great Britain and Will Fight on the Side of the Democracies" : 75 Years Since the Outbreak of the Second World War, 1 September 1939

Over the last few months, archivists, historians and the media have been preoccupied with the 100th anniversary of the First World War. However, this week also marks the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War, which had such devastating consequences for the Jewish people.

At the time the Zionist movement faced a major clash with the British government. In May 1939 Britain issued a White Paper severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine and Jews' right to buy land, as part of its efforts to end the Arab revolt and to win Arab support in the coming war with Germany.  This decision condemned masses of Jews trapped in Europe, who might have found refuge in Palestine, to persecution and later to death. Nevertheless Chaim Weizmann, the president of the World Zionist Organization, realized that if Britain was going to fight Nazi Germany, the Jews could not stand aside. They would have to support it and even to join the British Army.

In August 1939 the Zionist Congress was held in Geneva. In his speech to the Congress Weizmann harshly criticized the British government for its betrayal of the Mandate and the Jewish people. On 22 August news arrived of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact between the USSR and Germany, making the invasion of Poland possible. The Congress was hastily wound up, and, as the borders closed, Weizmann and his family returned to London.
Slogan on a German troop train on its way to Poland
 "We're going to Poland to thrash the Jews"
Photograph: Yad Vashem
 On 29th August he wrote to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to  confirm previous declarations "that the Jews stand by Great Britain and will fight on the side of the democracies…The Jewish Agency has recently had differences in the political field with the Mandatory Power. We would like these differences to give way before the greater and more pressing necessities of the time." You can see this document in the ISA's commemorative volume (in Hebrew) on Chaim Weizmann, who became Israel's first president.

Weizmann and the heads of the Zionist movement saw recruitment to the Army as a duty, but also hoped to form a Jewish fighting force which would pay political dividends after the war. This hope was only partially realized. Nevertheless Palestine played an important role in the British war effort in the Middle East and the ISA holds many files of the Mandatory Government on wartime production, emergency organization and related subjects. We'll show you some of these another time.

Weizmann and his wife Vera paid a heavy price during the war, when they lost their son, Michael, a pilot in the Royal Air Force, who failed to return from an operational flight over the Bay of Biscay in February 1942. Weizmann's other son Benjamin served as an anti-aircraft gunner in England and suffered a breakdown from which he never fully recovered.

Michael Weizmann in RAF uniform
 Photograph: Yad Chaim Weizmann,Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel