IN 1946, I.F. Stone, the celebrated left-wing journalist, became the first American reporter to travel with Jewish “displaced persons” (DPs) in Europe who were attempting to enter British Mandatory Palestine. With the British deeming such immigration illegal, the trip was perilous for these Holocaust survivors. Published first as a series of newspaper articles and then in book form as Underground to Palestine, Stone’s recounting of his experiences is moving and dramatic in its descriptions of the painful fate that had been suffered by the people he joined, and of their subsequent resilience. Well worth reading today, the book offers a powerful eyewitness narrative in the period leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel. It is a narrative that shatters basic premises endorsed by people who today share Stone’s political leanings but reject the legitimacy of Israel as the Jewish State.
Stone opened the book this way:
This is a story of personal adventure. I was the first newspaperman to travel the Jewish underground in Europe and to arrive in Palestine on a so-called illegal boat. But this is more than the narrative of a journalistic escapade. I am an American and I am also and inescapably—the world being what it is—a Jew. I was born in the United States. My parents were born in Russia. Had they not emigrated at the turn of the century to America, I might have gone to the gas chambers in Eastern Europe. I might have been a DP, ragged and homeless like those with whom I traveled. I did not go to join them as a tourist in search of the picturesque, nor even as a newspaperman merely in search of a good story, but as a kinsman, fulfilling a moral obligation to my brothers. I wanted in my own way, as a journalist, to provide a picture of their trials and their aspirations in the hope that good people, Jewish and non-Jewish, might be moved to help them.
Reflecting on the conditions that the DPs confronted, Stone quickly concluded that there was no way that the Europe they were attempting to leave was a place where they might successfully rebuild their lives. Their families had been decimated; their homes had been destroyed; and the anti-Semitic hatred that drove the Holocaust remained widespread.
Recalling his first visit to Palestine the previous year, Stone wrote that “like most American Jews I was neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist.” But he went on to say that “I fell in love with the place, with its vitality and its pioneering spirit. I understand the motivations behind the Return.” And then, traveling with the DPs, he made clear that for him, as for those he was with, Zionist logic had become an imperative:
The “pull” toward Palestine I heard expressed again and again, not only from the young Chalutzim on the train, but from older folk who would say, “I’m not a Zionist, I’m a Jew. That’s enough. We have wandered enough. We have worked and struggled too long on the lands of other peoples. We must build a land of our own. Mir mussen bauen a Yiddish land. (“We must build a Jewish land.”)
In describing Dutch youngsters whose parents had been killed by the Nazis, Stone observed: “They were not fleeing Holland—they were going to Palestine. They spoke of their native land with sad affection, but they were Chalutzim, Zionist pioneers bent on building a Jewish homeland.”
Like the survivors with whom he was traveling, Stone repeatedly referred to the intended destination as eretz, or “the land”—shorthand for the Land of Israel. Those displaced persons were attempting the trip, as his narrative makes clear, not as European colonialists but as proud Jews who intended to rebuild their lives in the land of their forefathers. Their goal was to join the Zionist pioneers who had come before them in the preceding decades to together determine their collective future as a free Jewish people. Witness to their strength, Stone shared their pride. He dedicated his book to “Those Anonymous Heroes The Schlichim of the Haganah”—emissaries of the pre-state Jewish militia that was to evolve into the Israel Defense Forces—who organized the rescue that he reported on. “I must say I have never met a nobler group of human beings than the Schlichim I encountered abroad,” Stone wrote.
Stone participated fully in the harrowing experiences of the DPs in crossing the Mediterranean. They faced harsh British officials, and the vessel they traveled in was hardly seaworthy. At one point, erroneously believing that their boat was already approaching its goal, they each received “illegal immigration certificates” stating that they “had been found qualified by the representatives of the Jewish Community of Palestine for repatriation to Eretz Israel.” The certificates cited “four authorities for the Jewish community’s action”—authorities based not only on the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land as conveyed in ancient religious texts but also on modern legal documents and decisions:
The first was from Ezekiel: “And they shall abide in the lands that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers abode, and they shall abide therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children, forever.” The second was from Isaiah: “With great mercies will I gather thee.” The third was Lord Balfour’s Declaration of 2 November 1917, and the last was The [League of Nations] Mandate for Palestine.
As much as Stone linked himself with the other passengers during the trip from Europe, after their ship finally arrived at the Haifa harbor, he put on his uniform as an American military correspondent and separated himself from the quarantined new residents of what was to become the State of Israel.
In an Epilogue, Stone enlarged on the case for supporting the desires of the DPs:
…For most of them, Palestine is not merely the one possibility for a new life, is not merely a place of refuge, but the country to which they want to go….
Is this so hard to understand? They have been kicked around as Jews and now they want to live as Jews. Over and over again, I heard it said: “We want to build a Jewish country. … We are tired of putting our sweat and blood into places where we are not welcome. … We have wandered enough.” These Jews want the right to live as a people, to build as a people, to make their contribution to the world as a people. Are their national aspirations any less worthy of respect than those of any other oppressed people?
Ultimately presenting the formula he then preferred for reconciling the presence of both Jews and Arabs on the land, Stone declared: “I myself would like to see a bi-national Arab-Jewish state made of Palestine and Trans-Jordan, the whole to be part of a Middle Eastern Semitic Federation.” This was a position that some Zionists held then as well. But it was based on assumptions that proved to be unrealistic at the time, as the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine concluded after making its study visit in the summer of 1947. And it is an approach that has been shown to be all the more out of touch through the unfolding of events that have followed, as the Jewish and Palestinian national movements have sharply gone their separate ways. Indeed, most of those who today defy the United Nations’s November 1947 Partition Plan which called for the establishment of a Jewish as well as an Arab state in Mandatory Palestine and who try to advance a so-called “One State Solution” can fairly be accused of in fact advocating the destruction of the State of Israel—a position drastically inconsistent with the spirit of Stone’s commentary.
There is no little irony in the fact that those who embrace the ideological opposition to Israel’s existence falsely accuse the country of being a colonial implant in the Middle East and see Zionism as nothing other than a European colonial enterprise. As Stone’s eyewitness account makes clear, for the displaced persons who later became citizens of Israel, this was far from the truth. Rather than being agents of an imperial power based in Europe, they saw themselves as exiles returning to the homeland of their people. In fact, the true colonialists of the time were the officials of the British Empire who strove to keep those Jews out—however desperate their circumstances may have been—and who regarded and treated them as illegal immigrants.
Besides making their ideology-driven charge, contemporary opponents of Israel’s existence who see its establishment as the original sin are also fond of endorsing the argument that while the Jews may have suffered at the hands of the Europeans, it was unjust for the Arab population of Palestine to have been expected to accept the dislocated survivors and the earlier Jewish refugees from Christian European oppression. That argument is countered in part by the evidence Stone presented. As his book demonstrates, many DPs were motivated by the pull of relocating in the Jewish homeland more than the push of getting out of Europe. Moreover, there were Jews on the land even before the Zionist pioneers began arriving from Europe in the late nineteenth century, and the population shifts of 1948 included not only the departure of Palestinian refugees but also the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing the Arab lands in which they had lived for centuries, who had their own strong sense of connection to the land of Israel.
In the years following his writing of this book, Stone’s status as a diligent journalist and icon of the left was only to increase. This was especially so at the time of the Vietnam War when, particularly through hard-hitting reportage and commentary circulated in I.F. Stone’s Weekly, he took on the establishment and unrelentingly made the strategic and moral case for withdrawal.
A graduate student at the time, I was an anti-war activist and a subscriber to that publication. Not only is a copy of Underground to Palestine—inherited from my parents—on my home bookshelves, but copies of the Weekly from 1967 through 1969 have been stored in a carton of “memorabilia” I stashed away in a crawlspace long ago, forgotten until I inadvertently came upon them after re-reading Stone’s book a short time ago. A look at that newsletter now, starting with the issue published immediately after the Six Day War of June 1967, shows Stone to have been sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian refugees; fearful that Israel would not use the opportunity of its victory to withdraw from territories it conquered during the ’67 war in return for a quickly-established peace with its Arab neighbors that would improve the lot of those refugees; and critical of certain steps being taken (and others not being taken) by the Israeli government.
But despite his misgivings, Stone wrote then with a clear-eyed recognition that Israel was what he repeatedly, simply, referred to as “the Jewish State.” While no longer advocating a bi-national state, Stone, who described the conflict as “a tragic quarrel of brothers,” now believed that to resolve it “in some form or another … must involve a Federated co-existence among Israel, the Palestinian Arabs, and the Jordanians.” In the Weekly of June 19, 1967, dated just nine days after the end of the war, he wrote that “a return to the main idea of [the 1947 U.N. partition plan] may offer a way out for both sides,” and he went on to note that “the original plan called for an Arab State and a Jewish State in Palestine west of the Jordan.”
One can imagine how, if Stone were still writing today, he would be harshly critical of Israel for what he would probably describe as inadequately extending itself to make such a deal, and he most likely would be particularly sharp on the continued occupation of the West Bank. But being opposed to certain policies carried out since 1967—and even critical of some of those carried out previously—is very different from attempting to undo the events of 1948 that brought Israel into being as the modern nation-state of the Jewish people.
Today’s left includes individuals and groups who are engaged in an enterprise of delegitimation that would deny Israel its right to exist. They are driven partly by an inaccurately applied anti-colonial ideology, partly by a selectively applied belief in post-nationalism, partly by an acceptance of a maximalist application of the Palestinian narrative, and partly—one cannot help suspect about some of them—by a troubling though usually unacknowledged animosity to Israel and its supporters. I.F. Stone’s Underground to Palestine provides a useful corrective and alternative to these perspectives, based on its revealing account of the situation prevailing in the period preceding independence. Stone, who was sympathetic to the suffering and legitimate aspirations of both sides, pointed the way to an approach which, rather than reinforcing the anti-Israel grievances and hatred that have helped keep the Israel-Palestinian conflict alive for all these decades, could instead play a part in finally resolving theconflict.
Michael C. Kotzin is Senior Counselor to the President of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago and a former faculty member at Tel-Aviv University.