We Jews permit ourselves degrees of intolerance towards each other that we would never exhibit toward others outside our community. The settings are numerous – theology, Halacha, denominations, politics and more.
But nowhere are the vehemence and the inability to actually listen to those with whom we disagree more pronounced than with regard to the State of Israel.
The great irony of our age is that arguments about how to safeguard the Jewish state are a significant part of what now threatens to destroy any semblance of unity among the Jewish people. It is therefore helpful to have periodic reminders of just how much is at stake in the survival and flourishing of this state.
This week affords just that opportunity, for we are just days shy of the 70th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Struma. Few people today remember the Struma or its story; the young among us cannot even imagine the Jewish existential condition that it reflected, a condition that the state has, thankfully, completely eradicated.
The story begins in 1941, when it was clear to many Eastern European Jews that they were destined for a horrific end. In Romania, several Zionist organizations, Betar among them, commissioned a Bulgarian ship to transport almost 800 Jewish passengers to Palestine – the Struma.
Like Europe, however, the Struma was a disaster waiting to happen. The ship was barely more than a floating tub, 61 meters in length and six meters wide, which had been built in 1830 for shipping cargo; it had subsequently been used to transport cattle. It was powered by a motor that had apparently been salvaged from the bottom of the Danube River. The immigrants aboard had, according to some accounts, but a single bathroom.
Their only sources of comfort were the knowledge that they were finally succeeding in fleeing a burning Europe, and that the whole trip to Istanbul, the first leg of their journey, would take merely 14 hours.
The Struma set sail on December 12, 1941, but the engine gave out almost immediately. The tugboat that had towed them out of the harbor eventually sent its navigator and engineer on board, but they would only fix the engine for a large sum of money. The passengers, however, had given all their money to the Romanian customs officials. So they parted with their gold wedding bands in return for the repairs.
Four interminable days later, the boat limped into the Istanbul harbor, where it would remain for months.
Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark – what country would want a boatload of homeless Jews? Nor did Britain want them to make their way to Palestine; the British were anxious to assure an increasingly restless and sometimes violent Arab resistance that limits on Jewish immigration would be enforced.
On February 12, almost two months after the boat had left Romania, the British finally acquiesced and granted Palestinian visas to the children on board. But His Majesty’s government refused to send a ship to collect them, and Turkey refused to grant them overland passage. The children thus remained on board. With negotiations between Turkey and Britain at a standstill, Turkish officials towed the disabled boat up the Bosporus Strait toward the Black Sea.
Passengers hung signs over the side that said “Save Us” in both English and Hebrew. The signs were plainly visible to people on the shores of the Bosporus, but no one, of course, did anything to help them.
When the hapless Struma reached the Black Sea, the Turks abandoned the ship, leaving it to drift. The next morning, on February 24, a Soviet submarine torpedoed the Struma, which exploded and sank. Of the 769 people on board, only one survived, by holding on to wreckage for more than 24 hours. His name was David Stoliar, and he was imprisoned in Turkey for several weeks, then admitted to Palestine. Stoliar served in the British Army during the war, and then in the IDF during the War of Independence; he later moved to Oregon.
There is much we do not know about the Struma catastrophe. Why did the Soviets sink the boat? Did they mistake it for something else? Did the British actually encourage their Soviet allies to sink the ship in order to “solve” the problem without putting pressure on Palestinian immigration? Some people believe so, but we will probably never know with certainty.
The incident, now mostly forgotten, had all the iconic elements of the Shoah. Human beings transported with equipment once used for cattle. Subhuman and unlivable conditions. Helpless Jews, whom no one wanted, with nowhere in the world to go. And finally, of course, mass death, with no graves to mark the fact that these innocent people had even existed, and had died for the simple reason that they were Jews.
Perhaps the most important element of the story to remember is to be found in a British governmental communication from 1941, referring to the Jews who were desperate to escape Europe and who, the British rightly understood, would try to make their way to Palestine despite British objections. “We should have some alternative scheme in hand for disposing of these surplus Jews, who having escaped from persecution in Europe, are going to be kept in detention camps in British colonies,” the communication stated matter-of-factly.
“Surplus Jews”: The phrase is used with no hint of embarrassment, no expression of responsibility. “Surplus Jews,” as in human beings that are, for now, a commodity – until they become literally worthless. “Surplus,” as in not needed, as in a problem that needs to be disposed of.
No one uses this phrase anymore. Not the British, nor the Turks. Not Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, nor Mahmoud Abbas. People across the globe still have their beef with us; some are justified, most are not. But whatever one might say about the State of Israel, one thing is clear – the Struma incident simply could not happen today.
It is simply impossible for today’s Jews to find themselves in a world in which no one wants them or will have them. That, perhaps most fundamentally, is the dimension of Jewish life that Israel has changed, hopefully forever. Jews may be all sorts of things, but we are no longer “surplus.”
It is worth remembering now just how much has changed in the past 70 years. And as we battle over how Judaism should be manifested in this state, what its borders should be and how we can best protect it, the memory of the Struma ought to serve as a chilling reminder of what we will lose if the stridency of our debate rips our people – and then our state – asunder.