31 May “Standing in the Way of The Promise & The Passage to Redemption”
The story of the Jewish People’s struggle to return home after escaping genocide
On May 31st, the Yehuda HaLevi ship was trapped by the British Navy and taken to the island of Cyprus, stopping 399 Jews from entering their homeland. The stoppage of this ship represents the 2000-year struggle of the Jewish people trying to return to the Land of Israel. Though this was a tragic event in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, most do not know that once every century since the Roman’s destruction of Judea and Jewish civilization in 70 CE, the people of Israel have tried to return back to the Land of Israel. This time would be different.
In 6 CE, the Roman Empire had occupied Judea, later they would destroy Jewish civilization and ethnically cleansed the vast majority Jewish people off their land. While the Romans exiling them to foreign lands, over the time that Jewish people chose to wait for a religious miracle that would bring them back to the land of their forefathers and foremothers. Though there were many who started realizing not just the need for a Jewish state because of European anti-Semitism and violent persecution, but that they yearned for Jerusalem, Tiberius, Tzfat and Hebron. The holiest cities to the Jewish people. It was time to immigrate and decolonize after centuries of living in Europe, time to return to the land of their forefathers and foremothers. Between 1880 and 1948, the Jewish people would face legendary adventure, jarring periods, and unbelievable tragedies. It was in the late 1800s that the Jews of Eastern Europe chose to return to the Land of Israel and start the process of rebuilding Jewish civilization under the vast Ottoman Empire. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the land divided up in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the Europeans set the borders that still define the Middle East today. The Land of Israel went from the possession of the Ottoman Sultan to Great Britain.
In 1917, a letter presented by the British Foreign Secretary to Britain’s Zionist Federation that gave the Jewish people the long-awaited international legitimacy to create sovereignty in what was their historic homeland, this document came to be known as the Balfour Declaration. Though the Balfour Declaration helped encourage the Jewish people to return, the 1939 White Papers was the British’s strategy to appease the Arab community who fought against the Balfour Declaration’s support for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The 1939 White Papers did more than just reverse the British position on a Jewish state, it also set smaller quotas on Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel and ended the building of new Jewish communities in the land. Two-thousand years after the Roman atrocities committed against the Jewish people, the Jewish people had returned and were still under foreign occupation. To address immigration, there were many ships carrying Jewish refugees from the Nazi’s atrocities in Europe as well as from places that were haunted with the memoires of decades of anti-Jewish pogroms. The Jewish passengers on these ships hoped to see more opportunity and a life away from persecution, a hope to live in a Jewish state, the heavy limits on Jewish immigration would ultimately push the Jewish people to rebel in desperation to save their people.
One ship, known as Yehuda HaLevi, was the first vessel to bring Jewish immigrants from North Africa in the Second Aliyah (1934-1948). The Second Aliyah was a tougher journey but better living conditions in the Land of Israel compared to earlier Jewish immigrants. Yehuda HaLevi was a revered Jewish poet, philosopher, and physician in Spain between 1075-1141. He left Spain for the Land of Israel and died shortly after, though his legacy lives on. He is the namesake for a 1947 ship carrying 399 Jewish immigrants. The refugees on the Yehuda HaLevi had dreamt of reaching the Land of Israel, though they were stopped at the gates of redemption by the British navy on May 31st. The passengers were then sent to Cyprus, after decades of living outside their homeland with all the benefits of persecution, the Jewish people were stopped just short because of Britain’s political strategy.
A year later, the Jewish people would have their independence in their homeland, the Land of Israel. As the Balfour Declaration, the 1939 White Papers, and quotas on immigration like the capture of the Yehuda HaLevi occurred, the Jewish people had left atrocities to face new triumphs and tragedies. There were many obstacles in the path to redemption, we look back and honor the Jewish people that battled for independence and human rights in the face of great danger. Today, the State of Israel is a thriving country that interacts with her neighbors, holds great alliances, and has the ability to protect her people. A country that was worth risking it all to reach and help establish.