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Chapter III

The Rabbi in Jerusalem


The Heichal Shlomo building in Jerusalem


Rabbi Herzog did not consider this post as another rabbinical position. The post of chief rabbi of Mandate Palestine with Jerusalem the capital was to him, a dream come true. For two thousand years Jews were praying to return to Zion and here he was sitting in King David's city. Being a deeply religious man, he perceived in his appointment a spiritual omen. He acted accordingly, converting the chief rabbi's Jerusalem office into a bustling center for Jewish issues anywhere in the world. Letters and religious questions began to flow to his office and they were answered. He became a consultant on religious matters to the Jewish Agency in Palestine as well as to the Jewish communities throughout the world. In 1940, the Vaad haYeshivot was founded to supervise advanced Talmud academies. Herzog was its founding president and in charge of the financial support for yeshivot in Palestine. It was also at Herzog's initiative that the Hechal Shlomo building, housing the chief rabbinate, was erected in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Herzog was concerned with the study of Torah but also with problems facing Jews around the world. He also maintained an active correspondence with many of the world's important personalities and political leaders. Through these contacts and a steady flow of news reports, he kept up with the reality behind the headlines. Like many other intelligent and observant people, Rabbi Herzog grew increasingly alarmed with the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. Beginning in the 1930s, he began to give press interviews pointing out the imminent danger in Europe. But his calls went unheeded. Few world leaders, even Jewish leaders, were interested in Jewish problems.

We already mentioned that in 1937, a record number of 60,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine. More Jews were waiting in line to come to Palestine, especially from Germany. The British government decided to strangle Jewish emigration to Palestine. The certificate rules were hardened, and the Mandatory administration was ordered to delay and procrastinate in issuing of certificates. The British refused to admit the clamoring Jews to a safe place. The Germans increased their terror policies against the Jewish population that increased their desperate attempt to leave Germany. Even the pogroms against the Jews of Germany in November 1938 did not budge the British decision to close the gates to Palestine. Each year the number of certificates declined. All Jews' protests were ignored by Britain. To cover up the shameful behavior, the British staged hopeless meetings between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews in London. In 1939, Rabbi Herzog attended the conference and to his amazement the Arab leaders refused to meet the Jewish leaders.[1] They would only meet them face to face if the Jews agreed to stop all Jewish immigration to Palestine and permit the establishment of an Arab state in Palestine that would grant the Jews minority status.[2] The Jewish leaders rejected outright the demands and the conference collapsed. Britain did not give up its one–sided policy and tried other conferences, but the Arabs increased their demands at each meeting. Finally, the British removed all barriers of human decency. The British government published the so–called “White Paper.”[3]

The White Paper of 1939 was a policy paper issued by the British government under Neville Chamberlain. By a vote of 268 to 79 The House of Commons approved on May 23, 1939 the document as did the House of Lords. The document was immediately implemented and became the guiding policy of the British government until 1948. The document limited Jewish immigration to 50,000 immigrants during the next 5 years, and an additional 25,000 were allotted to European refugees.[4] Any further refugees would have to be approved by a council elected by popular vote. Namely, Arabs would have to approve it. Furthermore, restrictions were put on the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs. In effect “The White Paper” annulled the Balfour Declaration that promised a home for the Jewish people. Even the League of Nations that handed Palestine to Britain to administer it, refused to endorse the action. The Arabs by and large rejected the document, having been emboldened by Chamberlain's policies for several years. The Palestinian Jews rejected the document outright. Attacks began against the British in Palestine. The “Irgun” underground military organization began to wage terror attacks against the British and Arabs. The Mandate censorship office censored all news pertaining to the Jewish protests in Palestine. Chamberlain continued his cynical Palestine policies believing that the Jewish support was guaranteed or unimportant in view of the impending winds of war.


Rabbi Herzog amongst demonstrators protesting “The White Paper”


The British and the Palestinians were heading to a policy of confrontation when World War II started. The Jewish Agency decided to bury the hatchet and to support Britain in the war. After the outbreak of war in September 1939, the head of the Jewish Agency for Palestine David Ben–Gurion declared: “We will fight the White Paper as if there is no war, and fight the war as if there is no White Paper.”


David Ben Gurion


David Ben–Gurion was born David GrÜn, 16 October 1886 in Płońsk in Congress Poland – then part of the Russian Empire. His father, Avigdor GrĂ¼n, was a lawyer and a leader in the Hovevei Zion movement. His mother, Scheindel Broitman, died when he was 11 years old. Ben–Gurion's birth certificate indicates that he had a twin brother who died shortly after birth. At the age of 14 he and two friends formed a youth club, Ezra, promoting Hebrew studies and emigration to the Holy Land.

In 1905, as a student at the University of Warsaw, he joined the Social–Democratic Jewish Workers' Party – Poalei Zion. He was arrested twice during the Russian Revolution of 1905. In 1906 he immigrated to Ottoman Palestine. A month after his arrival, he was elected to the central committee of the newly formed branch of Poalei Zion in Jaffa, becoming chairman of the party's platform committee. Ben–Gurion worked picking oranges in Petah Tikva, and in 1907 he moved to the kibbutzim in Galilee, where he worked as an agricultural laborer and withdrew from politics. The following year, he joined an armed group acting as a watchman.

In 1909 he volunteered with HaShomer, a force of volunteers who helped guard isolated Jewish agricultural communities. In 1912, he moved to Constantinople, the Ottoman capital, to study law at Istanbul University together with Yitzhak Ben–Zvi, and adopted the Hebrew name Ben–Gurion, after the medieval historian Joseph ben Gorion. He also worked as a journalist. When World War I started, Ben–Gurion was in Jerusalem and joined a militia force to help the Turks. The latter deported him, and he reached the United States where he met Russian–born Paula Munweis. They were married in 1917. He joined the newly formed Jewish Legion of the British Army. He volunteered for the 38th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, one of the four which constituted the Jewish Legion. His unit fought against the Turks as part of Chaytor's Force during the Palestine Campaign.

The moderate Poalei Zion members formed Ahdut HaAvoda with Ben–Gurion as leader in March 1919. In 1920 he assisted in the formation of the Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation in Palestine, and served as its General Secretary from 1921 until 1935. In 1930, Hapoel Hatzair and Ahdut HaAvoda joined forces to create Mapai, the more moderate Zionist labor party under Ben–Gurion's leadership. Labor Zionism became the dominant tendency in the World Zionist Organization and in 1935 Ben–Gurion became chairman of the executive committee of the Jewish Agency, a role he kept until the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. He became prime minister of the new state.

Ben–Gurion pleaded with Britain to permit some Jewish children of the “Kindertransports” to be permitted to enter Palestine. The answer was a definite no.

Jewish and non–Jewish individuals organized transports of children or Kindertransports, an organized rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. Palestine did not receive one Jewish child. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.

On November 15, 1938, five days after the devastation of Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass,” in Germany and Austria, a delegation of British Jewish and Quaker leaders appealed in person to the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain. Among other measures, they requested that the British government permit the temporary admission of unaccompanied Jewish children, without their parents.


Children of a Kindertransport on the way to Britain


Arrival of Jewish refugee children, port of London, February 1939


The British cabinet debated the issue the next day and subsequently prepared a bill to present to the United Kingdom Parliament. That bill stated that the government would waive certain immigration requirements so as to allow the entry into Great Britain of unaccompanied children ranging from infants up to the age of 17. No limit upon the permitted number of refugees was ever publicly announced. Within a very short time, the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany, later known as the Refugee Children's Movement (RCM), sent representatives to Germany and Austria to establish the systems for choosing, organizing, and transporting the children. World Jewish Relief (formerly the Central British Fund for German Jewry) was involved in the rescue operation. In Germany, a network of organizers was established to select the candidates for the transports. The first party of about 200 children arrived in Harwich, England on December 2,1938. In the following nine months almost 10,000 unaccompanied, mainly Jewish children traveled in Britain. There were also Kindertransports to other countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Geertruida Wijsmuller–Meijer arranged for 1,500 children to be admitted to the Netherlands while waiting entry to Great Britain; the children were supported by the Dutch Committee for Jewish Refugees. The last transport of 74 Jewish children left Holland May 14, 1940.

Rabbi Herzog participated in a massive demonstration in Jerusalem, which included men carrying 12 Torah scrolls. Rabbi Herzog reached the Yeshurun Synagogue where he publicly ripped up a copy of the MacDonald White Paper, a move that made news in most of the newspapers around the world. Rabbi Herzog also vehemently protested what he called the cowardly act of the British government in preventing Jews who had escaped the Nazi horrors with their lives from now finding a safe haven in what was considered their homeland.


Jews in Palestine protest against the White Paper


Women led by (right to left) Ben–Zvi, Herzog and Yellin
protesting the British White Paper (May 22, 1939)

Library of Congress


A few days later, on May 18, 1939, Rabbi Herzog's wife, known as the Rabbanit, Sarah Herzog, along with some of the leading women of Palestinian Jewry, such as Rachel Ben–Zvi, wife of Israel's second president, Yitzchak Ben–Zvi, and Ita Yellin, organized a women's protest of the white paper.

On December 19, 1939, three months after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Rabbi Herzog gave an interview to the London Times describing the dire condition of rabbinical students in what was Poland before the invasion, then given to Lithuania. This was only one attempt by Rabbi Herzog to intervene on behalf of these students, trying to call attention to their plight. He also appealed to the British Mandate authorities to grant these students entry permits to Palestine. Rabbi Herzog even journeyed to London to press his campaign for entry permits.

While in London, Rabbi Herzog requested a meeting with Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador in London. The ambassador invited Herzog to his office where the two men exchanged some light talk, with the rabbi, trying Yiddish on the ambassador, thinking perhaps he was Jewish. Maisky smiled politely, informing the rabbi he was not of Jewish heritage. Unshaken, Rabbi Herzog continued with his reason for the meeting: he asked the Soviet government to issue transit visas to this group of rabbinical students trapped in Wilno, Lithuania. The visas, the rabbi explained, would allow these students to travel to Odessa in the Soviet Union and there board ships first bound for Turkey and then Palestine.

On August 28, 1940, much to Rabbi Herzog's surprise, he received a telegram from Ambassador Maisky granting his request (see below).


Soviet ambassador's reply to Rabbi Herzog[5]


Because of Herzog's intervention, many students indeed reached Odessa and then Palestine. Others crossed the Soviet Union and reached Japan and China.[6]

Rabbi Herzog then decided to appeal to American Jewry and visited some Jewish communities. He also decided to write a letter asking President Franklin D. Roosevelt to grant him an interview. He hoped that the president would respond to his appeal on behalf of European Jewry.




Copy of Rabbi Herzog's letter to the White House. Document in very poor condition so we decided to reprint it.

Isaac Herzog, P.H.D. Litt.,
Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Jerusalem
Present Address: Peter Stuyvesant Hotel, Central Park West, New York, N.Y.

April 21, 1941

To the President of the United States of America,
The White House,

Dear President,

I came over here on a religious mission at the end of January and am due to return, P.O., on May 14th.

Before my departure for the Holy Land, I should very much like to impart the Blessing of Zion to the supreme head of this great and noble country on behalf of the Jewish community of the land of the Patriarchs and the Prophets and of the People of Israel in general.

With that end in view, I would like the grant of an audience lasting but a few minutes on such day and such hour as may suit your convenience.

Faithfully yours,

A presidential aid typed a note onto Rabbi Herzog's letter.

“Dr. Isaac Herzog, Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, is in this country and writes that he will return to Palestine on May fourteenth. Before his departure he wants to shake the President's hand. Summerlin thinks it would be a nice thing if the President could spare him just a minute before he goes.”

A penciled–in note suggests ‘3 min maximum’ for the meet.


On April 29, 1941, Rabbi Herzog was received at the White House by President Roosevelt. During the meeting, Roosevelt told the rabbi that while he sympathized with Herzog's appeal, there was nothing concrete the United States could do. This attitude would prevail almost to the end of World War II. The facts speak for themselves. Roosevelt was not crazy about the meeting but was obligated to meet with Rabbi Herzog as a courtesy to the Jewish community leaders who had requested the audience. Rabbi Herzog immediately felt that his request for help was dismissed with platitudes.

Rabbi Herzog did not give up his efforts. He urged the sponsors of a farewell party in his honor to invite the President of the United States to attend or to send a message to the party. The White House did neither, but sent a reply to the effect that their president is busy.


White House rejection of a request for a presidential message to be read at Rabbi Herzog's departure banquet


Rabbi Herzog flew back to Palestine with a heavy heart. His pleas to help European Jewry were lost. He felt that he had not reached the American president. Still, Rabbi Herzog kept up his vast correspondence regarding Jewish matters throughout the world.


  1. Chaim , Derech, p.85 Return
  2. ibid Return
  3. Eban, Abba, My people, Behrman House, London pp 383–384 Return
  4. Bauer, Yehuda, American Jewry and the Holocaust Wayne State University, Detroit, 1981 p.129 Return
  5. Rabbi Goldman, Pamphlet dealing with his trips with Rabbi Herzog, published in Jerusalem, p.8 Return
  6. Rabbi Goldman, p.8 Return


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