An unsung Hero of Israel
Abraham Feinberg, an unsung hero of the rebirth of Israel, jailed by the British, investigated by the FBI and lauded by Ben Gurion.
David Ben Gurion proclaiming the Independence of Israel
The Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 was the beginning of a new era in the history of the Jewish people. This event also signalled the end of an epoch during which no holds were barred in the fight for a Jewish homeland.
1945 to 1948 - Critical time for the Zionist Movement
One of the little known and unsung heroes of the period between the end of World War 2 and the rebirth of Israel was Abraham Feinberg. Author Richard D. McKinzie, who conducted an extensive interview with Feinberg in 1973, used the following words to describe him “Business executive and philanthropist. Active in the cause of immigration to Palestine and in the creation of the State of Israel, 1945-48. Friend of President Harry S. Truman”. This economical description of Abe Feinberg hides a voluminous narrative of his role in bringing about two connected events, the establishment of the State of Israel and the re-election of the U.S. president Harry Truman in 1949.
The Abe Feinberg saga didn’t end in 1948, as he continued to play an important role in the economic life of Israel right until his passing at the age of 90 in 1998. More about that much later. First the momentous years 1945 - 1948.
Feinberg’s Zionist activities from 1945 onwards attracted the attention of the FBI, with this excerpt from their file on Feinberg giving us a clue as to his clandestine activities; "Prior to the creation of the Republic of Israel in 1948, Feinberg was active in various Jewish organizations in the United States whose purpose was directed toward establishing an Israeli Republic. In this connection he was President of Americans for Haganah, Inc., 250 West 57th Street, New York City, which published "Haganah Speaks" a bi-monthly publication.”
Abraham Feinberg - Business career
Abraham Feinberg had joined his father as a partner in a hosiery manufacturing business in 1933, the same year Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president of the United States for the first time, heralding the New Deal programme for the economic recovery of the U.S. following the Great Depression, which boded well for Abe Feinberg businesswise. Concurrent with his business activities, he completed a law degree, after which he got married and then completed a masters degree in government administration, with his second child born on the day he was awarded his masters. By this time the Second World War had broken out and Abe's business was booming, as this quote indicates “The years leading up to World War 2 resulted in a very prosperous time for all manufacturers, even hosiery manufacturers. The Government's need for supplies, and the restrictions on silk and on nylon (these were all ladies' hose) meant that anyone who had production could sell anything”. Feinberg’s financial success was thus assured and he became a very wealthy man.
Feinberg meets soon to be president, Harry Truman
Harry Truman had in the meanwhile become the vice presidential candidate on the Roosevelt ticket for the 1945 presidential election, which resulted in Truman becoming vice president on 20 January 1945. Around that time Feinberg had become concerned about the confrontational tactics being employed by then Zionist leader Abba Hillel Silver, to obtain the support of the U.S. for the cause of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Feinberg engineered a meeting with Democratic National Chairman Robert Hannegan, hoping this would lead to him meeting president Roosevelt. Hannegan suggested that he should rather meet with the vice president, and so Feinberg’s first fateful meeting with Truman came about. Commenting on that first meeting Feinberg said “I did strike a mutually friendly note with Truman that afternoon”, little knowing that within 5 months Truman would succeed to the presidency following the death of FDR, and that “friendly note” would become vitality important to the Jewish people. Truman had a difficult initiation into the presidency as he had never been taken in Roosevelt's confidence with regard to any decisions, having had precisely two meetings with the president during his 5 month tenure as vice president. This lack of knowledge extended to the Manhattan Project, the production of the atomic bombs, which were to be dropped on Japan 4 short months later.
Truman had no choice other than to surround himself with friends who became his advisers and confidants, with Abe Feinberg included in that number, placing him in an extremely advantageous position to be an advocate for the Jewish National Home. While pursuing his political objectives, Feinberg became involved with the Haganah and the clandestine purchase of the armaments that the soon to be born State of Israel would need to defend itself against a multitude of Arab aggressors, who promised to strangle the anticipated Jewish State at birth. He also became involved in the purchase of ships suitable for refitting as passenger ships to ferry the huge numbers of Holocaust refugees, many of whom were languishing in displaced persons camps in Europe, to Mandate Palestine, an illegal activity in the eyes of the British government.
Jewish Displaced Persons
Following intense lobbying by Feinberg, the U.S. put pressure on British foreign minister Bevin to allow an estimated 100,000 displaced persons entry into Palestine. Bevin reacted by agreeing to the appointment of an Anglo-American Commission (the 14th or 15 commission on Palestine), promising to allow entry to the 100,000 refugees if the commission members unanimously advised accordingly, which they duly did. Prompted by prime minister Clement Attlee, Bevin reneged on his promise, in the same way as countless other British promises had been broken. Truman was furious and wanted to immediately make the U.S. position clear. Feinberg counselled him to wait a few days until the eve of Yom Kippur, before releasing his statement. This quote from Feinberg, before the days of digital media, explains his reasoning “I suggested to him that a good time to make his position known was just before the holiest day in the Jewish year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Even non observant Jews, such as myself tend to go to the synagogues on the night before, which is a most somber night. Every single Rabbi in every single synagogue will broadcast what you say. Forget the newspapers, forget any other of the media. Your word (will go) directly to the Jewish people.”
Feinberg visits Dachau
The shock and horror of American Jewry together with the censure of the U.S. president did not make the slightest impression on Bevin, who steadfastly refused to allow Jewish refugees to enter Palestine, out of fear of, or possibly respect for, the Arab reaction to such a move. Feinberg decided to see for himself and arranged to visit some of the Displaced Persons camps. He described the conditions as follows; “I don't know what the concentration camps were like, but I would not like to live in a DP camp for more than a day or two. They were the same camps that the Nazis used, by the way, with the same barbed wire, the same gallows, the same ovens. I was in those places, so I know the shock in merely seeing the ashes that were not yet scooped out of the oven. I'd spent three days in Dachau in the business of smuggling, out of Dachau and neighboring camps, Jews to their ultimate destination, Palestine.”
Feinberg's myriad activities
So our man, Abe Feinberg, was involved in the illegal purchase and smuggling of arms for the Haganah, the illegal purchase and refitting of ships for Aliyah Bet and illegally (in British eyes) spiriting displaced people and refugees into Palestine, while simultaneously advising president Truman on policy regarding Mandate Palestine and the Zionist Movement. Taking time off from these activities, Abe rushed to Haifa in July 1946 to meet one of the Aliyah Bet ships that was due to dock. The British impounded the ship that Abe was set to meet , along with a number of other ships, with Abe demanding to be allowed to board the ship for an inspection. He was eventually allowed on board and to his horror found 1800 men, women and children were crammed on board, rather more than the 400 or 500 that the ship had been refitted to carry. The port authorities refused to allow disembarkation, saying that the passengers were infected with the “black plague”, which Feinberg found to be patently untrue and after much argument, the passengers were allowed to disembark. Adding to their horrific plight they were then detained in an overcrowded Atlit detention camp. Another very poignant quote from Feinberg tells of the horror of Atlit “The camp was enclosed in barbed wire. When I went to visit the camp, the children were all hysterical because here they saw barbed wire again. They had just left barbed wire and everything associated with it.” This in reference to the barbed wire that surrounded the German concentration camps. While researching this information I realised that the shock and horror of those poor children must have been too terrible for words to describe. No wonder that many Holocaust survivors suffered trauma and anxiety for the rest of their lives.
The barbed wire enclosing the notorious Dachau Death Camp
Arrested for espionage
While Abe Feinberg was in Palestine, an agent named Sasson had obtained information about Syrian and other troop dispositions and Feinberg was asked to take this back to America. The information was sewn into a small camel hair suitcase, which Feinberg included with his luggage. Feinberg and Sasson were arrested a short while later and charged with espionage and imprisoned in Ramle. Sasson was stripped naked and subjected to various forms of torture during his interrogation. The interrogators then turned their attention to Feinberg and once again let him describe events “Then they started on me. I said, "No, you don't touch me." Incidentally, they knew that I had some influence, because I had sent a cable to Truman while I was there, protesting this business of the black plague and telling him that it wasn't true. They had censorship and the cable didn't go, but they knew that obviously I had some connection with Truman. So, I said, "If you want to search me, you search me in front of the American Consul. And you find him for me now." Feinberg was later released and his luggage returned to him, although the camel hair case with the incriminating documents had disappeared, having been replaced by a replica. Shortly before his departure from Palestine Feinberg was handed an innocent looking cigarette lighter, which contained a microfilm of all the information, which was duly delivered to Haganah officials in New York.
1947 United Nations vote
This remarkable man, Abraham Feinberg was simultaneously engaged in numerous activities, some clandestine and others above board, all on behalf of the Jewish people. During 1947 Feinberg was heavily involved in persuading president Truman to support the vote for the partition of Palestine between the Jewish and Arab residents, which would allow for the emergence of an independent Jewish homeland. Shortly before the vote Chaim Weizmann arrived in New York to participate in the lobbying of votes for partition, where he was met by Abe Feinberg. Feinberg received an assurance from Truman that he would support partition, despite strong opposition from the State Department, at which stage Feinberg relates that he was certain the result of the U.N. vote would be positive, and advised Weizmann accordingly.
Feinberg and Chaim Weizmann
Feinberg recollected that he was attending a Bar Mitzvah celebration at the Waldorf Hotel with his wife and family while the vote was taking place. He had gone to the hotel radio room when he heard news of the United Nations vote having gone in favour of partition. He rushed off to the nearby Plaza Hotel where Weizmann was resident, finding the great man alone in his room. Feinberg recalled the scene with these words “I remember it clearly. And the tears were coming down. He just sat down, and we said nothing but embraced each other. We were very close friends. My wife gave him a kiss. And all he said was, "At last." It was a kind of a moment where you realize that that was all.”
Feinberg's activities in the period between the United Nations vote and the Independence of Israel were so numerous that they could fill a book. I’m ending this week's post with the positive result of the United Nations vote , and will continue with more of the Abe Feinberg saga next week.
With gratitude to my good friend Joel Klotnick for making me aware of the existence of Abe Feinberg.