Aliyah Bet (Hebrew: ‘עלייה ב, “Aliyah ‘B'” – bet being the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet) was the code name given to illegal immigration by Jews to the British Mandate for Palestine in violation of British White Paper of 1939 restrictions, in the years 1934-1948. In modern day Israel it has also been called by the Hebrew term Ha’apala (Hebrew: ההעפלה; ascension). The Aliyah Bet is distinguished from the Aliyah Aleph (“Aliyah ‘A'”, Aleph being the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet): the limited Jewish immigration permitted by British authorities in the same period.
During Ha’apala, several Jewish organizations worked together to facilitate immigration beyond the established quotas. As persecution of Jews intensified in Europe during the Nazi era, the urgency driving the immigration also became more acute. Those who participated in the immigration efforts consistently refused to term it “illegal”, instead calling it “clandestine.”
Ha’apala occurred in two phases. First, from 1934 to 1942, it was an effort to enable European Jews to escape Nazi persecution and murder. From 1945 to 1948, in a stage known as Bricha, it was an effort to find homes for Jewish survivors of the Nazi crimes (Sh’erit ha-Pletah) who were among the millions of displaced persons (“DPs”) languishing in refugee camps in occupied Germany. During the first phase, several organizations (including Revisionists) led the effort; after World War II, the Mossad LeAliyah Bet (“the Institute for Aliyah B”), an arm of the Haganah, took charge.
Post-World War II, Ha’apala journeys typically started in the DP camps and moved through one of two collection points in the American occupation sector, Bad Reichenhall and Leipheim. From there, the refugees travelled in disguised trucks, on foot, or by train to ports on the Mediterranean Sea, where ships brought them to Palestine. Most of the ships had names such as Lo Tafchidunu (“You can’t frighten us”) and La-Nitzabon (“To the victory”) designed to inspire and rally the Jews of Palestine. Some were named after prominent figures in the Zionist movement, and people who had been killed while supporting Aliyah Bet. More than 70,000 Jews arrived in Palestine on more than 100 ships.
American sector camps imposed no restrictions on the movements out of the camps, and American, French, and Italian officials often turned a blind eye to the movements. Several UNRRA officials (in particular Elizabeth Robertson in Leipheim) acted as facilitators of the emigration. The British government vehemently opposed the movement, and restricted movement in and out of their camps. Britain also set up armed naval patrols to prevent immigrants from landing in Palestine. Over 100,000 people attempted to illegally enter Palestine. There were 142 voyages by 120 ships. Over half were stopped by the British patrols. The Royal Navy had eight ships on station in Palestine, and additional ships were tasked with tracking suspicious vessels heading for Palestine. Most of the intercepted immigrants were sent to internment camps in Cyprus: (Karaolos near Famagusta, Nicosia,Dhekelia, and Xylotumbou). Some were sent to the Atlit detention camp in Palestine, and some to Mauritius. The British held as many as 50,000 people in these camps (see Jews in British camps on Cyprus). Over 1,600 drowned at sea. Only a few thousand actually entered Palestine.
The pivotal event in the Ha’apala program was the incident of the SS Exodus in 1947. The Exodus was intercepted, attacked, and boarded by the British patrol. Despite significant resistance from its passengers, Exodus was forcibly returned to Europe. Its passengers were eventually sent back to Germany. This was publicized, to the great embarrassment of the British government.
One account of Aliyah Bet is given by journalist I. F. Stone in his 1946 book Underground to Palestine, a first-person account of traveling with European displaced persons attempting to reach the Jewish homeland.
Some 250 American ex-veterans including Murray S. Greenfield (of the ship Hatikva) from WWII volunteered to sail ten ships from the USA to Europe to load 35,000 survivors of the Holocaust (1/2 of the so-called illegal immigrants) to Palestine, only to be deported to Cyprus detention camps. (“The Jews’ Secret Fleet”)