Zionism, German Jewry, and world Jewry

Although before 1933 Zionism had attracted only a small minority of German Jews, and most German Jewish leaders had regarded its nationalist message as inimical to the idea of emancipation, after the Nazi rise to power Zionists became part of the Reichsvertretung, and even Germany’s largest Jewish organisation, which had long insisted that Jews constituted a religious group only, acknowledged that ‘Palestine holds a special place among the countries of immigration’ and that ‘Palestine is an essential factor in [Jewry’s] survival’ (Dawidowicz, 1976: 167). This development was eventually to offset much of the reluctance of non-Zionist Jewish leaders to encourage Jews to leave.

Zionists, both in and out of Germany, were among the first to call upon German Jewry to make emigration (to Palestine) a communal priority. Chaim Arlosoroff, head of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency for Palestine, who visited Germany in April 1933, argued that although Palestine might not provide the sole solution to German Jewry’s predicament, it had the advantage of permanence. Arlosoroff also suggested that Zionists might actually be able to reach an agreement with the Nazi regime that would allow Jews emigrating to Palestine to take a significant portion of their assets with them; he proposed that departing Jews be allowed to use the value of the assets they left behind to purchase German-made goods exported to the Middle East. Such an agreement, he thought, could help resettle large numbers of German Jews within three or four years (see Document 13).

There were several bases for this optimism. First, many Zionists thought that their movement and the Nazis - for all their fundamentally polar attitudes towards the Jewish people - shared a common interest in seeing Jews leave Germany. Second, they understood the German government’s acute need to develop export markets for German industries, in order to build foreign currency reserves and provide jobs for millions of unemployed Germans. Finally, they knew that, unlike much of the world, the economy of Jewish Palestine was booming and that there was significant demand there for heavy machinery, which could be obtained from manufacturers in several countries, not only Germany. They believed, therefore, that they possessed both ideological and economic leverage that they, alone among Jewish leaders, could exercise to Jewish advantage.

As it happened, individual Zionists from Germany and Palestine had been speaking informally with certain German officials along these lines even before Arlosoroff had broached his idea publicly. Negotiations were institutionalised in May 1933, and on 17 August a formal agreement was actually concluded between the German Zionist Federation and the German Ministry of Economic Affairs. Known as the Haavara Agreement (Haavara is Hebrew for ‘transfer’), the arrangement permitted prospective emigrants to invest in a new export company, which would buy German merchandise and market it in the Middle East. Payments for merchandise sold would be sent to a special account in a Palestine bank. When emigrants who had invested in the export company reached Palestine, they could redeem their shares at the bank and receive cash out of the special account. The agreement was actually implemented, too: by 1939, 50,000 German Jews had transferred £8 million to Palestine.

The Haavara Agreement was widely supported by German Jews, Zionist and non-Zionist alike. In 1937 the Reichsvertretung even reached agreement with the government to make similar arrangements for Jews departing for other countries. But many Jews outside of Germany, Zionists and non-Zionists, opposed it. In March 1933, before the negotiations that led to the Haavara Agreement had begun, Jews in several countries had organised a boycott of German products, hoping to thwart Nazi efforts to solve Germany’s economic problems and thereby encourage internal German opposition to the Nazi regime. The Haavara Agreement, which favoured negotiation over confrontation, clearly represented the antithesis of the boycott strategy and threatened to defeat it. As a result, it was attacked vigorously by many non-German Jews. It was also opposed on moral grounds: by promoting German exports, the agreement helped strengthen a regime that was persecuting Jews. This controversy has continued in retrospect, with historians and others hotly debating whether the Haavara Agreement undermined a real chance to nip the Nazi threat in the bud. Careful statistical analysis of both the boycott and the Haavara Agreement suggest, however, that neither had more than a miniscule effect on the German economy. German officials may have feared the boycott at first, but it appears that they supported the Haavara Agreement less because of its economic potential and more because it represented a way to rid Germany of many Jews. At least some agencies of the Nazi regime appear to have pursued this goal even in 1933, as long as it could be accomplished without disrupting the economy. Measures such as the ‘flight tax’ and restrictions on the removal of property were supposed to prevent disruption, but they also discouraged Jews from emigrating. The Haavara Agreement thus removed both a source of discouragement for Jews and one of economic loss for Germany.

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