“No Ron, you mean Moses, not Abraham.” No, I mean Abe.
Growing up in Richmond you had to choose your sports teams based on the geography, meaning we had no sports teams of our own (other than the AAA Braves). In basketball I was a 76’ers fan as Philly wasn’t that far away, but once I moved to Washington I began to root for the Bullets. In 1995 owner Abe Pollin decided that the name was too violent—especially with the growing homicide rate in DC. The final straw was when his longtime friend, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
A contest followed to find a new name (And quite honestly I came up the best name. It was obvious. You are in Washington; basketball players are tall, duh! The Washington Monuments! Right?). They went with a ridiculous name that has nothing to do with Washington—the Wizards.
Abe Pollin died this year. He will be remembered mostly for being the owner of the Wizards, Mystics and Capitols, but when I heard of his death the first thing that came to my mind was a story I heard him tell at a memorial service for Prime Minister Rabin in 1995.
“[O]ne day [my father] said, ‘Son, I’m taking you to a meeting downtown.’ I said, ‘Where are we going?’ He said, ‘I can’t tell you right now, but you’ll see.’
“So we went downtown to an office where a Middle Eastern-looking guy was guarding the door. I found out later that he and others were from the Hagana, the Jewish military organization that fought for Israel’s creation.
“Inside the meeting were about 20 leaders of the Washington Jewish Community. They locked the door and said, ‘Nobody leaves here until we raise the money.’ The next morning they bought an old steamship which was in the port of Baltimore, and renamed it the Exodus.”
The Exodus was the most famous of all the clandestine or illegal immigration ships that sought to bring Jews from Europe during and just after the Holocaust to British Mandate Palestine.[i] One of the ships, The Af-Al-Pi-Chen (In Spite Of…), which sought to break through the British blockade with 434 passengers, was one of 116 such ships of every shape and size that tried to offload their human cargo in pre-Israel Palestine. It is the only ship that is still in existence and houses the Museum of Clandestine Immigration in Haifa.
Over 100,000 Jews tried to escape the Holocaust of Europe through clandestine immigration. Most of them, like the passengers of the Af-Al-Pi-Chen, were taken in internment camps in Cyprus. How ironic that the same British that were seeking to defeat the Nazis who were imprisoning Jews in concentration camps, were taking Jews who escaped or survived the Holocaust and putting them in similar conditions. The reason Jews could not freely immigrate and start a new life in the ancient Jewish homeland was because, even as Hitler was getting started in his final solution, Great Britain passed their own solution to Jewish immigration, the White Paper of 1939. It stated that from 1939-1944 only 75,000 Jews (out of 11,000,000 in Europe) would be allowed to immigrate to Palestine and after that, immigration would be allowed only with Arab consent. Oil was more precious than Jewish blood. On July 11th, 1947, three years after Britain closed off immigration to Jews, the newly named Exodus that Abe Pollin’s father and friends raised the money to buy in Baltimore, set sail from France with 4,515 Holocaust survivors for Israel.
“The ship sailed from the port of Site, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, on board. As soon as it left the territorial waters of France, British destroyers accompanied it. On July 18, near the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and boarded it, while the immigrants put up a desperate defense. Two immigrants and a crewman were killed in the battle, and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to Haifa, where the immigrants were forced onto deportation ships bound for France. At Port-de-Bouc, in southern France, the would-be immigrants remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heat wave, refusing to disembark despite the shortage of food, the crowding and the abominable sanitary conditions. The French government refused to force them off the boat. Eventually, the British decided to return the would-be immigrants to Germany, and on August 22 the ship left for the port of Hamburg, then in the British occupation zone. The immigrants were forcibly taken off and transported to two camps near Lubeck.
“Journalists who covered the dramatic struggle described to the entire world the heartlessness and cruelty of the British. World public opinion was outraged and the British changed their policy. Illegal immigrants were not sent back to Europe; they were instead transported to detention camps in Cyprus.
“The majority of the passengers on the Exodus 1947 settled in Israel, though some had to wait until after the establishment of the State of Israel.”[ii]
The Exodus served as one of several events that turned British public opinion against their government’s presence in the dangerous Middle East, and shortly thereafter Great Britain turned Palestine over to the UN, who voted a few months later on November 29th to allow the creation of a Jewish State. (They also allowed for the creation for an Arab State next to it, but the Arabs turned it down and attacked the new nation of Israel instead.) Abe Pollin’s legacy should not only include winning an NBA championship in 1978, but he should also be remembered for making a contribution in winning Israel’s independence.
[i] It is important to note that the name Palestine had nothing to with an Arab ethnicity. It was a name that the Roman’s borrowed from the ancient Philistines, when they renamed Judea as Palestine. There has never been a country called Palestine, there is no language called Palestinian. The people who called themselves Palestinian today are Arabs, no different ethnically from Jordanians or Syrians. When I use this name I am referring to pre-1948 Israel.