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Paul Shulman  E-mail

Paul Shulman

Paul Shulman with Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion


Half a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust  wanted nothing more than to “go home” to a land they had never seen.  But the gates to what was then called Palestine were slammed shut by a blockade ruthlessly enforced by a British government whose forces occupied the Land of Israel, and were determined to prevent the birth of a Jewish State.


In the aftermath of World War II, America was basking in the return to normalcy and coping with the beginning of the Cold War, but a few American Jewish volunteers answered a new call to duty – they helped to smash the blockade with Aliyah Bet, what the British called “illegal immigration.”  Ships renamed “Exodus,” “Jewish State” and “Hatikva” were packed with refugees and sailed to Palestine to dramatize the injustice of the remnant of European Jewry being kept out of their own country.


Among these volunteers was a young man who might well be called the “John Paul Jones” of Israel – Paul Shulman of Stamford.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and a veteran of the fighting in the Pacific, Shulman helped organize the blockade-running.  After the British were finally forced to leave, he took on the job of building the Israel Navy, commanding it throughout the War of Independence.


Unlike many of the other volunteers, Shulman grew up in a Zionist home.  He was the son of Herman Shulman, a prominent attorney, and Rebecca Shulman, a former national president of Hadassah and a relative of its founder, the legendary Henrietta Szold.  Rebecca was a close friend of Golda Meir (whose sister was a Jewish professional in Bridgeport).  Golda attended the wedding of Paul’s niece Judy.  And it was in the family home in Stamford in the 1930s that Paul first met David Ben-Gurion, his future commander in chief and first prime minister of Israel, when Ben-Gurion was on an American tour.


Shulman was admitted to Annapolis and graduated during the war.  He was immediately sent to the Pacific theater to serve on a destroyer.  He rose to the rank of full lieutenant and was second-in-command on his ship by the time the war ended.


After the bombing of Hiroshima and Japan’s surrender, Shulman completed his naval service and returned to Connecticut.  He was working in New York for an import-export house when he was approached by Teddy Kollek, an Austrian-born agent of the Haganah, the official armed forces of the Jewish inhabitants in Palestine.  Kollek, who was to become mayor of Jerusalem, asked Shulman to use his naval expertise to help the Haganah buy ships to run refugees to Palestine.  Soon this part-time effort became a full-time job, but Paul’s employer, a loyal Zionist, continued to pay his salary.


Shulman ran the F & B Shipping Company – a false front through which the Haganah bought older American vessels which could be outfitted to sell to Europe, and would then pick up Jewish refugees, and attempt to run the British blockade.  This tactic, first used in the 1930s by the national Zionist Irgun Zvai Leumi, had been taken up in earnest by the mainstream Haganah after the war.


While Shulman told shippers who enquired that the initials FB represented the motto “far better,” in fact they stood for a defiant and obscene gesture of Jewish defiance, “F…. Britain.”


The British, who had pledged in the Balfour Declaration to help build a national home for the Jewish people, had turned on the Zionists.  In the hope of appeasing the Arabs and saving some of their crumbling empire, the British did all in their power during the Holocaust to prevent Jews from escaping the Nazis and reaching the only country which wanted them, Jewish Palestine.  After the war, the British continued their strict blockade while defending their hold on the country against an armed Jewish revolt, led by the Irgun and Lehi underground groups.  Though the Haganah and the Irgun were fierce rivals (today’s Labor and Likud blocs in Israeli politics can trace their origins to this conflict), the combined actions of the Haganah “illegal” immigration and Irgun and Lehi “terrorism” eventually forced the British to give up.


In 1947 Shulman went to Venice to help prepare the sailing of the “Pan Crescent,” a ship subsequently renamed “Atzmaut.” Working there with a beautiful Italian-Jewish aristocrat named Ada Sereni, he schemed to outwit the British Navy, which still occupied the port.  Sereni persuaded the Mayor of Venice to hold a reception for the British naval officers in the port the night of the “Atzmaut’s” escape.


Shulman had his own problems that night.  Speaking at a reunion of the Aliyah Bet veterans in Israel in 1987, Shulman remembered the trouble he had getting out of Venice that night with his Haganah crew.   The last thing he needed was to be publicly identified as a former U.S. naval officer.  But the captain of a U.S. Naval ship who knew Shulman all too well was standing in his hotel lobby the night they were leaving.  Years earlier, while on shore patrol in a South American port, Shulman had run the captain out of a brothel.  To avoid contact with the officer, Shulman hired a prostitute and told her to tell the man that she was a “gift from an old friend.” When the captain went off with the prostitute, Shulman and the Haganah men left without being seen.


In May 1948, Shulman arrived in the newly created State of Israel as it was being invaded by five Arab armies.  The man whom he had met in Stamford a decade earlier now turned to him to organize the fledgling navy.   Much like the more famous Colonel Mickey Marcus, a West Point graduate who helped whip Zahal (IDF) into shape in the first months of Jewish independence, Shulman spoke no Hebrew and encountered a great deal of resistance from sabra Israelis who found it difficult to take orders from an American.


Despite these difficulties, Shulman set up a training program, set precedents and created a disciplined “ship-shape” organization.  Under his command, the navy, which consisted of some of the same old beat-up ships that were used for Aliyah Bet, routed the Egyptians from Israel’s shore, and sank the Egyptian flagship, the “Farouk” at Gaza


Link to story of “Sinking the Emir Farouk”


He commanded two important actions towards the end of the 1948-49 war – a blockade of the Gaza Strip, and the capture of Ein Gedi, which secured Israel’s hold of the Dead Sea’s south-western coast.


Deciding to stay in Israel, Shulman Hebraized his name to Shaul Ben-Zvi, something Ben-Gurion demanded of all senior commanders.  Hebrew-speaking Israelis were soon trained to take over the navy, and with the end of the War of Independence, Shulman became advisor to the prime minister on naval and maritime development.  He entered private industry and became actively engaged in major engineering enterprises both in Israel and abroad.  Among his greatest interests was the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Israel’s top university for science and engineering  He became a member of the Board of Governors.  In May 1994 he died in Haifa of heart disease.


Shulman liked to say that he was the only man in the history of the U.S. Navy who, in only three years, rose from the rank of lieutenant to that of admiral.



Sources: Jonathan S. Tobin’s article “The Blockade Runners”  in the New Haven Jewish Ledger dated 10th Febraury 1995, and The New York Times obituary on 18th May 1994.

Photograph –  acknowledgements to Israel Veterans website – (www.israelvets.com)