Named not in hubris but in honor and memory of Austin M. Wright, who taught me critical thinking, and his teacher, Wayne Booth, who coined the phrase.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The SS President Arthur: The Zionist Mayflower Part IX: A Dream Goes Up in Smoke

Five weeks after Strahl claimed to buying another ship, the company was in receivership. With assets valued at $1 million and liabilities of $300,000, American Palestine Lines released a statement that put a most positive spin on its situation, claiming that the action was “the best means of preserving the interests not only of creditors . . . but also its stockholders, who have invested in this enterprise not only for financial reasons but also in furtherance of the plan of opening up direct communication with the Holy Land.” Ever hopeful, the general manager reported, “active negotiations already have begun to put the [company] on a sound and profitable basis financially. These plans include the acquisition of at least two new steamers.” [i]

It was not to be. A week later, a small item at the bottom of page 28 of the September 20 New York Times reported “Fire on President Arthur.” Five mattresses had caught fire, and the “flames spread quickly to the walls of the room and to the forward companion stairway leading to the engine room.”[ii] Damage was estimated at only $500, but it permanently damaged this particular Zionist dream, though publicly no one was willing to let go. The Palestine Bulletin reported on September 21, “We have been asked by Mr. L.M. Jeune, Manager and General Agent of the American Palestine Line . . . Notice has appeared in some of the local papers to the effect that the . . . Line has been disolved [sic] and that another Company has been floated. I wish to deny this statement . . . ”[iii] On September 30, the Bulletin noted, “We are officially informed that the ss. ‘President Arthur’ will sail from New York on the 14th October and arrive at Haifa on the 1st November.”[iv]

By December 1925, events were moving swiftly downhill. On the 3rd, charges of fraud were filed as part of a bankruptcy suit by two insurance companies and others. They alleged that the officers knew the company was insolvent even as they had borrowed additional funds; moreover, some officers were also charged with falsifying financial statements.[v]

Less than two weeks later, Joseph W. Gottlieb, secretary of the American Palestine Line, filed a response that “denied all charges reflecting upon the honesty of the line’s officers.” The complicated response to other charges in the bankruptcy petition included an explanation of a counterclaim against the Morse Drydock Company, which had allegedly made negligent repairs to the ship. In addition to the court filing, Gottlieb released a letter:  “We desire to make it clear that although Justice Strahl is President of the American Palestine Line, Inc., he at no time received compensation and that no provision that he receive compensation at any time in the future had been made. He gave his services unstintingly for an ideal alone.” [vi]

On December 21, 1925, thirteen months after the announcement of its purchase, the President Arthur “was sold at auction in foreclosure proceedings.”[vii] While the ship itself had been purchased for only $60,000, the company still owed much of the $500,000 that had been spent on refurbishing it. Interestingly, many of the details of the financial downfall appeared only in the Canadian Jewish Review, and not – given all the previous coverage – the New York Times.[viii]

There was one other commercial attempt to promote Palestine travel and tourism in the 1930s. In 1933, the Gdynia-America Line “established a new service to Palestine to accommodate Polish-Jewish communities in the United States.”[ix] While the president of the line claimed that “the new service . . . would provide the most economical means” of travel, it was certainly not the most direct. Passengers would sail from New York to Gdynia, a port about 35 miles northwest of Gdansk, “travel through Poland by train to Constanza,” a Rumanian city on the Baltic, then board a ship – the Polonia – that would take them to Palestine via Istanbul.

Jacob S. Strahl continued to play a leading – and highly visible – role in American Zionist activities. He remained president of the Judea Industrial Corporation, a holding company for two insurance companies that represented “business men who are interested in the economical development of Palestine.”[x] When he died in 1965 after several terms on the bench, his obituary noted that as the first chairman of the American Jewish Congress he had accompanied Chaim Weizmann in 1925 “on a tour from New York to St. Louis when Dr. Weizmann introduced the Palestine Foundation Fund (Keren Hayesod) to America.”[xi]
President Harry S Truman and Chaim Weizmann, May 25, 1948

In September 1948, well before Strahl died, El Al Airlines had made its first flight, bringing Chaim Weizmann home from a conference in Geneva, Switzerland, to Israel.[xii] Americans can now travel from New York to Tel Aviv in about 15 hours. Strahl was a visionary and an entrepreneur but perhaps not a shrewd businessman.

[i]  “Palestine Ship Line in Receiver’s Hands,” New York Times, September 12, 1925, 7.
[ii]  “Fire on President Arthur,” New York Times, September 20, 1925, 28.
[iii]  “A Denial,” Palestine Bulletin, September 21, 1925, p. 3.
[iv]  “S S ‘President Arthur’s’ Sailings,” Palestine Bulletin, September 30, 1925.
[v]  “Say Palestine Line Got Bond by Fraud,” New York Times, December 4, 1925, 11.
[vi]  “Palestine Line Upholds Officers,” New York Times, December 15, 1925, Radio section, 18.
[vii]  “Liner Sold for $137,500,” New York Times, December 22, 1925, Financial section, 29.
[viii]  “Palestine Line in a Tempest of Financial Turmoil,” Canadian Jewish Review, November 13, 1925, 20.
[ix]  “Gdynia Line to Open Palestine Service,” New York Times, September 8, 1933, Weather reports, Shipping and Mails section, 39. There is one recorded arrival of the Polonia in late October 1933, at a time when demonstrations against Jewish immigration to Palestine were flaring up throughout the country. Scheduled to land at Jaffa on November 1 with “several hundred Jewish immigrants,” the Polonia was redirected to Port Said. From there, according to an article a week later, “about 1,000 immigrants” would take the train to Palestine. (Joseph M. Levy, “Jerusalem Scene of Arab Rioting; 3 Killed, 70 Hurt,” New York Times, October 30, 1933, 1; and Levy, “Wauchope Orders Release of Arabs,” November 6, 1933, Radio section 16.
[x]  “Celebrate Stock Sale,” New York Times, August 15, 1927, 11.
[xi]  “Jacob Strahl, 88, Ex-Judge, is Dead,” New York Times, January 14, 1965, 81. In fact, this controversial trip was in 1921; whether or not Strahl was with him is not recorded.

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