Jewish seamanship and shipping did not exist during the Ottoman period but this changed after the British occupation of Eretz Israel. Following the establishment of Mandatory rule there was a surge of economic initiatives alongside a steady growth in the population. There was no industry or agriculture to sustain the needs of residents and British government authorities and military, thus importation from Europe via sea increased. Many foreign vessels docked in the Haifa, Tel-Aviv and Jaffa ports, from which goods were then shipped to their final destinations on trucks or trains.
The economic potential of the shipping realm, with its abundance of capital and manpower, did not go unnoticed by businessmen in the Jewish community (the Yishuv) and also attracted the attention of Yishuv leaders. During the 20-year period between the end of WWI and the outbreak of WWII a number of shipping lines owned by Jews operated in Eretz Israel, sailing in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Two schools were opened at that time to provide professional seamanship training and maritime youth organizations operated on the Yarkon River and at the Port of Haifa. All of these laid the foundations for the establishment of the State of Israel's merchant marine and navy.
Hehalutz, 1919, Jaffa
In 1919, the Asdot Vesapanut Hofit shipping company acquired a small steamship, called Hehalutz (The Pioneer) in order to transport goods along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. One of the sailors aboard the ship was Jeremiah Helpern, the son of Michael Helpern, the first proponent of the Hashomer defense organization. During the First Aliyah wave of immigrants to Eretz Israel in the late 19th century, Michael Helpern also proposed a plan to establish a Jewish fleet that would bring Jewish immigrants from the Diaspora to Eretz Israel. Hehalutz, the first Jewish-owned ship in Eretz Israel, sank off the coast in February 1921.
In 1927, a motorized sail vessel called Gozal (Fledgling) was brought into service by its owner, the Nesher cement company, to carry cement. In 1928, Captain Zeev Hayam commanded its voyages along the eastern Mediterranean. After retiring his command Zeev Hayam continued to promote seamanship and shipping for many years.
Sarah A, 1936, Haifa
Numerous maritime youth organizations, such as Hapoel, Maccabi, Elizur etc. began conducting seamanship training for young people in the early 1920's. Prominent among them was the Zevulun Seafaring Society, which prepared its members to sail on merchant marine vessels. Jeremiah Helpern, who was among the founders of the Beitar youth movement's maritime department, understood early on the immense significance of training youths to be seamen. At his initiative, a nautical school for Jewish students was established in Civitavecchia, Italy in 1934. Graduates were granted certificates allowing them to immigrate to Eretz Israel. Students visited Haifa Port aboard the school's vessel Sarah A in 1936. This event increased Yishuv youths' interest in maritime training. The Jewish Agency established a nautical school as part of the Technion's vocational school in Haifa. In time, graduates of both schools came to serve in senior positions in the Israeli navy and merchant marine.
Har Zion, 1936, Tel-Aviv
The Palestine Maritime Lloyd company operated two vessels which carried both passengers and freight. They sailed on the Haifa- Istanbul-Costanza route, exporting citrus fruit and importing, among other things, wood and cattle. One of them, the Har Zion, was commanded by veteran seaman Captain Erich Hirschfeld, who was forced to escape Nazi Germany. As one of the professional seamen who immigrated to Eretz Israel from various different countries during the 1930's, he was among those who laid the professional foundation for a merchant marine in Israel. Hevel Yami Le'Yisrael, an organization that promoted maritime education among the youths of Eretz Israel, was founded on board the Har Zion in June of 1937. Among the organization's founders was engineer Emanuel Tuvim, also one of the founders of Zevulun, who worked actively to further shipping in Eretz Israel.
From 1934-1936, an elegant white ship sailed the Haifa-Trieste route. The Tel-Aviv, owned by Arnold Bernstein, a Jewish shipping magnate from Hamburg, served as both a passenger and freight vessel. Among the crew were Jews who used this as a way to escape Nazi Germany.
The handful of people and vessels described above are but a small portion of the intense activity that contributed to the development of Jewish shipping in Eretz Israel during the British Mandate period.
Dr. Daniels Ran
Historian, specializing in the history of Jewish and Israeli Shipping