In 1914, at the beginning of the First World War, the overall population in Palestine was about 800,000. Among those, close to 80,000 were Jewish. When the war ended in December 1918 there was a total population of only 640,000, from whom only about 66,000 were Jewish. Jewish losses were due to the war, famine, emigration and the fact that the Turks expelled many Jews.
Nevertheless, one encouraging sign for the Jews came out of the war: the Balfour Declaration. Along with the key line declaring British support of a Jewish national home in Palestine was a provision saying that it had to be consistent with the rights and privileges of the non-Jewish population. In effect, the Jews read the first part whereas the Arabs read the second part.
England had a conference with France as early as 1916 over the division of the Middle East. This later became the Sykes–Picot Agreement. Under this pact, England and France agreed to divide the spoils of the Ottoman Empire. However, in 1916 it was not even clear who was going to win the war and control the Middle East, so this agreement was worded very vaguely. The only thing clearly agreed upon was that they would never let Turkey have back control.
In 1917, after the British under General Edmund Allenby successfully drove the Turks from Palestine, they amended the Sykes-Pico Agreement and floated an idea called the Pan-Syrian Plan. In this plan, Syria included not only what today is called Syria but Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. Under the Turks it was all one province, so to speak. It was one area administered by a one administrator centered in Damascus.
France and England agreed that Syria would belong to France and that Palestine would belong to England – but neither country defined “Syria” or “Palestine.” The French thought in terms of Pan-Syria, which included Palestine, whereas England thought in terms of a larger Palestine, which included Syria! They each intentionally kept vague the wording of the Sykes-Pico Agreement in order to out-maneuver each other diplomatically when the time was right.
After the war, there was a third version of Sykes-Pico. This one favored England because it was their army in the Middle East, not France’s. It was also the British who had convinced the Arabs to revolt against the Turks, with the help of the famous T. E. Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia.”
In this agreement, Palestine included not only what is today the State of Israel, including Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and the Gaza Strip, but also the entire country of Jordan. There was no country called Jordan. It was all called Palestine. England also took Iraq, even though in the earlier agreement it was part of Pan-Syria and thus earmarked for the French. The French did get Syria itself as well as Lebanon, which France broke off from Syria and created as a separate artificial country.
The Arabs sided with France, not England, because France had never made the Balfour Declaration. They were never perceived as pro-Zionist. As we discussed previously, the Treaty of Versailles created the League of Nations and gave England a mandate over greater Palestine. For reasons that are unknown and nothing short of miraculous, England included in its charter for the mandate the full text of the Balfour Declaration.
In effect, the world was giving England control over Palestine subject to the Balfour Declaration. England could have repudiated it in 1919 or 1920. There was no reason for it to be there. But once it was there it became a matter of international law. Indeed, England could have gone back any time it wanted to and emended its charter – but it never did. Therefore, the Jews had an internationally recognized, legal right to strive for a homeland in Palestine.
Conor Cruise O’Brien, a Roman Catholic, wrote in his The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism:
If a Zionist of the pious sort were to tell me that the true explanation of the phenomenon of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate was that God had decided that it was time for His people to come home I could no doubt express polite skepticism. But if the same pious Zionist were then to ask me whether I have any other plausible explanation in terms of Britain’s material interests for the British government’s reinforcement of the Balfour Declaration in the circumstances of the early 1920s I should have to say that I cannot find any such explanation.
British Military Rule
From 1918 to 1920, Palestine was governed by the British military, not by any civilian authority. To put it mildly, the British army was anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic. As the general of the army said, “I want to have nothing to do with Lloyd George, Balfour and their long-nosed friends.”
The leading player in this drama was a British colonel by the name of Ronald Storrs. He was a tall, elegant officer with a blond moustache turned up at the sides who was appointed Military Governor of Jerusalem from 1918 to 1926. One of his famous statements was, “Zionism has a metallic clang to it. It bangs. It bangs. It bangs.” He was referring to the brusque nature of Eastern European Jews, coming and banging on his table and making demands. He preferred the court Arab, who he thought was courteous, enjoyed a good cup of tea and spoke around the subject.
The British government under Colonel Storrs took two steps that undid the Balfour Declaration. First, they banned Jewish immigration to the country. From 1918 to 1920 no new Jews were allowed in. Second, they prohibited the transfer of land. No property could be exchanged or sold. These in effect closed down the entire Zionist operation. Without Jews and without land there could be no Jewish national home. The British did this under the authority of martial law for the public good, they said. And the Jews were powerless to do anything about it.
Arab Riots of 1920
By 1920, the Arabs saw a chance to completely end the Jewish presence in Palestine and with the incitement of the notorious anti-Semite Haj Amin el-Husseini they rioted in Jaffa and Jerusalem. Over 100 Jews were killed and almost 150 wounded.
Both Jews and Arabs believed that the military administration was sympathetic to the riots. Ronald Storrs was cheered by Arab supporters demonstrating in Jerusalem, who presented him with a declaration that included the following words: “Palestine, where the Messiah was born and crucified, and which is considered a fatherland by all the world, refuses to be a national home for the people who killed the Messiah, and have done evil unto the whole world. Which people among whom the Jews have dwelled have not witnessed massacres and shedding of blood?”
During the riots, Vladimir Jabotinsky attempted to come to the aid of the Jews and was arrested by the British. When it was over it was obvious that most of the victims of Arab violence were old men, women and children. Here is a conversation that went on between Menachem Ussishkin, head of the Zionist movement in Palestine then, and Colonel Storrs when the latter came to the former to expression the British official letter of sympathy for the Jews who were killed.
“I have come to express my grief,” Storrs said, “over the catastrophe that befell us.”
“Which catastrophe?” Ussishkin replied.
“I am referring,” Storrs said, “to the saddening events which took place here the last few days.”
Ussishkin: “Is Your Honor referring to the pogrom?”
Storrs: “It was not a pogrom. It is impossible to call these riots a pogrom.”
Ussishkin: “You, Colonel, are an expert in administrative matters. I am an expert in pogroms. I can promise you that there is no difference between the Jerusalem pogrom and the Kishinev pogrom. The organizers of the local pogrom did not show any originality. They followed step by step the ways of the perpetrators of the Russian pogrom. Czar Nicholas also did not interfere with the pogrom. He has also oppressed us. Yet, does Your Honor see what has befallen him? In his place sits Trotsky. All our enemies in the world and in the Land of Israel will also meet such an end.”
Sir Herbert Samuel
In 1920, Sir Herbert Samuel was appointed as the first British High Commissioner of Palestine. He represented civil government, not military government. He was a Jew who had risen to prominence in the Liberal Party in Britain. Upon his arrival to Palestine in June 30, 1920, he said, “I am the first Jewish leader of Palestine since Hyrcanus II, the last Maccabee leader in 40 BCE.” To a certain extent that was true.
When he came he attempted to restore the promises of the Balfour Declaration. Immigration to Palestine was reopened, and from 1920 to 1923 there occurred what is referred to as the Third Aliyah. During that period of time the Jewish population of the country more than doubled. He also allowed the transfer of land to occur, and during the same time period a great deal of Arab land was purchased. New Jewish settlements were made almost on a daily basis. In general, he attempted to conduct himself according to the principles of the Balfour Declaration.
He tried to mollify the Arabs as well. Haj Amin el-Husseini had been arrested by the British for his part in the riots. Sir Herbert Samuel pardoned him. To balance things, he also freed Jabotinsky as well.
He tried to reconcile the Jews and Arabs into one group and proposed that the Jews and Arabs together have a democratic self-government council, which would run the domestic affairs of the country. But the Arabs said that they would not sit on any council with any Jews. As hard as Sir Herbert tried to bring the Arabs into the idea he was unable to do so.
Therefore, Samuel had to withdraw his plan. When he did so, he set up independent agencies. There was a Jewish Agency for Jewish affairs and a Muslim Agency that would run Arab affairs. However, the Arabs never got together to have the agency. So, in effect, while the Jewish Agency became the shadow government or the government-in-training for the Jewish state the British ran the Arab affairs.
This British identification with the Arab cause was more than symbolic. As Conor Cruise O’Brien wrote:
A British historian has said that the Balfour Declaration was a crown piece of insincerity coupled with insanity. In terms of Western diplomacy it was the most cynical of documents. And the British military authorities in Palestine consciously intended to undo the declaration. As Vladimir Jabotinsky wrote to Weitzman, “The official approach of the British is to apologize to the Arabs for a slip of the tongue by Mr. Balfour.” However, the Balfour Declaration was written into the British Mandate for Palestine. And that is the key point to remember.
It is nothing short of miraculous that the British kept the Balfour Declaration, at least for the first two decades after its declaration (until they issued the White Paper in 1939). Perhaps the miracle was summed up nowhere more eloquently than in the words of Arthur Curzon, a bitter anti-Semite, who replaced Lord Balfour a British foreign secretary in late 1919. When the League of Nations approved the Mandate with the Balfour Declaration, Curzon quoted a line from a famous French poet, “The fool God of the Jews has beaten you too.”