191: Versailles Pt. 8 - A Jewish Homeland


The Mandate of Palestine would be given to the British, and they had some big promises to keep.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War episode 191: A Jewish Homeland. This week a big thank you goes out to Michael, Randall, Edward, Andy, and Doug for Patreon. Programming note, after the last two special episodes we are now back into the normal episode setup, and with my speaking engagement completed I will hopefully be back to the normal weekly schedule. I had a fantastic time speaking at UT Southwestern Medical Center, always interesting to discuss the Great War in person with people, instead of just speaking into a microphone. But, back to our discussions about the Paris Peace Conference. Over the last few normal episodes we have been covering how the Ottoman Empire was broken up by the Allies at the Paris Peace Conference, and today we will discuss the final piece that was created from that old Empire, the Mandate of Palestine. Before the war was over an important decision had already been made by the British, with it given official backing in the 1917 Balfour declaration. They had decided that there should be an area created for the Jewish settlers. In the Balfour Declaration the British committed itself to providing a homeland for those Jewish settlers in Palestine. With this idea confirmed before the end of the war British politicians and leading Zionists started to hash out the details. By the time that the delegates began to arrive in Paris for the Conference most of those details were already worked out, at least in theory. Then throughout the conference agreements were reached with other countries and with Feisal who was slated to be the leader of Syria, which the Jewish area of Palestine would of course interact with. Of all of the decisions made at the Conferece, the creation of Mandatory Palestine, which would in time become the nation of Israel, stands out of its destabilizing effects in the region. It remains a divisive topic even today, and whether or not your or I think it was the correct decision cannot chnage the fact that for the last 100 years the area around what in 1920 would be called Mandatory Palestine had seen constant tension and multiple armed conflicts. Many of those conflicts, and the animosity present between the Jewish citizens of Mandatory Palestine and then Israel, and the Arab peoples that surround them, can trace its roots back to the decisions made in London and Paris from 1918 to 1920.

A key player in our story, and in the history of Mandatory Palesitine is Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann was a chemist who lived in England before the war. When the war started the British government put out a call to all of the scientists in the country asking for any discoveries that might be of use to the military. Weizmann had discovered a new way of fabricating acetone, which was a critical component in the creation of artillery shells. With the British frantically trying to expand their production of shells, Weizmann’s idea eventually ended up on Churchill’s desk and Weizmann would receive the news tha the government needed 30,000 tons of acetone as soon as possible. The money gained from these huge orders of acetone, created through his process, gave Weizmann the money to push forward his goal of getting the British government to support the creation of a Jewish homeland. His work, and the work of many other Zionists, would eventually result in the Balfour Declaration from the British government which for the first time gave the Zionist movement the official support of a major European government.

With the declaration released, the next step was to start laying the groundwork for actually creating a Jewish area in the Middle EAst, and making that a reality meant working with the Arabs and specifically meant working with Feisal Hussein. Feisal was slated to become the leader of Syria, which Palestine was up to that point a region of, and so it was important that Feisal and the Zionists come to some kind of agreement. To this end Weizmann and Feisal would meet in May 1918. This meeting was very important and so the British put a lot of work into making sure that it went smoothly, going so far as to hash out many of the details with Feisal before Weizmann even arrived so that there would be no surprises. They pitched the idea that if a bit of territory was given over to Jewish administration it would look very good for the Arabs. The Jewish leaders would be able to take that goodwill from the Arabs and then use their influence to held the Arabs at the Peace Conference. Also, it would just have really good optics for the Arabs, to use a modern marketing term. At this early stage Feisal could see the benefits of working with the Jews, and when he met with Weizmann the Zionist was very pleased with the results. “This first meeting in the desert laid the foundations of a lifelong friendship. The Emir was in earnest when he said he was eager to see the Jews and Arabs working in harmony during the Peace Conference which was to come and that in his view the destiny of the two peoples was linked with the Middle East and must depend on the good will of the Great Powers.”

When the Paris Peace Conference began it would not directly address the desires of Weizmann and the Zionists until late February. Before that time the Zionists would frequently discuss the matter with the leading statemen, but it would not be in the official business of the Supreme Council. These types of backroom conversations were very important to the overall functioning of the conference as a whole, just as important as the official meetings really. One example of these meetings, and I inclue it here because I think it is funny. At one point Weizmann would meet with President Wilson, who would ask Weizmann if he got along with the French. Weizmann would respond “I speak French fluently, but the French and I speak a different language.” Apparently Wilson felt much the same way, and they had a good laugh about it. From an official perspective the most important meeting for the Zionists would occur on February 27th, 1919 when they officially appeared before the Supreme Council. They sent three representatives, Nahum Sokolov, a Polish born Jewish leader who had spent the war in London. He would discuss the role that Jewish people had played in helping the Allies win the war. Next up was Weizmann who would discuss the sacrifices made by Jews during the war. The final speaker was a Frenchman, Sylvain Levi. Up until this point Levi and the other Zionists had been of one mind about what should be done after the war, with everyone seeking the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. However, at this point Levi shifted, speaking isntead from a viewpoint that was closer to the official policy of the French government at this time. This was at a point where the fate of Syria, and Palestine, and the tnire region of the Levant was still very much up in the air, with both the French and British trying to assert their control. Levi would say that he believed that creating a Jewish National homeland in Palestine might endanger other Allied interests in the region. This was the policy of the French because they did not want to give up their own control over the area that would eventually become Palestine. Weizmann would say of this moment that he was “profoundly embarrassed” and he would later say that “The astoundingly unexpected character of his utterance—it was not for this purpose that he had been invited as a Jewish representative—constituted a chillul ha-shem, a public desecration.” Levi’s speech put the Zionists in a bind, it would look very bad if they started arguing in front of the Supreme Council, but Weizmann was saved by the American Secretary of State Robert Lansing who would ask Weizmann a question that moved the conversation away from Levi’s viewpoints and allowe Weizmann to take control of the converstaion again. Lansing would ask “What do you mean by a Jewish National Home?” This question allowed Weizmann to outline the general plan, which was to be very accepting of non-Jewish citizens in the areas to be settled. However, the long term goal was, through immigration, to turn the area into a purely Jewish country. After the meeting was over, and after a very cold meeting between Levi and Weizmann, the French would issue an official statement which stated that they would not oppose a Palestine under British mandate. The French also said that they would support the creation of a Jewish state in this mandate. The use of the specific term Jewish State was very important in this statement, because up to this point the Zionist leaders had been very careful to not use that term. They did not want to appear to be conquerors or imperialists, but with the French using it the Zionists felt like they could begin to change their rhetoric. From an official standpoint this was the end of the discussions about a Jewish state at the conference, with Palestine under British mandate and with the full support of the British government, the fate of the Zionist idea of a Jewish National Home was all but assured.

While the fact that Palestine, under British mandate, would exist was not a settled fact, there was of course the nuanced conversation that had to happen about where precisely the borders of this new region would be, a conversation that would have to happen between the French and British. The problem started with the fact that there was no pre-existing political entity known as “Palestine”, the Ottomans had just lumped the area in with Syria. When it became clear that the British would have the mandate of a Palestine and the French of Syria the exact delineation between the two areas became a very important topic of conversation. The Zionists led off this conversation by stating that they hoped to gain northern Galiliee, the Golan Heights, the Gilad Mountains, and 18,000 square kilometers on the East Side of the Jordan River. This was not the limit of what they really wanted, but after lengthy conversations with the British the Zionists leaders were convinced to hold back on their requests for political reasons. Most importantly for the conversations between the French and British, this list of requests would push the border of Palestine much further north than the French had anticipated. There would not be an agreement about the border months, and it would not be until September that the conversation was revisited. It was at this time that the British started to pull their troops out of Syria, to give the French control, and this meant that the British troops had to move south, which of course begged the obvious question of precisely how far south should they move. Negotiations began again, with both sides wanting different things. Eventualy they would agree on what would become the modern day northern boundaries of Israel, and the borders with modern day Syria and Lebanon, with one exception. This exception was the Golan Heights, an area with a very complicated political status which I will not really dive into here, all I will say is that in 1919 it was part of Syria.

While all of the political decisions were being hashed out back in Paris, the future Mandate of Palestine was under a British military administration led by General Allenby. Allenby had been the British commander that had led British forces into Palestine in 1917, and he would just roll directly into being the leader of the Military Administration after the war. This was not a great time to try and maintain the peace in Palestine. The military attempted to control the area within the confines of the rules set out by the Hague Conferences, this meant that they would try to maintain the status quo until the future was officially decided. In 1918 the status quo was that Palestine was not yet a Jewish National Home, and this caused friction between the Zionists and the military, with the Zionists criticizing the military leadership for being biased against them. On the other side of the conversation were the Arabs which made up 90 percent of the population of this area in 1917, they were convered about what was happening, and the rumors of some of the decisions being made in Paris, and so there would also be friction between the British and the Arabs. Major-General Watson, one of Allenby’s subordinates would say that “The antagonism to Zionism of the majority of the population is deep-rooted it is fast leading to hatred of the British and will result, if the Zionist programme is forced upon them, in an outbreak of a very serious character.”

One of the main causes of friction between the British, Zionists, and Arabs was Jewish immigration to Palestine. In 1917 the population of Palestine was less than 10% Jewish, with only about 50,000 Jews living among 610,000 Arabs at the end of that year. Over the next few years the population would begin to rapidly change. By the mid 1920s the Jewish population would almost double. This put serious pressure on the agreements originally made between the Zionists and the Arabs. The new Jewish immigrants wanted to buy land, and in the early days they were able to purchase that land easily. By 1920 the situation began to change as it became harder to purchase land due to the rapid increase in cost as the Palestinians began to resist the seemingly endless tide of Jewish immigrants. Weizmann would say “We found we had to cover the soil of Palestine with Jewish gold, and that gold, for many, many years, came out of the pockets, not of the Jewish millionaires, but of the poor.” While Weizmann was not a fan of the situation, it was perfectly natural for the cost of land to increase rapidly due to the demand, especially as the Arabs began to resist the idea of losing so much territory to Jewish settlers. Many of the Jewish immigrants were also not on the friendliest terms with the Arabs. They often viewed the Arabs around them as primitives, almost in a European colonist mindset. This kind of imperialist mindset, the belief that the presence of more civilized Europeans would pull those around them into the modern dage, had been a key factor in European colonialism for centuries, and it was not well received by the Arab Palestinians. This hostility between the Jews and Arabs also began to created a unified Palestinian opinion and viewpoint, something that had not really been present before when the area was under Ottoman control.

All of these tensions would burst out in April 1920. It would be on the first weekend of April, which was Good Friday weekend for the Christians, Passover for the Jews, and Nebi Musa for the Muslims. In Jerusalem all three religions would hold religious events. Friday and Saturday were free of incidents, but then on Sunday, near the Jaffa gate, after some words were exchanged between a group of Jews and Muslims, riots broke out. Weizmann would late say that Arab mobs “fired with fanatic zeal…attacking any Jews they happened to meet.” That description, coming from Weizmann, may not be entirely accurate, but it would still take hours for the British authorities to restore order, and by the time that they did 5 Jews and 4 Muslims had been kills, and 200 Jews and 22 Muslims were wounded. The Military administration would come under attack from both sides with both the Jews and Muslims claiming that they had favored the other group.

The Jerusalem Riots were just the first of two important events for Palestine in April 1920, the second was the San Remo conference that began late in the month. At this conference Weizmann pushed for a civil administration of Palestine, which would still be under British control, just not the British military. This was mostly just a push for the British mandate to start, which required a civilian government. On April 22nd he would voice this opinion to Balfour and Lloyd Goerge, and on April 25th it would be made official that the British would pursue the creation of the mandate in the region, removing the military administration. It was at this point that the Zionist goals were actually achieved, but it was barely the beginning of their journey to the creation of a Jewish state.

With the official creation fo British Mandatory Palestine there were not three main groups interacting in the area. The first was the British Civil Administartion, they ahd played an important role in the creation of the mandate and in its use as a Jewish National Home. However, some within the British government were now concerned about what they had created. They realized that their government had supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in and area that had a massive Arab majority and that same government had spent the four years of the First World War encouraging and stoking the fires of Arab dreams of independent Arab states in the Middle East. These two projects were almost mutually exclusive, and bound to cause problems. The British Foreign Minister Curzon would say that “Personally, I am so convinced that Palestine will be a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with its Mandate, that I would withdraw from this responsibility while we yet can.” On the side of the Jews Weizmann was still a leading figure, but he found that he also had to be both a mediator and a moderating influence. Some within the Zionist movement wanted to push immediately for an independent Jewish state, throwing off the shackles of the British mandate as soon as possible. There were also a large number of American Zionists who were pushing against the leading role played by the Europeans within the movement. They pushed for more freedom for the Jews within Palestine, and claimed that Weizmann was acting as a dictator. The Americans also joined the more radical European Zionists in their calls for the immediate creation of a Jewish state with a wholely Jewish government.

The third group in the equation were the Arab Palestinians. Remember they made up 90 percent of the population of the madate, but they found their role in the new administration of the territory to be almost nonexistent. They had not been consulted when the British and French had made their decisions about what the borders of Palestine should be and they were also not consulted on the mandates government. There were also no illusions among the Arabs about the future, news of the Balfour declaration and the goals of the British mandate were clear. No matter how many promises that the British made, or the Zionists made, the Arabs would never truly trust them.

And that is where our story today sort of just ends, without any actual resolution. The tensions created in Mandatory Palestine, which would continue to be a mandate until 1948 would never really end. The only difference between 1920 and today is that the British are no longer an important player in the region. The tensions between the Jewish settles, later Israelis, and the Arab Palestinians would never be resolved. There is no real end to this story, and it is ongoing, just another problematic legacy with its roots in the Paris Peace Conference and the First World War.