In 1936, the Arabs went on a six-month general strike, seeking both economic reforms and a moratorium on all debt. The Arabs would call off the strike if the British would end Jewish immigration. Instead, the British increased the immigration quota by 10 percent, establishing the port at Tel Aviv under Jewish control, which became the port of entry for thousands of illegal settlers. Meanwhile, the Arab port of Jaffa — just two miles down the road — was virtually closed down. The British evacuated 6,000 people from their homes in Jaffa, blowing up 237 houses in the process.
Yet another British commission was established. In 1937, the Peel Commission recommended partitioning Palestine into two states: one controlled by Jews, the other by Arabs. The British had to send more troops to crush the Arab revolt that resulted from the recommendation. But military power could not resolve a political problem. The Zionist David Ben Gurion acknowledged,
The revolt is an active resistance by the Palestinians to what they regard as a usurpation of their homeland by the Jews. Behind the terrorism is a movement which though primitive is not devoid of idealism and self-sacrifice.
The British, with a long colonial history of using one native group against another, began to arm the Zionists. By 1939, some 14,500 Jews were being trained by the British military.
The Arab revolt ended in 1939. After three years of violence Arab dead were estimated at 5,000; Jewish at 463; British at 101. The British established another commission to investigate, which produced the McDonald White Paper. It found,
His Majesty’s Government, after careful study of the Partition Commission’s report, have reached the conclusion that the political, administrative and financial difficulties involved in the proposal to create independent Arab and Jewish states inside Palestine are so great that this solution is impracticable.
The McDonald White Paper recommended allowing 75,000 more Jews into Palestine over a period of five years; after that no more would be admitted without Arab consent. The Zionists were outraged; violent demonstrations ensued. Ben Gurion, chairman of the Jewish Agency — a virtual Jewish government within the British Mandate — declared,
This is the beginning of Jewish resistance to the disastrous policy now proposed by His Majesty’s Government. The Jews will not be intimidated into surrender even if their blood be shed.
The Jews were desperately fighting for a homeland. Since 1920, Palestine’s population had more than doubled to 1.5 million. Of the increase, more than 40 percent were Jewish settlers many of whom had fled the vicious anti-Semitism of an increasingly fascist Europe. But the wisdom of building a Jewish nation was still actively debated within Judaism itself. Some leaders, such as Judah Magnes — first president of the Hebrew University — favored cultural not political Zionism. He wrote,
The time has come for the Jews to take into account the Arab factor as the most important facing us. If we have a just cause, so have they. If promises were made to us, so were they to the Arabs. Even more realistic than the ugly realities of imperialism is the fact that the Arabs live here and will probably be here long after the collapse of one imperialism and the rise of another. If we too wish to live in this space, we must live with the Arabs, try to make peace with them.
World War II silenced such voices of moderation.
U.S. Middle East entanglement
Meanwhile, America had become entangled in the Middle East despite its isolationist tendencies. For example, in 1933, a joint venture between Standard Oil of California and Texaco received a 66-year oil concession in Saudi Arabia. The company became the Arab American Oil Company, known as Aramco. Hundreds of billions of American dollars were being invested in the Middle East, with huge fortunes being realized. Thus, the oil companies became entangled in the region’s conflicts and nervous about possible nationalization. James Forrestal, soon to be secretary of the navy, explained the connection between oil and America’s security:
The prestige and hence the influence of the United States is in part related to oil resources, foreign as well as domestic. It is assumed, therefore, that the bargaining power of the United States in international conferences involving vital materials like oil and such problems as aviation, shipping, island bases, and international security agreements relating to the disposition of armed forces and facilities, will depend in some degree upon the retention by the United States of such oil resources.
During World II, 30,000 Jews in Palestine volunteered for service in the British forces, partly in the hope of receiving training for a future Jewish army. But not all Zionists cooperated with the Allies. When the British continued to block immigration into Palestine, Zionists looked to America for support.
The American general Patrick Hurley visited the Middle East and reported back to President Roosevelt:
The Zionist Organization in Palestine has indicated its commitment to an enlarged program for: a) A sovereign Jewish state which would embrace Palestine and probably Transjordan; b) An actual transfer of the Arab population from Palestine to Iraq; c) Jewish leadership for the whole Middle East in the field of economic development and control.
The Zionist program was given urgency by the tragedy befalling European Jewry. Across Europe, Jews were fleeing for their lives from the hideous brutality of Nazism. But the doors of the world — including those to America — were closing in their faces. Jews were left to perish in genocidal Europe.
Post–World War II Israel
In early 1945, as World War II drew to a close, King Saud of Saudi Arabia met with Roosevelt. The king expressed his concern about the number of European Jews emigrating to Palestine; he suggested, instead, that displaced Jews be given part of Germany. Roosevelt assured King Saud that Arab interests would not be jeopardized. But within a few months, on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. His successor, Harry S. Truman, took a pro-Zionist position and recommended that 100,000 Jewish refugees be settled in Palestine.
One hundred thousand was not an arbitrary figure. After World War II, some 100,000 Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution were in camps for displaced persons. They were the remnants of a rich culture that had numbered in the millions only years before. Zionists demanded they be admitted to Palestine immediately. To control the flood, the British introduced the “Defense Regulations.” Habeas corpus was suspended; people could be detained without trial; entire villages were moved at the whim of military authorities; curfews and security zones were established; people could be deported without explanation.
The Zionists started a program of terrorism against the British. Menachem Begin — later prime minister of Israel — was the leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi or National Military Organization and the mastermind behind the most infamous act of Jewish terrorism: the bombing of the British headquarters at the King David Hotel in 1946. An estimated 95 people died from the blast.
The official American response was muted. Truman was far more concerned with the spread of communism in Europe than with Middle Eastern affairs. The United Nations had been established in 1945 at a conference in San Francisco. Fifty governments signed the UN Charter and pledged to refrain from armed force, except in the common interest. A General Assembly was authorized to investigate any issues endangering international peace; a Security Council was empowered to meet any threat of war. Battle-weary, Britain turned the matter of Palestine over to the UN.
In May 1947, the UN General Assembly appointed a Special Commission on Palestine. The commission declared that partition was the only practical solution. The Arab delegates vigorously denied that the UN had the legal or moral right to divide their land. They refused to discuss partition.
Against the advice of the American State Department, Truman supported the establishment of a Jewish state. The State Department worried that a pro-Zionist stand would drive the Arabs toward the Soviets. But Zionists exerted intense pressure on the White House, Truman later wrote,
I do not think I ever had as much pressure and propaganda aimed at the White House as I had in this instance. The persistence of a few of the extreme Zionist leaders — actuated by political motives and engaging in political threats — disturbed and annoyed me.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the area known as Palestine into two nations: one Jewish (Israel), one Arab (Palestine). The UN vote was 33 for, 13 against, 10 abstaining. The Arabs were to receive 43 percent of the land, the Jews 57 percent. The new states would come into being by October 1, 1948.
America favored the partition. During a meeting with American ambassadors to the Middle East, Truman stated bluntly,
I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.
Arabs immediately pointed out flaws in the partition, claiming, for example, that Jews received the best land. Zionists accepted partition reluctantly, calling it “an indispensable minimum.” The British, already frustrated with administering the region for years, agreed to enforce an uneasy peace until a self-announced deadline for departure on May 15, 1948.
The Jewish claim was outlined in a 1948 document entitled “Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel,” which reads, in part,
The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped…. After being forcibly exiled from their land, the people kept faith with it throughout their Dispersion and never ceased to pray and hope for their return to it and for the restoration of their political freedom.
The Arab claim was outlined in 1938, by George Antonius, a Christian Palestinian Arab:
The Arab rights to Palestine are derived from actual and long-standing possession, and rest upon the strongest human foundations. Their connexion with Palestine goes back uninterruptedly to the earliest historical times…. Any solution based on the forcible expulsion of the peasantry from the countryside in which they have their homesteads and their trees, their shrines and graveyards, and all the memories and affections that go with life on the soil, is bound to be forcibly resisted. In other words the Arab claims rest on two distinct foundations: the natural right of a settled population … to remain in possession of the land of its birthright; and the acquired political rights which … Great Britain is under a contractual obligation to recognize and uphold.