History Crash Course #64: The British Mandate

The British promised to create a Jewish state, but served their own Arab-linked interests as millions died in the Holocaust.

World War I changed the map of the world. This huge conflict waged over four years (1914-1918) pitted the Allies (chiefly France, Britain, Russia, and later, the U.S.) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Turkish Ottoman Empire) against each other. The end result of the struggle was very dramatic:

  • Russia of the Czars disappeared. In the midst of the war, and in some part because of it, the Russian Revolution succeeded, creating the Communist state known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
  • The domination of Eastern Europe by Germany and the Austria-Hungarian Empire ended. Poland ― which had not existed for more than a hundred years, having been divided between Russia, and Prussia (Germany) and Austro-Hungary ― was re-created anew.
  • The entire Middle East, which had been part of the Ottoman Empire, was split into two great swaths. Half was controlled by France (the French Mandate), the other half by England (the British Mandate).

Balfour Declaration

The French Mandate included the northern part of what is today the territory of Lebanon and Syria. The British Mandate included the southern and eastern part of the Ottoman Empire.

It is important to keep in mind that the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle East from the 16th to the early 20th century ― for some 400 years. During this time, the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc. did not exist. The residents in these areas were predominately Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire, living in loosely organized tribal communities.

The British Mandate included the landmass on the West Bank of the Jordan River all the way to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the landmass on the East Bank of the Jordan River, an area known as Trans-Jordan. The British called this whole huge area “Palestine.”

(As we might recall from Part 38, the name Palestine for the land of Israel had been coined by the Romans after their destruction of Jerusalem, which they re-named Aelia Capitolina.)

When the British took over the land of Israel, suddenly the dream of a homeland for the Jews became a real possibility as opposed to a fervent hope.

By this time, there were between 85,000 to 100,000 Jews living in the Land of Israel, of a total population of 600,000. (See History of the Jews by Paul Johnson, p. 430.) Most of the Arabs living in the land had migrated there only in the previous thirty years attracted by the jobs created by the Jews who were building and farming. (Note that when Jews began to immigrate to Palestine in large numbers in 1882, fewer than 250,000 Arabs lived there. See From Time Immemorial by Joan Peters, p. 244)

A big boost for a Jewish homeland came from Earl Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), then foreign secretary, who in 1917 promised British support for the cause.

As we might recall from Part 63, Balfour became a friend of the Jewish cause in some measure because of Chaim Weizmann whose invention of artificial acetone, the chief ingredient in cordite-smokeless gun powder, enabled the British to mass-produce gunpowder for the war effort. Balfour said that acetone converted him to Zionism.

A fascinating conversation is recorded between Balfour and Weizmann in 1906, with Balfour arguing that the Jews should consider the offer made by the British some three years earlier to take Uganda instead of Israel (At the time the Ottomans still controlled the Middle East)l:

In reaction, Weizmann said to Balfour, “Would you take Paris over London?”Balfour replied, “But we already have London.” (He meant, of course, Jews should take whatever they can get; beggars can’t be choosers.)

At which point Weizmann came back with, “Mr. Balfour, the Jews had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”

That gave Balfour pause. “Are there many Jews who think like you?” he asked.

“I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves, but with whom I could pave the streets of the country I come from,” Weizmann answered.

“If this is so, you will one day be a force,” Balfour concluded.

Balfour’s support for a Jewish homeland became known in history as the Balfour Declaration which was issued in the form a letter to Lord Rothschild on November 2nd, 1917. It stated:

“His Majesty’s government looks with favor upon the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people.”

One month later, in December of 1917, the Turks surrendered Jerusalem to British.

But talk is cheap, and when it came to the reality of creating such a state, the British had many other considerations and interests to take into consideration, as we shall see presently.

Failed Promises

Despite the support of certain British political figures, the British Foreign Ministry and others were generally much more pro-Arab, and the British government got busy carving out Arab countries from the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Through their efforts the country of Iraq was created in 1921. It was a monarchy with Faisal ibn Hussein, the son of Hussein the Sherif of Mecca, as king. Soon thereafter Iraqi oil started to flow to the West.

Iraq has the second largest known oil reserves in the world (after Saudi Arabia) and it is no wonder the British were interested in having a bond with this country as well as other oil-rich Arab states.

Another country created by the British in 1922 was Jordan. In 1923, the British installed Abdullah ibn Hussein, another son of the Sherif of Mecca, as emir of the new country called Trans-Jordan, later Jordan. Jordan was confined to the East Bank of the River Jordan and did not include any part of the West Bank. (Jordan encompassed 75% of the total area of the British Mandate. In 1922 the British separated this territory from the mandate territory on the west bank of the Jordan River (which they called Palestine) and made it off-limits to Jewish settlement.)

Why were the sons of the Sherif of Mecca made rulers of these countries?

The British wanted alliances with all the Arab kingdoms. They had shored up support for the Ibn Saud of the Arabian Peninsula, who had fought the Turks alongside them. Ibn Saud got Saudi Arabia.

But when that happened, the British had to pay off the Hussein Sherif of Mecca, who was in charge of the Islamic holy sites and who had also sided with British against the Ottomans in WW I. (The Hussein family are Hashemites, the tribe of Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and have been traditionally the keepers of Holy City of Mecca.)

They had to give him and his children some land, so they gave them Iraq and Trans-Jordan ― the land on the East Bank of the River Jordan.

King Abdullah of Jordan was not adverse to the creation of a Jewish State and even met secretly with members of the Jewish Agency.. He paid for his moderation with his life when he was gunned down by an assassin on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on July 20th, 1951. His brother, King Faisal I of Iraq, was also willing to live at peace with a Jewish State and even welcomed the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel[1]In January 1919, Faisal I and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement for Arab-Jewish cooperation, in which Faisal conditionally accepted … Continue reading

No Israel

Yet despite all this country-making, and despite the Balfour Declaration, the British could not get around to creating a country called Israel.

Why not?

There was a clear British bias against the Jews as is readily apparent to anyone who has studied the series of White Papers issued by the British government in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reasons for this bias were:

  • The British had to deal with the issue of an Arab majority living in what was left of Palestine. They came up with all kinds of partition plans all of which were rejected by the Arabs. (Not all Arabs were opposed; King Faisal of Iraq signed an agreement with Chaim Weizman calling for peace and cooperation.)
  • Many members of the British government and military were clearly anti-Semitic and had a romantic/patronizing attitude toward the Arabs.
  • The Arabs had oil and England needed oil. In the final analysis, the British had to take into consideration what was in their best interest. Looking after their strategic interests and placating tens of millions of Arabs was more important in their eyes than saving a few hundred thousand Jews, even though this went against the conditions of the mandate that they were granted in 1920.[2]For an excellent summary of the period see: Connor Cruise-O’Brien, The Siege ― The Story of Israel and Zionism. (Paladin Grafton Books, 1988). 

Meanwhile the poor Jews, not knowing that the British were going to back out of their promise, kept migrating to the land.

The third migration or aliyah (1919-1923) brought 35,000 Jews to the land. The fourth aliyah (1924-1928) brought 80,000 Jews to the land. The fifth aliyah (1929-1939, as Hitler rose to power in Germany) brought 250,000 Jews to the land.

Arab Riots

The Arabs made it clear that they were not going to sit still for a Jewish state. In August of 1929, due to the instigation of the preachers in the mosques, a series of riots broke out in which many Jews were massacred.

The New York Times, in its history of Israel (Israel: from Ancient Times to the Modern Nation, pp. 38-39) writes of this time:

The riots of August, 1929, were ignited in Jerusalem over a rumor spread by Arab leaders that Jews were going to destroy Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most holy shrine. Fighting soon spread throughout Palestine. The worst massacres were in Hebron, sacred to Jew and Muslim alike, where 67 Orthodox Jews ― men, women and children ― were slaughtered by Arabs and 50 more wounded. Pierre van Paassen, a reporter, described the horror that he witnessed by lamplight in a Jewish seminary in Hebron: ‘The slain students in the yard, the dead men in the synagogue, slashed throats and mutilated bodies.’ By the time order was restored 133 Jews had been killed, 399 wounded.

The 1930s saw more rioting and more massacres, especially in Jaffa and again in Hebron.

In response, the British convened the Peel Commission which almost totally did away with the Balfour Declaration that had originally promised a Jewish homeland in Palestine on both sides of the River Jordan.

In July of 1937, the Peel Commission issued a report which said that all the Jews should be confined to a tiny state that would include a sliver of land along the Mediterranean coast and a small piece in the north abutting the west side of the Lake Kineret (Sea of Galilee).

The Arabs greeted the Peel Commission recommendation with a revolt which lasted until 1939.

The Arab Revolt was led by Haj Amin Husseini (c. 1893-1974), who was originally appointed as the Mufti of Jerusalem by the British. It is interesting to note that in addition to hundreds of Jews who were killed by Arabs, some 3,000 Arabs died in this revolt at the hands of other Arabs and at the hands of the British.

For all the British criticism of Israel today, at that time the British were not shy in their efforts to quell the rioting. They introduced the policy of housing demolition and used artillery to shell rebellious towns.

The revolt was finally crushed and the Mufti fled first to Beirut and later to Europe, where he became an ally of Adolph Hitler, organizing a Bosnian S.S. unit to kill Jews in the Balkans.

After the war he was captured but escaped. He was later involved in fomenting violence, including the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan in 1951. He died in Beirut in 1974. (Faisal Husseini, who was the PLO’s representatives in Jerusalem and who died of a heart attack 2001 was a relative of his.)

Death Sentence

The British did not keep the promise contained in the Balfour Declaration and neither did they keep the promise contained in the Peel Commission report.

They did enforce one aspect of the Peel Commission report ― that which limited Jewish migration to the land to only 12,000 a year for the next five years (1939-1943). By doing so the British doomed the Jews under the control of Nazis ― they would no longer be able to find refuge in their homeland.

They did this, knowing full well what the Germans were doing to the Jews ― this was after the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht (see Part 60). And still the British closed an escape route that would have saved millions of Jewish lives.

The Jews were desperate and they tried to come illegally in a movement known as Aliyah Bet. In response, the British set up a blockade to keep them out.

Many Jews managed to circumvent the blockade and it is estimated that 115,000 Jews got through. But 115,000 is a very small number compared to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust and who could not find refuge in the land of Israel.

Jewish Resistance

Meanwhile, the mainstream of the Zionist movement in the Land of Israel coalesced into the Jewish Agency, an organization headed by David Ben-Gurion. Officially recognized by the British as representing Jewish aspirations, the Jewish Agency tried not to antagonize the British openly.

The Jewish Agency did have an underground military organization called the Haganah, which tried to protect the Jewish settlements from the Arabs (since the British were doing next to nothing in this regard.)

There were other Zionists, who were not part of the Jewish Agency, who felt that the Jewish Agency was too conciliatory to the British. As they saw it, the British had broken promise after promise to the Jews and had openly sided with the Arabs. Therefore, the Jews had to be much more pro-active.

One of those who had a more aggressive attitude was Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940).

Originally from Odessa, Jabotinsky broke away from the mainstream Zionist movement and in 1923 formed the World Union of Zionist Revisionists. This organization from 1936 on urged the evacuation of Eastern European Jews to Palestine. Had their pleas been heeded by the British, many Jews could have been saved from the Holocaust.

At this time Jabotinsky also became the head of the Jewish underground movement called Irgun Tzevai Leumi ― simply known as the Irgun ― founded in 1937.

In 1941, Menachem Begin (1913-1992), who would later become Prime Minister of Israel, arrived from Russia and assumed the leadership of the Irgun, which took a radical approach towards confronting the British and attacking the Arabs, who were responsible for the death of Jews.

Another, even more radical group, was the Lochamei Cherut Yisrael ― better known as Lechi and called by the British the “Stern Gang” after its founder Avraham Stern (1907-1942). The future Prime Minister of Israel, Yitzchak Shamir, was one of the key leaders of Lechi.

As Jewish patience with the British withered after the devastation of the Holocaust, these more radical groups engaged in violent resistance against the British.

For example, the Irgun blew up one wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946 which at the time was the headquarters of the British authorities in Palestine. Their prior warning was apparently received and ignored. Menachem Begin quotes one British official who supposedly refused to evacuate the building, saying: “We don’t take orders from the Jews.” As a result, the casualty toll was high: 91 killed and 45 injured. Among the casualties were 15 Jews.

They also hanged two British army officers in retribution for the hanging of Irgun members, and staged a daring break-out of the Acco (Acre) prison where the British held many Jews active in the resistance.

A senior British officer summed up the effects of the Jewish resistance groups:

“The British Army suffered greater losses in traffic accidents than in all the [Jewish] underground operations put together. But the blows to the Empire’s pride and prestige were something which could not be digested. The break-in at the Acre Prison and hanging of the two sergeants were blows to our pride. The break-in at the prison gained the symbolic significance of the fall of the Bastille.” (To the Promised Land by Uri Dan, p. 120)

But the British still did not give in.


1 In January 1919, Faisal I and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement for Arab-Jewish cooperation, in which Faisal conditionally accepted the Balfour Declaration on which subject he made the following statement: “We Arabs… look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through; we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home… I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of the civilised peoples of the world “
2 For an excellent summary of the period see: Connor Cruise-O’Brien, The Siege ― The Story of Israel and Zionism. (Paladin Grafton Books, 1988).
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