The creation of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1948, was the culmination of decades of political struggle and toil, which signaled the transformation of Palestine from a majority Muslim Arab nation, to majority Jewish state. This transformation was the result of Zionist efforts and Arab failings in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s. Despite British support for Zionist aims, Jewish political groups resisted both the British and Arabs during these years. British engagement in Palestine and the upsurge in Zionism in the region were the results of war and international turmoil during the early 20th century. In 1917, British troops had occupied many former Ottoman Middle Eastern territories.1
Following the defeat of the Central Powers on November 11th 1918, many of the lands ruled by the waning Ottoman Empire, came under the control of the victorious Allied powers. British control over Palestine was marked by several years of military rule during and after the war, eventually leading to the creation of an imperial civilian government in 1923.2 In the years following the end of World War One, and the signing of the official peace treaty at Lausanne in 1923, there developed a new concept in international law; the mandate.3 French and British control of former German and Ottoman territories transformed from wartime occupation to more permanent imperial acquisition. The Mandate System was established under the auspices of the League of Nations.
Touted as international stewardship, in reality the system was a tool in Franco-Anglo imperial expansion.4 Article 22 of the League of Nations designated two groups of regions which were to fall under the purview of the Mandate System.5 The first grouping consisted of former German colonies in Africa and Asia, whereas the second category pertained to the former Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq).6
The Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire posed a legal challenge to Britain and France, for whereas African and Asiatic populations were considered primitive, the Arabs while not Western, were recognized as a distinguished and ancient, if backward race.7 Specifically the historical and religious significance of Palestine demonstrated that “the case of Israel can be compared to no other, [and that] the Palestinian Mandate is unlike any other.”8 Palestine and the other Arab mandates were independent nations de jure, yet in reality were under the firm hand of their respective mandatory powers.9
Britain exercised wide ranging control over Palestinian life, a fact which did not change following the inception of civilian rule in 1923.10 British control extended over many aspects of Palestinian domestic policy, from natural resources to public works and foreign policy.11 Such wide-ranging control allowed the United Kingdom to mold Palestine to its wishes. During WWI and in the immediate post war years, Britain envisioned Palestine as a pluralistic society, a worldview greatly shaped by the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Penned by British Foreign Secretary A.J. Balfour, the Balfour Declaration introduced the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine into British colonial considerations.12 Britain's long history of tolerance and moderation towards Jews, combined with the lobbying efforts of British Zionists, and a sympathetic Cabinet, led to the inclusion of the declaration in the British Mandate for Palestine.13 British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was unique for “Britain had practically nothing to gain from a Jewish Palestine or from a happy Jewish community in Palestine.”14
Indeed, such pro-Zionist overtures by Britain unsurprisingly led to strong resistance from Palestinian Arabs. In spite of the obvious drawbacks to such a policy, Britain persevered, for “the inclusion of the Balfour Declaration created a fundamental contradiction within the charter, in that it was phrased in ambivalent language that gave the British room for manoeuvre between the promise of a Jewish homeland and the pledge of Palestinian independence.”15
This paper shall highlight and extrapolate on the tripartite of British, Jewish and Arab political aspirations in Palestine during the 1920s and 1930s. Specifically, this essay will focus on the evolution of Zionist and Arab nationalist aspirations and political organization under the aegis of British rule.
The notion of a re-emergent Jewish state in Palestine, seemed to many, especially in Palestine as farcical. A Jewish state had not existed for two millenia, and demographically, Jews constituted the smallest faction, comprising less than ten per cent of the population in 1917.16 Consequently, overtures for a Jewish state emanated, not from Palestinian Jews, but rather European Zionists. The Zionist movement in Palestine was headed by a largely homogenous group of Eastern European and Russian Jews who emigrated soon after the war during 1918-1920.17 Influenced by Jewish tradition and a history of oppression and pogroms in Eastern Europe,18 these early Zionist leaders “aspired to be an integral part of Western culture and looked for ways of eliminating Middle Eastern or Arab characteristics in their society.”19
Whereas the restoration of Israel and Zionist aspirations were a key aspect of the collective Jewish condition, Palestinian Arab political activism and nationalist fervour, were far more recent phenomena. Palestine has been under Ottoman rule for centuries, with the local Arab population becoming accustomed to Turkish rule. Following WWI, Arab nationalism began to spread throughout the Middle East. Palestinian nationalism in turn was an offshoot of greater pan-Arab sentiments, which were personified in the aspirations of King Faisal. Faisal sought to create a 'Greater Syria', including Iraq, Palestine and the Hejaz; an endeavour which garnered wide-ranging support from many in Palestine.20
Interestingly, Faisal also gave his blessing to Zionist efforts for a Jewish homeland, in return for Jewish promises to support him and to persuade Britain to keep its promises to the Hashemites. In 1919, Faisal stated that “Arabs and Jews are cousins in race...we Arabs especially the educated amongst us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement.”21 Simultaneously, the mayor of Jerusalem, Moussa Kasem proclaimed that Palestine belongs exclusively to the Arabs, and vilified the Jews as poisonous vipers who brought nothing but misfortune.22 Faisal's duplicitous nature did not greatly affect Palestinians, for his pan-Arab aspirations were dashed in 1920 by Britain and France, and as such his influence quickly diminished.23
Palestinian Arab nationalism in turn had lost an ally and initially its raison d'être, yet soon local Arabs began to remold the movement. The issue of Western colonialism and the threat of Zionism saw nationalism in Palestine become more localized, transforming from Pan-Arabism to calls for Palestinian independence.24 The nationalist movement came to be dominated by local a'ayan (notables), who had become disenchanted by the fracturing of Faisal's vision, and in turn sought self-determination.25 These notables were mainly leaders of prominent clans and tribes, who resided in the urban centres, drawing their wealth from large land holdings.26 Many of these notables were young, with western/liberal educations,27 and many of whom favoured British suzerainty over French control; at least in the medium term.28
Moreover, the leadership was generally interested in nationalism only insofar as it didn't conflict with their power bases.29 This in turn led to a rather paradoxical situation in which the notables involved “seemed to be pro-British, or at least against the pro-Zionist policy of Britain without necessarily being against the idea of the Mandate.”30 Despite exposure to Western ideals, the Arab leadership continued to draw their clout from traditional alliances and systems of patronage, resulting in “the clan and not the ideal, the chief and not the land [being] the primary concerns of those peasants who were recruited into political life in the early 1920s.”31
This emphasis on tribal loyalties quickly saw the nationalist movement in Palestine become hindered by internal disputes and mired in factionalism.32 The political leadership became contested between two main clans: the Husseinis and Nashashibis.33 The former were outspokenly nationalistic, and sought to rid Palestine of Zionists via a militant pseudo pan-Arabism; more fatwa than fraternalism.34 Conversely, the Nashashibis employed a more moderate tenor, and sought to rid Zionist influence by pressuring British policymakers via their contacts with King Abdullah of Jordan.35
The Nashashibis were seen by the Zionist Organization as more amenable to cooperation, however, they were no less nationalistic (read anti-Zionist) than than the more outspoken Husseinis.36 The more militant Husseinis soon came to dominate the political stage, aided in part by the ascension of Haj Amin al Husseini to the position of mufti of Jerusalem; in whom “clan and class notability, religious prestige and property were mutually reinforcing.” 37
Hajj Amin's candidacy was strongly supported by the British, who disqualified other candidates and engineered his acquisition of the position. Britain aided the Husseini clan in order to placate them in part due to their extensive land holdings (50,000 dunums in the late 1920s), and as part of Britain's policy of 'divide and rule'.38 By striking a clan balance between the Husseinis and Nashashibis, Britain was able to take advantage of internal mistrust to solidify its power and diffuse potential threats.39 The British actively encouraged clan feuding, and factionalism continued to define the Palestinian nationalist movement until the late 1930s.40
British infiltration into Palestinian nationalist and political bodies undermined efforts at legitimate and independent Arab action. Having acted as king-makers in appointing Hajj Amin, Britain demonstrated that “creating sectarian institutions [such as] the Supreme Muslim Council under mufti Hajj Amin, and establishing 'mock parliaments' were methods that served to enhance imperial control.”41 Indeed, despite calls for an Arab legislative body, Moussa Kasem and his followers flatly rejected British proposals to establish an Arab Agency, along the lines of the Jewish Agency (both to be in charge of religious life).42
Despite entrenched rivalries, there did exist signs of cooperation and concerted effort in the Palestinian nationalist movement. Whereas little to no Palestinian political action occurred during 1925-28, the Palestine Arab Congress did finally meet in 1928, bringing together delegations from all parties. Moreover, throughout the Mandate period, both Christian and Muslim Arabs worked closely together to form a united Arab national standpoint and identity.43 Christians and Muslims formed the Arab Executive Committee to represent Arab interests; a coalition which endured for the entirety of the Mandate era.44 This unity in turn made it increasingly clear to Britain that Palestine consisted not of three separate religious communities, but rather two (Jewish and Arab) nationalist movements with their respective fledgling governments.45
The 1930s witnessed increased Arab political action and engagement. The Al-Istiqal (Independence) Party founded in 1932 was a genuine, if short-lived, effort by Palestinians to spread nationalist sentiment, demanding transparency and accountability from mainstream leaders such as Hajj Amin.46 1933 saw the beginning of a widespread Arab revolt against British rule, which lasted until 1936, the same year as the establishment of the Arab Higher Committee (AHC).47 Hajj Amin continued to play a dominant role in Palestinian affairs, becoming the president of the committee. The AHC acted as a venue for dialogue, bringing together the six Arab political parties which were founded in 1935-36.48Despite his previous collusion with the British, Hajj Amin's role of president was not sanctioned by Britain, and he began to undertake more independent action.49
Palestinian Arabs long found themselves hampered by internal divisions and external pressures. The difficulties faced by the Palestinian nationalist movement,was due in large part to the fact that the Zionists “used colonialism, both [their] own and the British version, for [their own] purposes, while the Palestinian leadership needed more time to cope with the dual colonialist designs for the country.”50 As a result, for many years, Zionists faced little organized resistance from the Arabs, and despite the occasional episodic conflagration, relations remained amiable for much of the 1920s.51 Indeed, during the first decade of Mandate rule, Palestine emerged as the most peaceful country in the Middle East, necessitating only minimal British presence, whereas 30,000 French troops battled an insurgency in neighbouring Syria.52 Moreover, Arab and Jewish levies maintained the peace and worked side-by-side without issue.53 Moderation on the part of Jews was reflected by Arab actions, with hardline Zionists complaining that:
“This natural urge was far more detrimental to the nationalist project than British colonialism. The urge for cohabitation came from below”...[and]...“At every escalation of violence – 1920, 1929, 1936, 1948 [one] could find a case study of economic or social cooperation that was strongly opposed and destroyed by the national leaderships, especially the Zionist one.”54
This initial atmosphere of coexistence was due to Jewish moderation, which engendered a correspondingly placid response from the Arabs, who noted that the feared imminent Zionist invasion and conquest had failed to materialize.55 It was precisely the issue of immigration, or rather the lack thereof, which led to Zionist restraint. The great majority of the Jewish diaspora appeared to have been far from eager to emigrate, with only 8,223 from a quota of 16,500 arriving in 1920, a fact which greatly embarrassed Zionist efforts in Palestine.56 Whilst immigration increased in later years, even after WWII, “it took a serious effort of persuasion, to the point of intimidation by Zionist envoys...to create at least the impression that most of the Holocaust survivors wished to settle in Palestine – in actuality only 10 per cent did.”57
The relative scarcity of new arrivals, and potential influence and power at stake, led to rivalries amongst competing Zionist groups. The main groups consisted of David Ben Gurion's Ahdut Ha'Avodah (Unity of Labour), Hapoel Hatzair (Young Worker), religious nationalists, the Mizrahi movement and right-wing revisionists.58 During 1919 and 1920, Unity of Labour Party clashed with rival labour party Young Worker. Despite few differences in policy, both parties set up rival labour exchanges and trade unions, and both would harass new immigrants at the docks, each attempting to lure new supporters.59 Both parties were urged to find a modus vivendi, and in December 1920 they created the General Federation of Jewish Labour (GFJL),60 and by 1930 merged together to form MAPAI (Workers Party of the Land of Israel).61
The unity achieved by the creation of the GFJL, was short-lived, for by the mid 1920s, the Zionist labour movement faced increasing opposition from the Zionist Revisionist Movement.62 The revisionists, parted ways from the labour movement, by declaring the establishment of an official military body as the highest priority for the Zionist cause.63 The revisionists dismissed other Jewish parties as sub-par and questioned the Zionist credentials of all those they deemed 'insufficient'.64
For instance, revisionists led calls for the resignation of Sir Herbert Samuell, the British High Commissioner. Samuell, himself a Jew, retired in 1925, and was criticized during his tenure for not always favouring Zionist wishes and not being sufficiently pro-Jewish.65 Consequently, Samuell found himself in the uniquely disadvantageous position of being unpopular both with Jews and Arabs, with the former thinking him not Jewish enough, and the latter automatically distrusting him for being Jewish.66 Furthermore, as Arab hostility towards the Mandate authorities increased during the 1930s, this heightened antagonism did not influence Zionists to in favour of Britain.67
The rivalry between Labour and the revisionists continued during the late 1920s, with fistfights breaking out between rival politicians in the Knesset in 1929. The 1930s saw even greater discord, with Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the revisionist leader describing his opponents as “gypsy horse thieves, canaille, despicable riff-raff who pollute the air with venom and the cynicism of class hatred.”68 As in the Ahdut Ha'Avodah vs. Hapoel Hatzair rivalry, the revisionists founded their own competing labour organization, the National Labour Federation in 1934.69 There emerged during this time an even more radical right-wing subset of revisionist; the Biryonim group, led by Abba Achimeir, a proclaimed fascist, who authored a regular newspaper column entitled “From the Notebook of a Fascist.”70
The Biryonim claimed that all means were legitimate in fulfilling Zionist aims, and justified political assassinations, as witnessed by the Arlosoroff Affair of 1933. Dr. Chaim Arlosoroff was the head of the political department of the Jewish Agency and espoused a moderate line, stating that “since Arabs and Jews find themselves squeezed into one trajectory, a political process seeking some agreement is needed.”71 Arlosoroff was murdered on June 16th 1933, with the attack strongly implicating the revisionists. The labour coalition maintained that revisionist hate speech had fuelled the murder, whereas the revisionist insisted that Arabs did it, and that they were being victimized by leftist blood libel. Arlosoroff's murder remained controversial “for years to come, [and] the aftermath of the trial left a bitter taste in the Yishuv body politic. Many were of the view that the rift between the two camps could readily have degenerated into a Jewish civil war.”72
Factionalism was important factor in both Arab and Jewish politics during the first two decades of British Mandate rule. Competing visions of an Arab Palestine and Zionist Israel battled internal enemies and each other for dominance. Evidence of such conflicting parties problematizes the notion of Zionist and Arab viewpoints as monolithic, as well as the presumption of the Jewish-Arab tension as purely dichotomous. As in the case of the Arabs, various factions hampered effective cooperation, however Zionist disagreements occurred within a legitimized setting, that of the Knesset Israel. Palestinian disagreements mainly centred around differences of clan and loyalty, whereas Jewish groups engaged in spirited conflict on matter of policy and ideology.
Consequently, by the time nascent Palestinian organizations emerged in the late 1930s, Zionists had, in spite of internal rancour, fifteen years of legislative experience. Such experience, coupled with a generally sympathetic British administration, and the lack of similar barriers as faced by the Palestinians, put Zionist ambitions on a far more stable footing. Throughout these first decades both Arab and Zionist aspirations were circumscribed by the presence of British control, which sought to balance the interests of various groups in order to maintain imperial control. Such tampering most heavily hampered Arab efforts at organization, and their eventual coalescence in the late 1930s proved too little too late.
Rappard, William E. “Mandates and Trusteeships with Particular Reference to Palestine.” The Journal of Politics 8, no. 4 (1946): 520-530.
League of Nations. “British Mandate for Palestine.” in The American Journal of International Law 17, no.3 (1923): 164-171.
Hyamson, Albert M. Palestine under the Mandate: 1920-1948. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1976.
Schneer, Jonathan. The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2010.
Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two People. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Hassassian, Manuel. “Historical Dynamics Shaping Palestinian National Identity.” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 8, no. 4 (2002). https://www-lib-uwo-ca.proxy2.lib.uwo.ca:2443/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi/docview/235676729?accountid=15115 (accessed April 9 2012).
Bentwich, Norman. England in Palestine. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1932.
Stein, Leslie. The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern Israel, in Praeger Series on Jewish and Israeli Studies. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishing, 2003.
Nashif, Taysir. “Social Background Characteristics as Determinants of Political Behavior of the Arab Political Leadership of Palestine under the British Mandate.” Journal of Third World Studies 26, no. 2 (2009): 161-173.
Cohen, Hillel. review of Weldon C. Mathews, “Confronting and Empire, Constructing a Nation: Arab Nationalists and Popular Politics in Mandate Palestine.” The American Historical Review 114, no.1 (2009): 253-254.
1Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, (Toronto: Bond Street Books, 2010), 320.
2Albert M. Hyamson, Palestine under the Mandate: 1920-1948, (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1976), 106.
4League of Nations, “British Mandate for Palestine,” in The American Journal of International Law 17, no.3 (1923): 165.
5William E. Rappard, “Mandates and Trusteeships with Particular Reference to Palestine,” The Journal of Politics 8, no. 4 (1946): 520.
9League of Nations, “British Mandate for Palestine,” 165.
10Ilan Pappe, A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two People, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 106.
11League of Nations, 166.
18Manuel Hassassian, “Historical Dynamics Shaping Palestinian National Identity,” Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics and Culture 8, no. 4 (2002), https://www-lib-uwo-ca.proxy2.lib.uwo.ca:2443/cgi-bin/ezpauthn.cgi/docview/235676729?accountid=15115 (accessed April 9 2012).
20Norman Bentwich, England in Palestine, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd, 1932), 51.
21Leslie Stein, The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern Israel, in Praeger Series on Jewish and Israeli Studies, (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishing, 2003), 146.
24Hassassian, (accessed April 9 2012).
26Taysir Nashif, “Social Background Characteristics as Determinants of Political Behavior of the Arab Political Leadership of Palestine under the British Mandate,” Journal of Third World Studies 26, no. 2 (2009): 167.
32Hassassian, (accessed April 9 2012).
38Nashif, 167. - 50,000 dunums equating approximately to 12,500 acres
40Hassassian, (accessed April 9 2012).
41Hillel Cohen, review of Weldon C. Mathews, “Confronting and Empire, Constructing a Nation: Arab Nationalists and Popular Politics in Mandate Palestine,” The American Historical Review 114, no.1 (2009): 254.