With the latest outbreak of conflict between Israel and its neighbours, it is instructive to recall how Israel came to be created after World War II.
In his home city of Philadelphia in the US, Earl Harrison had a reputation as an unemotional man, fussy about detail and good order.
Aged 46, he discovered he had a flair for publicity – and for action.
He was not a soldier, a thinker, or a statesman. However, Harrison did as much as anybody to create the State of Israel.
After the war, US president Harry Truman despatched Harrison and a small team of administrators and medical experts to look at conditions for Jewish refugees and concentration camp survivors in Germany and Austria.
The explosive reports Harrison sent back shamed the US administration into supporting a Jewish state:
“As matters now stand we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except we do not exterminate them”, he reported in early 1945.
Emotional appeal trumped detail in his report: “Many Jewish refugees are living under guard behind barbed wire fences… amid crowded, unsanitary conditions waiting, hoping for some word of encouragement and action on their behalf”.
Harrison argued that the US should accept that the Jews were a nation – the first time it had been put so plainly in an official American document.
Harrison’s report also placed severe strains on the ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain.
Britain had already recognised the aspirations of the Zionists since the Balfour Declaration in 1917 which, however vaguely worded, had promised a ‘national home’ for the Jews.
Harrison then made a recommendation which would pose a political problem for Truman – and an insoluble dilemma for the British who ran Palestine as a protectorate under a League of Nations mandate: “the immediate immigration of 100,000 Jews to Palestine.”
He had plucked the figure out of nowhere. He never looked at whether Palestine could absorb that number ‘immediately’. He spoke to no British officials, let alone any Arabs, who were the majority population in Palestine by about three to one and objected strongly to new Jewish immigrants.
Yet, Harrison’s report was quickly adopted as US policy and the 100,000 figure became the yardstick by which support for the Zionist cause was measured.
State Department officials warned that if, in future, the US wanted to exert increased influence in the Middle East, which was a clear post-war aim, it ought to back the Arabs.
The American public was generally in favour of backing the Zionist cause but nowhere near as enthusiastically as they would later become.
President Truman had always been a moderate supporter of Jewish immigration to Palestine but as a senator had voted against the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. Now he accepted Harrison’s recommendations and pledged to exert the US more energetically on behalf of the Jews because it was right and because it was politically expedient: “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 as my constituents”.
Mid-term elections were coming up in November 1946 and there were key battleground states where the Jewish vote would count. “It is not just a European issue, or a Palestinian issue. It is an American issue”.
By 1946, America boasted the single largest Jewish community in the world.
Arabs were the majority population in Palestine by about three to one- Martin Scicluna
There were 4.5 million Jews in the US, mostly in the cities – 1.75 million lived in New York alone. But barely any American Jews wanted to go to Palestine and swap US citizenship for a new life in the place the Zionists wanted as the ‘national home’ for Jews. Between 1936 and 1946, only 494 people chose to do so.
America supplied most of the finance for the Jewish national home but not the recruits.
Richard Crossman, a young Labour MP, in 1946 reported after visiting the US that “the average American supported immigration to Palestine because he didn’t want more Jews in America. By shouting for a Jewish state…. they are attacking the British Empire and British protectionism; they are espousing a moral cause and [most importantly] they are diverting attention from the fact that their own immigration laws are one of the causes of the problem”.
As the British ambassador to the US put it: “The average American citizen does not want more Jews in the US and salves his conscience by advocating their admission into Palestine.”
Prime Minister Clement Attlee of Britain was indignant. He objected to placing Jewish refugees in a special category “at the head of the queue” and argued that the Arabs’ point of view “as well as the Jews” should be considered in regard to immigration.
President Harry Truman promptly released the correspondence to journalists at a White House press conference. Furious, Attlee fired back another angry cable.
The row was patched up – temporarily. President and prime minister agreed to establish a joint Anglo-American Commission to examine “the position of Jews in Europe and how it can be relieved”.
The joint chairperson, despite some British objections, would be Earl Harrison. After hearing evidence from hundreds of witnesses in Europe, Washington and Jerusalem, Harrison published his recommendations,
They were essentially similar to the conclusions he had reached six months earlier – that 100,000 new Jewish immigrants should go to Palestine and that an autonomous, but not entirely independent, Jewish state should be established.
The Arabs vehemently opposed the plan from the start; the Jews broadly accepted it as a basis for negotiation.
A week later, Attlee rejected the proposals out of hand. Jewish guerrilla groups pledged to renew fighting to force the British to leave and grant them their homeland.
It was this that escalated a small-scale series of skirmishes into a widespread war on terrorism – and underlined how painful Britain would find it to retreat from empire.
The man who emerged after the war as the most influential Zionist leader, David Ben Gurion, considered that it was time to look to the future, not the past.
A combative, restless spirit, not long after the beginning of World War II, Ben Gurion declared “our way is to spread the Zionist message through relentless political propaganda”.
During the war, he had feared that, by the time the Allies won, there would be no Jews left in Europe.
However, 200,000 came out of the concentration camps, although 40,000 of those died within a few weeks of liberation.
More than 300,000 Jews in Eastern and Central Europe had escaped the camps altogether.
Ben-Gurion had another major concern. He was worried that, after spending time in the refugee camps, Holocaust survivors would not settle in Palestine but elsewhere, which would weaken the Zionists’ case for a Jewish state.
Britain’s Labour Party had a long-standing commitment to Zionism- Martin Scicluna
Ever a realist, he admitted that he needed to use the refugees as a weapon against the British. He toured displaced person camps, encouraging refugees to believe that a Jewish homeland was within their grasp.
Ben-Gurion was in the midst of another political battle with Chaim Weizmann, a political giant, under whose guidance the number of Jews in Palestine increased nearly tenfold during the Mandate years, from a meagre handful of almost a third of the population.
Jews owned nearly a sixth of the land and built a thriving city, Tel Aviv, as well as numerous villages and many more of the agricultural settlements unique to Zionism. By the end of 1946, the abrasive Ben-Gurion had ousted Weizmann from his position as head of the World Zionist Congress.
The Palestinian Arabs were less fortunate in their leadership. Most were pitifully poor dirt farmers.
Arabs were generally paid around a third less than their Jewish workmates for the same job. It was a similar story with all kinds of services from education to health. While Jewish numbers in Palestine were still insignificant, the two communities rubbed along.
There were around 50,000 Jews in Palestine when the British took control of Jerusalem, roughly 10 per cent of the population.
It was when the Jewish population began to rise immediately after the British Mandate was established that the Arabs saw a threat and real conflict arose.
As fascism spread in Europe, more than 250,000 new settlers arrived between 1929 and 1939. The Palestinians were never united, and had a divided, inept leadership. But with war looming, the Palestinian Arabs secured some of what they wanted.
The Neville Chamberlain government, realising that the British would need Arab support elsewhere in the Middle East in the coming conflict with Germany decided: “If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.”
It passed new laws limiting immigration to 12,500 a year and banned land sales to Jewish organisations.
After the war, the Labour government in Britain still had illusions of imperial grandeur, stating that it was vital to keep good relations with the Arab world for the sake of empire – and also because it was Britain’s main reservoir of oil.
The Labour Party had a long-standing commitment to Zionism. In 1944, the Labour conference resolved: “There is no meaning in a ‘Jewish National Home’ unless we are prepared to let Jews, if they wish, enter this tiny land in such numbers as to become a majority.”
On February 14, 1947, Attlee finally agreed to end the Mandate by putting the entire Palestine issue in the hands of the United Nations. This created a Special Committee on Palestine to decide the future.
A year later, the UN oversaw the partition of Palestine into independent Jewish and Arab states, the first countries to be created by the world’s new peacekeeper.
However, until then, the British had to police Palestine and the killing and the dying continued – as it does to this day.
Martin Scicluna is a former Times of Malta columnist.