USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Palestine Mandate

In 1917, for reasons still debated, the British government publically issued the famous Balfour Declaration, which pledged British support for a future Jewish state in Palestine, calling it a “national home for the Jewish people.” The Balfour Declaration and the relatively hospitable conditions of the British mandate in Palestine encouraged a new wave of Jewish immigration from Europe to the area. This wave, coming between 1918 and 1923, constituted a critical advance for Jewish interests in Palestine. First and foremost, the numbers were significant enough to establish a real Jewish presence, some 65,000 altogether when including those who came in the decade before the war. Second, the Jewish immigrants of this wave came with a new ideology based on collective development of the land through labor. This is the era of the foundation of the kibbutz movement. During the 1920s, Jewish settlers build communities, infrastructure, organizations, and connections to the British overlords. The stage was being set for statehood.

The Arab Palestinians, on the other hand, did not react to the British mandate with open arms. Having existed for centuries as subjects of the Ottoman sultan, there existed—as in most of the region—no indigenous sense of regional political identity and no sense of “national” belonging to an entity called Palestine. In other words, the Palestinians had no Zionism of their own, though this would of course change during the following decades. Palestinians saw themselves mainly as Ottoman subjects, then perhaps as Syrians, though the links to “Greater Syria” diminished when France assumed control over its Syrian mandate.

Tense coexistence prevailed until the early 1930s when rising antisemitism in Europe (Hitler comes to power in 1933) provoked a massive exodus of Jews to uproot their lives and journey to Palestine. Between 1931 and 1935, the Jewish population in Palestine more than doubled, reaching 400,000 by mid-decade. The increase in Jewish population, the politics of landownership, and the collapse of agricultural prices caused by the Great Depression resulted in a state of acute crisis and desperation among Arab Palestinians. In 1936, these frustrations and privations boiled over in the 1936 “Great Revolt.” For the next three years, the British engaged in a brutal, destructive campaign to eradicate Palestinian rebels, first and foremost in the countryside and villages. This war had disastrous consequences for Arab Palestinians and their leadership, consequences that would directly impact its position ten years later on the eve of the partition of Palestine and the creation of the state of Israel. But the Great Revolt also had profound impact for the world’s Jews. Despite the fact that the British decimated the Palestinian population, leadership, and war-making capacity, they did not want to encourage more tumult in the mandate zone, especially given the ominous clouds hanging over Europe in the late 1930s. This led to the British decision to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine so as not to further provoke Arab Palestinians. The horrid reality is that Hitler’s merciless campaign to rid the world of Jews would soon be murdering Jews by the millions, who were stuck in Europe with no way out.

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