Burning the Candle at Both Ends:

The British Influence on the Creation of a Jewish State


May 25. 2009


This paper will investigate the influence of the British government on the creation of the state of Israel and demonstrate that the convoluted policies Great Britain, forced the Jews of Palestine to declare independence. After World War I, the British created a Mandate in Palestine and from that day on struggled to maintain peace in an area inhabited by two native peoples with conflicting interests: the Jews and the Arabs. In attempting to reconcile these interests, the British made controversial decisions such as their refusal to acknowledge anti-Jewish violence and their establishment of Jewish immigration quotas. This paper will prove that, ironically, these policies in fact energized the Jews in their struggle for an independent state and directly resulted in the modern-day State of Israel.

For millenia, the region of Palestine has been a vortex of struggle and conflict. Members of nearly every religion and nationality have laid claim to the Holy Land, but few with the same fervor and persistence as the Jewish people. Only after World War I, however, did it become possible for most of Palestine, through the good and bad rulings of the British Mandate, to become a Jewish state. The creation of the modern state of Israel is fundamentally a result of the vacillating actions of the British government throughout the early 20th century.

To fully understand the various changes that transformed the Middle East during the 1900s, it is first necessary to set the stage for British involvement in Palestine. After the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were forced to experience the Diaspora, where they faced virulent civilian and government-sponsored anti‐Semitism. For example, in medieval Europe, Jews, blamed for the spread of the Black Death, were rounded up in villages and killed. The first Jewish settlers in the United States were denied important rights and became the victims of much prejudice. In 19th century Russia, the Jews became the victims of the Pogroms, civilian attacks on the Jewish community. The May Laws of 1888 forbade Jews from settling in many areas of Russia and thousands of Jews were murdered or convicted of crimes they had not committed. Because of this type of racism, and despite attempts at assimilation, many Jews still retained an intangible tie to the biblical land of Israel. In 1897, as a direct result of this connection, Theodore Herzl created the Zionist Movement to work towards the creation of a Jewish State. As Herzl said in his book, The Jewish State, “Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy our rightful requirements as a nation.” However, Herzl particularly labored to keep the European powers involved in the creation of the State so that it could be official. Herzl recognized that he would have to get the major world powers to endorse the Zionist Movement for it to be legitimate. Thanks to Herzl’s efforts, the Zionist Movement managed to catch the attention of the British government and spark its interest in the Middle East.

Whether or not the borders set up by the League of Nations in the Middle East after World War I were as arbitrary as the British decision to control Palestine, these convoluted boundaries epitomized the fickle actions of the British Empire. To begin with, in 1915, in the midst of World War I, Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, wrote to Husayn ibn Ali, then emir of Mecca, agreeing to give certain parts of the Middle East to the Arabs in return for their support against the Ottomans during the war. Only a year after the McMahon correspondence, the British and French governments composed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a secret agreement for the dissection of the Ottoman Empire after the anticipated victory win the war. Britain and France split between them Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; of the Ottoman provinces, the northern portion (Syria and Lebanon) was mandated to France, and the southern portion (Palestine and Iraq) was mandated to Great Britain. The Arabs then protested that Palestine had been included in the land promised them in the McMahon Correspondence, to which the British responded that “His Majesty’s Government regret the misunderstandings which have arisen,” and flatly denied the Arab rights to the land. The British wished to burn the candle at both ends – they wanted to keep the Arabs on their side by rewarding them for their help in World War I, but also wanted to maintain control over parts of the Middle East that they deemed important. These contradictory goals were only the beginning of British involvement in the Middle East.

Shortly after the Sykes-Picot Agreeement, the British further confused matters by promising Palestine to the Jews in an attempt to curry favor with the Jews of the Diaspora. In 1917, Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary, wrote a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain, proclaiming that “His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” under the control of the British. Mark Sykes, the author of the Sykes-Picot agreement, actually sided with Zionists in helping them to maneuver that treaty in their favor. As Chaim Weizmann stated,

“What we did not know in the early stages of our practical negotiations was that… the 'Sykes‐Picot Treaty,' already existed between France and England!... Sir Mark entered into negotiations with us, and gave us his fullest support, without even telling us of the existence of the tentative agreement! He was in effect, modifying his stand in our favour, seeking to revise the agreement so that our claims in Palestine might be given room.”

Balfour’s motives were questionable: the Declaration was meant, in part, as a political act to prompt American Jews to exercise their influence in moving the United States to support British postwar policies. Also, of course, the fact that Britain never let the Zionist Party know of the Sykes‐Picot agreement was suspicious in its own right, but at the time Herzl was simply pleased that the British were taking notice of the Jewish claims to Palestine. Now, of course, the British had, through the McMahon Correspondence and Balfour Declaration, legitimized two separate peoples’ claim to Palestine – planning to follow through on neither agreement. The Zionist Party’s initial hope for British support was crushed, but British influence on the creation of the State of Israel was not yet finished.

Despite the unfulfilled promise of the McMahon Correspondence, the British still considered it vital to make no decisions that would seriously upset the Arab population within or without Palestine because of Britain’s interest in Arab oil. The vast oil fields throughout the Middle East supplied British armies with gasoline for automobiles and airplanes – without Middle-Eastern oil, the British would be unable to satisfy their increasing demand for oil and natural gas. After taking control of Palestine, the British allowed a Jewish community in the Holy Land; however, the British government was more concerned with retaining Arab cooperation.

It soon became painfully clear that the British did not intend to retain their initial support of Jewish settlement in Palestine. Within Palestine, anti‐Jewish terrorist attacks marred the infant years of the Mandate. One of the worst examples of this took place in the summer of 1929. In July of that year, Jews peacefully rallied outside the Western Wall to protest the Arab‐influenced British decision to take down the ritual divider that segregated men and women. The rally, though non‐violent, was supervised by several British police. The following day, in response, a group of Arab‐Palestinians also demonstrated at the Western Wall, but attacked three Jews, burned prayer books, and destroyed Jewish prayer slips. British police remained far from the scene and the British media did not acknowledge the seriousness of the event. Later, in August, a young Jew was stabbed to death by Arab civilians and the British demanded he be buried secretly, at night, to avoid publicity. Many similar incidents of terrorism occurred for the next several years, to which the British simply turned a blind eye. The British did not disregard these outbursts out of any particular hatred for the Jews, but rather because they were attempting to remain on the good side of the Arab Palestinians, who did not wish to accept any Jewish presence in Palestine.

The British government also purposely hindered Diaspora Jews’ attempts to settle in Palestine so as to keep the support of the Arabs dwelling there. During the eight years after 1921, eighty thousand immigrants arrived in Palestine, causing the British government to set biannual immigration quotas in 1921, 1929, and 1939 that prevented Jews from entering their historical homeland. (The Arab population doubled between 1921 and 1929.) Indubitably the worst example of anti‐immigration laws was the British White Paper, issued on November 9, 1938, which set a quota of 10,000 Jewish immigrants per year for the next five years. This would have brought the Jewish population up to about 1/3 of Palestine’s total; after five years, no further Jewish immigration would be permitted, except with Arab authorization. The British published the White Paper in the hopes that it would placate the Palestinian Arabs and therefore end the violence. However, the Arabs repudiated the White Paper on the grounds that they refused to accept any Jewish settlement in Palestine. The Jews, realizing the lack of British support, took the quotas as incentive to begin illegal immigration to the Holy Land, which would not cease until 1947 when the Mandate ended. Once again, the British attempted to burn the candle at both ends; in doing so, they failed to satisfy the Arabs and also lost the respect and trust of the Jews.

Arguably the best decision Britain made for Jews still hoping for an independent state was the decision to give up control of Palestine. Forced because of the unmanageable internal strife within Palestine, the British gave up control over the Mandate in 1947. The United Nations, the successor of the League of Nations, appointed a special eleven‐person committee to examine Palestine and figure out the best course of action. The UN created the Partition Plan, which split the area of the former Mandate into a huge Arab Palestinian state surrounding a much smaller independent Jewish Israel; Jerusalem was designated an international city. The British agreed to the Partition Plan, still hoping that it would pacify the Arabs. The Jews, grateful for even the small portion of Israel they had been granted, likewise accepted it. However the Arab League and Arab High Committee rejected this decision, still refusing to accept any Jewish presence within Palestine. Seeing that the Arabs would never be content with any UN decision that allowed Jewish settlement, the Jews finally took matters into their own hands. On May 14th, 1948, the day before the official end of the British Mandate and the day on which the Partition Plan would go into effect, the Jews declared the independence of the State of Israel. Despite harrowing attacks from the surrounding Arab nations during the first months following the creation of Israel, the fledgling Jewish State managed to maintain independence; in spite of several wars fought since then, it still survives to the present day. It is possible that if the British had never given up control over the Mandate, the State of Israel might never have been created. In any case, this decision caused the Jews to realize they no longer had any support from Britain, and it gave them they boost they required to liberate themselves from that country’s rule.

The British, during their reign over Palestine, found themselves trapped in the difficult, if not impossible position of attempting to reconcile both Jewish and Arab claims to the land. Their attempt to support these conflicting interests only led them to make promises that they could not fulfill. Policies such as the refusal to acknowledge the anti-Jewish violence in Palestine and restrictive immigration laws outraged the Jewish community and ironically energized the Jews in their struggle to create an independent state.


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