A chronological outline through to 1948
70 CE – The Destruction of the Temple and the Jewish Dispersion
Jews have lived in the Land of Israel for nearly 4000 years, going back to the period of the Biblical patriarchs (c.1900 BCE). The story of Jewish life in ancient Israel is recorded in detail in the Hebrew Bible (called the “Old Testament” by Christians).
The dispersion of the Jewish people is traditionally dated from the destruction of their Temple in Jerusalem, an event considered by the Romans to be a victory of such significance that they commemorated it by erecting the triumphal Arch of Titus, which still dominates the Roman Forum. The Roman historian Cassius Dio records that in a subsequent revolt in 135 CE some 580,000 Jewish soldiers were killed; and following that revolt the Emperor Hadrian decreed that the name “Judea” 2 should be replaced by “Syria Palestina” – Philistine Syria or “Palestine” 3.
In the ensuing years the greater part of the Jewish population went into exile as captives, slaves and refugees, although Galilee remained a centre of Jewish institutions and learning until the sixth century CE.
As strangers and outsiders in the countries of their dispersion, the Jews were subjected to discriminatory laws and taxes and, particularly with the rise of Christianity, to humiliation and active persecution. However, through the centuries of exile, the hope for redemption of the land of Israel remained a focal point of the Jewish religion and national identity. Today there are about 14 million Jews in the world, of whom nearly five million live in Israel.
622 – The Birth of Islam
The Hijra, the “migration” of the Prophet Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, marked the establishment of the Islamic religion in Arabia. At the height of its power during the next hundred years, Islamic rule extended from the Sind in India to southern France.
638 – The Arab conquest of Palestine
In the seventh century Palestine was predominantly Christian- and Greek- speaking, ruled from Constantinople (“Byzantium”) as a part of the Byzantine Empire, the successor of the eastern Roman Empire.
In 638 the Islamic Caliph Omar I completed the Arab conquest of Palestine with the capture of Jerusalem from the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius. Omar built the Dome of the Rock on the site where the Jewish Temple had stood, and henceforth Jerusalem was proclaimed the third most holy site of Islam.
From 638 to 1099 Palestine was part of the empires successively ruled by the Arab dynasties centred in Damascus and Baghdad. The result was an entrenchment of the Arabic language and culture and the dominance of Islam, although a significant proportion of the population remained Christian. Like most of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, the people of Palestine thus came to describe themselves as “Arabs”.
1099 – The Crusaders establish the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem
1187 – Saladin, the Turkish ruler of Egypt, defeats the Crusaders
1516 – Suleiman the Magnificent of Turkey takes Jerusalem
Under Turkish Muslim rule Palestine was governed from Constantinople for the next four hundred years, ending with the defeat of Turkey as an ally of Germany in the First World War. By the 19th century the population of Turkish Palestine had been reduced to less than 500,000, including about 25,000 Jews. The only fertile areas were in the narrow central plain. The north consisted of rocky hills and of valleys which had largely degenerated into swampland, while the south was mostly desert.
1882 – The Jews of Russia and the origins of modern Zionism
Meanwhile, some five million Jews lived in Russia. Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and the succession of the more repressive Alexander III, anti- Jewish laws were re-introduced. Boys of twelve were conscripted for twenty-five years in the army; Jews were allowed to live only in restricted areas and “pogroms” (violent attacks on Jewish villages and neighbourhoods) swept through Russia.
The overwhelming response was emigration to America. Another response was Zionism, the political movement aimed at restoring a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1882 the first of the modern Zionist waves of immigration began, with the establishment of agricultural settlements under conditions of severe hardship, and generally dependent on the support of Jewish philanthropists. There was a second wave of immigration in 1904 after another wave of persecution in Russia. By 1914 the Jewish population was approximately 85,000 in a total population of approximately 650,000.
1897 – Theodore Herzl calls the First Zionist Congress
As a journalist in Paris representing a Viennese newspaper, Herzl witnessed the antisemitic outbreaks at the beginning of the “Dreyfus Affair” 4. Shocked by the antisemitism in France, the land of liberty and emancipation, he concluded that Jewish freedom and dignity required the restoration of a Jewish national homeland, and in 1896 he wrote “Der Judenstaat”, a program for the establishment of a Jewish state. He forecast that a state would come into existence within 50 years. “If you will it”, he said, “it is no dream”.
In 1897 he convened the first Zionist Congress at Basle in Switzerland, comprising 204 representatives of Jewish communities, which created the World Zionist Organisation. After a series of pogroms in Russia, culminating in a massacre at Kishinev in 1903, there was great pressure in Britain to take Jewish immigrants. The British government first offered the Zionist organisation the enclave of El Arish, on the coast of the Sinai desert, and then seriously offered Uganda (then known as “East Africa”) as a Jewish homeland and place of refuge.
1914-1918 – The First World War
In 1914 the Turkish Empire entered the First World War on the side of Germany. From the outset British control of the sea route to India (passing adjacent to Palestine and through the Suez Canal) was an essential strategic objective in the war. In 1915 Henry McMahon, British High Commissioner in Egypt, corresponded with the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, the head of the ancient ruling Hashemite clan, promising British support for an Arab revolt against the Turks, and British recognition of Arab independence after a successful uprising. The area of Arab rule was ambiguously described, and the British Government later denied any promise that Arab independence would extend to Palestine 5.
The Arab uprising, which occurred with the assistance of Colonel T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”), took the form of a march of Bedouin tribes from the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus, and succeeded in disrupting the Turkish railway system in the region. Meanwhile, a number of the Jewish settlers who had been expelled from Palestine by the Turks joined either the “Zion Mule Corps” which fought at Gallipoli, or the Jewish Legion, a regiment of the British Fusiliers, which fought with the Allied Forces in the Middle East.
Australian forces also fought in Palestine, and the famous charge of the Australian Light Horsemen which resulted in the capture of Beersheba, was a turning point in the campaign.
1917 – The Balfour Declaration
On 2nd November 1917, one month before British troops under General Allenby entered Jerusalem, the British Government made the following declaration in a letter from Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild, president of the British Zionist Federation:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
Reasons for the Declaration
The Zionist Idea:
Zionist aspirations were conveyed persuasively by the British Zionist leader Dr. Chaim Weizmann to Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, both of whom were religious men with a knowledge of the Bible, and essentially in sympathy with the Jews.
(Note: As a scientist working for the British Admiralty, Weizmann had invented a process for synthesizing acetone which played an important part in the British war effort, and this gave him some access to the political leadership. Weizmann later became the first President of the State of Israel.)
British Strategic Aims:
Palestine controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and the Suez Canal, which were part of the sea route to India, the Far East and Australia. The Balfour Declaration provided a basis for a British protectorate after the War. (During the early stages of the negotiations, American Jewish support for U.S. entry into the war was considered important. There was also a need to counter the Russian Jewish expectation that Germany might liberate them from the Tsarist yoke.)
There were two Jews in the British cabinet. Sir Herbert Samuel, who later became the first British High Commissioner under the Mandate, supported the Declaration. It was opposed by Sir Edwin Montague, who summarised his view with the words “I am His Majesty’s Secretary of State for India, and you want to say that my national home is in Palestine!”
1919 – The Paris Peace Conference
In 1918 Weizmann met the Emir Faisal, the leader of the Arab forces in the war and the son of the Hashemite ruler Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, at Ma’an in southern Transjordan. Weizmann and Faisal reached an agreement which was formalised at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, which discussed the drawing of new national boundaries which followed the conclusion of the First World War. Faisal conveyed the spirit of the agreement in a letter to United States Justice Frankfurter, leader of the American Zionist delegation:
“The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both … We shall welcome the Jews back home.”
However in March 1920, a Syrian congress held in Damascus rejected the Balfour Declaration and elected Faisal King of a united Syria, including Palestine. The French then deposed Faisal in July 1920.
1920 – The Treaty of San Remo
At the Allied conference at San Remo, in April 1920, at which the Allied Powers determined the fate of the former Turkish possessions, the Balfour Declaration was approved, and it was agreed that a mandate to Britain should be formally given by the League of Nations over the area which now comprises Israel, Jordan and the Golan Heights, which was to be called the “Mandate of Palestine”. The Balfour Declaration was to apply to the whole of the mandated territory.
The treaty of San Remo was ratified by the League of Nations in July 1922. In September 1922, a clause was added to the Mandate memorandum separating Transjordan (the territory on the east bank of the river) from the rest of Palestine. The British installed the Emir Abdullah, another son of Hussein of Mecca, as ruler of Transjordan under British tutelage, and that part of the mandated area was excluded from the operation of the Balfour Declaration by the British White Paper of 1922 6. In 1946 Transjordan gained its independence as “The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan”. In 1923 the Golan Heights was ceded by Britain to the French Mandate of Syria.
1919-1948 – Jewish Settlement in Palestine
The Jewish population in Palestine increased to 678,000 by 1946. During the period between 1919 and 1946, the development of the country in turn attracted substantial Arab immigration, and the Arab population doubled, to 1,269,000.
Jewish immigration followed waves of persecution in central and eastern Europe, and increased dramatically after the accession of Hitler in 1933. The forms of settlement reflected the various Zionist ideologies, socialist, religious or nationalist. The dominant ideology was socialist, and this found expression in the development of unique social and economic enterprises, such as the Kibbutzim 8, the Moshavim 9 and the Histadrut 10.
Land was purchased with funds raised by Jewish communities throughout the world 11. Malarial swamps were drained, trees were planted and desert areas were reclaimed, and the city of Tel Aviv rose from the sand dunes.
1920 -1939 – The Arab Response
In April 1920, during the British Military Occupation which preceded the Mandate, the Arabs of Palestine rioted in protest against Jewish settlement. In Jerusalem the riots took the form of violent attacks on the Jewish population. In Galilee, armed groups attacked Jewish settlers. On 1 May 1921 a Jewish Labour Day march was attacked and 47 Jews were killed.
In August 1929 a dispute at the Western Wall 12 in Jerusalem flared into riots which spread throughout the country. The Jewish community in Hebron (the burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) was wiped out. In all 133 Jews were killed and many hundreds were wounded.
In December 1931 a Muslim Conference in Jerusalem attended by 22 countries denounced Zionism, and in 1933 a boycott of British and Zionist goods was proclaimed.
In April 1936 the Arab political parties formed an Arab Higher Committee under the presidency of Haj Amin El Husseini, the Mufti 13 of Jerusalem and head of the influential Husseini clan. A general strike was proclaimed, which lasted for six months, and armed groups were again organised to attack Jewish settlements.
In 1937, when the British outlawed the Arab Higher Committee, the Mufti fled from Palestine to Nazi Germany where he established close relations with the government. Here he endorsed and offered assistance in Hitler’s “final solution” of the Jewish problem.
1920-1937 – The British Reaction
The British Government responded to the Arabs’ violent protests against Jewish immigration and land acquisition, by instituting commissions of inquiry, holding Royal Commissions and issuing policy statements in the form of “White Papers”. The 1922 “Churchill” White Paper limited immigration to the “economic absorptive capacity of the country”. The 1930 policy statement restricted the transfer of land to Jews.
In 1937 the Royal Commission presided over by Lord Peel came to the conclusion that the Mandate was unworkable, and proposed a partition plan. The plan proposed that the cities of Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Jerusalem and the corridor between them (including the Arab towns of Lod and Ramle) should remain under British control, that the remaining area should be divided between Arab and Jewish states, and that Jewish immigration should be strictly limited. The Jewish reaction to the plan was ambivalent. The Arabs were strongly opposed and stepped up their revolt.
1938 – The Evian Conference
By 1938 the position of the Jews in Europe was desperate. The antisemitic Nuremberg Laws and the concentration camps were in place. Germany would let the Jews leave, but no country would grant sufficient entry visas, and they remained trapped. At the Conference on Refugees held at the resort town of Evian in France, the participants refused to make any substantial alteration in their strict immigration quotas 14.
1939 – The London Conference and the White Paper
In January 1939 a conference between the British Government and Jewish and Arab representatives took place in London. The Arabs demanded an immediate end to Jewish immigration and land acquisition. The Jews of Germany sent a message stating that their situation was one of life or death, that it was inconceivable that Britain should sacrifice them.
The outcome of the conference was the 1939 White Paper. This provided for strict limitations on Jewish land ownership, that during the next five years no more than 75,000 immigrants would be permitted, and that after that period no further Jewish immigration should be allowed unless the Arabs of Palestine were ‘prepared to acquiesce in it’.
The Arabs rejected the White Paper on the ground that it continued to permit Jewish immigration and settlement. When war broke out, the Jews of Palestine adopted the slogan: “We shall fight the Germans as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no Germans.”
1939-1945 – World War II and the Nazi Holocaust
Six million Jews were exterminated in Europe in conditions of calculated atrocity unique and unprecedented in world history. The world’s conception of the nature of human civilization would never be the same. The perpetrators of the mass-produced sadism of the Holocaust were, after all, products of one of the most highly cultured and technically advanced societies ever known. One lesson was clear: in times of severe crisis in any country, no outsider is safe. The survival of the Jewish people depended on the existence of a national territory and a capacity for self-defence.
1945-1947 – The Post-War Immigration Crisis and the Jewish Revolt
After the war, Britain was anxious to consolidate its Middle East interests. Priorities included control of oil supplies and maintenance of the sea route to the Persian Gulf and the Far East, all of which required Arab friendship. Under Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary in the Labour Government, the White Paper policy of severe restrictions on Jewish immigration was continued. The survivors of the Displaced Persons Camps of Europe demanded to go to Palestine. Illegal immigration by desperate survivors in chartered boats, often barely seaworthy, increased in scale, and those who were unsuccessful in avoiding the British Navy were put into camps in Cyprus and Mauritius, or returned to Europe.
British troops were shipped to Palestine to meet the growing Jewish resistance. Various groups opposed the British, including the Haganah 15 the Irgun 16 and the more extreme Stern Group. One major event in the conflict was the bombing by the Irgun of the British Army Headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, resulting in British, Arab and Jewish casualties. The Irgun claimed that the building had not been evacuated despite clear warnings.
Leaders of the Jewish resistance groups were arrested. Some were imprisoned, some deported and some hanged. In retaliation five British sergeants were kidnapped by the Irgun and hanged. The fundamental differences in policy between the Haganah and the Irgun led to the bombing by the Haganah of the “Altalena”, a ship bringing arms to the Irgun.
1946-1947 – United Nations Intervention
Attempts to settle matters failed. In 1946 an Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry called for the immediate entry into Palestine of 100,000 survivors. In 1947 the British agreed to intervention by the newly formed United Nations, and a United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) was established, including Australian participation.
After taking evidence, UNSCOP recommended the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state in economic union (each state consisting of three segments), and an internationalized Jerusalem. While the Jewish state comprised sixty percent of the total area, over half of it was the barren and unpopulated Negev Desert.
An Ad Hoc Committee of the UN, under the chairmanship of Dr. H.V. Evatt, Foreign Minister of Australia, drafted the partition resolution. On 29th November 1947, the resolution was passed by a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, after much suspense about the US position. There was now an international charter for the creation of the State of Israel. It is notable that the partition resolution was strongly supported by the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc, as they opposed British interests in the Middle East.
1947-1948 – From the Partition Resolution to Independence
The Jews accepted the partition plan with celebration in the streets. The Arabs denounced the plan and refused to set up a provisional government for the proposed Arab state. Britain announced that it would not co-operate in the actual execution of the partition plan, and would withdraw its forces on 15th May 1948.
Arab hostilities began immediately in the form of a general strike, widespread rioting, and attacks on Jews throughout the country. Armed Arab forces appeared, the largest being the Arab Liberation Army led Fauzi AI-Kaukji, a former Turkish officer, and supported by Syrian officers and irregular troops.
By March 1948, with British forces still in Palestine, an all-out war for access to Jerusalem and control of Galilee was in progress. By mid-May the Jewish population had sustained some 2,500 dead, half of them civilians. Arab casualties are not known.
On 18 March 1948 the United States called on the Security Council to postpone the implementation of the Partition, and to set up a temporary UN Trusteeship. The British, certain that the Arabs would succeed in destroying the new State, gave assistance to Transjordan, and Major-General Glubb led the Transjordanian Arab Legion. Britain and the United States both denied arms to the provisional Government of Israel, which now looked to Czechoslovakia for supplies.
This period saw the beginnings of an exodus of Arabs away from areas of Jewish control. The numbers of those who left, and the circumstances in which they left, are matters of controversy. Estimates of the number of Arab refugees who left their homes during the conflict both before and after May 1948 range from about 510,000, based on population figures before and after the conflict, to 720,000, based on United Nations figures.
Arab writers accuse the Jewish forces of a concerted terror campaign. They give as an example the events on April 1948 at Deir Yassin, a village commanding the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road, in which 250 civilians were killed 17. Arab newspapers and radio gave extensive coverage of the attack by the Irgun, and this was an important element in precipitating the flight of Arabs away from the area.
Israeli sources, on the other hand, point to an intensive media effort by Israel to persuade the Arab population to remain and participate in the development in the State of Israel. They also refer to Arab calls for the inhabitants of the area to leave their homes and make way for an Arab invasion, which was expected to result in the annihilation of Israel. (See Documents)
1948 – Israel’s Independence
On 14th May 1948 the British flag was lowered and the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was proclaimed. It included the following words:
We appeal in the very midst of the onslaught launched against us now for months to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the up-building of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.
We extend our hand to all neighbouring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighbourliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of co-operation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East.
That night Tel Aviv was bombed by Egyptian planes. The next morning units of the regular armies of Syria, Trans-Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, with volunteers from Saudi Arabia and the Sudan, crossed the frontiers. It was the beginning of the war described by Israel as the War of Independence, and by the Arabs as Al Nakhba, “the Disaster”.
©2000 Ian Lacey BA, LLB
Printed in “TEACHING HISTORY”, Journal of the History Teachers’ Association of NSW
Consent is given for copying for classroom purposes with acknowledgment.