When Palestine Was at Stake

The future of Palestine was at stake in the 1940s, and the fundamental clash of interests, between Zionist Jews and Palestinian Arabs, was also a fundamental clash of principles. The differences are shown by a comparison of the liberal Arab nationalist, the Zionist binationalist, and the Reform Judaism anti-Zionist views.

The Arabs sought independence for Palestine, as Britain had promised as pay back for the Arab role in Britain’s campaign against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Instead Britain concluded the secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France to divide the Arab heartland conquered from the Ottomans, and then issued the Balfour Declaration in support of Zionism in Palestine. The term Nakba, a byword for the destruction of Arab Palestine in 1948, was first applied to the 1920 dismemberment of historic Syria into enlarged Lebanon, Palestine, and rump Syria, ruled by Britain and France. In the 1940s, the Arabs were willing to grant Jews full rights of citizenship in a democratic Palestine, but emphatically not national rights, and opposed further Jewish immigration.

For its part, the Zionist movement publicly proclaimed its long-standing goal of a Jewish state in Palestine in 1942, and accepted partition when proposed by the UN in 1947. The “binationalists” among the Zionists opposed partition, and proposed that Arabs and Jews share power equally, when Jews were around 33 per cent of the population. The binationalists also insisted on Jewish immigration to achieve demographic parity, and even majority. Binationalism was another form of Zionism, despite its enlightened reputation, and is discussed as such here.

Alone among US Jewish groups, the American Council for Judaism supported democracy in Palestine. The ACJ opposed the 1939 British White Paper limiting Jewish immigration, and advocated immigration for postwar refugees, on liberal, non-discriminatory grounds, as it did to destinations other than Palestine. At the same time it opposed binationalism, deriding its demographic engineering schemes, and did not envision the demographic transformation sought by the binationalists. The ACJ argued that the future of Palestine should be determined by all its residents.

The Arab Nationalists

To consider the Arab view at greater length, the 1930s were a time of growing existential anxiety for the Arabs of Palestine, no less than for the Jews of Germany. The Arab uprising in 1929 had caused Britain to reconsider its support for Zionism, but this was reversed by the London Zionist lobby. Greatly increased Jewish immigration after 1933, and a deep crisis in rural Palestine, from the lingering devastation of World War I and from Zionist land acquisition, exacerbated Arab desperation. Arab political initiatives with the British came to nought, and the pressures exploded in the Arab revolt in 1936, brutally suppressed by the British. In 1937 a British investigation resulted in partition schemes and renewed talk of “transfer” of some Arab population. The revolt broke out again more violently in late 1937, Britain lost control of large parts of the country, and finally prevailed with still greater violence.

George Antonius, in his classic The Arab Awakening: the Story of the Arab National Movement, published in Britain and the US in 1938-9, saw clearly the threat to Arab Palestine, which he defended in the strongest terms.

“The rights of the Arabs are derived from actual and longstanding possession, and rest on the strongest human foundation. Their connection with Palestine goes back uninterruptedly to the earliest historic times, for the term “Arab” nowadays denotes not only the incomers from the Arabian peninsula who occupied the country in the seventh century, but also the older populations who…became permanently arabised. The traditions of the present inhabitants are as deeply rooted in their geographical surroundings as in their adoptive culture, and it is a fallacy to imagine that they could ever be induced to transplant themselves…

“In addition to those natural rights, the Arabs had acquired specific political rights derived from the Sharif Husain’s compact with Great Britain and the help they gave her, in Palestine amongst other theatres…rights which followed from the disappearance of Turkish sovereignty, and the Arab share in its overthrow.”

Antonius led the Arab delegation to the February, 1939 Palestine conference convened by the British in London. He achieved unity in demanding independence for Palestine and cessation of Jewish immigration, to British surprise, and forced a tacit admission that Palestine was not excluded from the lands promised to Sharif Husayn. The outcome was the British White Paper of May, limiting immigration to 75,000 over five years. Meanwhile, “in the last months before the outbreak of war, British consular officials in the Reich [Germany and Austria] were granting emigration visas to Britain virtually without limit.” The White Paper promised independence in ten years. Palestinian Jamal Husayni, speaking for the Arab delegation, explained that the Jews could expect “full civil and political rights, control of their own communal affairs, municipal autonomy in districts in which they are concentrated, the use of Hebrew as an additional official language in those districts, and an adequate share of the administration.”

Antonius died in 1942, but the 1939 terms were elaborated to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry in 1946. “For twenty-five years…[i]mmigration has been forced on [the Palestinian Arabs] against their will and without their consent…They declare their willingness to enter into full community with their fellow Jewish citizens of Palestine…If this is not compromise, what is?” Both passages are from Hourani’s testimony to the Anglo-American Inquiry in 1946, the first citing Jamal Husayni’s 1939 testimony to the London conference. At a London conference in late 1946 the Arab League proposed recognition of Jews as a national minority. Jamal Husayni reaffirmed liberal terms when commenting on the UN proposals in September, 1947. Jamal, cousin of the Mufti, had favored the 1939 White Paper, and after the war sought to ally the Palestine Arab Party, the largest in Palestine, with modern elements.

The modern political formations in Palestine favored liberal acceptance of the Jews, including the Istiqlal [Independence] party, of urban professional and business figures, which opposed the traditional notable leadership. The Istiqlal had opposed only Britain (and protected Jews) during the revolt, and had accepted the 1939 White Paper. Labor groups worked sporadically with their Jewish comrades, despite Zionism, and also favored acceptance, including the Palestinian Arab Workers Society, the more radical Arab Workers’ Congress and its affiliated, communist-led, Arab National Liberation League. The latter distinguished between Jews and Zionism and denounced the traditional leadership for not doing so.

The traditional leadership was above all Muhammad Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, a reactionary, pan-Islamic cleric from a leading notable family, whom the British appointed as their moderate figurehead. He emerged as a political leader after the 1929 Arab uprising, viewed as having thwarted Zionist designs on Muslim holy sites. The 1936-39 revolt propelled him into leadership of the Arab Higher Committee. He fled to Lebanon to avoid arrest, orchestrated a pro-German coup in Iraq in 1941, and moved on to Italy and Germany. There he met Hitler and Himmler, learned of the Final Solution, broadcast anti-semitic harangues, and tried quite unsuccessfully to rally the Arabs to the Axis. He was admitted to France under surveillance after the war, and escaped to Egypt in 1946.

In the 1942 Biltmore Program, the Zionist movement called for establishing a “Jewish commonwealth” in Palestine. Before the war ended, they began ruthless campaigns against British rule in Palestine, and to influence Palestine diplomacy. The British declined to crush the Jewish revolt as they had the Arab. Contrary to the White Paper, the war was followed by more Jewish immigration, and diplomacy to preclude, not achieve, sovereign independence.

The Mufti was not admitted to Palestine, but wielded influence through his traditional networks, and his great popularity in the countryside as a symbol of the revolt. The Mufti was anathema to the Arab League, which refused to acknowledge him as a Palestinian representative. In early 1947 the Mufti-influenced AHC recognized only Jews resident before 1917 as Palestinians, though the British viewed this as a response to Zionist irredentism, the Mufti’s greatest resource. The League firmly rejected any idea of expulsion of Jews.

The UN partition plan gave the Jews, a third of the population, 55 per cent of Palestine, and 84 per cent of its agricultural land, as well as a third of the Arab population. UN approval of partition in November, 1947 led to civil war; by May 14, 1948, the last day of British rule, there were over 300,000 Palestinian refugees. The outnumbered and mostly inept forces of the Arab states, propelled by public opinion, invaded only after the British left, to preserve a unitary Palestine and contain the Zionists. King Abdullah of Transjordan, with a modern, British-trained force, sought to divide Palestine with the Zionists. The result was a military fiasco. The new state of Israel was recognized immediately by the US, and conquered nearly 80 per cent of Mandatory Palestine before hostilities ended.

The Zionist Bi-nationalists and Martin Buber

Binationalism was the expression in Palestine of the pre-1914 neoromantic Zionism associated above all with Martin Buber, whose disciples were prominent among binationalists. The Young Guard Zionist youth movement from pre-1914 Galicia, another source of binationalism, also originated in Buberite neoromanticism; its socialist trappings were added in Palestine. In 1925, when Jews were 17 per cent of Palestine’s population, the binationalist Brit Shalom called for complete political equality and immigration to achieve demographic parity. In 1930, Young Guard, by then established in Palestine with a network of kibbutzim, called for binationalism leading to a Jewish majority.

Binationalism was quiescent during the 1930s, but in 1939, as war loomed, Jews and some Arabs formed the League for Arab-Jewish Rapprochment. The League proposed a program of Arab-Jewish outreach, and stated the need for political parity and immigration to achieve parity. Young Guard joined after the League affirmed opposition to “any tendency to crystallize the Jewish community as a minority in Palestine,” inter alia. Young Guard proposed alliance with Arab peasants and workers against the nationalist “effendis” and the British Empire, in a revolt against the Arab majority. A modern scholar has written of a “socialist-Zionist mission civilisatrice toward Arab workers in Palestine.”

The League was followed by the Ihud (Union), led by Judah Magnes, chancellor of the Hebrew University, which espoused “a Government in Palestine based on equal political rights of the two peoples” and “a Federative union of Palestine and neighboring countries.” The Union opposed “fixation of the Yishuv as a permanent minority,” and sought the “absorption of the greatest possible number of Jewish immigrants in Palestine.” Binationalism was racialist demography, replete with busy calculations of immigration quotas and growth rates. Postwar, the Union called for the admission of “25,000 children, 25,000 parents, relatives and older person, and 50,000 young people” from Europe. This was a Zionist prescription, emphasizing young “pioneering” stock.

Martin Buber was the most distinguished advocate of binationalism. His 1944 lectures On Zion. The History of an Idea, were grandiose national-religious mystification. The introduction, “Zion and the Other National Concepts,” is like the vorabend of an opera cycle, announcing the urmotif. Zion’s “essential quality lies precisely in what differentiates it from other concepts,” being “named after a place and not, like the others, after a people.” The name Zion was “applied by poets and prophets to the whole city of Jerusalem…Zion is the ‘city of the great King’ (Psalms 48, 3), that is, of God as the King of Israel. The name has retained its sacred character ever since.” The vorabend is followed by four mythopoeic essays which present Zionism as the culmination of 3,000 years of Israelite and Jewish history, each like an operatic Singspiel, further divided into three to five subtopics like acts. In the last essay, Zionist titans espy and enter the promised land, like heroes entering Valhalla, and the curtain descends.

In 1946 Buber published a sequel of secular mystification, Paths In Utopia, where he argued that Zionism in Palestine realized utopian socialism. For a secular topic Buber abandoned libretto form. The brief foreword states: “I had to speak of one particular attempt…an attempt that did not fail,” i.e., Zionism. It “was necessary to point out [utopia’s] significance in the present hour of decision,” i.e., while the future of Palestine was being contested. Buber defined an idea of freedom based in the group, and federation of groups as a social principle. He romanticized medieval society and cited cooperatives, settled on the land, as the modern ideal. Buber ignored or slighted positive aspects of European socialism and communism that were of no use in colonizing Palestine. He could thus proclaim one “success in the socialistic sense, and that is the Jewish Village Commune in its various forms, as found in Palestine.” This “commune” was for Buber an instrument to disposess the indigenous people.

After “thousands of years in which the country was a wasteland, we have transformed it into a settled country…The right deriving from creation and fertilization is in fact the right of settlers,” stated Buber after the 1929 uprising. In 1947, Buber found that Arab love for their homeland “is dimmer, simpler and more inchoate than that of the Hebrew pioneers.” Yet “it could have developed among them as well to the point where they were drawn to take an active part in a great joint undertaking to make the land bring forth its fruit,” but for the call for democracy with, inevitably, an Arab majority. “The Arab population does not need an Arab state in order to develop its potential freely.” The Arab leaders have acted “in a negative, defensive manner” instead of developing “positive and social features” (e.g., Jewish immigration) which would have “threatened their interests.”

The view “that nothing should be done unless the Arabs consent to it, is doomed to failure,” warned Young Guard. It likewise accused “reactionary Arab leaders” who forsook “national emancipation of a progressive [Zionist] character” of a “deliberate contribution to failure,” i.e., of not capitulating to their veiled ultimatum. As the late Maxime Rodinson observed, “the Palestine War was not seen by anyone in the Arab lands as a war of liberation led by anti-British, and hence anti-colonialist, Jewish revolutionaries against pleasure-seeking feudal lords who pushed stupefied and mule-like peasants in front of them to safeguard their own class interests.”

Binationalism put a liberal face on an iron will to possess Palestine. It was preposterous condescension to present the Jewish usurpation as an uplifting Arab development. The question of true benefits and costs to the Arabs aside, any Arab patriot naturally preferred “‘that the country remain impoverished and barren for another hundred years, until we ourselves are able to develop it on our own.’” The Arab League stated simply: “‘All these plans contravene the right of the majority to live under a government of their own choosing, and to make their own decisions in such matters as immigration.’” The question of Palestine in the 1940s was not the cliche of “right vs. right,” but of right versus arbitrary national-racial violence.

The Anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism

The anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism supported the spirit, if not exactly the letter, of the Arab view. The ACJ was founded in late 1942, in response to the Biltmore Program, to uphold the classical Reform view of Jews as a religious minority. Reform was the response of enlightened Jews to modern liberal conditions, and was the most influential Judaism in western Europe and North America in the 19th century. In the words of Reform’s 1885 Pittsburgh Platform:

“We recognize in the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect the approaching of the realization of Israel’s great Messianic hope for the establishment of the kingdom of truth, justice and peace among all men. We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.”

Zionism gained credence with Jews only under the impact of Hitler and Nazism. In 1937 the Reform rabbinical body narrowly approved Zionism. Rabbi Elmer Berger had led the opposition, and founded the ACJ in 1942 with several other notable rabbis and laymen. Despite fierce Zionist opposition, it became a national organization, mostly among affluent Jews of German background. Indeed, Reform was often derided by Yiddish socialists as the vehicle of the assimilated bourgeoisie, but for Berger and his colleagues it was a fighting creed. They began an active program of public and government outreach to counter what they saw as a Zionist juggernaut. An August, 1943 statement proclaimed:

“As Americans of Jewish faith we believe implicitly in the fundamentals of democracy, rooted, as they are, in moralities that transcend race and state and endow the individual with rights for which he is answerable only to God.…

“We oppose the effort to establish a National Jewish State in Palestine or anywhere else as a philosophy of defeatism…We dissent from all those related doctrines that stress the racialism, the nationalism and the theoretical homelessness of Jews. We oppose such doctrines as inimical to the welfare of Jews in Palestine, in America, or wherever Jews may dwell.…

 “…We look forward to the ultimate establishment of a democratic, autonomous government in Palestine, wherein Jews, Moslems, and Christians shall be justly represented; every man enjoying equal rights and sharing equal responsibilities; a democratic government in which our fellow Jews shall be free Palestinians whose religion is Judaism, even as we are Americans whose religion is Judaism.”

The ACJ welcomed the binationalists’ opposition to partition, but disputed their proposals. The “peaceful development of Switzerland [cited by Magnes] might never have come about if any of these language groups had maintained political ties with non-Swiss nationals throughout the world.

Moreover, Palestine would have immigration procedures that would not apply to the other Cantons. In this, the analogy with the peaceable Swiss model breaks down completely.” Magnes advocated “immigration into Palestine based on its economic capacity” to attain “parity.” Such a formula might “put off indefinitely the attainment of numerical parity,” which might require “a frenzied call (and propaganda) for the migration of additional Jews…Would Arabs be required to leave Palestine if it were impossible to get enough Jewish immigration to maintain parity? Would the natural population increase of Jews and Arabs be manipulated?” Any formula “departing from the traditional religious identification of Jews” will not work. Only if “Palestine is a country in which Moslem, Christian and Jew are to be equal citizens, Palestinians all, only then is there some hope.”

Like all Jewish groups, the ACJ had adamantly opposed the 1939 British White Paper limiting Jewish immigration. After the war the ACJ supported the Zionist call for the immigration of 100,000 Jewish refugees to Palestine, whose population in 1946 was 608,225 Jews and 1,237,334 Arabs. The annual Arab increase was about 50,000; admission of 100,000 Jews was quite insufficient to overturn the Arab majority, indeed a common view was that voluntary Jewish immigration would not achieve parity.

The ACJ’s sole interest in Jewish immigration was succor for the Jewish survivors of Nazism. It opposed a Zionist attempt to use Palestine immigration certificates for American Jewish youth, and actively sought immigration for Jews elsewhere, including the US. President Roosevelt proposed to Jewish leaders the admission to the US of 150,000 refugees after the war, but the Zionist campaign for statehood was in full swing and the proposal was rejected vehemently. In 1944 the ACJ testified to Congress: “All of Palestine must share in the establishment of a democracy.” In 1946 the ACJ proposed to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry “immigration controlled by representative bodies of all [original emphasis] the inhabitants of Palestine…and the progressive and rapid institution of home rule.” It seems fair to say that the ACJ did not seek or envision the demographic transformation sought by the binationalists, and would have been satisfied for Palestine’s Jews to exercise their civil rights with an Arab majority.

Like Antonius and Buber, Berger produced a history and manifesto, The Jewish Dilemma, published in 1945. In the first section, “The Myth of the Jewish People,” Berger placed himself firmly in the world, not the ghetto. “I rejoice in what other human beings have contributed…But I am really not concerned whether these men made these contributions as Jews or not. I believe Abraham Lincoln today is as much a part of what Jews hold sacred as Amos.” There is no “such an entity as a ‘Jewish people’ except in the sense that among all Jews are certain similarities of religious belief and practice” and “[p]erhaps…a heightened sense of responsibility to other Jews in times of suffering.”

In Jewish history Berger found diversity, not unity—cultured Andalusia vs. backward Ashkenaz, and Inquisition persecution vs. Ottoman protection. Berger related Jewish emancipation to the success or failure of larger progressive struggles in eastern, central and western Europe, and North America. Where Buber dated Zionism from biblical Jerusalem, Berger dated emancipation from Jeremiah’s words to the Babylonian exiles: “‘Seek the peace of the city whither I have caused ye to be carried away captive…for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.’”

In “Zionist Nationalism,” Berger argued that Zionism had recreated the medieval, corporate “Jewish community” ruled and represented by unaccountable “leaders,” against the emancipation and integration of Jews. He denied any essential difference between “cultural” and “political” Zionism. Both approaches sought the national existence of the “Jewish people,” against emancipation and integration. Berger noted Zionism’s paradoxes: its deprecation of Jewish relief for its national program; its antagonism towards the Arabs it proposed Jews should dwell among; its efforts to control Jewish communal life; its appeals to anti-semitism and imperialism; its reliance on emancipated conditions and the funds of emancipated Jews. He excoriated the Jewish elite for failing to oppose Zionism and showed how “non-Zionism” and humanitarian measures were utilized for Zionist ends.

Berger’s third section, “For Free Jews in a Free World,” surveyed the history of Jewish emancipation. Berger described the “Lessing-Mendelssohn formula,” after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn in 18th c. Germany. Mendelssohn translated the Pentateuch into German, and argued that Orthodox Judaism had rationalist and universalist elements. Lessing, a dramatist and philosophe, befriended Mendelssohn and advocated Jewish emancipation. Berger compared the Christian reactionaries who opposed Lessing to the Jewish reactionaries who proscribed and publicly burned Mendelssohn’s bible translation. Emancipation gradually succeeded in western Europe, and the German catastrophe was offset by the US, the “only nation in the world in which the concept of a ‘Jewish people’ had never played a historic part,” where the Lessing conditions were assured under law from the start.

While anti-semitism clouded this picture somewhat in the late 19th century, Berger faulted the Jewish leadership and Reform especially for not opposing Zionism as they did anti-semitism. Berger’s liberal faith was not shaken by anti-semitism, Nazism and the Judeocide, but confirmed by the total destruction of the Axis powers. The great Allied victory also confirmed that Zionism was reactionary and anachronistic. Berger noted the new-old “official Jews,” representing and coercing the Jewish public, and its new-old messianic fervor. He cited ACJ’s defense of emancipation, and argued that Jews had to choose between Zionism and freedom.

Since 1948, the state of Israel has exposed Buber’s meretricious eloquence, and confirmed the values of Antonius and Berger, and their prescription for Palestine.

HARRY CLARK can be reached at andalus01@gmail.com

Notes for this article can be found at



Harry Clark can be reached at his web site, http://questionofpalestine.net