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JEWS and ARABS in PALESTINE, to 1939 (1 of 3)

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Jews and Arabs in Palestine, to 1939

Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, and Conflict to 1922 | The 1929 Rising against Jews | Jewish Migration from Europe to Palestine, 1931-39

Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and Conflict to 1922

At the beginning of the century the Jews in Palestine numbered around 70,000. They were around ten percent of the population, and in Jerusalem they outnumbered the Arab Muslims and Christians.  They were ruled by the Ottoman Turks, and neither they nor the Arab Muslims around them yearned much for national independence. The Jews already had a sense of independence. They thrived in communities in many of Palestine's towns, and they welcomed those few immigrant Jews who were trickling into Palestine, mostly from Europe.

In Europe, a Zionist movement was starting to build, rising from Theodore Herzl's observations in France at the time of the Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, when mobs of French stormed through the streets shouting "Down with the Jews." In the first decade of the twentieth century, social Darwinism and theories of racial superiority were on the rise. So too was hostility toward Jews. And Zionist organizations had begun supporting a homeland for Jews as an escape from the discrimination and persecutions.

World War I was disruptive for the Jews in Palestine and brought a new overlord: the British. On November 2, 1917, Britain issued its Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed that Palestine was to be "a national home for the Jewish people" – the British wanting in part at least to make trouble for Germany, which had a sizable Jewish population.

The Allies won the war. Rule over Palestine, Iraq and Transjordan passed from the Turks to the British, and rule in Lebanon and Syria passed to the French. The peace treaty signed at Versailles in 1919 authorized these power grabs, which went under the title of League of Nations mandates, and the Arabs disliked them. Jews had suffered during World War I, and after that war an upsurge in violence against Jews by Russians and Ukrainians contributed to an increase in the migration of Jews to Palestine.

The word "Palestine," originally used by the Romans, had been in disuse for centuries, but the British revived it. "Palestinian" described Muslims, Jews and all others living in the region. Land east of the Jordan River, which the British had acquired, they called Transjordan (to be renamed Jordan in 1949). The word "Arab" referred more to those who spoke Arabic than to people purely Arabic, and this included Christians.  Previous to the arrival of the British, the Arabs in Palestine had thought of themselves as Arabs rather than as Palestinians.

Arabs were unhappy about being ruled by foreigners, and they believed that the British favored Jews from outside Palestine – the Zionists – at their expense. They disliked Britain's Balfour Declaration and its reference to them as "existing non-Jewish communities." And they disliked being referred to in the League of Nation's Mandate Agreement as "the other sections."

Arab frustrations produced attacks on Jews – easier targets than the British army. In Jerusalem in 1920 five Jews were killed and eleven wounded. In response, Jews in Jerusalem organized a self-defense league. The British forbade the carrying of arms and imprisoned the group's leader. Jews set up a clandestine organization for defense, called the Haganah, which had only minor successes in 1921 when Arab attacks became more intense. In Jerusalem, attacks by Arabs against Jews intensified. In Jaffa, Arabs killed forty Jews and wounded around two hundred, and the attacks on Jews spread to other towns.

The British were concerned about the hearts and minds of the Arabs across their vast holdings in the Middle East, and they responded to the unrest by trying to please the Arabs. They suspended Jewish immigration and "redefined" the Balfour Declaration. In January 1922, they named al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini permanent president and mufti (interpreter of Islamic law) of a newly created Supreme Muslim Council. In July, British rule under the Mandate of the League of Nations became official, and the British moved to a civilian rather than military administration in Palestine. In August the British gave Palestinians a constitution and a legislative body, the legislative body consisting of ten Arabs (eight of them Muslims and two of them Christians) and two Jews.

By now, according to a new census, the Jews were a little over 11 percent of the population, judged to be around 83,790. note15   Since the beginning of the century the population of the Jews had risen only around one percent.


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