The title immediately engaged my interest. To Whom Was the Promised Land Promised? by Abraham A. Sion focuses on the legal right of Jews under international law to the territory of “Palestine” and the British betrayal that thwarted it for three decades.
The story began with the Balfour Declaration (1917). It called for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in “Palestine,” geographically defined by the League of Nations after World War I as the land east and west of the Jordan River.
The postwar Mandate for Palestine, granted to Great Britain and confirmed by the League in 1922, recognized “the historical connection of the Jewish people” with that land and “the grounds for reconstituting their National Home in that country.” Although Jews comprised a small minority of the Palestinian population, “peoplehood” was not applied to any other residents. Arabs were not mentioned. As yet, there were no self-identified “Palestinians.”
After visiting Jerusalem, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill described himself as “a sincere advocate” of the Balfour Declaration. “My heart is full of sympathy for Zionism,” he declared, reiterating the right of Jews to build their national home in Palestine. But, he added, this “does not mean that it will cease to be the national home of other people.” The British government, he noted, “is well disposed towards the Arabs in Palestine.” Indeed, it was.
Churchill’s White Paper (1922) called for a limitation of Jewish immigration to the economic capacity of the country to absorb new arrivals. It reduced the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish National Home to no more than “a center in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and pride.”
Determined to prevent any possibility of French intrusion, Churchill then removed all territory east of the Jordan River, included in the original British Mandate definition of “Palestine,” to establish another Arab country. It became known as Trans-Jordan, where Jews were forbidden “to enter, settle or acquire citizenship.”
This action, intended to align Hashemite leader Emir Abdullah with British interests in the region, was, Sion writes, “in total breach of the Mandate.” It enabled Britain to undermine the Balfour Declaration and redefine the boundaries of Palestine. British policy shifted to the promotion of an Arab state in Palestine with a permanent Jewish minority. Blaming Zionists for Arab violence, Churchill promised restrictions on Jewish immigration. His “pro-Arab appeasing policy,” Sion writes, reassured Arabs that there was “no intention to create a wholly Jewish Palestine.”
British undermining of the Balfour Declaration continued. The Passfield White Paper (1930) envisioned a binational community with an Arab majority. But Arabs were not satisfied.
Demanding the “immediate cessation” of Jewish immigration—just as Adolph Hitler’s Jewish extermination policy was emerging—a wave of Arab attacks in 1936 resulted in the murder of nearly 100 Jews. A new royal commission recommended that Jews be confined to a strip of Palestine along the Mediterranean coast, stretching northward from Tel Aviv to the Lebanon border and eastward to Lake Tiberias. The historic Jewish attachment to biblical Judea, between Jerusalem and Hebron, was ignored.
As the Nazi conquest spread, another White Paper further restricted Jewish immigration. In what Sion identifies as a “flagrant violation of the Mandate,” the MacDonald White Paper (1939) proposed one Palestinian state with a permanent Arab majority. This, he writes, meant “British recognition of Palestine as Arab land” (so much for the Balfour Declaration promise of a Jewish national home in Palestine). But as the Nazi extermination of Jews unfolded, Churchill—to his credit—strongly criticized Parliament restrictions in the 1939 White Paper on Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Once World War II ended following the Nazi slaughter of 6 million Jews, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin recommended that Holocaust survivors remain in Europe, not immigrate to Palestine. Despite this newest British betrayal of Jews, the State of Israel was born in 1948.
As Abraham A. Sion extensively documents, British promises and perfidy are forever embedded in history. Despite British duplicity, “Palestine” does not exist, and the State of Israel thrives.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of 12 books, including “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel (1896-2016).”