Blog 22

C. I is for the Inter-Jewish/Palestinan Hundred-Year-War

The Roots of the War

External Western Nations may have constructed the foundations for this war over a century ago in Palestine, but the roots were planted by the rival parties themselves, but in cooperation with the British and the French. The target then was not Western nations, but the Ottoman Empire of which Palestine formed a part. While David Ben Gurion was soliciting support from the Sultan for the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, on 5 June 1916, the sons of King of Hejaz, Sharif Hussein ibn Ali, the emirs Ali and Feisal, attacked the Ottoman garrison at Medina. They had tried to capture its railway station as the first stage in capturing the second holiest city in the Muslim world.  

The goal was a pan-Arabic nation with Hussein as the caliph. Just over two years later, the so-called Egyptian Expeditionary Force, created by the British and Lawrence of Arabia, had captured Palestine as well as Lebanon, Syria and parts of the Arabian Peninsula. But the promise of a pan-Arab independent political entity led by Hussein was discarded. Instead, the Sykes-Picot Agreement split control of the area between the two allied powers, Britain and France. The UK inherited the Mandate of Palestine covering present day Jordan and all of Palestine. And it was Ibn Saud, not Hussein, who inherited Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.

But this was not the betrayal that Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, cited when the United Nations celebrated its first Nakba Day on 15 May 2023.[i] He blamed the US as well as Britain for abandoning Arab independence in favour of planting the Jewish nation in the heart of Palestine. They, he claimed, bore “political and ethical responsibility directly for the Nakba of the Palestinian people because they took part in rendering our people a victim when they decided to establish and plant another entity in our historic homeland for their own colonial goals. These countries wanted to get rid of their Jews and benefit from their presence in Palestine.”

Thus began the politics of resentment rather than any effort at an objective historical account. First, the US had played no part in the betrayal. Second, the core of the Jewish nation in 1917 was not established in Palestine but restored and enhanced. Third, the Palestinians were not victimized by that act; they could have welcomed the Jews back to their homeland and prospered alongside them. Fourth, colonial goals played a much more prominent part in initiating the Arab Revolt than in the Balfour Declaration which was an initiative of the ideals of British Christian Zionists who could trace their heritage back before Jewish Zionism to the mid-nineteenth century and George Eliot’s novel, Daniel Deronda.[ii] Finally, the desire to rid Britain of Jews played no part; the British promoters were philo-Jews, not antisemites.

The Arab resentment was evidenced in the Jaffa Riots with Arabs targeting Jews on May Day – the first of May 2021. What began as rival parades between the Jewish Communist Party and the Jewish socialists, Ahdut HaAvoda, clashes between the two groups and some fisticuffs led to rumours that Jews were attacking Arabs. Arab men poured out of Jaffa armed with clubs, knives, swords and even pistols, and attacked Jewish businesses and homes killing Jews wantonly and looting their properties.  Arab police sent to quell the rioters joined the attack against the Jews. The most casualties took place in a Jewish immigrant centre holding over one hundred. Eventually, British forces intervened and turned on the Arab rioters to stop the melee that spread over the next week and throughout Palestine.[iii] The one-hundred-year war between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine began with a populist pogrom against Jews stirred up by false rumours in which police followed the path of the Arab rioters.  

The consequences were profound. Among the dead were Yosef Haim Brenner, a pioneer in modern Hebrew literature, along with his landlord, his landlord’s teenaged son and son-in-law as well as two other tenants. But more significant than the deaths were two policy initiatives taken by Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner. He was a Jew, sympathetic to Zionism, but not himself a Zionist. Under Arab pressure in the aftermath of the riots, he acceded to their demands and put a stop order on Jewish immigration. 300 Jewish immigrants still on boats were returned to Istanbul. Samuel also appointed al-Husseini’s nephew, Amin al-Husseini, as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. Widely regarded in the Jewish community in Palestine as an antisemite, he was ardently opposed to Jewish immigration and, though he subsequently collaborated with the Nazis, he was not known to have played any part in the Shoah.

In the investigative commission that followed – the Haycraft Commission of Inquiry – though primary blame was placed on the Arabs, Jews were held responsible for not being considerate enough of Arab concerns and apprehensions. “The fundamental cause of the violence and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration, and with their conception of Zionist policy as derived from Jewish exponents.” In other words, though Arab rioters were the primary proximate cause and aggressors, abetted by ill-trained Arab police, the underlying cause was Zionist ideology that was held responsible for planting in Arab hearts acute anti-Jewish feelings. In other words, the prime victims were to blame more than the murderers. It was another case of blaming the victims for their own victimization.

In June of 1921, Sir Hebert Samuel gave a speech lifting the embargo on Jewish immigration while, on the other hand, placing immigration under severe restrictions with respect to numbers allowing Jewish immigration “only to the extent that it did not burden the economy.” The principle would be echoed over the following two-and-a-half decades. Unfortunately, this did not stop anti-Jewish riots from breaking out in the Old City of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter on 2 November 2021 when five Jews were killed and three Arab attackers were shot dead by police.  

Was 1921 just an expression of violence? Or was it the nascent start of the long war? I contend that it was the latter, first because the violence was not inter-personal but collective. More importantly, the central issue at stake in the long war was the right of Jews to immigrate to their ancient homeland and create a national presence in the land. The leadership of the large Arab majority were unalterably opposed. This constituted the essence of the long war.

[i] Israel vehemently opposed the decision to memorialize Nakba Day on  May 15 and the UK and US joined 45 other UN member states in boycotting the event.

[ii] Cf. Bernadette Waterman Ward (2004) “Zion’s Mimetic Angel: George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda,” Shofar, an interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 22(2), 105-115.

[iii] Cf. Tom Segev (2005) One Palestine, Complete, 173-190.


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