Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Palestine and Zionism between the Wars

Steve Muhlberger

The experience of Palestine in the first half of the 20th century is an extreme example of a conflict engendered by the interaction of Europe and the  Arab world during that period.   Not only was a piece of the Arab world colonized by European immigrants, these particular immigrants were inspired by a strong variety of nationalism, Jewish nationalism or Zionism.  (Zionism to be discussed in class.)

Palestine was also reshaped by population growth (a 100% increase in population in the interwar period, apart from immigration, which was significant.) and by integration into the European economy.

Palestine in the early 19th century was an economic backwater with a very low population:   Jaffa (the later site of the Israeli coastal metropolis of Tel-Aviv) had perhaps 2,500 people.  What population there was was centered up in the hills.

The near-loss of Palestine to Egypt in the 1830s led to Ottoman imperial attempts to restore real control and boost the economy.

This led, in the later 19th century,  to development of export-oriented agriculture in the coastal areas:  wheat, cotton, grapes (for wine), olives, and especially oranges.

As a result, enterprising landlords became part of a new economy.   These landlords had already gained legal title to the land through their political connections.  Peasant migration from hills to coast began.  The peasants who made this move where not necessarily cut off from their village roots -- Palestine is a small country -- but they ended up living in quite a different social and economic environment, one much more directly affected by the larger world economy.

Involvement in the world economy soon became inseparable from the Zionist impact.

Zionism began in Europe in the 19th century as part of the great nationalist movement of that time.    Many Jews tried to assimilate into the new secular nationalism of the countries in which they lived (especially in Germany) but others rejected or felt unwelcome in the new "national" communities.   Zionism was Jewish nationalism, and it held that Jews, like other peoples, had a need and a right to rule themselves in a country where their national identity was affirmed.

Jews were more scattered than many European nationalities, so the question of where this Jewish homeland should be set up was complicated.    Eventually, however, the growing Zionist movement set its goal on Palestine.  In  1897 a homeland in Palestine became the official goal of the newly established World Zionist Organization.   This commitment had been anticipated by a number -- a fairly small number as yet -- of individual Jews who had been migrating to Palestine since the 1880s.

When Zionist Jews landed in Palestine they, like French or Italian settlers in Algeria, very quickly became involved in the most modern sectors of the Palestinian economy: coastal agriculture and the associated urbanization of the coast.   Jewish settlers by and large did not work their own land, an ideal of the original Zionists.   Many of them bought land and hired Arab laborers to work it, or set themselves up in the towns making a living in merchandizing or technical trades.    Efforts to create a Jewish agricultural population also had an effect on the local culture:   land was bought from absentee landowners and Arab peasants were forced off it.   In either case, the Jewish immigrants were something of a distinct and disturbing element.

By 1914, Jews were a significant minority in the various provinces that made up Palestine:  only 85,000 people, but Palestine was so lightly populated that this was between 12% and 14% of the total [Bickerton and Klausner].    This Jewish community was very disunited, since they came from a variety of different countries and had a variety of different ideas about the future of Palestine.   The Arab population was equally divided, mainly between well-off  notables with strong links to the European economy, and the peasant population whom the notables despised.

The whole situation was changed by the World War I, when Britain promised both to support an Arab monarchy in the Middle East and to sponsor a Jewish homeland in Palestine.    These were contradictory promises.    The result of post-war negotiation was the creation, for the first time, of a separate political territory called Palestine.   The separation of Palestine from Trans-Jordan and from Syria was unwelcome to Arab nationalists (a small but growing group) right from the beginning.

The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (1922) both encouraged the establishment of a Jewish national home and the protectin of the rights and position of the "other sections" of the population (meaning the Arabs, the vast majority).

What did these contradictory commitments and provisions mean?    Trans-Jordan (the by far less fertile and populous part of the region) was closed to Jewish immigration, but Palestine was open.   The closing of Transjordan was a reaction to Arab demonstrations against immigration in Sept. 1922.

The key issues surrounding the future of Palestine were immigration and landownership.    The future of the Jewish homeland and Arab Palestine depended on how many Jews could be brought in and established in the country.

The British White Paper of 1922 sought to settle these questions.   It stated that there would be a Jewish home in Palestine and that Jewish immigration would not exceed the economic capacity of the country.     But no definition of "economic capacity" was offered and Jews continued to migrate in large numbers -- some to the land, some to the cities.

Arab resistance was hampered by disunity, in fact by a complete lack of political organization.   Palestinian Arab life was being changed by economic development (strong in the 1920s) and Arabs from the interior and even from other countries moved to the prosperous coastal areas -- the areas where Jewish settlement was also concentrated.    Economic changes helped develop a new kind of Arab organization distinct from those dominated by the landholding notables -- socialist and labor organizations that had little respect for the old leadership.

In 1929, with the beginning of the depression and increased anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish immigration increased.   Arabs rioted against Jews in that year and killed a number of settlers, notably at Hebron, the burial place of the (common) ancestor of Jews and Arabs, Abraham.

A new White Paper was issued in 1930 tried to put the brakes on Jewish immigration; the next year the British government cancelled the White Paper, which led to Arab boycotts of government activities.    Soon after Nazi and other anti-Semitic movements in Eastern Europe once again increased immigration.

By 1936, tension between Arabs and Jews, sparked by a murder of three Jews by Arabs and two Arabs by Jews in retaliation, led to a major revolt.

The 1936-39 revolt began with general strikes, progressed to violence, and eventually ended with chaos, because Palestinians were not united.  The old notables were divided by their feuds.  The notables were also in a precarious situation with regard to the general Arab population.  Their power was based on the old Palestine—the old villages of the interior, religious leadership based in Jerusalem.  They had little in common with urban workers of the new coastal cities, or with the semi-migratory peasantry.  Although there was an Arab High Commission formed early in 1936 to unite the Arab opposition, it did not work.

During the rising the British had attempted to stabilize things by proposing a partition of Palestine:  A Jewish homeland, a British Mandate including Jerusalem, and an Arab state united with Transjordan. This was unacceptable to both sides.

In 1939, a revised plan was issued as a White Paper:

The plan did not look very workable from the beginning.    However, World War II soon broke out, and everything was put on hold until its outcome was clear.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.