2. Woodrow Wilson
“Rising Above” Self-Determination
A frame of mind in which Arabs essentially played no part, in which they were politically invisible, patronized, disdained, or ignored altogether—this is the mind-set with which the policymakers who made the first official decisions on Palestine for the United States after World War I grew up.
President Woodrow Wilson was a devout Christian, son of a Presbyterian minister, a man for whom prayer and Bible reading were daily routines. Like most U.S. Christians of his day, he had grown up well tutored in the biblical history of Jews and Christians in Palestine. For Wilson, the notion of a Jewish return to Palestine seemed a natural fulfillment of biblical prophecies, and so influential U.S. Jewish colleagues found an interested listener when they spoke to Wilson about Zionism and the hope of founding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Few people knew anything about Arab concerns or Arab aspirations; fewer still pressed the Arab case with Wilson or anyone else in government. Wilson himself, for all his knowledge of biblical Palestine, had no inkling of its Arab history or its thirteen centuries of Muslim influence. In the years when the first momentous decisions were being made in London and Washington about the fate of their homeland, the Palestinian Arabs had no place in the developing frame of reference.
Wilson was more than usually free of bigotry for the period in which he lived and was considerably more compassionate and progressive in his attitude toward other peoples than most of his well educated, well-to-do U.S. and European contemporaries. During his tenure as president of Princeton University from 1902 to 1910, he appointed the first Jew and the first Roman Catholic to the faculty; he appointed the first Jew to the New Jersey Supreme Court when he was New Jersey’s governor from 1910 to 1912; and
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his appointment of Louis Brandeis to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1916 marked the first time a Jew had been named to the Court.
Wilson is best remembered today for his doctrine of self-determination, enunciated in January 1918 as part of his Fourteen Points for bringing World War I to a peaceful conclusion. As envisioned by Wilson, the principle of self-determination would guarantee a virtual end to colonialism, to the domination of “subject peoples” by outside powers, and it would grant these peoples a role in determining their own future when power alignments were reordered in the aftermath of the war. His greatest obsession in the years between the beginning of U.S. involvement in the war in 1917 and the stroke that caused his withdrawal from an active role in the presidency in 1919 was trying to ensure that the Allied victors imposed a compassionate peace on the vanquished. Although he failed in large part, his concern was to guarantee that harsh, vengeful terms were not imposed on Germany, that the peoples formerly dominated by the defeated Central European and Turkish powers were freed from subjugation, and that world order and peace would be ensured by the formation of a general association of nations, the League of Nations, that would mutually assure political independence and territorial integrity.
Despite his compassion and marked lack of religious bigotry, however, Wilson was not entirely free of at least an unconscious bigotry and was not as concerned as he might have been to ensure the universal application of his vaunted universal principles. If he had no problem giving Jews and Catholics equal rights and high-level appointments, he was unready to do the same for blacks—or, in the end, for most colonial subjects around the world. He seems to have had a paternalistic view of dark-skinned peoples, seeing them as deserving of kindness and compassion but not of equality. This attitude no doubt accounts for why, as will be seen, he was inconsistent in his view of how the principle of self-determination should be applied.
Biblical nostalgia played some part in Wilson’s decision to back the Zionist program in Palestine, but practical political reasons were the primary impetus. In point of fact, Wilson did not care deeply one way or the other about Palestine’s political fate. He certainly gave no thought to the fate of the Palestinian Arabs or to the impact on them of Zionist plans. His support for the Zionists was not a high priority either, although he ultimately played a pivotal part in the advancement of Zionism by virtue of being the first U.S. president to support the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When he gave his endorsement in October 1917 of Britain’s plan to issue a statement in support of the Zionist movement—a statement issued a
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month later as the Balfour Declaration, which promised British support for the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish “national home”—his primary purpose was to support an ally in wartime. At the height of World War I, Britain hoped to win the political and financial backing of the Zionist movement and world Jewry in general, which were being wooed by Germany, and the British were under some pressure from leading Zionists such as Chaim Weizmann to promise Palestine to the Zionists in return for that support. Although Palestine was still at that point under Ottoman control, the Balfour Declaration was conceived in anticipation of an Allied victory over Turkey, which would give Britain control of the territory. The British expeditionary force commanded by General Edmund Allenby captured Palestine a month after the declaration’s issuance.
From Wilson’s standpoint, his endorsement was a gesture of wartime support; it cost him nothing and must have seemed to him to be of little consequence, while at the same time showing him to be responsive to the desires of his U.S. Zionist friends. When he did finally endorse the British declaration, he did so casually, a month after Britain had requested his support and only upon being reminded of the request. He apparently did not know or particularly care about the precise content of the declaration in advance, and, probably in order not to antagonize Turkey, with whom the United States was not at war, he did not speak out publicly in favor of the Zionist enterprise in Palestine for another several months.
If Wilson did not care deeply about Palestine, some of his closest political colleagues did. Their pressure on behalf of the Zionist cause following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and during the peace conference that rearranged colonial alignments in the aftermath of World War I made him, for all intents and purposes, a strong Zionist and committed the United States to supporting the notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. His friend and political ally Brandeis had been among the founders of the Zionist Organization of America in 1915 and was serving as its president when Wilson appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1916. Wilson’s friendship with Brandeis was probably what most heavily influenced him to give active support to Zionist goals. Zionist leaders abroad, such as Weizmann, as well as prominent U.S. Jews like Rabbi Stephen Wise used Brandeis as an entree to Wilson on matters regarding Palestine. In the last year of the war and the first year of the Versailles peace conference, before Wilson’s illness forced him from active participation in the presidency, Brandeis and other U.S. Zionists approached the president frequently with requests for public and private reassurances of continuing U.S. support for the Zionist cause.
Zionist pressures on Wilson were not completely unopposed, but forces
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supporting the Arab cause were far less effectual, and most pro-Arab activity did not focus in any case specifically on the Arabs of Palestine. Like the Zionists, Protestant missionary supporters of the Arab cause had easy access to Wilson, in this case through industrialist Clevel and Dodge, along-time friend and former schoolmate. Dodge’s family had been heavily involved since the nineteenth century in educational efforts in the Ottoman Empire, including the founding of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut. Dodge had been a close personal friend of Wilson since their student days at Princeton University. He refused a formal appointment in Wilson’s administration but maintained frequent informal contact and is said to have had a great deal of influence on the president to the point, early in Wilson’s term, of helping prevent Brandeis’s appointment as attorney general.
Dodge was deeply involved in the wartime relief effort for the Middle East led by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Because the mission board feared for the safety of Americans and U.S. property in the Ottoman Empire, as well as for the continued operation of the relief effort, Dodge and his colleagues actively pressed Wilson to remain officially neutral toward Turkey, persuading him, for instance, not to declare war on the Ottoman Empire when he submitted his message to Congress declaring war on Germany in April 1917.
During and after the war, Dodge and his associates on the mission board became involved with the Arab independence movement in Syria, where the U.S. relief effort had won many friends among Syrian nationalists. When President Wilson established a commission of scholars and area experts in early 1918 to provide political and economic analyses of colonial areas of the world to help determine the postwar governance of these areas, missionary spokesmen had a significant input. Mission officials wrote studies for the commission, which came to be called “the Inquiry.” They also heavily lobbied Inquiry members and after the war lobbied the U.S. peace-conference delegation, urging that Arab wishes be taken into account in postwar governing arrangements. They actively promoted the idea of a U.S. mandate over Syria and Armenia.
In the end, however, Dodge and his missionary associates had virtually no impact on U.S. postwar policy toward the Middle East and particularly on Wilson’s support for the Zionist project. First and foremost, their interest was centered on Armenia rather than on the Arab portions of the Ottoman Empire. When they did deal with Arabs, they did so almost exclusively with Christian Arabs, and in Syria rather than in Palestine. Palestine played but a small part in the considerations of any of the missionary spokesmen, as indeed it did in the policy considerations of the United States,
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which was dealing in the larger scheme of things with postwar arrangements in areas of the Middle East well beyond Palestine and in areas of the world well beyond the Middle East. Second, U.S. Protestants were not unanimous or single-minded in their support for the Arab cause, as witnessed by the fact that the Presbyterian General Assembly passed a resolution in 1916—sponsored by the same Reverend William Blackstone who had organized the pro-Zionist petition sent to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891—favoring establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Indeed, the missionaries’ support for the idea of Arab independence, centered as it was on Syria rather than Palestine, was not necessarily inconsistent with support for Zionism. In an era in which it was judged appropriate for the Western world to determine the political reordering of the East, the possible inconvenience of fitting a Jewish national home into the small piece of Arab land that was Palestine would most likely have gone wholly unnoticed even by the most Arabophile of missionaries. As ever, the Arabs of Palestine fit into virtually no one’s calculations.
Zionism and Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination were never really reconcilable. Self-determination was rooted in an ingrained U.S. aversion to colonialism that viewed the domination of other peoples as unethical, as well as in the pragmatic belief that political stability throughout the world would be better assured if subjugated peoples were freed from colonial domination. This was not a workable proposition with regard to Palestine, however. The impossibility of ever reconciling Zionism, which proposed to form a more or less exclusively Jewish homeland or state, with self-determination for Palestine’s established Arab population has always since Wilson’s day forced the United States into an ambivalent position about the universal application of this anticolonial principle.
Wilson himself may never have confronted the inconsistency, but his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, clearly recognized the problem, and Wilson’s legal counselor advised him that true self-determination would prevent establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. When Brandeis, in a notable conversation with British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in Paris during the peace conference in 1919, was asked how Wilson could reconcile support for Zionism with the principle of self-determination, Brandeis observed that Zionism proposed to deal with a “world problem”—the fate of worldwide Jewry—that transcended the interests of any existing local community. Balfour had already concluded that commitment to Zionism obviated any possibility of achieving numerical self-determination in
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Palestine—that is, allowing Palestine’s Arab majority to exercise self-government—and he was undoubtedly relieved that Wilson was also willing to disregard his commitment where Palestine and its Arab inhabitants were concerned.
Three months after this conversation, Balfour wrote a memorandum frankly acknowledging that “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country.” The Allies were already committed to Zionism, he wrote. “And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” Balfour forthrightly acknowledged that “so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.”
Britain had backed away from a promise to the Arabs once before. In 1914, in an effort to enlist the aid of Sherif Hussein of Mecca in leading an Arab revolt against Turkish rule, Britain formally instructed its high commissioner in Egypt, Henry McMahon, to promise Hussein that Britain would support Arab independence after the war in a large area encompassing parts of Greater Syria and what are today Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, excluding only the coastal area of Lebanon, which was to be under French influence. The exchange of letters in which this promise was contained became known as the McMahon correspondence. The Arabs, including leaders of the Palestinian Arabs, believed they had reason to expect that Palestine was included in the area to be granted independence since the only areas specifically excluded were all located north of Beirut and well outside Palestine, but the British immediately hedged and ever afterward maintained that they had never intended to include Palestine within the future Arab state.
In a colonialist era in which native peoples were believed to have no capability for governing themselves and not even much interest in self-rule, failure to live up to political promises made to them was not seen to be out of order. Even as Wilson championed self-determination, he qualified the principle by noting that “undeveloped peoples” were not yet ready to take on “the full responsibilities of statehood” and should be given friendly “guidance” in the form, for instance, of the British and French mandates imposed on Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. In regard to Palestine, the colonial powers considered neither Jews nor Arabs to be ready for the “full responsibilities of statehood,” but Jews, being European, were regarded as
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educable, whereas Arabs—dull and inarticulate as they were thought to be—were not so perceived; they were not, in fact, considered even to want self-rule. The overriding of Arab interests was thus done carelessly, without thought.
Indeed, it has become so much a part of the conventional wisdom that the Arabs of Palestine were neither ready for nor even aware of the possibility of independence in the early 1920s that popular historians molding and reinforcing the Palestinian-Israeli frame of reference more than half a century later accepted as a matter of course colonialism’s disregard for Arab interests. Historian Peter Grose, for instance, after citing Balfour’s memorandum, frankly praises the British foreign secretary for being “willing to rise above” the principle of self-determination.
Wilson found it easy to ignore Palestinian interests, even when presented with clear evidence of Palestinian opposition to the Zionist program. In 1919, at the behest of his missionary friends, Wilson dispatched a commission to investigate the views of the inhabitants of the former Ottoman Empire, including Palestine. Led by a college president, Henry King, and a businessman and former Wilson campaign contributor, Charles Crane, who both began with what they called a “predisposition” in favor of Zionism, and staffed by several others with connections to the missionary effort in Turkey, the King-Crane Commission spent two weeks in Palestine interviewing over two hundred Muslim, Christian, and Jewish individuals and groups. The commission concluded that the full Zionist program would be a “gross violation” of the principle of self-determination, as well as of the Palestinian people’s rights, and should be modified.
The report noted that in its conversations with Jewish representatives and from its reading of the literature on Zionist goals provided by Zionists in Palestine, the King-Crane entourage had gained the clear impression “that the Zionists looked forward to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase.” The Christian and Muslim Arab population of Palestine, constituting 90 percent of the total in 1919, was, the commissioners learned, virtually unanimously opposed to the Zionist program in its entirety. British officers consulted by the commission believed that the Zionist program could be carried out only by force, and it was the commission’s view that decisions “requiring armies to carry out … are surely not gratuitously to be taken in the interests of a serious injustice.”
The King-Crane Commission’s conclusions on Palestine had no impact on Wilson administration policy. The report went unpublished for three years until Wilson, already out of office, authorized its publication in July
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1922. Even then, the State Department published it only unofficially. There is noevidence that Wilson, who had as troket womonths after there-port was issued, ever read it, certainly none that he took its conclusions seriously. In fact, the commission’s recommendations were probably doomed from the start. Britain and France disagreed with the decision to send the commission in the first place and refused to appoint their own delegates. Allied disapproval was compounded by the fact that the commission’s major recommendation was that all of the former Ottoman Empire except Mesopotamia (Iraq) be placed under a U.S. mandate, which flew directly in the face of British and French designs in Palestine and Syria.
As for the recommendations on Palestine, by the time the commission was appointed, the United States already felt itself to be committed to supporting Zionist goals, so the recommendations on this territory were predestined to fall on deaf ears. Wilson regarded his support for the Balfour Declaration as an unbreakable solemn promise and told the commissioners even before their departure that the Palestine question had already been virtually closed by the Allies. Even so, U.S. Zionists, fearing that Wilson’s resolve would slip, exerted strong pressure. A leading Zionist, Judge Felix Frankfurter, wrote Wilson that the commission’s investigation was causing world Jewry the “deepest disquietude,” prompting a reassuring response from Wilson.
By 1920, the frame of reference in which the Arabs of Palestine were viewed was already firmly set. Palestine had begun to be considered a Jewish land, the Arabs of Palestine had all along been ignored or disdained, and the United States was committed, in the absence of any pressing interest to the contrary, to supporting Zionism. Wilson’s public statements on behalf of the Zionist program took on a new and more enthusiastic tone, as he began to pledge U.S. support not simply for a Jewish homeland in Palestine but for a Jewish commonwealth. U.S. Zionists began insisting that the Balfour Declaration was committed to making all of Palestine a Jewish national home rather than simply, as the declaration actually stated, to forming a Jewish national home in Palestine. During his 1919 Paris meeting with British Foreign Secretary Balfour, Justice Brandeis spelled out the distinction, pointing out that if the Zionist program were to be successful, all Palestine would have to be the Jewish homeland. It was another three years before Britain issued a white paper clarifying its position that the declaration had not been intended to grant the entirety of Palestine to the Jews. Wilson himself did not use the broader formulation, but other officials and the media tended to use it interchangeably with the more restrictive language of the declaration. This interpretation and Wilson’s own carelessness
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with the terms homeland and commonwealth indicated at least a casual disregard for how much of Palestine the Jews might receive and in what form, and how much the Arabs might lose.
Wilson’s successors were equally committed to the Zionist program. By 1922, the year the League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine, United States policy was firmly pro-Zionist. President Warren Harding’s secretary of state, Charles Hughes, told Balfour early in the year that the United States interpreted the idea of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine to mean establishment of a Jewish state. In 1924, Britain and the United States concluded the Anglo-American Convention, which regulated U.S. trade with Palestine and guaranteed the protection of U.S. citizens there. The convention formalized U.S. end orsement of Britain’s controlover Palestine and, by reiterating provisions of the Balfour Declaration and of the British Mandate instrument, formally accepted Zionism in Palestine.
Although the State Department has long had a reputation for opposing the Zionist enterprise, there is little evidence in this early period of any strong resistance to Zionist plans from any level of the U.S. bureaucracy. In fact, the dismissal of the King-Crane Commission report was an early indicator of the fate of most of the opposition to Zionist settlement in Palestine posed over the years by lower-level functionaries within the U.S. foreign-policy bureaucracy. The overriding concern of the United States in these early postwar years was to avoid any foreign entanglements, and although the United States supported Britain and regarded its endorsement of the Balfour Declaration as a more or less binding commitment, the obligation did not extend to active intervention in the affairs of Palestine. One scholar who has studied State Department memoranda throughout the 1920s notes that although internal State communications contain many examples of grumbling against Zionism and Zionist pressures, these complaints were never translated into active opposition to or lobbying against the Zionist project. Because official U.S. policy was noninterventionist, the State Department rebuffed both the frequent representations of U.S. Zionists for active support of the Zionist project and the far less frequent requests from Arab American groups urging diminished support for the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate.
It was in these early days that the State Department’s refusal to give Zionism active backing became identified in the minds of many Zionist supporters with active anti-Zionism. Anti-or non-Zionism then came to be equated with anti-Semitism. The term Arabist, meaning by strict definition
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anyone who speaks Arabic and knows Arab culture, has come to be used more loosely in common parlance to label any State Department official who has spoken for the Arab perspective or against the Zionist /Israeli perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict, whether or not that person is an expert in the Arabic language or Arab affairs. The image of power that has grown up around these so-called Arabists has been exaggerated from the beginning. The first “Arabists” undoubtedly included some anti-Semites, but most opposed giving active U.S. support to Zionist settlement in Palestine for practical reasons: because they foresaw that this support would lead to bloodshed or simply because they felt it was not in the U.S. interest to become involved in matters that were at that time more properly Britain’s concern. Whatever their motivation, their views carried little if any weight.
There are numerous instances from the earliest days in which the views of State Department officials opposed to U.S. promotion of Zionism were ignored, as there are numerous instances, on the other side of the issue, in which State functionaries at all levels fully supported Zionist goals in Palestine. Among the first group, Robert Lansing, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state at the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, is a prime example. Lansing opposed Zionism because he believed the United States should not alienate Turkey, which controlled Palestine until December 1917, but Wilson did not allow him a role in making policy on this issue. Lansing was so thoroughly bypassed in fact that when the Balfour Declaration was issued, fully a month after Wilson’s secret endorsement of it, he had to inquire of the U.S. ambassador in London what the background of the declaration was.
Lansing was not the only official whose opposition to aspects of the Zionist program went unheeded. More than one U.S. official on the scene in the Middle East warned over the years that Arab opposition to the Zionist program was widespread and would ultimately lead to bloodshed between Arabs and Jews, but the warnings were ignored. In 1922, during the administration of President Warren Harding, Allen Dulles, then head of the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs, later to become the director of the Central Intelligence Agency in the Eisenhower administration, and not a Middle East expert except by avocation, wrote a memorandum to an assistant secretary of state expressing his “strong” feeling that the State Department should not officially support the positions of either Zionists, anti-Zionists, or Arabs. Zionism, he observed, had “a certain sentimental appeal,” but this appeal had to be measured against “the cold fact” that Jews made up only 10 percent of Palestine’s population. Dulles’s call for political neutrality fell on deaf ears.
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Not by any means was the State Department in this early period unanimously opposed to Zionism. William Yale, an oil explorer temporarily employed as an intelligence agent at the end of the war, had initially predicted a bitter Arab reaction to Zionism but soon changed his attitude and began sending pro-Zionist views to U.S. policymakers. As a member of the King-Crane Commission, he wrote a dissent to the majority conclusion, saying that, despite Arab opposition to Zionism, the Arabs of Palestine and Syria did not have a strong national history, and “due consideration” should be given to the Jews because they did have “a national history, national traditions, and a strong national feeling.” Retracting the promises made to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration would be, he thought, “unjust and unwise.” Reflecting the widespread view that Zionism equaled Western values equaled civilization, whereas Arabs and the East equaled the absence of civilization, Yale said that a Palestine controlled by Jewish genius would be a bastion of Western ideals in the East.
Diplomatic historian Frank Manuel believes that Wilson’s preference for a Jewish Palestine “soon seeped through” all levels of the Foreign Service. He gives as what he calls a typical example the change of heart experienced by a young vice consul whose memoranda were anti-Zionist in the first few months after issuance of the Balfour Declaration but who soon “began to take an autonomous Jewish Palestine for granted.” Assuming that a Jewish statewasallbuta fait accompli, he set about devising strategy on this premise, even drawing a map of possible boundaries for the use of the Versailles conference delegation and suggesting ways of mollifying Palestine’s Arab population.
Another State Department official, serving as director of Near Eastern affairs in Allen Dulles’s temporary absence in 1922, wrote in the aftermath of a flare-up of intercommunal violence between Jews and Arabs in Palestine that the British had not been firm enough with the Arabs, who, he said, possessed “a tendency to loot and kill” and who had not been “as severely treated as their known tendencies might require.” This view, a variation on the theme that the Arabs understand nothing but force, was already at this early stage a part of the conventional wisdom. The memorandum is an indication that the pro-Arab, anti-Zionist attitude so often attributed to the State Department had not in fact taken hold. The experience of the young vice consul who went along with President Wilson’s pro-Zionism because it was the established policy was very much the norm.
The U.S. Congress, even at this early date, was fairly enthusiastic in its support for Zionism. Zionist activists worked closely with members of Congress in 1922 to pass a joint resolution favoring establishment of a Jewish
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national home in Palestine. A Jewish delegation from Massachusetts, prompted by the Zionist Organization of America, started the process when it approached Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and requested that he sponsor a Senate resolution supporting the Zionist program. In one of the early examples of organized pro-Zionist lobbying, other Zionist groups urged their members throughout the country, according to the New York Times, to make the issue of support for the resolution “a local issue with Representatives and Senators who sought election.” New York Congressman Hamilton Fish sponsored a resolution simultaneously in the House, which passed in June 1922, and three months later, Lodge’s Senate resolution was combined with Fish’s and passed as a joint resolution of Congress.
Lodge’s efforts on behalf of the resolution were apparently made in direct response to Zionist requests. Because he was an isolationist and had taken no previous interest in Zionist goals in Palestine, the New York Times criticized him in repeated editorials for suddenly discovering an enthusiasm for Zionism in search of Jewish votes. Lodge was not influenced by the criticism and continued his vigorous support for the Palestine enterprise. Expounding a common theme, he gave a speech at one point during Senate debate on the resolution in which he hailed Jewish influence in Palestine as a vast improvement on its native Arab influence. “I never could accept in patience,” he said, “the thought that Jerusalem and Palestine should be under the control of the Mohammedans.” The very idea that these territories might remain in the hands of “Turks” was, he believed, “one of the great blots on the face of civilization, which ought to be erased.”Ivanhoe had clearly had a lasting impact on him.
Similarly, Fish, speaking at a dinner given by U.S. Zionist leaders to express thanks for his work on the joint resolution, observed that he foresaw a Jewish “state” in Palestine that would stand as a peaceful, democratic bastion between the “warlike races” of Muslim Africa and Asia. Zionistsmay or may not have suggested these lines of argument to Lodge and Fish, but they probably had no need to prompt the congressmen. Casting slurs on Palestine’s Arabs was politically risk-free, and Lodge and Fish were enunciating what had already become a basic tenet of the conventional wisdom: the notion that Arabs and Muslims were incompetent, lacking in civilization, and warlike.
Among the informed public, as in Congress, the emerging view of the Palestine issue was, for lack of virtually any input from the other side, largely Zionist-centered. While the public at large undoubtedly had no knowledge of any of the political issues involved in Palestine and at most
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possessed only an ill-defined sense of Palestine as a place in the Bible related to Jesus Christ and somehow related to the Jews, that small segment of the population who read the country’s major newspapers did know something of the issues involved, and they learned it from an almost entirely Zionist perspective.
One study of articles on Palestine appearing in 1917 in four leading U.S. newspapers—the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post—shows that editorial opinion almost universally favored the Zionist project and condemned Muslim/Turkish rule. Considering the low level of interest in the issue among the general public, coverage was heavy throughout the year, averaging as many as two articles a week in the New York Times. Editorials and news stories alike applauded Jewish enterprise, heralding a Jewish return to Palestine as “glorious news” and “one of the wonderful romances of all history,” a pioneering event similar to the opening of the American West. Britain’s capture of Palestine in December 1917 and the prospect of a Jewish return were hailed as events that would “deliver” the Holy Land from the Muslims’ “bloodstained” hands and from “the thousand-year dominion of the infidel.” With a fervor befitting a pulpit rather than a newsroom, the papers portrayed the capture of Jerusalem, a city deemed holy to Christians and Jews but not to Muslims, as a modern-day crusade that had “redeemed” and “reclaimed” the city from pagan defilement.
Ironically, an anti-Turkish editorial campaign launched by the very Protestant missionaries who most effectively advocated the Arab cause in the war and immediate postwar years had the effect of adding to the general impression of Arabs as rapacious and marauding. In the aftermath of the Armenian massacres of 1915–1916, the mission-led relief effort headed by Dodge sent a barrage of press dispatches to wire services and editors across the country. The specific intent of the effort to expose Turkish atrocities was, as one of the missionary leaders said, to “create a sentiment” throughout the country. Headlines detailing the atrocities and specifically attributing the horrors to Turkish brutality began appearing all over the United States. The mission board also saw to it that copies of a book detailing the Armenian massacres published in mid-1917 made their way to the desks of all members of Congress and many of the country’s opinion molders. Arabs did not figure at all in this propaganda campaign, and the issue had nothing to do with Palestine, but as is evident from Lodge’s reference to the “Turks” who inhabited Palestine, in those days only the most sophisticated Americans, and not many of them, knew the difference between aTurk and an Arab. They were all subjects of the Turkish Ottoman Empire,
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and, in the minds of most Americans, they were all infidels and all undesirable. The U.S. missionaries’ efforts to “create a sentiment” against the Turks had a profound and lasting impact as well on the image of Arabs.
Other studies of articles on Palestine in leading U.S. papers during the 1920s indicate that coverage, often front-page coverage, remained frequent even after Zionism had become a less pressing issue for the United States. Articles on Palestine in the New York Times averaged just under one a week through out much of the decade, and, in periods of crisis, coverage was much heavier. In 1922, for instance—a year that saw Britain’s submission to the League of Nations of a draft Mandate for Palestine and, later in the year, Arab strikes and demonstrations in Palestine protesting the Mandate—the Times averaged an article almost every other day. In 1929, when differences over Jewish access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem led to violent Arab demonstrations and the massacre of more than sixty Jews in Hebron, coverage in the Times and other leading papers soared.
Throughout the decade, the coverage continued to be, as it had been in the early postwar years, favorable to the Zionist program, supportive of British control over Palestine, and either highly disdainful of Arabs and Arab capabilities or prone to ignore them altogether. For the most part, editorials took the line that Zionists were pioneers building a land and a society very much as pioneers had done in the United States. Zionists were widely seen to be carrying on the work of Western civilization. They were assumed to share Western values, Western intellectual capabilities, and Western energy, whereas Arabs were considered hopelessly uncivilized.
The Arab point of view was basically ignored in the press. During the first seven months of 1929, for instance, the New York Times ran fifty-one articles on Palestine but carried only a single paragraph enumerating the demands of Palestinian Arabs. In the last five months of that year, after the start of Arab rioting, which grew out of Arab objections to increasing Zionist and British control of Palestine, only 5 percent of the numerous articles in the Times and three other leading papers addressed the perspective of the Arabs of Palestine on events there. Editorialists generally believed that the Arabs opposed Zionism and the Jewish influx to Palestine because they were naturally warlike, had been duped by hate-mongering Muslim propagandists, or were simply obtuse. It would be ideal, the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1929 in an editorial that succinctly captured the essence of the anti-Arab stereotype, if “the wild Arabs of the desert [were] to open their hearts to moral suasion,” but “unhappily sweet reasonableness does not seem to be the strongest point of the Bedouin sheik. What he does thoroughly understand and appreciate … is the song of the bullet.” No account
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was taken of Arab political grievances, and the notion of an independent Palestinian Arab state was, in the New York Times‘s estimation, “fit for Bedlam only.”
In its editorials the Times did oppose the formation of a specifically Jewish state in Palestine. Owner Adolph Ochs, although Jewish, was an avowed non-Zionist and believed the establishment of a state on the basis of religion or race was wrong. But the paper favored allowing Jews seeking refuge from oppression and persecution elsewhere in the world to settle in Palestine in large numbers, never questioned Britain’s right to continue its domination of Palestine, and rarely expressed interest in the fate of Palestine’s Arabs.
Given the relative unimportance of the Palestine issue to the United States in the 1920s, the fact that the country’s major newspaper devoted one or two articles a week to the subject for years on end, even in the absence of a crisis, and much more during crisis periods, is of considerable significance. The issue was so minor a part of the larger postwar issues in which Wilson became deeply involved that his biographers mention Palestine only in passing or, more often, not at all. For his successors in the 1920s, it was an even less important issue. The relatively heavy press coverage is an indicator of the extent of Zionist influence even in this early period. One scholar has estimated that, as of the mid-1920s, approximately half of all New York Times articles were placed by press agents, suggesting that U.S. Zionist organizations may have placed many of the articles on Zionism’s Palestine endeavors. The Times and many other papers also received a large portion of their information on Palestine from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service, and the Times in addition had a resident correspondent who for many years in the 1920s exhibited strong Zionist sympathies in his articles.
While newspapers played a large role in this era in shaping the image among informed Americans of Jews and Arabs and their relative worth, movies probably had a greater impact on a broader spectrum of Americans in creating an unflattering, if largely nonpolitical, image of Arabs. Motion pictures began to come into their own in the 1920s as a major form of entertainment and a major shaper of public perceptions, reaching audiences vastly broader than the readership of newspapers and periodicals. Movies caricaturing Arabs became an instantly successful genre, giving further substance to the derogatory picture of Arabs first drawn almost a century earlier.
In the 1920s, a total of almost ninety U.S. films dealt in some way with Arabs. No list of early movie classics is complete that does not include such
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films as Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik and Son of the Sheik, The Thief of Bagdad, Beau Geste, The Desert Song, or Kismet or, in the 1930s, Eddie Cantor’s Ali Baba Goes to Town or Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and its sequels. The most engaging Arab portrayed in these movies was a buffoon or a charming rogue. Most were lawless and violent, oversexed, and without honor.
In the 1920s, the motion picture took up where the travel books of the nineteenth century left off, capitalizing on what has apparently always been a popular U.S. fascination with foreign villains and carrying the dark image of the Arab to a much wider audience than books would ever do. The movie screen, as one expert has noted, “is where America has met most of its Arabs.”
In this early period of U.S. policymaking on Palestine, Zionist act ivists were the prime movers in the formulation of both the public view of the Palestine issue and the official policy that emerged. But they were building on a base of anti-Arab sentiment that had begun to be created a century earlier, well before the Zionist program in Palestine came into existence. The two factors were equally important, for while it is clear that the strength of the official U.S. commitment to Zionism in this period arose directly from the strength of the Zionist lobbying effort, it is equally clear that Zionist activists would not have been as successful in pressing their case with Wilson and other U.S. policymakers and members of Congress had public perceptions of the Arabs not been quite so unfavorable and had the Arabs mounted a significant lobbying campaign of their own.
U.S. Zionists were skilled, well organized, and numerous even at this early date. Brandeis’s easy access to both Wilson and Balfour was a factor of inestimable importance in shaping U.S. and British policy. The Zionists mounted a multipronged effort, simultaneously attempting to shape the views of the public through frequent and well placed media stories, of Congress through direct lobbying, and of key policymakers themselves through personal contact. The Zionist effort marked the already fairly sophisticated beginning of what was to become an extensive, well-organized pro-Zionist and pro-Israeli lobby.
Membership in U.S. Zionist organizations ebbed and flowed in the 1910s and 1920s, but enthusiasm was at a peak precisely when it needed to be—in the war years and immediate postwar years, when government and congressional support was most necessary and the United States was making crucial decisions. Membership in the Zionist Organization of America grew
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tenfold, from twenty thousand before World War I to almost two hundred thousand during the war, but dropped again to about eighteen thousand by 1929. I. L. Kenen, who founded the modern pro-Israeli lobbying organization AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) decades later, credits passage of the joint congressional resolution supporting Zionism in 1922 to “a pioneering Zionist lobby”—a lobby strong and numerous enough to make support for the resolution an election issue for congressmen. Even late in the decade, when formal membership was at a low point, Zionists could mobilize large numbers of supporters for demonstrations and letter-writing campaigns. When anti-Zionist demonstrations broke out in Palestine in August 1929 and Jews were murdered in Hebron, U.S. Zionists organized multiple demonstrations of fifteen thousand and twenty thousand in New York City. During the first few weeks of the Palestine disturbances, the State Department received a thousand letters from Zionist supporters.
Arab American lobbying efforts were insignificant by contrast. A handful of Palestinian, Lebanese, and Syrian individuals, leaders of two small Arab American organizations, actively protested British and U.S. policies favoring Zionism after World War I and throughout the 1920s. These activists organized demonstrations, wrote letters to their representatives in Congress and U.S. officials, and in one instance testified before the House of Representatives during its 1922 debate on a resolution endorsing the Balfour Declaration. The Arab American lobbying effort was minuscule, however, particularly compared with the strong effort being made by Zionist supporters, and U.S. officials paid little or no attention to the Arab representations.
Even without their organizational strength, Zionists would have had a relatively easy sell. Palestine was an issue of minor significance at this point to the U.S. government and to the public; the public, in fact, knew virtually nothing about its politics. But Americans nonetheless had a general impression of Arabs as a primitive race of people with few redeeming qualities and as profoundly different from Americans. To Christians whose only knowledge of Palestine came from the Bible, a Palestine inhabited by Jews seemed much more natural than one inhabited by Muslims. Incidents of intercommunal violence in Palestine such as occurred in 1922 and 1929, whose origins in serious political grievances were never understood by Americans or even fully appreciated by most U.S. officials, tended simply to reinforce the prevalent image of Arabs as uncivilized and prone to violence.
Politically, the Arabs were virtual nonentities. The extent of their political invisibility was strikingly demonstrated when the Balfour Declaration
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referred to them—at a time when they made up over 90 percent of Palestine’s population—as one of the “existing non-Jewish communities.” Identifying Palestine’s Arabs according to what they were not—not Jews—became common in official and unofficial parlance, thus establishing their political nonexistence as a principal element of the conventional wisdom on the Palestine question. The Mandate instrument submitted by Britain for ratification by the League of Nations in 1922 incorporated the Balfour Declaration into the preamble, confirming in international terms the Palestinian Arabs’ negative designation as a people who existed not in themselves but only in relation to the people they were not. The Mandate was, by most reckonings, a document and a governing instrument “framed unmistakably in the Zionist interest.” Like the Balfour Declaration, the document assured the civil and religious rights (but not the political rights) of “existing non-Jewish communities” but did not once use the term Arabs.
The frame of reference on the Palestine question as a political issue was thus Zionist-centered from the beginning. Given the extent of anti-Semitism in the United States at this time, it was not a particularly pro-Jewish phenomenon. Indeed, some have suggested that much of the support for Zionism arose out of a desire to rid the United States of Jews, either for blatantly anti-Semitic reasons or to prevent immigrants from swamping the U.S. labor market. The frame of reference was, however, strikingly non-Arab and therefore, almost by default, emerged as pro-Zionist. The Arabs were historical and biblical oddities, not real people. Jews, however, had a central place in the common Christian conception of how the Holy Land should be peopled. The Arabs also did little to put their own case forward or to counter the Zionists’ effective lobbying. As a result, Jews and not Arabs were at the forefront of the public mind when political issues regarding Palestine arose. Simply by having proposed a change in the status quo in Palestine, and having succeeded in achieving it, Jews attracted a kind of attention to themselves never accorded the Arabs of Palestine.
Scholar Mark Tessler, a student of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, has noted that at the early stages in Arab political development, political activity was expressive, emerging through such vehicles a speriodicals, speeches, discussion groups, and congresses. Political expression did not reach the stage of mobilizing popular support, building institutionalized mass movements, and engaging in the kind of activism that could directly confront political adversaries until the years between the world wars. Only then did Arab nationalists begin to command popular loyalty and to mobilize mass support around strategies for throwing off autocratic and foreign rule and moving toward self-rule. Thus, although the Zionists failed to understand
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the true nature of Arab nationalism—dismissing Palestinian aspirations and mistakenly assuming that Palestinians were no different from other Arabs and could find political expression and a political identity as part of the Arab world—it is quite true that Palestinian political development was slow compared with that of the Zionists and was unready in these years to confront Zionism on an equal footing.
As far as Americans were concerned, the Arabs of Palestine were political ciphers. Arab lobbyists were not strong or numerous enough to counter the sophisticated intercessions of Zionist lobbyists. No Arab bloc of voters influenced American politicians, no newspapers or books or travelers to Palestine juxtaposed favorable images of Palestine’s Arabs with the increasingly common images of pioneering Zionists in Palestine, and no one ever thought it necessary to take the Palestinian Arabs seriously.