3. Franklin Roosevelt
Franklin Roosevelt made no major policy decisions with regard to Palestine, but because he perpetuated what had already become a firmly set frame of reference at a critical time in the history of Palestine, his tenure was pivotal. Elected in 1932, he was in office from the era of increased Jewish immigration to Palestine prompted by Hitler’s rise to power in Germany, through the Holocaust, to the beginning of serious discussion of statehood for the Jews in Palestine. The United States accepted Zionism virtually by rote, having inherited from Wilson a commitment to promote a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Policymakers did not question the real meaning or consequences of this pledge or notice that what began as a commitment to a Jewish homeland in some part of Palestine soon became a pledge to turn all of Palestine over to the Jews.
Roosevelt’s outlook was shaped not by public opinion but alongside it. His views on the Palestine issue, which were, like the general public’s, based primarily on a religious upbringing heavily imbued with Bible readings featuring a Jewish Palestine, were undoubtedly also deeply influenced by the widespread perception of Arabs and Muslims as primitive and pagan. In office, his views were reinforced and his policy given definition under the close scrutiny and influence of Zionist leaders who had ready access to the White House and of political colleagues, in Congress and elsewhere, who were themselves influenced by Zionist activists.
Roosevelt was not a deeply religious man and did not attend church regularly, but his Episcopal faith was a strong force in his life, and he is said to have inherited a “pious streak.” Like most of his contemporaries, he had an extensive knowledge of the Bible and was fascinated with biblical lands.
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He shared the widespread view that the Holy Land was properly a Jewish place. The story is told that while en route to Tehran in 1943 to meet with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, he ordered his pilot to fly low over Palestine and showed great excitement at seeing everything from “Beersheba to Dan.”
Knowledge of the Jews’ biblical heritage did not automatically make Roosevelt a committed Zionist, and he has been severely criticized for doing virtually nothing to help the Jews during the Holocaust. Although Roosevelt did make some half-hearted attempts to deal with the relocation of Jewish refugees, he never showed much interest in the problem of rescuing the Jews, never made a serious effort to curb State Department obstruction of Jewish immigration to the United States, and never showed real concern to halt the murder of millions of Europe’s Jews. Nor was Roosevelt free of some anti-Semitic instincts. During a discussion of resettlement schemes for Jewsin North Africa during his summit meeting with Winston Churchill in Casablanca in early 1943, for instance, he evidenced a surprising degree of bigotry, expressing sympathy with German complaints about the overrepresentation of Jews in the professions. He and his wife and friends often exhibited a casual, almost thoughtless anti-Semitism, what one biographer calls a “jocular anti-Semitism” that was “nearly universal” in the circles in which the Roosevelts traveled. Franklin Roosevelt made jokes about “Hebraic noses,” for instance, and Eleanor Roosevelt commented pointedly on the number of Jews in her husband’s law class. According to his biographers, however, Roosevelt was not as bigoted as most of his upperclass contemporaries and not so bigoted that he did not have several close Jewish friends and political colleagues. Unlike many around him, Roosevelt was rarely vicious in his remarks or feelings about Jews, and he is said to have surprised even his wife in the extent to which he sought out Jewish colleagues. During Roosevelt’s presidency, a time when Jews made up about 3 percent of the U.S. population, they constituted 15 percent of his top appointments.
As a result, U.S. Zionist leaders had fairly easy access to Roosevelt in the 1930s and 1940s and exerted considerable influence. Because of disagreements among U.S. Jews over support for Zionism and disagreements over style and tactics between U.S. Zionists and European Zionists led by Weizmann, Zionism had lost considerable support in the United States during the 1920s and early 1930s. By 1935, however, Rabbi Stephen Wise—a protégé of Supreme Court Justice Brandeis and a longstanding colleague of Roosevelt in Democratic party politics—had taken control of and revitalized Brandeis’s old organization, the Zionist Organization of America.
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He and another Brandeis protégé, Judge Felix Frankfurter, whom Roosevelt appointed to the Supreme Court in 1939, used their access to the president to bring Zionist issues to his attention and urge his intercession on behalf of the Zionist cause.
During the war, Roosevelt feared that too much public talk of Palestine would play into Germany’s hands by stirring up anti-British protest among the Arabs, and as a result he avoided public statements himself and attempted to quash any public U.S. involvement with Palestine, even to the point of rejecting Frankfurter’s request in July 1942 that he meet with David Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the local Zionist representative body. In private, however, Roosevelt’s Zionist and pro-Zionist colleagues kept the issue always before him, and he repeatedly gave them private reassurances of his continuing pro-Zionist sympathies.
There was a considerable degree of schizophrenia during these years in the attitude of the Roosevelt administration, the Congress, and the general public toward American Jews, the fate of Europe’s Jews, and the political question of Palestine. Statements of support for the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, whether these were Roosevelt’s private assurances or the public resolutions and platform statements of Congress and the political parties, were something altogether different from actual steps to help the Jews, and when it came, for instance, to opening doors to Jewish refugees from Europe, political support for Zionism meant nothing. Polls from the late 1930s and 1940s clearly showed that the majority of Americans were unwilling to permit more Jewish immigration to the United States, even if the result was not rescuing Jews from Hitler, and in 1942 an anti-Semitic element in Congress defeated a measure that would have given Roosevelt the power to loosen immigration restrictions for the sake of Jewish refugees. Roosevelt himself, although increasingly aware of German atrocities and frequently under pressure from his wife to do something for Jewish refugees, in fact was never deeply enough impressed by the Jews’ plight to press hard. He allowed the director of the State Department office dealing with refugee issues, Breckinridge Long, to talk him into a go-slow approach on the issue of admitting Jews. A Democratic party contributor whose diaries have shown him to be a virulent anti-Semite and an elitist basically opposed to admitting refugees of any sort to the United States, Long practiced a policy of deliberate obstruction toward Jewish immigration.
Political support for Zionism was clearly a great deal easier for politicians than any tangible step to help Jews, particularly admitting substantial numbers to the United States, and the cynicism and hypocrisy of many of those U.S. politicians who paid lip service to Zionism is strikingly revealed
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by this fact. Anti-Semitism was still alive and healthy throughout the United States even late in the war. But political support for Zionism is the point here. The political mind-set that assumed Palestine to be a Jewish place and ignored Arab rights and the Arab presence there did not require an absence of ethnic prejudice against Jews and, whatever the degree of anti-Semitism abroad in the country, Roosevelt’s political support for the Zionist enterprise in Palestine throughout his administration provided vital sustenance to the project and helped hasten the political demise of the Arabs of Palestine.
Despite consistent support for Zionism, Roosevelt was never well informed about the Palestine situation. Most fundamentally, he operated under a misconception about what the Balfour Declaration had promised to the Jews. In a memorandum to Secretary of State Cordell Hull discussing a 1939 British white paper on Palestine that favored the Arab position, Roosevelt stated his own—incorrect—understanding that Britain’s intention from the beginning had been that, despite Arab objections, Palestine would be “converted” into “a Jewish Home which might very possibly become preponderantly Jewish within a comparatively short time. Certainly that was the impression given to the whole world at the time of the Mandate.” Given that intent, he said, he did not believe that the British could legally limit Jewish immigration, as they proposed in the white paper to do.
Roosevelt was no doubt correct in assuming that the Balfour Declaration was widely perceived throughout the world to be unambiguous in its grant of all of Palestine to the Jews, but the British themselves did not have such a sweeping intent. A white paper issued in 1922 for the specific purpose of clarifying British policy stated that Britain had not “at any time contemplated … that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home.” Not unusually, the clarification had escaped the notice of the United States, and by the time Roosevelt came to office, the Zionist interpretation had taken firm hold. The British had in fact made commitments to the Arabs that the Arabs regarded as of a solemnity equal to that of the Balfour Declaration, but Roosevelt and most of the U.S. government were unaware of these assurances.
Roosevelt was ignorant both of the actual facts on the ground in Palestine and of the Arabs’ attitudes. In the memorandum to Hull on the 1939 British white paper, one of whose provisions was to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine to seventy-five thousand over a five-year period, Roosevelt discounted Arab objections to the influx of Jewish immigrants. The Jews could be easily absorbed, he thought, because the number of Arab immigrants to Palestine since 1920 had “vastly exceeded” the number of Jewish
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immigrants for that period. He was seriously mistaken. According to British demographic statistics, Jewish immigration from 1920 through 1938, totaling 306,049, was more than ten times the level of Arab immigration, which totaled 23,407. Jewish immigrants had averaged ten thousand a year throughout the 1920s, but the number soared in the early 1930s in response to Hitler’s rise in Germany, trebling in 1933 and doubling again in 1935. Moreover, heavy Jewish immigration in these years had drastically altered the Arab-Jewish population balance—from 90 percent Arab and 10 percent Jewish in 1920, to 69 percent Arab versus 31 percent Jewish in 1939.
Although he had a deep appreciation of the Zionists’ attachment to Palestine, Roosevelt apparently had no understanding of the Palestinian Arabs’ feeling for their native land and seemed oblivious to the impact the Zionist program was having on them. Without any thought for the justice of forcibly expelling an entire population, he devoted considerable thought to devising ways of accommodating Jewish control of Palestine by moving the Arabs aside. In a 1939 conversation with Brandeis, for instance, Roosevelt discussed sending 200,000–300,000 Palestinian Arabs to Iraq. He repeated the idea to the British and a year later to Weizmann. Well into the war, he was still thinking about the possibility and told a cabinet member that he wanted to begin moving the Arabs to some other part of the Middle East so that eventually 90 percent of Palestine would be Jewish.
Perhaps because he was so poorly informed, Roosevelt seems to have had little understanding of the dilemma the British faced in Palestine. In fact, it is ironic that throughout the 1930s, as the United States became more solidly pro-Zionist despite having no direct responsibility for Palestine, the commitment to the full-scale Zionist program began to erode in Britain, where the responsibility lay. As the British became more acutely aware of the problems involved in ignoring the Arab position in Palestine, they began to back away from the kind of political surety that the United States, in its relative ignorance, had come to feel. It was the British who had to deal with the recurrent Arab riots and, between 1936 and 1939, the Arab Revolt waged to oppose British control and protest dramatically increased Jewish immigration. After each crisis, the British government, recognizing Arab alarm at the prospect of becoming a minority in their native land and at the increasing Zionist economic and political influence in Palestine, sent an investigative commission to report on local conditions, and each time it issued a report or white paper recommending limitations on Jewish immigration, restrictions on Jewish land purchases, or increased Arab participation in local government. There is virtually no evidence that Roosevelt or any other
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U.S. policymakers understood the basis for Britain’s increasing sense that unqualified support for the full Zionist program could not be reconciled with the reality of a majority Arab population in Palestine.
The by now fairly long legacy in the United States of disdain for Arab competence and civilization made it all but impossible for most Americans, even at the policymaking level, to fathom the political content of Arab protests against the Jewish influx to Palestine. Arab rioting and terrorist attacks on Jews and Britons in Palestine appeared to Americans only to confirm the longstanding view of Arabs as naturally bloodthirsty and too primitive to be concerned about issues like independence or political control. To Roosevelt, the Arabs of Palestine were simply part of a sea of “seventy million Mohammedans” surrounding the small Jewish enclave who desired nothing more than to “cut [the Jews’] throats the day they land,” as he once wrote to a colleague by way of explaining his decision to continue minimizing public attention to the Palestine issue. Jews, he said, are “of all shades—good, bad and indifferent”; Arabs were undifferentiated cutthroats. He put the Arabs’ discontent down to ethnic hostility and economic deprivation and believed they could be mollified with economic incentives. Shortly before his death in 1945, he told a friend that the reason the Middle East was “so explosive” was that the people were so poor. When the war was over and he was out of office, he said, he intended to look into the possibility of establishing something like the Tennessee Valley Authority in Palestine, which “will really make something of that country.”
This view is an extension of the argument that gained currency in the media and in Congress shortly after World War I: a Jewish presence in Palestine would bring such economic prosperity to the Arabs that they would accept the Jews gratefully. Indeed, such thinking had a long colonialist history. Roosevelt’s talk of using economic incentives to smother political impulses is also an indication of how firmly rooted and enduring a conventional wisdom can become, for despite the fact that a quarter century of Western economic and social practices introduced to Palestine by Jews and the British had demonstrably done nothing to quiet Arab political concerns, U.S. officials persisted in believing that the Arabs’ problems were economic.
Little of the State Department’s input in this period did much to enlighten Roosevelt or to change public or policymaker perceptions in general. One review of State Department communications between 1939 and 1948 indicates that, contrary to the common belief that the so-called Arabist diplomats in this period were knee-jerk Arab sympathizers, in reality the State Department never showed particular concern about which side would ultimately control Palestine. At least one high-ranking State Department
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official in fact was a Zionist sympathizer. Sumner Welles, who served as undersecretary of state under Hull until 1943, has been described as having “pronounced Zionist sympathies” and served as one of the principal high-level government contacts for Zionist leaders on the Palestine issue.
The State Department did have its share of anti-Semites. As noted, the office that dealt with refugee issues in the early 1940s was in the hands of a strong anti-Semite, Breckinridge Long, who tried to obstruct the immigration of Jewish refugees. But Long did not work on Middle Eastern affairs and did not make policy on Palestine. More to the point, however anti-Semitic any of these officials were, anti-Semitism did not translate into support for the aims of the Palestinian Arabs. The chief concern of diplomats in State’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the early 1940s was the effect the Arab-Zionist conflict would have on U.S. and British pursuit of the war. Palestine itself was recognized to be primarily a British problem, and the State Department was interested only in the impact the conflict would have on U.S. interests. Contrary to the prevailing view, State was not, either in this period or later, particularly interested in the justice or morality of either side’s position in Palestine or the relative merits of either side’s historical or legal claim to the land. Diplomats rarely spoke up for Arab concerns about what Zionism meant for Palestine’s Arab population.
As the war went on, Zionist leaders became increasingly active in lobbying outside the White House, particularly in Congress. In 1941, the Zionist leadership tapped New York Senator Robert Wagner, a close Democratic political ally of Roosevelt, to chair a newly revived organization of prominent pro-Zionist Gentiles whose mission was to keep the issue of Palestine as a Jewish homeland before the public. Wagner was an active campaigner on behalf of Zionism whom historians class as both genuinely interested in the fate of the Jews during World War II and politically aware of the large numbers of Jewish voters in his state. Despite Roosevelt’s efforts to limit public discussion of the Palestine issue, by the time the new organization, called the American Palestine Committee, was formally reconstituted in April 1941 (it had originally been formed in 1932 by several congressmen and gone inactive), it had among its members sixty-eight senators, including the majority and minority leaders, as well as two hundred congressmen, several governors, and two cabinet members. Within a year, its membership included eight hundred “distinguished citizens” in several local chapters throughout the country. Although the organization was
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non-Jewish, it was run out of Zionist offices in New York, and Zionist functionaries wrote Wagner’s correspondence and in one instance an article for publication.
The U.S. Jewish community itself was not wholly supportive of Zionism and the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine at this stage. The largest Jewish organization, the American Jewish Committee, representing 1.5 million U.S. Jews, was opposed to Zionism, and even some Zionists hesitated to press the issue of statehood in Palestine at a time when many believed the rescue of European Jews, rather than politics, should be U.S. Jewry’s first priority. In opposition to these anti-Zionist and moderate Zionist schools, a group of Zionist maximalists led by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, who pushed openly for Jewish statehood in Palestine, rose to prominence and soon wrested the leadership of U.S. Zionism from the moderates. The maximalist view carried the day when Silver’s group won the support of a Zionist convention held in May 1942 at the Biltmore Hotel in New York for a plan, henceforth called the Biltmore Program, presented by Ben-Gurion to establish a Jewish state. This marked the first time U.S. Zionism had formally taken a unified position in favor of full statehood.
In 1943, the brash Silver set about organizing an aggressive grass-roots campaign to win congressional and popular support for the Zionist cause. He formed the American Zionist Emergency Council (AZEC), organizing local chapters in every community in the country with a Jewish population, as well as in the hometown of every influential member of Congress. Within little more than a year, AZEC had four hundred local committees. Members were instructed to keep in constant touch with their representatives in Congress by writing them and holding dinners and luncheons in their honor. Approaching the non-Jewish community at the local level, AZEC activists successfully organized local rallies supporting Jewish statehood in Palestine and in 1944 generated pro-Zionist resolutions and telegrams to Congress from as many as three thousand organizations, from labor unions and Rotary clubs to church groups and granges.
The Zionist lobby had the wholehearted support of Congress and most politicians. In 1939, twenty-eight senators signed a pro-Zionist statement inserted in the Congressional Record. Three years later, the support in Congress was far more resounding. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in November 1942, at Zionist urging and despite Roosevelt’s efforts to down play public references to Palestine, sixty-three senators and almost two hundred members of Congress issued a statement noting the urgent need to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine in view of Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe. By 1944, the assumption that Palestine
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should be Jewish was so prevalent in the United States that both the Democratic and the Republican party platforms, using nearly identical language, called for establishment of “a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth” and urged that Palestine be opened to unrestricted Jewish immigration. Both Roosevelt, breaking his usual silence on this issue, and his Republican opponent issued similar endorsements.
Sympathy for Zionism among the country’s politicians did not imply particular knowledge of what Zionism stood for or of the situation in Palestine, any more than it did for Roosevelt himself. Even the Zionists lamented congressional ignorance about the complexities of the situation. Among themselves, Zionist leaders remarked on the high level of sympathy for Zionism they had found throughout Washington, but they were disconcerted by how little anyone actually seemed to know about Zionism, about Palestine, and about British promises to the Zionists. One Zionist leader complained that although most members of Congress were “astoundingly sympathetic” and the Zionist cause enjoyed support “in every sector of Washington,” every politician had to be instructed in Zionism, “for it is a closed book to them.”
Knowledge of the Arabs was even more limited. None of the several congressional declarations on Palestine issued through the war years showed any indication that Congress knew that more than two-thirds of Palestine’s population was Arab or understood the nuances of the British and U.S. commitment—that is, to support establishment of a Jewish homeland in some part of Palestine rather than to give all of Palestine to the Jews. Political discourse in the United States entirely discounted Arab opposition to the prospect of Palestine’s becoming a Jewish land, either ignoring the opposition altogether or, in the words of one historian, explaining it away as “baseless, minimal and perverse.”
Throughout the extended period of Roosevelt’s presidency, the public’s generally unfavorable impression of Arabs—whether a clearly defined perception or merely a vague sense of Arabs as distasteful—and the favorable public perception of the Zionist program were both further reinforced by movies and the media. Roguish Arabs continued to be a popular theme in motion pictures, which grew in popularity as a form of entertainment in the 1930s. Media coverage of the Palestine question also continued throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s to reflect the generally pro-Zionist, Jews-as-pioneers, Arabs-as-primitives viewpoint that had marked coverage throughout the 1920s. In addition, the terrible plight of Europe’s Jews increasingly became a theme that aroused sympathy for Zionist plans. During the Arab Revolt against British rule in Palestine, from 1936 to
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1939, newspaper articles often emphasized the Jews’ legal and historic rights to settle in that territory, and as the extent of the Nazi atrocities became increasingly known, emphasis was placed on Palestine as a refuge for the Jews.
This is not to say that public interest in the Palestine question, outside political circles, had grown significantly by the late 1930s. Although the issue was covered in the major newspapers, it was not of major interest to the vast majority of Americans, particularly during the Depression, when concerns closer to home were paramount. But Zionism was already a part of the national mind-set on Palestine. Officially, the United States had for some time felt itself, in the absence of any opposing pressure, to be automatically committed to the Zionist program. The assumptions that Palestine was soon to be Jewish, that Jews had an unlimited right to immigrate there, and that they would ultimately gain numerical predominance and political control had been an integral and generally unquestioned part both of official policy and of the general mind-set for many years before Americans became aware of the Jews’ desperate plight in Europe and before the question of Jewish statehood in Palestine began to be debated in international forums.
Public knowledge of the Palestine situation increased markedly in the war years, thanks to the grass-roots efforts of Zionist activists and the heavy coverage given the situation of Europe’s Jews, and by the end of World War II the notion that the Jews could find a refuge in Palestine had become commonplace. Polls taken in the two years after the war generally indicated that fully 80 percent of Americans had at least heard or read about Palestine and that as many as half followed developments there. As the Jewish claim to Palestine rose to prominence in the minds of Americans, the knowledge that Arabs inhabited the land and also had a claim was generally pushed aside. The Arab perspective did not fit into the postwar frame of reference.
Roosevelt did gain a glimpse of real Arab concerns just two months before his death, but it was too late. He met with Saudi Arabian King Abdul Aziz, known in the West as Ibn Saud, aboard the cruiser USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945, the first time a U.S. president had ever met an Arab leader. Roosevelt’s planned postwar aid package for Saudi Arabia was the principal impetus for meeting Abdul Aziz, but much of the discussion apparently centered on the Palestine problem, Roosevelt appealing to the Saudi king for understanding of the European Jews’suffering and their need
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for a haven in Palestine. Unable to understand the justice of giving the Jews Arab land rather than lands belonging to the defeated Germans who were the Jews’ oppressors, Abdul Aziz argued with Roosevelt that Palestine was not the place for the Jews. He was effective enough to wrest from Roosevelt an undertaking to consult fully with both Arabs and Jews on all Palestine decisions and to “do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs.” In early April, Roosevelt followed up with a letter to Abdul Aziz formally putting the seal of the presidency on the pledge.
Roosevelt was sending mixed signals by now, however, and may well have been deeply confused about the Palestine issue. On the one hand, he was clearly impressed by Abdul Aziz’s representations and on the plane home told Secretary of State Edward Stettinius that he wanted to meet with congressional leaders to “re-examine our entire policy in Palestine.” In an address to Congress he said he had learned more about “that whole problem, the Muslim problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.” On the other hand, Zionists in the United States were outraged by the meeting, and probably with some justification, for Abdul Aziz was accustomed to regaling anyone who would listen with lengthy anti-Jewish diatribes, and one may properly be suspicious of the notion that Roosevelt learned anything about “the Jewish problem” or very much of apositive nature about Arab aspirations from the Saudi king.
What may have most impressed Roosevelt was the forcefulness of Abdul Aziz’s hostility to a Zionist presence in Palestine. If he did not necessarily learn what the Arabs of Palestine wanted in a positive sense, he did come away with an understanding that trying to implement the Zionist program could well lead to war, and he tried to warn some U.S. Jewish leaders against a head-on collision, emphasizing in private his belief that establishing a Jewish homeland just then was impossible. At the same time, in response to Zionist complaints about the meeting with Abdul Aziz, he authorized Rabbi Wise to issue a public statement in March—midway between the meeting and the follow-up letter to Abdul Aziz—to the effect that he continued to support unlimited Jewish immigration and the establishment of a Jewish state.
The State Department had to scramble to explain away Roosevelt’s inconsistencies, lamely telling its Middle East posts that by authorizing Rabbi Wise’s statement Roosevelt really meant to indicate his hopes for the longterm future and that he still intended to consult both Arabs and Jews before making any decisions. In the event, Roosevelt died only days later, and his successor, Harry Truman, was easily able to ignore any commitments
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to consult seriously with Arabs. The incident demonstrates, however, the basic ignorance in which the United States operated in this period: ignorance of the precise British promises to Jews and Arabs, ignorance of who among the Arabs should properly speak for the Arabs of Palestine, ignorance not only of how an off-hand pledge to consult with the Arabs would affect domestic U.S. politics but of how seriously it would be taken by the Arabs.
The Arabs did little to raise the level of knowledge and sophistication among U.S. policymakers and to bring their perspective to the attention of the public. As in an earlier period, neither the people nor the politicians were exposed to the Arab viewpoint via direct lobbying or through books and newspapers. One former State Department official describes the Arab propaganda effort during the 1940s as “pitiful”; it was 1945 before an Arab Information Office was opened in Washington, D.C. It was also 1945 before an Arab leader argued the Palestinian Arab case at high levels of the U.S. government—and then only at Roosevelt’s invitation. The fact that Roosevelt thought to discuss Palestine with the king of Saudi Arabia rather than with any Arab from Palestine says as much about the Arabs’ ineffectiveness in putting forth their position and in organizing themselves inside Palestine as it does about U.S. understanding of the issues involved. Not only did the Arabs of Palestine do little to present their case to the U.S. public or political leadership, but virtually every aspect of their behavior in the late 1930s and early 1940s reinforced the already prevalent image of Arabs as militant, politically unsophisticated, and unfit for self-government.
Numerous factors contributed to this impression. Most significant was the image of the Palestinian Arabs’ principal leader, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini. Although, contrary to the common perception, Husseini had played a moderate role and cooperated with the British throughout the first half of the Mandate, frustration over the growing strength of the Zionists and the Arabs’ inability to influence Britain radicalized him by the mid-1930s. He became embittered and inflexible when the British forced him into exile in 1937 for his role in the Arab Revolt of 1936–1939, a countrywide rebellion against British rule and against vastly increased Jewish immigration. So hostile to the British that he threw in his lot with the Axis powers, the Mufti spent the last several years of the war in Germany assisting Nazi propaganda efforts through radio broadcasts to the Arab world and attempts to stir up further Arab rebellion against Britain. His actions were never very effective, and he never participated in atrocities against the Jews, but in acting out his frustration and anger with the British he all but irretrievably damaged the Arab image, seeming to
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lend substance to Zionist and later Israeli claims that Palestinians wanted the destruction of all Jews.
Britain and the Zionists vilified the Mufti as a Nazi collaborator with the “blood of millions of Jews” on his hands. Philip Mattar, the Mufti’s foremost biographer, has concluded that although the Zionists, eager to prove him guilty of war crimes, have exaggerated his connections with the Nazis, the Mufti himself and many of his defenders were “so busy justifying his statements and actions in the Axis countries that they ignored the obvious and overwhelming fact that the Mufti had cooperated with the most barbaric regime in modern times.”
To the extent that Americans knew anything about the Mufti and his policies, they knew him asaradical, not as there a so nable leader he had been when he was trying to win his country’s independence from a colonial power and preserve his society from what Arabs perceived to be a massive influx of European settlers. Even the Arab Revolt, so similar to the intifada, the West Bank—Gaza uprising of the late 1980s, and like the intifada constituting a plea for freedom from foreign domination, had no impact on Americans. In the absence of the kind of television coverage that brought the intifada to everyone’s living room and gained the Palestinians considerable sympathy in the United States and the West, the Arab Revolt went almost unnoticed in the United States
Moreover, the revolt and Britain’s harsh response took a heavy toll on the Arabs’ economy, society, and political structure, from which they never fully recovered. Over three thousand Arabs were killed and thousands were arrested—huge numbers out of a population of under a million. More seriously, Britain’s exile or arrest of the entire local Arab political leadership during the revolt left the Arabs in political disarray. Even a decade later, they were unable to recover any semblance of unity and no new political leadership emerged, lending credence to the widespread belief that Arabs were incapable of governing themselves. The lack of credible political institutions at a time when issues of statehood and local self-governance were at the top of the political agenda was all the more striking when juxtaposed with the Zionists’ highly organized local administration in Palestine.
In the absence of an effective leadership of their own, the Palestinian Arabs came during the 1940s to depend heavily on the Arab states for political guidance, and this dependence in turn reinforced the widespread belief, a notion being heavily promoted by the Zionists, that for all intents and purposes all Arabs were interchangeable—that Palestine was not a distinct political entity, that Palestinians had no separate nationalism, and that they could therefore easily be absorbed elsewhere in the Arab world, leaving the
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small piece of land that was Palestine to the Jews. Few Americans in the mid-1940s understood that local Palestinian nationalism was a phenomenon that had existed in some form for decades. Even the Zionist leadership in Palestine, although living alongside the Palestinian Arabs and in frequent contact with them, refused to acknowledge their sense of nationalism. As one scholar notes, the Zionists “had little comprehension that the Arabs’ ties to Palestine were as profound as their own and would beguarded as zealously.” That Americans did not appreciate Palestinian nationalism either is hardly surprising.
As World War II was ending, the inability of the Arabs of Palestine to speak for themselves and enunciate clearly a goal that was specific to Palestine and not rooted in pan-Arabism became critical. During this period the Jews’ situation was most pressingly in need of solution, and the Zionists had given up vague formulas for “homelands” and “commonwealths” and begun openly to press for establishment of a definitive “state.” The Arabs’ indecisiveness about who spoke for Palestine and whether Palestine was an entity distinct from the Arab states or part of the “greater Arab nation,” made it difficult for the United States to distinguish a Palestinian from a Syrian from a Saudi Arabian. The Arab states did not help the situation. Pan-Arabists, particularly in Syria, had always seen Palestine as part of “Greater Syria” and did not have a clear sense of Palestine as a distinct entity. Transjordan’s King Abdullah had visions of a broader hegemony as well and was being quietly but actively encouraged by Britain and the Zionists to prepare to absorb any part of Palestine left outside a future Jewish state.
Thus, as the struggle for Palestine approached a critical stage at the end of World War II and the drive for Jewish statehood gathered steam, U.S. policymakers had virtually no concept of the strength of Palestinian attachment to the land, little notion that even without a leadership the Arabs of Palestine felt and professed a distinctly Palestinian nationalism, and little understanding that their struggle was as much a nationalist struggle as it was an anti-Zionist one.
This conclusion begs the question of whether a concerted effort by the Arabs of Palestine to bring their position to the attention of the United States could have made a significant difference. The answer has to be no. Certainly a more skillful Arab propaganda effort and a better organized leadership would have forced on U.S. policymakers some awareness of Palestinian concerns—of the danger of completely excluding Palestinians from the frame of reference in which policy was made. But it is extremely doubtful that, given the circumstances, this awareness would have been
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enough to alter the course of events. Everything militated against the Palestinians obtaining a hearing: the frame of reference that automatically assumed a Jewish place in Palestine and assumed the Arab claim to be inferior was so deeply rooted in a century of orientalist literature and anti-Arab stereotyping that little could have fundamentally altered it; the Jews of Europe had suffered horrific persecution and urgently needed a refuge somewhere; U.S. Zionist activists were highly skilled, extremely well organized, and well connected at high levels of the policymaking establishment and the Congress, and they represented a segment of the U.S. population several times the size of the small Arab American population; and even the Arab states were conspiring to undercut Palestinian nationalist claims. Against this combination, a more charismatic Palestinian leader or a more clever public-relations effort would have had little impact.
One of the major factors in perpetuating the mind-set on Palestine in the Roosevelt era was simple policy inertia—the kind of inertia that follows past practice almost by rote and resists challenging or questioning accepted notions. Basic policy decisions, particularly ones that have little or no direct impact on U.S. interests, often tend to become cast in concrete, forming a fundamental body of policy that is never questioned and, essentially through inertia, never changes. Thus did U.S. support for the formation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, enunciated almost carelessly as a favor to an ally in wartime and to political colleagues at home in 1917, become an unalterable and unassailable pillar of policy ever after. Even by the time of Roosevelt’s election, but particularly by the end of World War II, the Jewish right to possess some or all of Palestine was assumed, with virtually no consideration given to the impact on the Arabs of Palestine.
Years after her husband’s death, Eleanor Roosevelt defined what had long before become the official American mind-set on the Palestine issue. Speaking during a trip to Damascus in 1952 to a group of Syrian reporters who questioned her about her support for Israel, she replied that U.S. support for the Balfour Declaration’s promise of a Jewish homeland had, from the beginning, “practically committed our government to assist in the creation of a government there eventually, because there cannot be a homeland without a government.” In retrospect, it became easy enough to acknowledge that in the minds of most U.S. and British policymakers the promise of a Jewish national home had all along been intended to lead to statehood.
In actuality, nothing the U.S. government did through the end of the Roosevelt era had much of a direct impact on the situation on the ground
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in Palestine. But the further reinforcement of the pro-Zionist frame of reference that occurred in this era had a profound effect in establishing a mind-set in the United States that made it relatively easy, when the time came in which U.S. policy decisions did have a direct effect, to ignore the Arabs and the impact Jewish statehood would have on them. If the United States had known more about the Arab viewpoint and had more direct responsibility for Palestine, U.S. policymakers might have reacted more nearly as the British did in recognizing that Arab aspirations had to be somehow accommodated. Because the United States knew little and had no responsibility, however, policymakers followed the lines of least resistance, responding to those who brought direct pressure on them and molding views and policies according to that perspective.
What if any difference a greater knowledge of the Palestinian Arab viewpoint might have made in the policy decisions taken with regard to Palestine in the United States, in Britain, and at the United Nations in the three years leading up to Israel’s creation is a moot point. But it is not unreasonable to assume that if the Palestinians had had a presence in the U.S. policymaking mind-set, their input in the decision-making process about Palestine might have been sought out and taken into account. Some partition arrangement for Palestine was undoubtedly inevitable, but the particular division ultimately decided on—which allotted to the Jewish state 55 percent of the land area of Palestine at a time when Jews made up one-third of the population—might have been different. A serious effort to consult the Arabs about their fate might also have produced in them a more compromising attitude. As it was, the Arabs of Palestine approached the international debate over dividing Palestinian land without either a voice in international councils or an opportunity for equal consideration.