A Clear-eyed American View of Palestine in 1939

Israel’s detractors would have you believe that U.S. support for the establishment of Israel, and the special relationship that has evolved in the succeeding decades, is something new, contrary to U.S. interests and a sole function of the mythically omnipotent Jewish lobby. This is nonsense.

A few months ago a correspondent sent me an interesting historical document that sheds some light on the attitudes of Americans, and members of Congress, nearly a decade before the establishment of Israel. It displays a sophisticated understanding of the Jewish people’s connection to their homeland that today’s propagandists seek to erase.

The following excerpt is from a speech given July 6, 1939, by Massachusetts Congressman John William McCormack (1891-1980) on a ‘Jewish Homeland’ in Palestine. McCormack, a Democrat who later served as Speaker of the House, criticized the 1939 British White Paper restricting Jewish immigration and praised the achievements of the Jews in Palestine.

When the Balfour declaration was issued, it was not intended to establish another ghetto in Palestine. To add to what has already been quoted on this subject, President Wilson’s statement of March 5, 1919, found in the Palestine Royal Commission’s report on page 34, ought to make this matter clear to Americans. President Wilson said:

I am persuaded that the Allied Nations, with the fullest concurrence of our Government and people, are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundation of a Jewish commonwealth.

The Jewish population of Palestine has grown from 55,000 in 1918 to its present figure of 450,000. The Arab population has risen from 400,000 in 1920 to about 950,000, an increase of over 50 percent in 17 years. Under Turkish rule the population was almost stationary.

From all this it follows that since the Jewish population will not be allowed to increase by more than 75,000, and since there will be no restriction placed upon Arab immigration, the Jewish National Home will soon be swamped by the surrounding non-Jewish population, and Jews will properly feel that they have been led into a trap by promises that they would be able to build up a commonwealth, and instead find themselves an ever-decreasing minority, subject, as in Europe, to the whims of an often unfriendly or hostile majority.

McCormack also recognized the dangers minorities faced in the region – Jews and Christians.

Technical protection that is given the Jewish homeland may very well turn out to be of no more value than the proverbial scrap of paper. Minority rights have come to be a phrase without any real meaning. Jews have had ample experience in this direction.

There is precedent for believing that a minority in an Arab-dominated Palestine would not fare well, regardless of what form their legal rights might take. There is the glaring example of what has occurred to the Assyrians in the neighboring country of Iraq. The Assyrians are a remnant of that proud race which once ruled Mesopotamia. Their ancestors established the great empires of that region. Greatly reduced in numbers, they occupied territory in the kingdom of Iraq. Unlike the great majority of the inhabitants of that country, they are Christians whose Christianity dates back to the second or third century. They have suffered terrible persecutions on account of their religion for centuries, but it was under the kingdom of Iraq that they faced extermination. The interference of the League of Nations saved a small remnant of 10,000, who are now living in Syria, and these people are disturbed at what may happen to them when France leaves Syria and they are again a small minority in an Arab state.

It is idle to suggest that if the British could remain in Palestine they would be able to protect Jewish rights. The British were still in Iraq and were unable to save the Assyrians. It is too slender a thread upon which a people can hope to continue its existence. If the world is in earnest regarding its promise to the Jewish people, and the acceptance of the mandate by 52 nations includes most of the world, then the least that can be done is to permit the work of building the Jewish National Home in Palestine upon the firm foundation of the provisions of the mandate.

Although it is not directly connected with the discussion of the Jewish homeland, it might be well to point out to the Christian Arabs of Palestine that they should consider seriously this experience of the Christian Assyrians in the neighboring Iraq. The Palestine Christians are a minority, a much smaller and a much weaker minority than the Jews of Palestine. It does not seem to be the height of good judgment and good tactics for the Christian Arabs of Palestine to be the forefront of this struggle to bring about the Mohammedan domination of Palestine.

One of the nonsensical arguments promulgated by the British was the notion of the “absorptive capacity” of Palestine. This was used as an excuse for limiting Jewish immigration at a time when the Jewish population was 450,000. Their lack of imagination could not have foreseen modern Israel with its population of more than 8 million. McCormack, however, saw through the British argument:

One of the arguments advanced for the curtailment of Jewish immigration into Palestine is that the country is already overcrowded. This was the tenor of a report by Sir Hope Simpson as far back as 1930. The government at that time rejected this report, and time has shown that this rejection was correct, as 150,000 Jews and an equal number of Arabs have entered the country since that time, and there are still large stretches of vacant land in the country capable of development and settlement by large population.

The Jewish development of the country has demonstrated as correct the figures on population possibilities of Palestine as set out in the Zionist declaration, submitted to the peace conference. This document reads as follows:

The population of Palestine in the days of Christ, before the present scientific methods of cultivation were thought of, and when the external trade was not comparable to that now enjoyed in Palestine, amounted to 4,000,000. Evidence was given at the peace conference that in the population of Lebanon, which resembled Palestine in many respects, had a density of 160 per square kilometer. The population of Palestine is only about 50 per square kilometer. On that basis there is room in Palestine for an increase of 3,000,000 without encroaching on the legitimate interests of the people who are now there. Italy, where the conditions are not unlike those of Palestine, in that it is a mountainous country with no minerals, has a population per square mile three times that of Palestine. On the Italian basis, Palestine ought to provide accommodation for a population of 4,000,000.

From this it is apparent that it is entirely within the bounds of possibilities to absorb within 1 year the 100,000 refugees which the Jewish Agency for Palestine says can be accommodated, and also the 10,000 refugee children for whom homes are already provided.

Finally, McCormack reminds us that support for the creation of Israel was not a thoughtless effort by imperialist nations to create an outpost in the Middle East — as Israel’s detractors today sometimes assert:

The establishment of the Jewish National Home has been endorsed by the 52 nations which approved the mandate. They acted after long and careful study. The American Congress unanimously adopted the Lodge-Fish resolution after an extended hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Five Presidents of the United States have spoken in unmistakenly [sic] glowing terms of the accomplishments of Jewish Palestine. American legislatures, including my own State of Massachusetts, have adopted resolutions favoring the reconstitution of the Jewish commonwealth. Distinguished Americans from all walks of life have expressed their approval of the work that Jews have done in Palestine toward the upbuilding [sic] of the Jewish homeland. All these responsible nations, high government officials, legislative bodies, and distinguished personalities have acted with great deliberation. It is impossible to believe that such a distinguished company can all be wrong.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

About the Author
Dr Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of the nonprofit American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) and a foreign policy analyst who lectures frequently on U.S.-Middle East policy. Dr. Bard is the director of the Jewish Virtual Library, the world's most comprehensive online encyclopedia of Jewish history and culture. He is also the author/editor of 24 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.
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