Anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, circa 1946

The Arab world has a long history of cloaking a hatred of Jews in the noble garb of anti-colonialism

Seventy years ago this month, a committee of 12 scholars and statesmen completed an 80-page report that is all but forgotten today. The Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry Regarding the Problems of European Jewry and Palestine, consisting of six British and six American members, was a British idea.

Under pressure from President Harry Truman to allow 100,000 Jewish survivors in Europe’s DP camps to emigrate to the British Mandate, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin proposed the joint committee as a way to outflank the White House. Between January and March 1946, the Committee heard testimony in Washington, London, numerous sites in Europe, the Arab capitals, and Jerusalem. Bevin was sure that a sense of Britain’s strategic realities in the Middle East — its dependence on bases and oil for instance — would bring the US members to shy away from antagonizing the Arab world. To ensure the desired outcome, however, the British helped to establish a global anti-Zionist narrative that bled into anti-Semitism, all in the shadow of the Jewish world’s greatest catastrophe.

Jewish witnesses in Washington, London, Europe, and Jerusalem were aggressively cross-examined by British committee members. It was pointless, the British argued, for the Jews to rehash the recent history of pogroms or the Shoah. These were irrelevant. Rather, Jewish speakers had to show how more Jews could be put in Palestine without causing an uproar, and why most could not simply return to Poland, Romania, and so on. Thus in Washington, when Joseph Schwartz of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee discussed the recent Krakow pogrom to demonstrate that the Jewish place in Poland was over, British committee chairman Sir John Singleton laconically countered, “History shows, doesn’t it, that in every country where there has been persecution, the people have come back.” Even in Poland, after speaking with Adolf Berman, a former Warsaw Ghetto leader, British committee members asked “whether friction was being caused by returning Jews asking for restitution of their property.”

Similarly, British committee members lost patience with Jews who insisted that Palestine had the space and economic potential such that Arabs and Jews could live at peace. Economist Robert Nathan argued that a properly developed economy in Palestine could accommodate up to a million Jews, thus raising the living standard of everyone. “Is it your view,” Singleton asked, “that the acquisition of more land by the Jews would increase the friendship between Arabs and Jews? . . . [It] doesn’t seem that it would tend toward a solution.”

Singleton was especially tough on British Jews. He lectured British Zionist leader Sir Simon Marks that further Jewish development in Palestine would lead to another war, “and if it did result in trouble, the course having been taken at the request of the Jews, do you think that . . . the lot of the Jews would be happier than it was in the last [war]?” Marks answered: “It could not be worse.”

To ensure that the Arab world was properly heard, the committee solicited Arab testimony in Washington, London, Cairo, Jerusalem, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Riyadh. Arab speakers attempted to straddle a moral line. Overt anti-Semitism was to be avoided. The Nazis, after all, had recently discredited racism. Instead, they attempted to turn the tables, attacking Zionism as an imperialist and racist political doctrine, very much akin to Nazism itself. Keeping the Jews from Palestine thus was painted as a noble act of tolerance in a post-imperial world.

But the imagined line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitic tropes could not be maintained. Representatives of the Institute for Arab American Affairs, an organization founded in the US in 1944 to counter so-called Jewish propaganda there, testified in Washington. Princeton Professor Philip Hitti testified that “political Zionism is the rankest kind of imperialism.” The Institute’s director, Khalil Totah, added that trouble caused by Zionism “has spread just like the plague, just like the measles, and just like any other disease.” The Cairo hearings in March 1946 were more carefully choreographed. Richard Crossman, a British member of the Committee remembered that “[the] Arabs were determined not to submit to the detailed cross-questioning, which we had used in dealing with the Zionist spokesman. Their purpose was to deliver to the Committee, as a ritual act, a statement of the Arab attitude, and to make it clear to us that this statement could not be modified. . . .” Thus Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia — a country where the Nazis had persecuted and murdered Jews just three years earlier — insisted that “[It] is for the Jews to change themselves, to change certain contentions that they hold which make them offensive sometimes to the locality where they live.”

Yet the climax of the committee’s work came in Jerusalem. For much of March 1946, committee members heard testimony while touring Jewish settlements and Arab towns. They listened to Zionist leaders such as Chaim Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett, and Golda Meir, all of whom pressed for liberalized immigration, and all of whom predicted that Jews and Arabs would live together in a Jewish state while raising political and economic standards throughout the Middle East. But also there — in spirit anyway — was the grand mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war and who was now living in exile in Paris. His cousin Jamal testified in his stead. “Anti-Semitism,” Jamal insisted, “is really our calamity . . . because had there been no anti-Semitism . . . the Jews would not have come to Palestine.” He compared Ben-Gurion’s testimony to “hearing Hitler from beyond the grave.” When asked what might happen should the British quit the Mandate, Jamal answered obliquely that “the whole situation will be turned to what it had been before the First World War.” Other Arab speakers played their part. Ahmad al-Shuqayri, later the first chairman of the PLO, lamented Jewish control of the global media and economy: “We have not the gigantic financial enterprises of Wall Street in New York and the City of London to lure consciences and direct minds.” Albert Hourani, later a distinguished historian, said there could be no compromise with the Jews. No more could come; those remaining had to behave as a docile minority or leave.

Following three months of travel and testimony, the committee retreated to Lausanne, where for three weeks in April, they hammered out their report. It was officially published on May 1, 1946, but the outlines leaked earlier. The British members had expected joint recommendations for continued immigration restrictions and the dismantling of the Jewish Agency and the Haganah. Yet the US members — impressed by the urgency of Jewish survivors, Jewish development in Palestine, and Arab intransigence — insisted that Truman’s call for 100,000 immigration certificates for Palestine be honored, and they threatened to leave and write their own report if the recommendation was not made. To preserve Anglo-American unity, the British angrily agreed, thus ending the tight restrictions on immigration imposed by the 1939 White Paper. Or so it seemed. London postponed implementation under a blizzard of delays, procedural requirements, and imagined political solutions. Illegal immigration and Jewish insurgency in Palestine intensified. As its hold on Palestine weakened over the next months and into 1947, London turned Palestine over to the UN.

In the meantime, the committee’s work is worth remembering. For three months, most everyone who was anyone with a stake in Palestine provided extensive written and spoken opinions on the Jewish plight in Europe, the Zionist project, and great power politics in the Middle East. These are telling testimonies indeed for divining how Jews, Arabs, and strategic thinkers imagined the confluence of the Jewish Question and Middle Eastern politics in the wake of the Holocaust itself. Yet the furor with which the Arab world greeted the report is also telling. On the report’s publication, the US legation in Damascus received anonymous death threats. Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli excused his countrymen to the US minister George Wadsworth: “We fear,” he explained, “the great influence wielded by Jews everywhere, notably [in the] United States. [C]an you not see that, while Muslims and Christians can work together, it is abnormal that either should make common cause with Jews? They have always been troublemakers; our Koran inveighs against them specifically.”

Even as Adolf Hitler’s top subordinates were being tried at Nuremberg, a new blend of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was taking hold elsewhere. All who adopted it had their reasons. For London, the fusion was a pragmatic answer to an insoluble and frustrating political constellation; for the Arab world it explained, or seemed to, everything from Jewish misery in Europe to what were still, in retrospect, modest changes in the Middle East. Yet the confluence of Holocaust-minimization (and now denial), the blaming of the Jews themselves for anti-Semitism, and the dressing of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the noble garb of anti-colonialism and anti-nationalism has deep roots indeed.

Norman J.W. Goda is the Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida. He is the lead editor of To the Gates of Jerusalem: The Diaries and Papers of James G. McDonald, 1945-1947 (Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014).

About the Author
Norman J.W. Goda is the Norman and Irma Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Florida. His most recent book is The Holocaust: Europe, the World, and the Jews, 1918-1945, 2nd ed, appearing in April 2022
Related Topics
Related Posts