This week marks the centenary of the 1920 San Remo conference, one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Jewish people. This meeting, and the resolution that it subsequently produced, laid the true legal foundations of Jewish statehood and self determination. Yet it is little known about today, even among Jewish communities. It is time to put the historical record straight.
To understand Israel’s legal basis, one must go back to the international settlement that was put in place after the First World War. The League of Nations, whose primary founder was US President Woodrow Wilson, came into being in January 1920 and one of its guiding principles was the idea of self determination – that nations had the right to rule themselves and determine their destiny rather than being governed by a foreign power.
Article 22 of the League’s Covenant called for the national independence of people living in territories that were previously under Ottoman Turkish and German control, including Palestine. However, in somewhat patronising fashion, the League deemed that the ‘tutelage of such peoples’ should be entrusted to other nations as they were not deemed advanced enough to claim immediate independence.
At the San Remo conference, it was agreed that Britain would be responsible for putting into effect the Balfour Declaration, which included a homeland for the Jewish people and a guarantee of civil and religious rights to Palestine’s non-Jewish community.
The implications were momentous. Jews were no longer just seen as individuals of a specific faith. Instead they were a people who deserved the collective right of self determination and in their ancestral land. Moreover, self determination was vested in the Jewish people as a whole, not just the small remnant of world Jewry then present in Palestine. It was they who became the “national beneficiary of the Mandate or Trust” and effective “sovereign owner of Palestine.”
Quite rightly, Lord Curzon heralded the San Remo resolution as ‘the Magna Carta for the Zionists.’ It was international law’s grand hechsher for Jewish national self determination. San Remo and the subsequent British mandate also recognised crucially that the right of Jewish self determination was grounded in their long standing relationship with the country.
As the 1922 mandate clearly stated, recognition was given to ‘the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine’ while the Jews would be ‘reconstituting their national home’ in the country.
Some accuse the San Remo participants of engaging in a colonialist stitch up, prioritising Zionist aspirations ahead of Palestinian ones. There is no truth to this assertion. San Remo initiated instead a process of decolonisation whereby a multitude of Arab states were carved out from the Ottoman Empire, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.
The vast majority of the Ottoman land mass was given over to Arab national movements. In Greater Syria, of which Palestine was a part, claims for self determination also proceeded and it was only right that the Jews were allocated their ‘small notch’, as Lord Balfour famously put it. That small notch became an even smaller notch in 1922 when three quarters of mandate Palestine was carved out to create the new state of Transjordan (later the Kingdom of Jordan).
Moreover, the mandates decided at San Remo were then submitted to the Council of the League of Nations for ratification. In 1922, over 50 members of the League, including most of the world’s major powers, approved the Palestine mandate, giving it an indelible legal stamp.
All of this matters because, too often, commentators, critics and politicians assail the legal foundations of Israel in the most vehement tones. They suggest that the Jewish state is based on no more than outdated biblical promises, imperialist machinations and violent militarism. They argue that Israel is an international pariah, devoid of legitimacy.
San Remo tells us clearly that these claims are baseless, malicious and immoral. Let us therefore remember a centenary which represented a truly bright spot in twentieth century international relations.