One hundred years ago, Rabbi Harris Cohen ushered in the children attending the Stoke Newington Sunday morning cheder, called for quiet and told them: ‘‘Palestine is our land again. God’s promise to our fathers thousands of years ago is being fulfilled in our days!’’
The Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers had passed a resolution on April 25, 1920 at the San Remo conference in Italy. Attended by the prime ministers of Britain, France, Italy and Japan, it conferred the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine on the British.
It effectively verified the controversial Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which had been kept secret from both Jews and Arabs and formulated plans for the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of the Allied victory in the First World War.
The Zionists were delighted because the Balfour Declaration had been legalised through the incorporation into the text of the treaty despite the objections of the French. Although borders had not been determined, the French had been kept out of the Holy Land and accepted instead the Mandate for Syria and Lebanon.
The Arabs were less than amused. They felt betrayed and that the wartime promises made to them had been tossed aside. The imperial powers had reaped the spoils of war and divided up the Middle East between themselves.
A month before, the Hashemite Prince Faisal had been proclaimed King of a Greater Syria that included Palestine, Lebanon and Trans-Jordan. The French subsequently defeated the Syrian army with great ease at the battle of Maysalun and Faisal went into exile in London.
The British Zionists were euphoric and proclaimed a ‘‘Week of Redemption’’. Rebecca Sieff told the Federation of Women Zionists that ‘‘we are living in days of the greatest political achievement since the days of the dispersion’’. The Union Jack and the Zionist blue-and-white flag were hung side by side on many a building housing Jewish organisations.
The year, however, had been a difficult one for the Jewish settlers in Palestine because the first militant Arab protests against the plans to divide up the Middle East and to perpetuate the presence of the British and the French in the region had taken place.
In the north, there had been attacks on the settlements at Metullah, Kfar Giladi, Hamra and Tel Hai. While Jabotinsky advised that they should be abandoned, Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson were strongly opposed. Tel Hai was attacked by Shi’ites from southern Lebanon and the legendary military figure of Yosef Trumpeldor, a commander of the Zion Mule Corps and a founder of the Jewish Legion, was killed. Only then were the settlements temporarily evacuated.
In Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, later the Mufti, proclaimed Faisal’s sovereignty over Palestine and sparked the Nebi Musa disturbances that took nine lives and around 250 injured, the majority of whom were Jews.
Chaim Weizmann, about to depart for the San Remo conference, was bitter about the British response — there were just 27 policemen in Jerusalem. In a letter to his wife, he called them "wolves and jackals".
Jabotinsky attempted to form a self-defence organisation to protect the Jews and was arrested for his trouble. Sentenced to 15 years imprisonment on the same day that the conference opened, the injustice meted out to Jabotinsky infuriated the Jewish world. Questions were asked in the House of Commons. The Jewish Chronicle called the sentence ‘‘a piece of savage viciousness’’ while the Manchester Guardian labelled him ‘‘the Jewish Garibaldi’’.
In a sermon on the last day of Pesach, Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, told the congregants in Jerusalem’s Hurvah synagogue that ‘‘as long as our sons, the defenders of our women and children are under arrest — we are all under arrest.’’ On the day after the resolution at the San Remo conference, the rabbinate declared a day of fasting and a stoppage of work in support of Jabotinsky and 19 others, now in Acre prison.
The original Zionist map had included part of Lebanon up to the Litani River and south of Sidon. The French, however, were keen to retain northern Palestine. General Allenby actually agreed to withdraw British troops to a line drawn between Akhziv and Lake Hula. This would have meant the transfer of all water resources and Jewish settlements to the French. Weizmann’s protest prevented this, but a few months after the San Remo conference, the French proposed a redrawing of the borders — this time allocating all the water resources to French-controlled Syria while ensuring that the Jewish settlements remained in British Palestine.
The approximate border between the mandated territories was agreed by the British and the French in December 1920. Despite the initial opposition of the new Foreign Secretary, Lord Curzon, the French, and the Italians, a mention of the historical connection of the Jews to the Land of Israel was now incorporated into the final agreement. Other contentious points were gradually ironed out during the succeeding years.
The British Mandate had originally included Trans-Jordan which was hived off at the Cairo Conference in March 1921 and established as an emirate under Faisal’s brother Abdullah — the great-grandfather of the present King of Jordan. A few months later, Faisal was proclaimed King in Baghdad by the British, who also held the Mandate for Iraq. Such political moving of the furniture solidified the state borders of the modern Middle East, but undoubtedly caused problems for the future. Religious Zionists always looked to biblical interpretations of the borders while nationalists such as Menachem Begin bemoaned the loss of ‘‘the East Bank’’ to the Hashemites of Jordan.
Days after the San Remo conference, Lloyd-George told Sir Herbert Samuel that he wanted him to become the first High Commissioner of British-ruled Palestine. While certainly a ‘‘Jewish Jew’’, Samuel had never shown much interest in Zionism until Turkey entered the war in November 1914. Now, he spoke to cabinet colleagues about ‘‘the fulfilment of the ancient aspiration of the Jewish people and the restoration there of a Jewish state’’. A leading stalwart of the Liberal party, he identified strongly with the Zionist cause. His visit to the Holy Land in early 1920, just before the San Remo conference, however, demonstrated to him the complexity of the Palestine conundrum. The disturbances and riots were evidence of a nascent Palestinian Arab nationalism.
The British military in Palestine were aghast when they heard about Lloyd-George’s offer to Samuel. General Bols wrote to General Allenby in May 1920 that the people of Palestine know that ‘‘a British Jew is a Jew first and a Britisher afterwards… I fear that British Christian officers will not be found to take service under a Jewish government’’. A sentiment characterised by the Zionist leader, Harry Sacher, as coloured by the mentality of ‘‘antisemitic public schoolboys’’.
Chaim Weizmann, however, convinced Sir Herbert Samuel to accept the post despite his profound reluctance to do so because of such public perceptions of him. In the event, Samuel’s tenure in Palestine proved that his first loyalty was to the Crown and he was often the subject of bitter criticism from Weizmann, Jabotinsky and many other Zionists.
The San Remo conference proved to be a landmark in the onward march towards the establishment of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel. Lloyd-George had told Weizmann after the San Remo resolution that it now all depended on him. Weizmann understood very well the historical significance and, a few weeks later, addressed the annual conference of the Zionist Federation in London and told the delegates: ‘‘We stand before you with a declaration of independence in our hands, the independence of Eretz Israel and the Jewish people’’.
The place of the Jews in history was about to become irrevocably changed.