The British Mandate
After World War I, the Ottoman Empire lost control of many of its former territories, including Palestine. In July 1922, the League of Nations appointed Great Britain to oversee the Mandate for Palestine and to facilitate the establishment of “Palestine-Eretz Israel” (Land of Israel) as a national homeland for the Jewish people.
Later that year, all the territory situated east of the Jordan River, representing approximately 75 percent of the land, was removed from the mandate and subsequently became the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan.
The Balfour Declaration
England's intentions concerning Palestine were of considerable consequence in determining whether or not a Jewish state would be established in the region. These intentions had been outlined in a public letter from Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, to Lord Walter Rothschild, head of the English Jewish community, dated November 2, 1917. This document stated unequivocally that the British government supports “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and would help achieve this goal without disrupting the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, 85,000 Jews and over half a million Arabs lived in Palestine. Most Arabs did not want to share the land with the Jews; nor, for that matter, did neighboring Arab nations desire a Jewish country in their midst.
The Leadership of Chaim Weizmann
Although Balfour was already sympathetic to the Zionist cause, and many British politicians agreed to the idea of a Jewish state in principle, the final language of the letter was the subject of much debate. The person credited with securing the support of Lord Balfour as well as Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Lloyd George was Chaim Weizmann, who was aided by Herbert Samuel, a Jewish member of Parliament.
Chaim Weizmann was born in 1874 in Russia. After high school, he left for Germany in order to study chemistry. Eventually, his job as a professor of chemistry took him to the University of Manchester in England, and Weizmann applied for (and was granted) British citizenship. Weizmann became a Zionist in his youth, and he served as president of the World Zionist Organization for two terms (1920–1931 and 1935–1946). In 1949, Weizmann was honored for his contribution to the creation of the Jewish state with a nomination for the presidency of Israel. He served as the first president of Israel until his death in 1952.
The Jews Continue to Arrive in Palestine
After the end of World War I, even before the establishment of the British Mandate, Palestine saw the arrival of the next group of Jewish immigrants. The Third Aliyah (1919–1923) included about 40,000 Jews, who had come to join the 90,000 Jews already living in Palestine; almost all the new arrivals remained. At this time, the Jews formed the Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) and the clandestine Jewish defense organization, known as the Haganah.
During the British Mandate (1922–1948), the economy grew and cultural and educational institutions flourished. Both the Jewish and Arab communities were given autonomy regarding their internal affairs. The yishuv, as the Jewish community in Palestine was known, established an elected assembly and national council.
The Fourth Aliyah followed in 1924, and new settlers continued to arrive until 1929. This time, most of the arrivals were immigrants from Poland, victims of growing anti-Semitism who were denied entry into the United States. Consequently, many Jewish small-business owners and artisans chose Palestine as their destination, where they established commercial enterprises. During these years, about 82,000 Jews emigrated; about one-quarter returned.
The last wave of immigration before World War II is known as the Fifth Aliyah (1929–1939). The quarter-million Jews who arrived in Palestine with the Fifth Aliyah were fleeing Germany and Austria following the Nazi rise to power and subsequent anti-Semitic policies. Many of the German immigrants were professionals, and their talents and skills greatly improved the quality of life in the Jewish community. The German Jews participated in the establishment of new industries, construction of a port in Haifa, and construction of new towns and settlements. By the end of the Fifth Aliyah, 450,000 Jews were living in Palestine.
Peace Gives Way to Instability
For the first few years of the Mandate, peace and calm prevailed in the yishuv. At the helm was a charismatic man by the name of David Ben Gurion (1886–1973). Ben Gurion had come to Palestine from Poland in 1906, but he soon adapted to new surroundings and assumed a position of leadership.
Soon, Ben Gurion had to deal with the erupting violence against the Jews in Palestine. In 1929, the leader of the Arab populace, the Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, initiated riots and looting against the Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed. Without any protection from the British, several hundred Jews were wounded and over a hundred killed.
Ben Gurion employed diplomacy when he could but was not afraid to resort to armed resistance when he felt it necessary. His task was daunting. Not only was he faced with a British government growing more conciliatory to the Arab position, but the Arabs were united on two fronts to oppose the creation of a Jewish homeland.
The Jews could not readily defend themselves because Jewish self-defense forces had long been declared illegal by the British. Indeed, in 1920, when Vladimir Jabotinsky reacted to riots in the Galilee by organizing an armed group (a precursor of the Haganah), he and some of his men were arrested by the British and sentenced to imprisonment for fifteen years.
In 1936, al-Husseini organized the Arab leaders within Palestine into a military group, the Arab High Command. Outside the Mandate's territory, the Arab nations met in 1937 at the Pan Arab Conference and declared their unanimous opposition to a Zionist state.
Rioting against the Jews became widespread beginning in 1936. Violence and terrorist attacks by the Arabs were leveled at the yishuv and the British. In 1939, the British finally sanctioned the arming of the Haganah and acting together, the violence was quelled in 1939.
Nonetheless, the Arabs made their influence felt. The British issued a new White Paper in 1939 that restricted Jewish immigration to the yishuv to 75,000 for the following five-year period. This seemed to satisfy the Arabs, and calm was restored until 1947.