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History, The British Mandate Period

UNSCOP, partition plan, Yishuv, Zionist movement, Balfour Declaration

In July 1922 the League of Nations, an alliance of world powers formed in 1920 to preserve peace, issued a mandate granting control over Palestine to Britain, entrusting it to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home. Encouraged by British support of the Zionist cause, waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Palestine between 1919 and 1939, each contributing to the developing Jewish community (Yishuv). About 35,000 came between 1919 and 1923, mainly from Russia. These pioneers laid the foundations of a comprehensive social and economic infrastructure, developed agriculture, established kibbutzim and moshavim, and provided labor for construction of housing and roads. Another 60,000 Jews, primarily from Poland, arrived between 1924 and 1932. This group developed and enriched urban life. These immigrants settled and established businesses in Tel Aviv (now part of Tel Aviv-Yafo), Haifa, and Jerusalem. As German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power, about 144,000 Jews, primarily from Germany, immigrated to Palestine in the early 1930s to escape increasingly ruthless persecution. Increased momentum internationally of the Zionist movement, combined with economic recession in Europe, brought thousands more Jews from elsewhere in Western and Central Europe to Palestine in the late 1930s. Many were professionals and academics whose education, skills, and experience raised business standards, improved urban and rural life, and broadened the community’s cultural life.

The mandate authorities allowed Jewish and Arab communities to run their own internal affairs. The Jewish community elected a self-governing assembly, which in turn elected a council to implement its policies and programs. Financed by local resources and funds raised by worldwide Jewish organizations, these bodies developed and maintained a network of educational, religious, health, and social services for the Jewish population. Meanwhile the Jewish Agency, established by the mandate, handled matters of immigration, settlement, and economic development. The Arab Executive, a coalition of leading Muslim and Christian Arabs against Zionism, handled political, administrative, and economic affairs of the Arab community until 1934, when more activist groups emerged.

Through the 1920s and 1930s economic and cultural development of the country gained momentum. Yishuv leaders expanded agriculture, established factories, set up hydroelectric facilities on the Jordan River, built new roads throughout the country, and began tapping the mineral resources of the Dead Sea. The Histadrut (General Federation of Labor) advanced workers’ welfare and provided employment by setting up cooperative industrial enterprises and marketing services for the communal agricultural settlements. Art, music, theater, and dance developed gradually with the establishment of professional schools and studios. Galleries and halls were set up for exhibitions and performances. The Hebrew language became one of three official languages of the mandated area; it was used for documents, coins and stamps, and radio broadcasts. Publishing and Hebrew literary activity flourished.

During the mandate the British realized that their World War I promises to the Jews and Arabs had led to conflicting expectations of the two communities in Palestine: Each community felt entitled to the territory. Anti-Jewish attacks occurred in Jerusalem and elsewhere in the 1920s. Attempting to placate both communities, Britain issued periodic policy statements that reaffirmed support for a Jewish national home but also limited Jewish immigration and land purchases. But the Arabs, viewing any British support of Jewish statehood as a threat to Arab independence, continued demonstrations, protests, and attacks on the Jewish community. Arab resistance culminated in a full-scale revolt between 1936 and 1939. Britain issued a policy statement called a White Paper in 1939 imposing drastic restrictions on Jewish immigration and providing for the establishment within ten years of a single independent state with Jewish and Arab government participation in proportion to the population. Zionists, who saw the White Paper as a reversal of the Balfour Declaration and a denial of mandate obligations, emphatically rejected the document.

During World War II (1939-1945) the Nazi regime carried out a systemic plan to murder the European Jewish population. As German armies swept through Europe, Jews were herded into ghettos and eventually transported to concentration camps. Experts estimate that between 5.6 million and 5.9 million Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis by the end of the war. During the war the United States became a center of Zionist activity. A Zionist conference in New York in May 1942 resulted in the Biltmore Program, which rejected British restrictions, called for the fulfillment of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate, and urged the establishment of Palestine as a Jewish commonwealth. Nevertheless, British restrictions on Jewish immigration continued throughout the war and intensified in the years after. The Jewish community responded by instituting a network of illegal immigration activities. Between 1945 and 1948 about 85,000 Holocaust survivors were brought to Palestine by secret immigration routes.

Exhausted by the war, Britain sought to reassess its position and policy in Palestine and other locations in the mid-1940s. After efforts to negotiate with the Arabs and the Zionists, the British government referred the Palestine issue to the United Nations in February 1947. After extensive evaluation of the situation, the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) proposed that the territory of the British mandate west of the Jordan River be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states with Jerusalem under international control. On November 29, 1947, the UN adopted a partition plan. Both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics voted in favor, while Britain abstained. Zionists reluctantly accepted the plan as the best resolution they could expect given political circumstances, but the Arab world denounced and rejected it. The Arabs felt that the UN had no right to make such a decision and that Arabs should not be made to pay for Europe’s crimes against the Jews. Fighting in Palestine escalated rapidly in the months after the plan was adopted.

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