Things were not going well for the British and French in the “Great War” in 1917. The Russian army had disintegrated thanks to the communists, the French army had mutinied in 1916 and was extremely war weary, the English were living on a caloric intake barely above starvation level due to the German submarine warfare, the German units were streaming back from the Eastern front to reinforce the German units on the Western front. For the British getting the Americans in the war was the overriding objective. But how to do so….. as President Wilson had promised his people that he would never become in involved in the European war? The British banked on a way to influence Wilson using the pro-Zionist ( Jewish nationalist) sympathies of trusted advisors to the President. The British establishment was generally anti-zionist and frankly Judaeophobic(1) with the exception of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, and Lord Balfour. However in their prejudice toward the Jews the British leadership vastly overrated the power of world wide Jewish community and therefore believed they could influence Wilson through the Jewish connection. “The Jews were thought to dominate the Russian revolutionary movement and be among President Wilson’s most trusted advisors.” (Michael Cohen: The Arab Zionist Conflict.)
Moreover there was a rumor that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was about to announce his support for Jewish aspirations in Palestine. Therefore, ipso facto, the way to get the Americans in the war was to favor a” home” for the Jews in Palestine. There were many, many other factors involved of course, but this was the American connection to the famous or (infamous) Balfour declaration, announcing British support for “home”for the Jews in Palestine.(2) In this the British centered on two Jews in the Wilson circle of confidants, Chief Justice Louis Brandeis, and Henry Morganthau. How much this contributed to the Americans entering the war is probably minimal because the Germans in their usual blockheaded nature, torpedoed the passenger ship Lusitania, resulting in many American civilian deaths, and were accused of agitating the Mexicans to declare war against the United States in the Zimmerman Affair.
Israel since the creation of the state in 1948 Israel has been the center of Middle Eastern news. Almost every revolution, war, or terrorist event is somehow tied to Israel. Not that the issues are related in reality, but for simplicity sake ( and propaganda in many instances) somehow Israel pops up. Journalists, their editors, news source owners, know that their readers want it condensed and uncomplicated, the devil in the details is left out.
Thousands of books and articles have been produced on the “Palestine issue” many spilling over into vitriol and utter nonsense. Few are truly that informative. In this blog I intend to concentrate on the seemingly important but actually minor role the United States played in the formation and establishment of the Israeli state, ironic in view of the fact that in the Muslim world, Israel and the United States are seemingly irrevocably intertwined, certainly in the propaganda mills of the Arab, Iranian and radical Islamist world.
So what was our part in the creation of Israel? To begin with the United States ( with the exception of securing shipping lanes) had almost no interest in the Middle East. Among the first were trading and navigation treaties with the state of Oman going back two hundred years. Oman was the first Arab nation to recognize the United States and sent an envoy to Washington. In fact in typical Arab generosity the Sultan of Oman. gave gifts of a two lions, horses and exquisite jewelry to the president who could not accept them. The jewelry is in the Smithsonian museum in DC. There was also a attempted gift of black slaves which was graciously refused. ( Slavery in the Arab peninsula was legal until the 1920’s.)
Before that the US was involved in the first Barbary wars. It lasted on and off for four years. It ended in 1805 when the American Agent Willian Eaton and a detachment of Marines and native Berbers marched 500 miles from Egypt to overturn the Barbary States ruler. In 1812 at the encouragement of the British, then at war with the US, the Barbary pirates resumed attacking American merchant ships but in a short three-day war were put out of action by an American fleet.
In the 1830’s the primary interest in the Middle East was by protestant missionaries who sought to convert the Muslim inhabitants to Christianity, primarily in Syria and Lebanon. They were totally unsuccessful but did manage to woo some Maronites and Greek Orthodox Christians to Presbyterianism. As time went on they began to establish schools which evolved into totally secular institutions such as my post graduate alma matter , the American University of Beirut.
No Americans were among the list of early Middle East explorers and American knowledge 0f the region was minimal indeed. However the books by the early European explorers such as the Germans, Carsten Niebuhr, and the British, George Sandlier, Sir Richard Burton, William Palgrave , and Lady Ann Blunt did stimulate interest in the region.
The most well known American traveler to the Middle East in the mid 1860’s was Mark Twain, who evidenced a distinct aversion to most of what he saw in Syria and Palestine. In his book Innocents Abroad, he wrote “Magdala is not a beautiful place. It is thoroughly Syrian and that is to say it was thoroughly ugly, and cramped, squalid, uncomfortable and filthy.” Describing Jerusalem, he wrote, “Rags, wretchedness, poverty, and dirt, those signs, and symbols that indicate the presence of Muslim rule more surely than the Crescent flag abound.” He particularly used his sarcastic humors to ridicule thie earlier European. travelers to the areas who had described it in romantic, enthused phrases of admiration. Obviously the popularity of Mark Twain’s book did not encourage American public interest in the region.It took oil to do that. But that comes a bit later.
The American interest in the Middle East and Palestine during and after WWI began to be focussed on Palestine due to President Wilson’s fourteen points. One of those points was that the the mandate powers must ascertain the wishes of their subjects. President Wilson insisted on a commission to go to Syria and Palestine and get the peoples wishes. All the other main countries involved, Great Britain, France, Italy, and the Jewish Nationalists ( Zionists) opposed creating one. President Wilson, in addition to being an idealist was also an intractable man and sometimes guilty of megalomania. The commission ( Harry N. Howard: The King -Crane Commission) was created, which became known as the King-Crane Commission. Dr. Henry King was a professor at Oberlin college, and Charles Crane was a wealthy businessman. Neither knew much about the Arab world, however they had assigned to them Captain William Yale U.S. Army, who became far more important than his rank indicated. He spoke Arabic, had spent time as the American liaison officer with the famous Field Marshal the Viscount Allenby commanding the army that swept the Turks out of the Levant. Coming from a wealthy New York elite establishment family he hobnobbed with the best and brightest, including Lawrence of Arabia, wrote letters to high officials, diplomats and academics, including Elizabeth Monroe (Britain’s Moment in the Middle East; 1914-1956). He was very perceptive, an excellent analyst, and also an Arabophile. In the end the Commission’s report was generally anti-French, anti-British, and anti-zionist. Captain Yale found that almost every Arab, Christian or Muslim was against further Jewish immigration to Palestine and most wanted a greater Syria, encompassing Palestine. Yale also observed that there was no such thing as Palestinian nationalism. The report was buried but since resurrection has become an edifice in the Palestinian argument in the eternal conflict….whose land is Palestine. (Read James Parkes: Whose Land? and opposite somewhat polemical view, James Barr: Setting the Desert on Fire.
To digress a bit from the main subject here perhaps a quote from Elie Kedouri would get to the heart of the matter. “Islam has generally looked upon the Jews as a subject commodity docile and unwarlike, to be treated with contemptuous tolerance, and whom it is quite unthinkable to consider as political equals.” And as for the Zionists, “they knew little about the indigenous inhabitants inhabitants of Palestine, and looked down on them as backward, primitive and incompetent.” As Kedouri wrote, it was a matter of “mutual contempt.” It still is. ( Elie Kedouri: Arabic Political Memoirs).
Between the wars , the significant factor for American interest became oil. An American engineer, Karl Twitchell, working for the same Charles Crane of the famous King- Crane Commission, looking for water found oil, first in Bahrain and then Eastern Arabia. With the help of St John Philby,(3) famous British orientalist, and big friend of King Abdul Aziz bin Saud of Saudi Arabia, parlayed the find into what was to become The Arabian-American Oil Company ( ARAMCO) now know as Saudi Arabian Oil Company. The American fascination with automobiles led to a near total dependance on Saudi oil, better grade, and cheaper to produce and refine. This became accentuated with the entrance of the United States into WWII. (H. StJ. B. Philby: Arabian Jubilee). With the war the renewed significance of sea lane choke points became critical. As the massive American supply of war materials to the Soviet Union began, the Persian corridor to the Soviets became the safest and most expeditious manner of supply. “Once fully operational the Persian Gulf trans-Iranian. route delivered more aid to the Soviet Union than the better known arctic route.” (Ashley Jackson: Persian Gulf Command). It may be remembered that the arctic route to Murmansk was a killing zone for German aircraft and many American merchant mariners died to deliver war materiel to the unappreciative Soviets.
The importance of Palestine to American interests in oil and the Persian corridor were the growing importance of Pan Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Both were inflamed by adroit German propaganda and exploits of a number of German “Lawrences” who stirred up the Middle Eastern nationalists exploiting Islamic animosity toward Jews. The Palestinian issue was often central to this theme. The Grand Mufti of Palestine, Haj Husseini, “fused Islamist Jew-hatred with the modern conspiracy theories of Nazi and European anti-Semitism.” (Youssef Aboul -Enein and Basil Aboul -Enein: The Secret War for the Middle East.) The Mufti’s influence was paramount in the “Golden Square” Iraqi army revolt against the British in Iraq. Nazi influence was strong in Iran as well. The Shah of Iran was forced to abdicate because of alleged pro-German sympathies.
The result of the above was that the allies in order maintain the continued flow of oil and keep the sea lanes open became less amenable to Zionist aspirations. This was true of the American policy makers as well. King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud was courted by President Roosevelt and Colonel William Eddy, USMC( retired) a became a close confidant of the King.(4)The British and American Middle East scholars and experts constantly bewailed the problem of Palestine as working against the Allied war effort. Writing of a report she was sending to the British government the famous explorer and Arabist, Freya Stark, wrote “…..I feel I must add the usual wail to my report-namely the Palestine question lies at the root of all our problems.” (Freya Stark: Dust in the Lions Paw)
During the war, many in the American government were adamantly against the creation of a Jewish state, foremost among these were Edward R. Stettinius,a businessman of considerable talent rising to become a close confidant of Roosevelt, and James Forestall the Secretary of War. Stettinius become secretary of State in December 1944. In his memoirs he recalls the strong support of Jewish congressmen and senators to establish a national state for the Jews. Fearful of disruption of oil supplies and another Arab-Jewish war Roosevelt convinced the congressman to temporarily shelve the idea. Later in his memoirs he felt that Roosevelt believed that Palestine should be for the Jews and not Arabs. Fed with a steady diet of dire warnings from his people in the state department and the intelligence community, Stettinius was adamantly anti-zionist. James Forrestal our first secretary of defense was even more adamant in his rejection of Zionism. Forrestal wrote, ” America has lost prestige in the Arab world by our attitude on Israel.” James Fortestal: The Forrestal Dairies.One Arab source claimed that his lack of influence in the matter led to his suicide. That was not likely however. He had a history of depression and the Washington political war games was alien to his nature. (Edward Stettinius Jr: The Diaries of Edward Stettnius Jr. 1943-1946.) The eminence grise of the American Foreign Service, George F. Kennan was even more emphatic about the Zionist state. He wrote in his memoirs that this country’s greatest follies were, ” involving ourselves with Israel and tolerating the nationalization of the oil fields…” George F. Kennan: The Kennan Diaries.
The final denouement of this saga belongs to President Harry Truman. He was besieged and irritated by constant Zionist pressures to recognize the state of Israel, and on the other hand, dreadful warnings of catastrophe from the intelligence community, State Department, and military leadership, should he do so. Truman gave instructions he did not want to talk to anymore zionist leaders, especially Chaim Weizmann, who had been circling the globe since world war I to build international support for a Jewish state. Truman had spoken to him previously and recognized his persuasive talents. Weizmann asked for another appointment but Truman ignored it. Into this picture steps Eddie Jacobson, a old friend of Trumans from his haberdashery days in Missouri requesting a talk. Jacobson was a Jew but not a zionist. In the guise of just a friendly talk Truman said ok. Using Truman’s hagiographic view of Andrew Jackson, and pointing to a small statue of Jackson in the office, Jacobson maneuvered the discussion to get Truman to agree to another interview with Weizmann. After the interview with Weizmann, Truman was apparently convinced and told the American representative to the UN to announce American favored an Israeli state. The state department’s patricians were aghast. To quote Truman. “I was told that to some of the career men of the State Department this announcement came as a surprise. It would not have been if these men had faithfully supported my policy.” As he wrote, “The Department of State’s Near East specialists were, almost without exception, unfriendly to the idea of a Jewish State.” ( The deep state is not new!!!) In a manner I would hope our presidents of this era would do he wrote, “…I wanted to make it plain that the president of United States makes foreign policy, and not some second or third echelon in the State Department. “(Memoirs of Harry S. Truman 1946-1952.)
Perhaps a quote from Sir Ronald Storrs on the problems of writing about the Palestinian Issue is appropriate here. “Being neither Jew ( British or foreign) nor Arab, but English, I am not wholly for either but for both. Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the Synagogue, while after an intensive course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam.” However, he, like every one connected to the Arab Bureau in Cairo, was generally anti Zionist. However it was later blamed for the all the problems besetting the British in the Middle East…probably unfairly. Sir Ronald Storrs: The Memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs.
- Reading the Edwardian novels and memoirs of the era, anti-semitism was deeply embedded in the English gentry. They were tolerated and sometimes found in the government but alway looked upon with askance. Many of the Jews of England were strongly anti- Zionist fearing that if an Israel came about they would be deported to this desolate land.
- Almost anything written about the creation of Israel will be refuted by someone. Lord Balfour later wrote that enticing the American leaders by way of appealing to the American Jews ( Balfour declaration) was false. He maybe right but there was no doubt others had that view.
- He was the father of the infamous Soviet spy Kim Philby
- Colonel Eddy was sent to Saudi Arabia as special envoy to King Abdul Aziz . He was born of missionary parents in Lebanon and grew up speaking Arabic. His knowledge of the Arab world was a rare commodity in the U.S. at that time and he was instrumental in the cordial relations between President Roosevelt and the Saudi King acting as the interpreter when the U.S. President met the king on board the U.S. Quincy He was also instrumental in the formation of the CIA.
What a fabulous reading! All the best.