36. So It Begins

The violence we associate with the Arab-Israeli conflict began on March 1, 1920, in a tiny Jewish settlement called Tel Hai, just a few miles south of today’s border with Lebanon.


The Jewish settlement of Tel Hai sat in the border region between British-controlled Palestine and French-controlled Lebanon. The Arabs were fighting the French and frequently came into Tel Hai to search for French military activity. On March 1, 1920, several hundred Arabs came down from Lebanon, though it remains unclear whether they were looking for the French or were, instead, intent on raiding Tel Hai. A Jewish farmer signaled for help from the nearby village of Kfar Giladi and Joseph Trumpeldor led a group of HaShomer, the Watchman, to respond. A firefight broke out over what both sides later described as a misunderstanding, but Trumpeldor, five other Jews, and five Arabs were killed. The Arabs burned down Tel Hai.

A month later a riot broke out in Jerusalem’s Old City after Arab officials, crying “Death to the Jews!” during a protest, called for Arabs to attack the Jews. The riot resulted in the death of five Jews, four Arabs, and swath of destruction across the city, made worse by the British military’s decision to evacuate its troops from the Old City — what they later admitted was a mistake.

The Arabs were protesting two grievances. They were angry about the failure to obtain an independent Arab empire which had been promised them by the British during World War One. And they were angry about the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the possibility that the majority Arab population would have to live under a minority Jewish rule. They worried that Balfour would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine

Amin al-Husseini, scion of one of the most prominent local Arab families, emerged as the first major leader of the Palestinian Arabs of Palestine. His inflammatory speeches incited violence against the Jews and the British, and he refused to compromise on any point that would, in his view, be favorable to the Jews. 

In an attempt to improve their management of Palestine, under the direction of the League of Nations the British switched from a military regime to a civilian-run administration. It was organized under the High Commissioner, a kind of colonial governor, with Herbert Samuel, a Jew, serving as the first one. He had a mixed record of supporting Zionism but also bending over backwards to appease the Arabs, creating a muddled policy of lasting confusion and conflict. 

In May, 1921, riots broke out in Jaffa, a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. The violence soon spread to other cities. Forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs were killed in a sign that the conflict had spread far beyond the confines of Jerusalem. 

Herbert Samuel mostly blamed the Jews, temporarily suspending immigration to Palestine to appease the Arabs. The British issued the Churchill White Paper in 1922, which limited the Jewish homeland to lands west of the Jordan River and restricted Jewish immigration to the “economic capacity” of Palestine to absorb them. Though it also reaffirmed Britain’s commitment to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration of 1917. The Zionists, though disappointed by the White Paper, opted to accept the terms. The Arabs rejected it. 

Finally. Herbert Samuel appointed Amin al-Husseini as the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who thus became both the religious leader and political head of the Muslim community in Palestine. His elevation to the leadership of the Arab community guaranteed lasting, bitter, and violent conflict between Arabs and Jews for the next thirty years and beyond.


Joseph Trumpeldor, by the age of 39, had been the most decorated Jew in Russian military history, a prisoner of war of the Japanese, and a farmer at Israel’s first kibbutz, Degania.

Trumpeldor’s last words are said to have been, “En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu”. “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.”

The largest city in Israel’s north, Kiryat Shmona, or the Town of Eight, is named after Trumpeldor and seven other Jews killed at the beginning of the conflict.



Joseph Trumpeldor: One-armed Zionist hero from the First World War who formed and led the Zion Mule Corps at the Battle of Gallipolli. He was killed in battle with the Arab at Tel Hai in 1920.

HaShomer (the Watchman): early, local Jewish self-defense group.

Amin al-Husseini: Palestinian leader who led Arab rejection of Zionism, Balfour, and the Jews, forever refusing any compromise. Appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, making him the Islamic religious leader of the city as well as the top political representative of the Muslim community to the British High Commission.

Herbert Samuel: a British Jew, the first to serve as High Commissioner for Palestine. He had good intentions, but appeased Arab violence by conceding to their demands.

Winston Churchill: Colonial Secretary in charge of Britain’s overseas colonies. A supporter of Zionism and Balfour who made a deal with the Arabs to cease their violence in exchange for securing autonomy in Transjordan, which was a part of Palestine.


The Arabs worried that the Balfour Declaration would lead to massive Jewish immigration to Palestine, which would give the Jews political and economic power. They were right to be worried because that is what happened, and that was a major goal of Zionism. To ensure the Jewish homeland was a place of safety and revival, the Jews had to be in the majority with a monopoly on power. Jewish immigration was therefore the key to achieving this.

The clashes with the Jews in the 1920s brought Arab nationalism to the forefront. It was based on the idea of establishing a sovereign homeland for the Arabs in the Middle East to, like Zionism, renew Arab culture, language, history, and identity. But they were much younger and less unified than the Zionist movement, and struggled to achieve the diplomatic success of Zionism, which led to frustration and the view that Zionism, with its ties to the British, was a colonialist movement.

The violent Arab protests of 1920 and 1921 resulted in the British limiting Jewish immigration to appease Arab demands. From this the Arabs learned that violence works. This set the stage for a strategy that would continue over the next century, as the Arabs repeatedly employed violence to achieve political results, often with success. The British didn’t seem to appreciate that there was no scenario in which the Arabs would accept the Balfour Declaration, and yet the High Commission kept trying anyway. For the Zionists, this was a key pillar in the development of right-wing Zionism.

35. Lord Balfour Has Something To Declare

In November, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. It is one of the key foundational documents of Israel. Yet it was so vaguely written that anyone can project what they want to see. For the Zionists it was the first definitive international support for establishing the Jewish homeland. For the Arabs it was a betrayal of their rights. For Britain, it was the beginning of a thirty-year muddle in the Middle East. Either way, it’s essential to understanding modern Israel. 


The short text of the Balfour Declaration read: “His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

This was the first time that a major European power had positively acknowledged Jewish national aspirations, a major goal of the Political Zionist tree branch and a huge win for the movement. But Balfour also contained a lot of ambiguities that made it hard to assess just how much of an achievement it really was.

First, Palestine wasn’t a part of the British Empire yet, and the British weren’t in a position to guarantee that it would be, so the promise of territory, let alone a Jewish home, was premature. 

Second, the Declaration doesn’t say that the Jews will get a state but a “home”, making no promises about the Jews having sovereignty over that territory.

Third, the Declaration didn’t define the territorial boundaries of Palestine, so there was no determined border for the future Jewish homeland. 

Finally, the Declaration refers to an understanding that nothing will done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That demographic comprised about 90% of the total population. The Declaration also doesn’t say anything about the non-Jews’ political rights in the future Jewish homeland, although it does, in the next phrase, talk about protecting the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.

Meanwhile, as the Zionists were happy to use British imperialism for their own ends, so, too, were the Arabs, who had also made a deal with the British to create an Arab empire in the Middle East. The Arabs, led by Emir Faisal bin Hussein, hoped to get Zionist support for an Arab state in exchange for Arab support for the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann agreed, and the two were prepared to present a unified front at the 1919 Paris Conference. But the French were against the Arabs, Weizmann couldn’t go to bat for the Arabs with the British, and the Arabs opposed Balfour — so Arab-Jewish cooperation came to a swift and resentful end.


One story goes that when a member of the House of Lords asked Weizmann why the Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many other undeveloped countries that would be more convenient to settle, Weizmann replied: ““That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”

The Jews and Arabs came close to a permanent agreement when Weizmann and Emir Fairsal agreed that Faisal would support the Balfour Declaration in exchange for Jewish support for the creation of an Arab state in the Middle East.



Chaim Weizmann: he became the British Jewish community’s leading Zionist supporter and a confidant of the highest levels of British leadership. He weathered local Jewish opposition to the Zionist movement to convince the British that it was in their military, political, and Christian philosophical interests to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Emir Faisal bin Hussein: one of the most prominent Arab leaders, who allied with the British in the hopes of securing an independent Arab empire. A cautious supporter of the Balfour Declaration — on the condition that the Jews would support his goals — Faisal fought a war with the French over Syria. He lost, but the British made him King of Iraq in 1921. 


There is a challenge in parsing the exacting meaning of the Balfour Declaration’s reference to Jewish political rights and the civil and religious rights of non-Jews. The reference to the Jews was an effort to pre-empt any efforts, elsewhere in the world, to forcibly evict Jews or eliminate their citizenship status once a homeland in Palestine was established. The reference to non-Jews was an effort to clarify, for the Jews of Palestine, that they could not do the same to non-Jews in their future homeland. But in doing so Balfour created a contradiction in prioritizing the rights of the Jews in Palestine (the minority population) over the rights of the non-Jews who formed the majority. 

Although the Balfour Declaration is commemorated as one of the essential founding documents of Israel, reducing the existence of Israel to the colonialist policies of the British invalidates the decades of Zionist development that led to this moment. Zionism wasn’t an outcome of British policies, but a liberation and justice movement organized around the right of the Jewish People to self-determination. The recognition of the Balfour Declaration, while a critical political development, was not the raison d’etre of Zionism, nor its fulfillment. The movement still had a long way to go. 

Emir Faisal, having failed to secure Zionist support for his own dream of Arab independence, was the first in a long line of Arab leaders who would learn the hard way about trying to make peace with the Jews. And Chaim Weizmann, in reaching the limits of what the Jews were able to accomplish within the constraints of British policy, was the first of his people to appreciate that it just wasn’t going to be possible to join in a unified way with the Arabs. Although people on both sides wanted to find agreement, Arabs and Jews seemed destined to continuously find themselves at a disappointing impasse.