The law did little more than institutionalize the 70-year-long reality of Israel's existence as a Jewish state in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947.
The recent passing of the "Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People" has generated a wave of criticism in both Israel and abroad. Yet the law did little more than institutionalize not only the 70-year-long reality of Israel's existence as a Jewish state in accordance with General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 29, 1947 but also the stipulation of the League of Nations, the UN's predecessor, in the same vein.
On July 24, 1922, the League recognized "the historical connexion of the Jewish people with Palestine" as "the grounds for reconstituting their national home in the country" and appointed Britain as the Mandatory for Palestine, with the explicit goal of "placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home." Some 96 years later to the day, the Knesset echoed the League's resolution, acknowledging the Land of Israel as "the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established" and defining this state as "the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination."
This, however, was not the first time for a national parliament to deliberate legislation recognizing Palestine as the national home of the Jewish People (as opposed to public acknowledgment of this fact, such as the US Congress's July 1922 joint recognition of the Balfour Declaration). On April 12, 1938, the veteran British MP Commander Oliver Locker-Lampson asked the House of Commons to approve a "Jewish Citizenship Bill" that would enable Jews worldwide to become nationals of Mandatory Palestine, where the Jewish national home had yet to be established.
A staunch opponent of fascism in both Britain and Europe, Locker-Lampson had long been involved in helping Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Now that Germany had annexed Austria (on March 18, 1938), he was horrified by Hitler's "calculated policy… to wipe out 300,000 innocents who have never done him or others any harm. Some of them have made Austria a sort of artistic center of Europe. Among them are the most eminent scientists in the world."
Having failed five years earlier to persuade parliament to extend British citizenship to German Jewish refugees from the newly-established Nazi regime, Locker-Lampson sought to kill two birds with one stone: to save the largest number of Jews from Nazi persecution while holding Britain to its international obligation to facilitate the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Locker-Lampson was particularly appalled by the Peel Commission's July 1937 recommendation to repudiate the League's mandate for the creation of a Jewish national home and to partition Palestine into two states: an Arab state, united with Transjordan, which would occupy some 85% of Western Palestine (east of the Jordan River), and a Jewish state in the remainder. As he saw it, this defeatist submission to Arab violence not only jeopardized Britain's geostrategic interests ("the creation of a State in Palestine of possibly millions of Jews," he argued, "will act as a buffer State against any military monster who may advance from the North to seize the Canal or cut the pipe-line which provides our only oil supply in the Mediterranean"), but also betrayed its obligation "to build up a Jewish citadel for refugees" at a time when "Jews are wantonly rendered homeless."
He therefore proposed that Jews worldwide be granted the right to citizenship of the prospective Jewish national home even before its actual creation, which in practical terms meant becoming nationals of Mandatory Palestine regardless of where they resided at that time.
"It is forgotten that it is a very ancient principle, that of preserving citizenship to subjects of a State who remain abroad. For instance, there have been more citizens of Norway living outside than in Norway in one period of that country's history. I would like to give the potentially persecuted Jew in Europe the chance, if he wishes it, of becoming a Palestinian subject. Why, for instance, should Jews in Poland, who cannot move to Palestine, not be able to take up extra-territorial citizenship? They would then become what Jews are in Palestine, protected persons under the Mandate and freemen of a State."
Despite the spirited opposition of the Colonial Office, which ran an extensive campaign aimed at swaying public opinion and policymakers against the proposed bill, it nevertheless managed to gain substantive support, splitting the House of Commons right in the middle with 144 MPs voting in favor and another 144 opposed. And even this opposition seemed to have emanated from fear of a violent Arab backlash rather than rejection of the idea of the Jewish national home. In the words of the foremost naysayer in the parliamentary debate, "this Motion can only add to Arab fears without doing the Jews the slightest good."
Of course, appeasement proved no more effective in the Middle East than in Europe. From the very beginning, the Arabs' primary instrument for opposing Jewish national aspirations was violence, and what determined Arab politics and diplomacy was the relative success or failure of that instrument in any given period. The more the British caved in to this violence the harsher the Arab position became. Small wonder that London's greatest concession – the abandonment of its international obligation to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home by the Peel Commission – was answered by the intensification of Arab violence throughout Palestine. A desperate British bid to end this violence through draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration and land purchases (by the May 1939 Palestine White Paper), which would have effectively subverted the Jewish national revival in and surrendered European Jewry to its Nazi persecutor, elicited a similarly recalcitrant Arab response.
Nor did it matter whether opposition to the Jewish Citizenship Bill was motivated by rejection of the Jewish national home as such or fear of Arab violence as the outcome was equally devastating. Had the bill been passed and implemented, hundreds of thousands of European Jews would have been able to immigrate to their ancestral homeland, as envisaged by the League of Nations' mandate, and would have spared the horrors of the Holocaust.
Efraim Karsh is director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London and editor of the Middle East Quarterly.
Shaul Bartal is a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.