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Delegates to the San Remo conference in Italy, 25 April 1920

*Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment in the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD  

At the San Remo Conference in San Remo, Italy in April 1920, the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan met to define the precise boundaries of the lands they had conquered at the end of WWI. As part of a peace agreement, Turkey yielded jurisdiction over the land which it had ruled from 1517 to 1917, including the Holy Land. Israel and two dozen other countries were created from the states of the former Ottoman Caliphate. The Ottoman Empire had been the home many peoples: Albanians, Greeks, Slavs, Copts, Armenians, Maronites, Alawis, Druze, Kurds, Arabs and Jews. For centuries, Jews lived throughout the Ottoman Empire including Constantinople, Salonika, Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Basra, Tiberias, Hevron, Tsfat, Jaffa, Gaza and Jerusalem. [1]  


Philippe Berthelot, the French representative at San Remo, voiced his opposition to the establishment of the Jewish National Home, and pressed the British to cease implementing the Balfour Declaration. Lord Curzon, a member of the British War Cabinet and an opponent of the Jewish National Home, pointed out the “the Jews themselves attached a passionate importance to the terms of the declaration and that they would not only be disappointed but deeply incensed” if the promise had not be renewed. When Berthelot persisted, Curzon said, “the Jews themselves were really the best judges of what they wanted.”  [2]  

The French “grumbled,” but relented because they were “compelled, both by their weakness on the ground in Palestine and by their need for British support elsewhere to recognize Britain as ruler of Palestine.” [3] 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis believed the San Remo Resolution marked a new chapter in the Zionist movement: “The work of the great [Theodore] Herzl was completed at San Remo… (the nations of the world) have done all that they could do. The rest lies with us.”  [4]   

The San Remo Resolution stated that the “[British] Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the [Balfour] declaration originally made on November 2, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, 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.” 

The Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate deliberately make no mention of recognizing Palestinian Arabs as a separate and distinct people with their own national rights. The indigenous people were regarded as residents whose political identity was connected to the larger Arab nation that was divided between 1920 and 1924 by the League of Nations into several states controlled by superpowers: Iraq and Transjordan were under the British, Lebanon and Syria under French rule, and Saudi Arabia was as a separate, autonomous entity. [5]  

When the British established a Palestinian entity, Hertz adds, the Muslims were extremely apprehensive about the implications of what this meant for their future. Aside from viewing this as a victory for the Zionists and a defeat for them, some even assumed this might portend “lingering Crusader desires among the British.” The Zionists rightly understood that when the British defined the term “Palestine” this became a significant step in realizing the establishment of a Jewish state. [6]  

British and French Decision to Separate Palestine from Syria 

The decision by the British and French to separate Palestine from Syria at San Remo to control both areas triggered protests throughout Palestine. Demands were made for the independence of a united Syria stretching from Turkey to the Sinai. [7]  

After the French seized Damascus in 1920 destroying the Arab kingdom, the Syrians focused their attention on liberating their country from French rule and unifying the Syrian national community, particularly by trying to integrate the formidable Alawi and Druze territorial minorities historian Moshe Ma’oz asserts.[8] Palestine became of far less concern. For the Palestinian Arabs, the attraction of being connected to Syria diminished once it involved answering to Paris. Palestinian Arabs leaders came to recognize that they were on their own against the British and the Zionists. At that point, they focused on establishing an autonomous Arab government in Palestine which they would govern, not politicians in Damascus. This is the origin of Palestinian nationalism. [9]   

At the Third Palestinian Congress in December 1920, delegates voted to delete the term Southern Syria and cease insisting that Palestine be part of Syria. “When the Syrian Congress (the main exile organization dedicated to building Greater Syria) met in August 1921, Palestinians would no longer endorse the unity of Greater Syria. They even compelled the organization to rename itself The Syro-Palestinian Congress and to issue a statement calling for the “independence of Syria and of Palestine.” A year later, Palestinians withdrew from this Congress.” [10]  

Palestinian Nationalism Originated in Zionism 

Historian Daniel Pipes concludes that “ultimately, Palestinian nationalism originated in Zionism; were it not for the existence of another people who saw British Palestine as their national home, the Arabs would have continued to view this area as a province of Greater Syria. Zionism turned Palestine into something worthy in itself; if not for the Jewish aspirations, Sunni Arab attitudes toward Palestine would no doubt have resembled those toward the territory of Transjordan — an indifference only slowly eroded by many years of governmental effort. Palestinian nationalism promised the most direct way to deal with the challenge presented by Zionist settlers — a challenge never directly felt on the East Bank.” [11]  

The British Mandate 

When on July 24, British Prime Lloyd George accepted a British Mandate for Palestine, he informed the San Remo Conference that the responsibility of governing Palestine “would not be rendered less difficult by the fact that it was to be the national home of the Jews, who were an intelligent race but not easy to govern.” Recognition had thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with the land of Israel and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home there. [12]  

It is important to note that the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration only states that the “civil and religious” rights of the inhabitants of Palestine are to be protected. There is no mention of the national rights of the Arab people. [13]  

Throughout this time, European and American maps of “Palestine” included territory east of the Jordan River. From the late fourth century CE until 1946, “Palestine” included part or all of the land of what is now the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica correctly noted that “Western Palestine” was separated by the Jordan River from “Eastern Palestine” and stretched to the beginning of the Arabian Desert.  In other words, there was never any single Turkish administrative entity that clearly corresponded with Western Palestine. [14] Palestine residents were generally referred to as “Southern Syrians.” [15]  

Political scientist Gabriel Scheinmann explains that Syria, Libya, and Palestine were given names used during Roman times. Libya reappeared in 1934, when the Italians combined Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.  The first time “Syria” had been used as the name of a state followed the establishment of the French mandate. Iraq had been a medieval province of the caliphate, while “Lebanon” referred to a mountain and “Jordan” to a river. 

Significantly, these borders were not created by topography and did not take demography into account. A large Kurdish population—totaling as many as 25 million—was divided between four states: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Shiite Arabs were split between Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia. The Alawites, a heterodox Shiite Arab sect, reside today along the northern Lebanese, Syrian, and southwestern Turkish coasts. 

The Druze were spread between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Lebanon, theoretically a Christian stronghold, comprised large populations of Sunni and Shiites, and Alawites and Druze. Sunni Arabs, who formed the dominant population of the Middle East, were divided into numerous states. Pockets of Turkmen, Circassians, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Chaldeans were isolated throughout. [16]   

For Christians, even those who spoke Arabic, the Holy Land was “Palestine,” which as Allen Hertz, formerly senior advisor in the Privy Council Office serving Canada’s Prime Minister and the federal cabinet, points out was “for centuries nothing more than an historical reference i.e. a fond memory of the early seventh century CE, when Palestine was still a province of the Roman-Byzantine Empire, where Christianity was then the official faith. Thus, a visit to the Holy Land prompted Mark Twain to observe (1869): “Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition — it is dreamland.”  [17]  

Before Jews began referring to themselves as Israelis in 1948, the term Palestine applied almost entirely to institutions founded established by Jews: The Jerusalem Post, founded in 1932, was called The Palestine Post; Bank Leumi L’Israel, incorporated in 1902, was called the Anglo Palestine Company until 1948; Israel Electric Corporation, founded in 1923 by Pinhas Rutenberg, was initially called The Palestine Electric Company; and the  Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1936, was originally called the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.[18]   



[2] Martin Gilbert, Exile and Return (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1978), 122; Martin Gilbert, “An Overwhelmingly Jewish State” – From the Balfour Declaration to the Palestine Mandate,” in “Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy,” Alan Baker, Ed. (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), 28. 

[3] Bernard Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel: A Political Life Political Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 244. 

[4]  Ben Halperin, The Idea of A Jewish State Second Edition (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1969), 184. 

[5] Eli E. Hertz, Reply (New York: Myths and Facts, 2005), 24; See Yehoshua Porath, The Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion Volume 2 (London: Frank Cass and Company, 1977), 81-82. Richard H.S. Crossman, “The Balfour Declaration 1917-1967,” Midstream (December 1967): 21-28. 

[6] Hertz, op.cit; Rohan Butler and J.P.T. Bury, Eds. Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939 First Series Volume XIII (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1963), 241. 

[7] Daniel Pipes, “The Year the Arabs Discovered Palestine,” Middle East Review (Summer 1989). 

8] Moshe Ma’oz, “Syria’s Role in the Region: Mediator, Peacemaker, or Aggressor?” (New York: A Century Foundation Report, 2007): 4. 

[9] Pipes, op.cit. 

[10] Ibid. 

[11] Ibid. 

[12] Martin Gilbert, Exile and Return, op.cit.130; John Grigg, Lloyd George, War Leader 1916-1918 (London: Penguin Books, 2003), 348-357. 

[13] “San Remo Resolution,” Council on Foreign Relations (April 25, 1920); Simon H. Rifkind, et. al. The Basic Equities of the Palestine Problem (New York: Arno Press, 1977):26-27; Howard Grief, The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel under International Law (Jerusalem: Mazo Publishers, 2008): 18-19; David Vital, Zionism: The Crucial Phase (Oxford University Press, 1987), 280-293; Isaiah Friedman, The Question of Palestine, 1914-1918: Britain-Jewish-Arab Relations (London: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1973), 259-281; Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1961). 

[14] Ibid. 

[15] Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London, England: Readers Union LDT, 1939), 352. 

[16] Gabriel Scheinmann, “The Map that Ruined the Middle East,” The Tower Magazine Number 4 (July 2013). 


[18] Eli E. Hertz, This Land Is My Land: The Legal Aspects of Jewish Rights (New York: Myths and Facts, 2008), 22. 

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.