Beyond  /  Argument

Who Created the Israel-Palestine Conflict?

It wasn’t really Jews or Palestinians. It was the U.S. Congress, which closed American borders 100 years ago this month.

Without either side even noticing it, we’re coming up on the centenary of the most decisive event in the fraught history of the Israel-Palestine relationship. It was not the 1896 publication of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist manifesto, nor the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the United Kingdom pledged its support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was not the 1948 founding of the Israeli state and subsequent Nakba—the expulsion of many thousands of Palestinians from Israel. Nor was it Israel’s occupation, following the 1967 war, of what had been Palestinian territories, or either of the two intifadas.

Rather, it was the enactment on May 26, 1924, of the Johnson-Reed Act by the Congress of the United States.

Fueled chiefly by white Protestant xenophobic fear and rage at Jews and Catholics flowing into the United States since the 1880s, the act effectively outlawed immigration from Russia, Poland, Italy, and all of Eastern and Southern Europe. Had that pre-Trumpian wall not gone up on America’s borders, there’s no reason to think there ever would have been more than a trickle of Jews moving to Palestine.

Consider the numbers, and whence they came. The ascension of Tsar Alexander III to the Russian throne in 1881 made state support for violent antisemitism a major priority of Russia’s government, which also ruled Poland until 1918. Bloody pogroms became a regular feature of Jewish life (and death) among the roughly five million who lived under the Tsar’s rule. Not surprisingly, millions began to leave: Approximately 2,367,000 Jews fled Europe from 1881 to 1914, when the outbreak of World War I made any such travel impossible.

Consider the numbers, and where they went. Of those 2,367,000 Jews (the vast majority from Russia and Poland) who left between 1881 and the outbreak of the war, 2,022,000 went to the United States. That’s 85 percent of the European émigrés. Just 3 percent made the trek to Palestine. The Jewish population of Palestine by the end of the First World War was just 60,000, roughly one-tenth of the overall population. At the time, more Jews had come to Canada or Argentina than had come to Palestine.