The Population Transfer Committee: November 1937

On the heel of the Peel Committee recommendations, the Jewish Agency created the Population Transfer Committee with an impressive list of executive members, one of whom was Dr Kurt Mendelson from Holland considered to be ‘the expert on the question of population transfer’. He would divide the Palestinian Arabs into 3 categories to be cleared in the first stage of the Transfer Plan:

1. Tenant farmers.
2. Landless villagers working as agricultural labourers.
3. Farmers who owned less than 3 dunums per capita.

To resettle these people, the Transfer Committee calculated that 1.15 million dunums would have to be purchased in Transjordan and that it would take nearly 10 years to complete the transfer.

Ben-Gurion opted instead for a total evacuation of Arabs from the proposed Jewish state. He said that he looked at the Jewish part only as a provisional solution “on the basis that after we build a strong force following the establishment of the state, we will abolish the partition of the country and we will expand to the whole Land of Israel”.

One executive member of the Jewish Agency concurred: “...we will not achieve this by preaching sermons on the mount, but by machine-guns which we will need”. Some Committee members even opposed the idea of partition itself and argued for a single state for the Jewish people: “We cannot begin the Jewish state with a population of which Arabs constitute almost half of the population…Such a state cannot survive even for half an hour”.

Fearing moral backlash from world opinion against forced expulsion of the Palestinian population, the debate considered ways of how to contain such a possible backlash. But this did not deter one Committee member to volunteer: “If you ask me whether it is moral to remove 60,000 families from their place of residence…I will say to you that it is moral. I am ready to come and defend the moral side of it before the Almighty and the League of Nations”.

Ben-Gurion closed the debate: “I support compulsory transfer. I do not see anything immoral in it.

Surprisingly, the British Government decided that all this transfer talk would not wash. It sent a new commission to Palestine in April 1938, called the Woodhead Commission chaired by Sir John Woodhead. It was to examine the recommendations of the Peel Commission for the partition of Palestine.

It issued The White Paper 1939, also known as the MacDonald White Paper, which was in essence an internal policy paper in which Britain unilaterally abandoned the Mandate’s goals of establishing a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine’ in favour of an independent bi-national state governed jointly by Palestinian Arabs and Jews. However, this Paper was later rejected by the League of Nations to whom the Mandatory Authorities had to answer and which had to approve every change to British policy in the Mandate.

Meanwhile and behind the scenes, a New York-based Jewish Multi-millionaire by the name of Edward A Norman (1900-1955) was devoting much of his fortune to supporting the Yishuv (the Jewish population in Palestine). He established what later became the American-Israel Cultural Fund which supported all cultural institutions of the Yishuv in Palestine and later in Israel. Part of his plan evolved around the transfer of Palestinian Arabs to Iraq. Norman estimated that the cost of settling one family would be in the region of $300. He hoped that the Palestinian families would be ‘bought out’ and be induced to leave, starting with those in the coastal plain where land is suitable for agriculture. Later in February 1937, he was to revise his figure to $1,800 per Palestinian family of 6 persons. This cost would be partly covered by money earned from the sale of Palestinian land to immigrant Jews.

Norman presented his scheme to British Colonial Office officials when he visited London in early 1938. He was relying on the fact that Britain would rather have the support of a future majority Jewish population in Palestine than an Arab one aspiring to an independent nation. He wrote articles in the London Times in the spring and summer of 1938 promoting Palestinian transfer to Iraq. He discussed these ideas with Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. Weizmann and Norman even lobbied the American Government to accept the idea of transfer to Iraq as a necessary means for producing foodstuff by Palestinian labourers to help war efforts by the allies in the various theatres of war at the time.

This scheme, mercifully, came to nothing as Britain’s Labour Party came to power.

For the next few years and for the duration of WW2, the Zionist leadership began to shift their priorities and looked away from Britain for alternative sponsors: the United States of America.

Although the idea of transfer was not in the foreground of all Zionist discussions, it was believed that as a result of WW2, shifts in populations in Europe and in Palestine would eventually take place. Weizmann, the energetic Zionist that he was, intended to discuss his plan for a Jewish state in Palestine with American President Roosevelt. He would propose that the Palestinians would be evacuated from the proposed state to allow room for 3-4 million Jewish immigrants from Europe.

In New York, on May 6, 1942, a small group of Zionist leaders (including Weizmann, Ben-Gurion and Nahum Goldman, chairman of the Jewish Agency) together with 6000 American Jews gathered at the Biltmore Hotel in New York to formulate their official demand for a Jewish state in all of Palestine. Their declaration, known as the Biltmore Programme, reiterated the following aims:

1. The fulfilment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration

2. The total rejection of the White Paper of 1939

3. That Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.

It is worth noting here that what Ben-Gurion meant by ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ was neither ‘a national home in Palestine’ (Balfour Declaration), nor ‘a Jewish state in Palestine’ (the Peel Partition Plan), but the undisputed control by the Zionists of immigration of Jews into Palestine and the extent of land acquisition in the country. (At this time, it is worth remembering, Jewish land ownership stood only at 5.9% of the total area, and the Jewish community at only 31.2% of the total population. This Biltmore Programme wielded President Wilson’s name for the benefit of the American people, and confirmed Washington as the new centre of gravity for decision making on Palestine.

Jewish Land Ownership in Palestine

On the other side of the Atlantic, in December 1944, the British Labour Party issued its Conference Resolution supporting Zionist ideas for Palestinian transfer from Palestine. This resolution was drafted by Hugh Dalton, an ardent supporter of Zionist maximalist aims for the establishment of a Jewish state on both sides of Jordan River and the Sinai Peninsula.

In 1945, another transfer plan was formulated by a close friend of Jabotinsky. His name was Eliahu Ben-Hurin, editor of of Yishuv’s Hebrew paper Doar Hayom. His campaign reached as far as the American White House where, in 1943, he had convinced Herbert Hoover to lend his support for transfer of Palestinians to Iraq. Hoover’s support came in the form of a proposal published in the New York World-Telegram paper in 1945 where he called the transfer ideas as ‘a sane and practical solution’. As an engineer by profession, Hoover stated that he wished to achieve an ‘engineering solution’ to the Palestine conflict.

The full impact on the Palestinian people of the transfer policy can be confirmed by the following statistics:

Percentage of Palestinian population drop vs rise in Jewish land ownership

As the Palestinian Nakba was taking place in 1948, Harper’s Magazine published an article by Ben Horin entitled ‘From Palestine to Israel’. The Editor of the magazine noted that “Now, with thousands of Arab refugees facing a dismal future, the transfer idea appears to be a likely bet…in view of Mr Ben Horen’s earlier judgement and prophecies, we can bank on his words about present-day Israel: ‘It works’ “.

Go To Next Section