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Robert Kennedy Reports:
"British Hated by Both Sides: Antipathy Shown by ‘Arabs and Jews’"

(June 3, 1948)


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In April 1948, one month before Israel declared independence, Robert Kennedy traveled to Palestine to report for the Boston Post on the conflict prior to the British deaparture. His dispatches were published in June 1948.

Certainly if Arthur Balfour, Britain's foreign minister during the first World War, had realized the conflicting interpretations which were to be placed on his famous "declaration" calling for a homeland for the Jews, he probably would have drawn it with its meaning clearer and saved the world the bloodshed that its double promises have caused. In his attempt to conciliate both Jews and Arabs in a time of distress for the British empire, he conciliated neither.

No great thought was given to it at the time, for Palestine was then a relatively unimportant country. There were then not the great numbers of homeless Jews that we have now and no one believed then that the permission granted for Jewish immigration would lead 30 years later to world turmoil on whether a national home should mean an autonomous national state.

First let us consider the viewpoint of the Arabs in regard to the national homeland promised to the Jews in the Balfour Declaration.

The Arabs by word and deed leave no question in anyone's mind how they feel. They argue that the Balfour Declaration supports their point that no national state was promised, pointing to the clauses in the declaration that says the national home shall be set up subject to the civil rights of the people living in Palestine at this time. In recent years they have pointed to the United Nations charter and the Article dealing with the self-determination of nations. Let us adhere to that, the Arabs say, and let the people, that is the Arabs who are involved, decide the question by the democratic processes. If this policy of participation was truly adhered to they say, then why couldn't there be a partition with "the" partition set aside for the Arab minorities?

The Arabs are most concerned about the great increase in the Jews in Palestine: 80,000 in 1948. The Arabs have always feared this encroachment and maintain that the Jews will never be satisfied with just their section of Palestine, but will gradually move to overpower the rest of the country and will eventually move onto the enormously wealthy oil lands. They are determined that the Jews will never get the toehold that would be necessary for the fulfillment of that policy.

Always Will Attack

They are willing to let the Jews remain as peaceful citizens subject to the rule of the Arab majority just as the Arabs are doing in such great number in Egypt and the Levant states, but they are determined that a separate Jewish state will be attacked and attacked until it is finally cut out like an unhealthy abscess.

The Arabs believe they contributed greatly to making the Allied victory possible in the first World War. At the Paris peace conference they felt that they received nothing comparable to what they were promised for their fight under Lawrence against the Turks. Rather, due to power politics, British and French domination replaced that of the Ottoman empire. The Arab leaders attribute their country's backwardness to these 400 uninterrupted years of subservience to the Ottoman empire.

The Jewish people on the other hand believe that if it were not for the wars and invasions that racked Palestine and which sent them scattered and persecuted throughout the world, Palestine would today be theirs.

It would be theirs just as when Moses led them from Egypt into the Palestinian plains which they point out were unoccupied except for a few Bedouin tribes.

Set Up Laboratories

The [Jews] wish no other country, and in 1903 when Uganda was offered to them as a homeland, they were unanimous in their refusal. The Balfour declaration, when it was made, however, they felt was the answer to their prayers.

Under the supposition that, at the finish of the [British] mandate, this was to be their national state, they went to work. They set up laboratories where world-famous scientists could study and analyze soils and crops. The combination of arduous labor and almost unlimited funds from the United States changed what was once arid desert into flourishing orange groves.

Soils had to be washed of salt, day after day, year after year, before crops could be planted. One can see this work going on in lesser or more advanced stages wherever there are Jewish settlements in Palestine.

From a small village of a few thousand inhabitants, Tel Aviv has grown into a most impressive modern metropolis of over 200,000. They have truly done much with what all agree was very little.

The Jews point with pride to the fact that over 500,000 Arabs, in the 12 years between 1932 and 1944, came into Palestine to take advantage of living conditions existing in no other Arab state. This is the only country in the Near and Middle East where an Arab middle class is in existence.

The Jews point out that they have always taken a passive part in the frequent revolutions that have racked the country, because of the understanding that they would eventually be set free from British mandateship. They wished to do nothing to impair this expected action.

During the second World War they sent numerous volunteer Jewish brigades which fought commendably with the British in Italy. In addition to that, many Palestinian Jews fought as volunteers with Allied troops throughout the world and still others were dropped by parachute into German-held territory as espionage agents. They were perhaps doing no more than their duty, but they did their duty well.

The Jews feel that promise after promise to them has been broken. They can quote freely, for example, from speech after speech of Labor Party leaders in the election campaign prior to the victory of the Labor Party in England, to attest to the fact that one need not even refer back to the controversial Balfour declaration to learn Britain's attitude and promises toward a Jewish state, that was to be one of the first acts of the Labor government if it were put into power. The Jews, remembering this, have rather bitterly named the black bombed out [area] in the Ben Yehuda disaster, "Bevin square." [An Arab car bomb in Jerusalem in February 1948 killed some 50 people.]

It is an unfortunate fact that because there are such well founded arguments on either side, each grows more and more bitter toward the other. Confidence in their right increases in proportion to the hatred and mistrust for the other side for not acknowledging it.

Never Searched

When I landed at Lydda Airport I became immediately aware of it. I carried letters of introduction to both Arabs and Jews and at the airport where both sides intermingle it was explained to me by first one and then the other that I was taking a great risk. The Jew said it was all right for me to carry Arab papers in Jewish territory for I wouldn't be molested, but when I entered Arab territory I had better be rid of all letters to Jews for I would immediately be searched and, if they found anything, would be quickly shot. The Arab said exactly the opposite and I found both to be half right, in that I was never searched by either side.

Another fact I became immediately aware of was a basic violent hatred of the British by both sides. I talked to a British army sergeant who had been in Palestine for two years, and he placed the blame with the Palestine Colonial Police. Later I found many to be in agreement. He called them the "underpaid, uneducated dregs of society." They were evidently the most corrupt group of police in the world, firstly because they were so underpaid and, secondly, because when colonial police were sent to their posts the worst of the lot were invariably sent to Palestine.

The Arab bitterness and also fear toward the British had as its starting point the 1936-1938 revolution, which was crushed most ruthlessly by the British.

Increasing Bitterness

Leading Arabs in the higher committee speak in all sincerity of the Indian brought by the British into the country because of the great skill and knowledge that he possessed in being able to torture with fire while leaving no scar tissue. Many claim to have suffered by having their nails pulled out from their fingers and toes and others of having burning matches thrust beneath their nails. I found little evidence that these stories were true.

The Jewish attitude toward the British has been one of increasing bitterness. The Jews have looked upon the British civil administration, which some years ago took over from the army, as most unfriendly and uncooperative and which has therefore led to much mutual distrust. Jews received virtually no financial help for building schools and hospitals in Jewish settlements and the post office which was set up to serve Tel Aviv wasn't suitable for a village of several thousand inhabitants. I was forced to wait well over an hour in line in order to purchase stamps.

When told if they wanted a port they would have to build it themselves, the result was the port of Tel Aviv, which was constructed entirely through Jewish capital and labor. Nevertheless, it is taxed as high as the Arab port of Jaffa, which was built and maintained by funds raised by taxing both Arabs and Jews. These arguments are infinitesimal compared with the larger issues that have swept both sides during the last year, but they are mentioned to show that the hate that exists now is not something newly born and has a substantial background.


Sources: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Boston Post (June 3, 1948)

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