The League of Nations was an international organization, functioning between the two World Wars, created to work for the establishment of world peace and the promotion of cooperation among states. Founded in January 1920, it formally ceased to exist in April 1946, although in fact it was active only until the beginning of World War II. During the 19 years of its effective existence, among its preoccupations were questions connected with the situation of the Jewish people in Palestine and the Diaspora.
According to article 22 of the Covenant of the League, the basis for the establishment of the system of international mandates, the authority to define the terms of mandates and the supervision of their execution was entrusted to the Council of the League. On July 24, 1922, the council confirmed the Mandate for Palestine, which included the Balfour Declaration, and the British government was thereby committed "to place the country under such political, administrative, and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home." In its supervisory capacity, the Council of the League was assisted by a special commission – the Permanent Mandates Commission – and from 1924 until the end of 1939, this commission held annual debates on the administration of the Palestine mandate. In the years 1930 and 1937, two extraordinary sessions were dedicated to it: the first after the riots in Palestine of August 1929; the second after the British Royal Commission, with Lord Peel as chairman, suggested the partition of western (CIS-Jordan) Palestine into two states: one Jewish and one Arab.
In observations made by the Mandates Commission at its session of 1930, the British government was severely criticized for not having stationed sufficient troops in Palestine to ensure the immediate suppression of the anti-Jewish riots; it had thus proved itself powerless to protect Jewish life – the essential condition for the development of the Jewish National Home. In the opinion of the commission, the adoption of "a more active policy… a firmer and more constant and unanimous determination… would have diminished the antagonism from which the country suffers." The establishment of the Jewish National Home and the foundation of self-governing institutions were defined as the two objects of the Palestine mandate; the commission emphasized that there was no time limit for the attainment of these objects and that the immediate and daily obligations which stemmed from the provisions of the mandate should be carried out by the mandatory authorities independent of the ultimate aims. The mandatory authorities were called upon to show a firm hand: "to all the sections of the population which are rebelling against the mandate… the mandatory power must obviously return a definite and categorical refusal; as long as the leaders of a community persist in repudiating what is the fundamental charter of the country… the negotiations would only unduly enhance their prestige…." The commission's observations aroused the anger of the British government; however, thanks to the efforts of the reporter on mandatory affairs, a split was averted and the Council of the League approved the observations of the commission.
In 1937, the commission was requested to submit a preliminary opinion on the partition proposal; it observed, not without an undertone of criticism, that "the present mandate became almost unworkable once it was publicly declared to be so by a British Royal Commission… and by the government of the mandatory power itself." With little evident enthusiasm, the commission declared itself favorable in principle to an examination of a solution involving the partition of Palestine. At the same time, however, it expressed its opposition to the immediate creation of two new independent states, Jewish and Arab, and preferred the prolongation of the mandatory regime in the form of provisional "cantonization" or by the existence of two separate mandates for such a determined period as may prove necessary. In 1939, the White Paper published by the British government was submitted to the commission. With the object of appeasing the Arabs, the White Paper misinterpreted the mandate's provisions concerning the establishment of a Jewish National Home, and by imposing minority status on the Jews rendered these provisions meaningless. The commission reached the unanimous conclusion "that the policy set out in the White Paper was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the mandatory power and the Council [of the League], the commission had always placed upon the Palestine mandate." By a majority of one, the commission also declared that it was unable to state that the policy of the White Paper was in conformity with the mandate, "any contrary conclusion appearing to them to be ruled out by the very terms of the mandate and by the fundamental intentions of its authors." Since World War II broke out in the meantime, the White Paper never came before the Council of the League.
Although the Permanent Mandates Commission had been granted the status of an advisory body only, its prestige was enhanced by the fact that its members were men independent of their governments and because it conceived of its supervisory role as a quasi-judicial one. Even before their approval by the Council of the League, its conclusions and observations were regarded as being of considerable importance and weight. In the Jewish Agency's struggle for the correct interpretation of the provisions of the Palestine mandate regarding the National Home, the debates of the commission and its conclusions became a factor of no small significance in the attempt to prevent deviation and distortion by the mandatory power.
The League of Nations also played a part in the protection of Jewish minorities in the Diaspora. According to the minorities treaties signed by a number of Eastern and Southeastern European states at the close of World War I, and also to the declarations later made by several states to the Council of the League, supervision over the obligations undertaken by these states was entrusted to the Council of the League. In view of the difficult and often precarious situation of the Jewish minorities in various countries (particularly Poland and Romania), there was reason to suppose that complaints concerning denial of rights and discrimination would be numerous and that the League of Nations would be called upon to deal with them. However, during all the years of its existence, only two such petitions were debated by the council. The reason for this was that the procedure for handling petitions was complicated and the chances of reaching a satisfactory arrangement were slight. Moreover, as the very appeal to the League aroused the anger of the government whose actions were criticized, the Jews preferred to refrain from seeking the League's intervention.
In December 1925, the Council of the League considered petitions submitted to it by the Joint Foreign Committee (the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association) and the Alliance Israélite Universelle against the introduction of the numerus clausus in institutions of higher education in Hungary. The Jewish organizations called upon the League of Nations to condemn the numerus clausus as incompatible with the principle of equality of rights. However, the Council of the League was not prepared to go into this legal question and took no action in the matter, contenting itself with recording the declaration of the Hungarian representative that the law was merely an exceptional and temporary one and that it would be repealed when a favorable change occurred in the abnormal situation resulting from the Trianon Treaty. The Hungarian government did indeed make some changes in this law in 1928 and 1929, but in practice the discrimination persisted. However, another petition, which came before the League a few months after Hitler's rise to power, achieved far greater success. Submitted by Franz Bernheim, a former resident of Upper Silesia, it protested against the anti-Jewish discriminatory laws of the Third Reich, as they affected the Jews of Upper Silesia and thus violated the German-Polish convention of 1922 on this region (see Bernheim petition). As a result of the debates held in the Council of the League in May and June 1933, Germany was compelled to honor the convention, and for another four years – until its termination on May 15, 1937 – the Jews of Upper Silesia enjoyed the rights which had been guaranteed by this minorities agreement.
In 1921 the question of the expulsion of 80,000 Jewish refugees from Vienna was placed on the agenda of the Council of the League – not, on this occasion, as a result of a petition submitted by Jewish organizations but on the intervention of the Polish government, which came to the defense of its citizens. Although the council reached the conclusion that legally there was no objection to the expulsion of foreign citizens, it appealed to the Austrian government not to ignore the moral and humanitarian implications, and an arrangement was concluded which prevented the expulsion of the majority of those Jews. In addition, a number of other petitions were submitted to the League of Nations, among them appeals against the denial of the rights of Austrian Jews after the country's annexation by Nazi Germany and against the oppression of the Jews of Romania, which were submitted by the World Jewish Congress. These, however, were not placed on the council's agenda. Memoranda on other questions, too, were brought from time to time before the League by Jewish organizations. These included appeals against pogroms in Eastern Europe, particularly the postwar massacres in the Ukraine; demands concerning the right to nationality and to reasonable naturalization requirements; and the status of the Jews in the free city of Danzig where the Nazis won a majority in the senate in 1933 and the Jews at once became victims of persecution and oppression. In December 1934, on the eve of the plebiscite in the Saar territory, the German government was forced to make a commitment to the Council of the League that if the region were handed over to the Reich, it would permit persons domiciled there who wished to leave to emigrate and take their belongings with them.
In the deliberations held annually in the Sixth (political) Commission of the General Assembly, a great deal of attention was regularly focused on problems connected with the establishment of the Jewish National Home, as well as the tightening of the procedure for dealing with minorities' petitions, thereby offering more efficient protection – a matter which was of particular interest to the Jews. In 1933 the commission's debates were marked by the tragedy of German Jewry; in an attempt to improve that community's legal status, the General Assembly once more reaffirmed the 1922 recommendations that "the states which are not bound by legal obligations to the League with respect to minorities will nevertheless observe in the treatment of their own… minorities at least as high a standard of justice and toleration as is required by any of the treaties…."
The League's activities on behalf of refugees and stateless persons were of special importance because a large number of Jews had lost their nationality after World War I. The "Nansen Passport," which was recognized by 51 states, became the identity card of former Russian subjects and granted them a certain legal status enabling them to travel from one country to another and obtain employment. In 1933 the General Assembly of the League appointed a high commissioner for refugees (Jewish and others) coming from Germany. However, as a result of Germany's objections to the establishment of this office within the framework of the League, it was set up as an autonomous institution. At the end of 1938 it was amalgamated with the Nansen International Office for Refugees and all the League's activities on behalf of refugees were concentrated in the hands of the high commissioner for refugees. Since during this period almost all states were closed to immigration, the means of assisting the refugees were extremely limited.
Occasionally, a general topic of special interest to the Jews was placed on the agenda of the League, as in the case of the question of the reform of the Gregorian calendar. After six years of preliminary studies, the matter was brought up for debate in October 1931. From almost 200 propositions submitted, considerable support was given to one suggesting that the year be divided into 13 equal months of 28 days and that the last day (or the last two days in a leap year) should be trimmed off and deemed an extra day, or "blank day." By the terms of this proposal, the regular sequence of seven-day weeks would have been interrupted by the introduction of the "blank day" and the Sabbath would have moved to a different weekday each year. As this would have seriously prejudiced Sabbath observance, the Jewish spokesmen led by the chief rabbis of France and Britain fought the reform project. In the face of the combined opposition of many governments, the Jews, the Seventh-Day Adventists, and other bodies, the conference concluded almost unanimously that the time was not ripe for modifying the Gregorian calendar.
Since the League of Nations was an organization of states and not of nations, the Jews as such were naturally unable to participate in its activities. However, where the participation of nongovernmental, international, or national organizations was considered desirable on certain commissions or at conferences convened under the aegis of the League, Jewish organizations were also invited to nominate permanent representatives or send observers. Thus, for example, Jewish observers were invited to attend the conference on calendar reform and were authorized to voice their opinions. The Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women participated in the activities of the Traffic in Women and Children Committee. Jewish organizations were represented on the Advisory Committee affiliated to the League's Nansen institutions for refugees, and in the Advisory Council (later known as the Liaison Committee) affiliated to the high commission for the care of the German refugees. Among the 22 members of the advisory committee formed on the appointment of the high commissioner in 1933, there were 12 delegates from Jewish public bodies representing the Jewish communities of the United States, Britain, France, Poland, Belgium, and Holland, as well as the Jewish Agency, ICA (Jewish Colonization Association), the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the Comité des Délégations Juives, the Alliance Israélite Universelle, and Agudat Israel. In 1924, the Jewish Agency, a public body recognized by international law in the Palestine mandate, set up a permanent office in Geneva in order to assure constant communication with the secretariat of the League and with members of the Mandate Commission when in session. The Jewish organizations concerned with protecting the rights of the Jewish minorities sent delegates to the general assemblies of the League in Geneva, while the Comité des Délégations Juives (and later the World Jewish Congress) was permanently represented in Geneva.
The establishment of the League of Nations kindled the hope that a new world would be built from the ruins of the old. The Jews also placed much faith in it. These hopes did not materialize, especially after 1930 when the League's prestige was on the wane; by 1937 its lack of power had become all too obvious. Despite this, however, the Jews did derive some benefits from the League's activities. Insofar as its means permitted, the League sought to ensure the observance of the provisions of the Palestine mandate, and on a few occasions succeeded in preventing attacks on the rights of the Jews in the Diaspora and alleviating their suffering.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Comité des Délégations Juives, Bulletins, 1–27 (1919–25); Joint Foreign Committee, Reports… on Questions of Jewish Interest at the Assemblies of the League of Nations (1920–26); League of Nations, Permanent Mandates Commission, Minutes (1921–39); N. Feinberg, La question des minorités à la Conférence de la Paix de 1919–1920 et la protection des minorités (1929); idem, Ereẓ Yisrael bi-Tekufat ha-Mandat u-Medinat Yisrael, Be'ayot ba-Mishpat ha-Bein-Le'ummi (1963); Palestine, a Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies (Esco Foundation, 1947); Institute of Jewish Affairs, Were the Minorities Treaties a Failure? (1947); World Jewish Congress, Unityin Dispersion (1948).