Weeks before the November 3, 1917, Balfour Declaration, in which Britain promised to help create a Jewish homeland in “Palestine,” how the land of today’s Israel and Jordan was known, an obscure, Paris-based, Russian Jew formally requested British support to equip an army for the “creation of a Jewish State on the Persian Gulf,” according to recently uncovered documents now on display at the British Library.
While the exhibit highlights much of the excitement Jews had about creating a Jewish state after World War I, a historian familiar with the period said the letter exchange was typical of the British response to many eager, and creative, Zionists of that time.
On Thursday, the British Library said on its website that, in the letter, in French, dated September 12, 1917, Britain’s Ambassador to France, Lord Francis Bertie, received this “unusual proposal” from the unknown Dr. M. L. Rothstein.
The saga was revealed in diplomatic correspondence between Bertie and British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, who weeks later published his eponymous declaration, in a letter to Lord Rothschild, expressing Britain’s support for the Zionist movement’s aim of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Rothstein asked for British arms and support “for the conquest of the Turkish province of El Hassa,” an oasis on the east coast of present Saudi Arabia, that had been promised but not yet delivered to the Ibn Saud family.
Rothstein said: “I undertake to assemble, for next spring, a Jewish fighting troop, a force of 120,000 strong men” that could be doubled with soldiers provided by Britain and its allies. He admitted that the plan “may appear unrealistic,” but this would cease “as soon as the first thousand men have arrived on the scene.”
The British Library wrote that the plan called for the troops to gather at Bahrain and, as soon they reached 30,000, a “coup de main,” a swift attack, would ensue, taking the “Turkish province of Al Hassa, near the Persian Gulf” which “will become a Jewish State, ‘un État juif.’” Rothstein thought Turkey would respond with a “state of war,” and the Jewish troops would respond against Turkey with their own campaign.
“Besides his self-description as a ‘Russian medical doctor’ and a 1938 description by Juda Tchernoff, little is known about Rothstein,” the British Library said. “He prefaces his proposal with his family’s ‘moral qualities’ and refers to Maurice Barrès, who cites Rothstein’s son, Amédée, a young Russian Zionist, in his book ‘Les Diverses Familles Spirituelles de la France.’ Although Barrès was a famous anti-Dreyfusard and popularized French nationalism, he considered Amédée as exemplifying Jewish loyalty to France due to his patriotic death at the Battle of Verdun in 1916.”
Britain rejected the plan, after dismissing it as “wholly inappropriate.” Balfour’s private secretary wrote to Bertie on October 3, 1917 requesting that he reply to Rothstein, informing him that the British government could not give effect to his proposal. One month to the day later, the Balfour Declaration was announced.
The British Library said the Rothstein plan could be viewed in the light of other alternatives to Palestine mooted at the time for a “Jewish home” in Uganda, Argentina, Russia, Cyprus.
“Although Rothstein’s proposal appears obscure and has been almost entirely forgotten by history, it reflected an historical momentum for the establishment of a Jewish national home, ideologically grounded in European nationalism and seeking legitimacy from European imperial powers,” it said.
But the British Library said it also had a letter from the British India Office’s Thomas William Holderness, about the region, that showed Rothstein seemed to be out of touch with the reality on the ground.
“Hassa had ceased to be a Turkish province in 1913 with the conquest of Ibn Saud, a British ally, and Bahrain’s Al Khalifah rulers had been in treaty relations with Britain since 1820,” it wrote.
In the government’s reply, Rothstein, the unknown proposed Zionist warrior, was told, “His Majesty’s Government could not countenance… any proposal affecting their territorial rights or the status quo.”
Historian and author Edwin Black, in his book ‘The Farhud,’ wrote about the excited times leading up to the Balfour Declaration, and told The Algemeiner on Friday that in researching his book, he’d seen hundreds of similar letters, though none he could recall specifically referencing Saudi Arabia.
“At the time, Jews would send in letter, after letter to Britain, arguing the Crown should establish a Jewish state in one far off territory or another,” Black said. “In response, they’d always receive a very formal, but firm letter an official letterhead for their trouble.”
“I don’t believe that any other land, beyond Mandate Palestine, today’s Israel and Jordan, was ever seriously considered by Britain to become the Jewish state,” the historian said.