British Library Publishes 1917 Letter Calling for Creation of Jewish State in Saudi Arabia (PHOTOS)

April 4, 2014 12:20 pm 2 comments

The letter from Britain's Ambassador to France, Lord Francis Bertie, turning down a proposal from Dr. M L Rothstein for a Jewish state in today's Saudi Arabia. Photo: Screenshot / British Library.

The letter from Britain's Ambassador to France, Lord Francis Bertie, turning down a proposal from Dr. M L Rothstein for a Jewish state in today's Saudi Arabia. Photo: Screenshot / British Library.

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.”

The actual 'Balfour Declaration' declaring British support for "a Jewish homeland" in Palestine, the letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild. Photo: Screenshot / British Library.

The actual 'Balfour Declaration' declaring British support for "a Jewish homeland" in Palestine, the letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild. Photo: Screenshot / British Library.

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.


2 Comments

  • Julian Clovelly

    I am afraid, Ms Bacon, that the British did not really have big plans for anything, in the aftermath of the disastrous Great War. Elements in Government and the Foreign Office may well have had fantasies but “the British”, for the most part, were trying to survive the devastation that the Great War had brought. In the case of my own family that was the death of my own grandfather from Spanish Flu, a few days after the Armistice, as he awaited transport home to England. He is buried in Greece near the Turkish border.

    Britain did not become anything approaching a democracy until the full enfranchisement of women after the Great War. Disparity in prosperity and financial collapse was to lead to the General Strike of 1926 which nearly brought the entire British State down

    In a nation with such chronic class divisions, it is stretching a point to blame the “nationality” for anything. The majority of that nationality have no control even via the ballot box. All British Governments have broken promises, lied, and disappointed.

    As far as the world stage is concerned British Foreign policy has predominantly been one of disengagement – but the situation of particular territories made that difficult in the inter war period – in particular with the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Britain might appear to have been in control but mostly that seems to me to have been by recognising and acceding to existing situations, and using such terminology as “granting independence” where in reality no such thing exists – you can’t “grant independence”, you can only leave people alone, in military terms “withdraw”

    Revisit the twentieth century in terms of “national blame” is often unhelpful, and really only confuses modern issues. Political History, especially, needs to be viewed in a more objective fashion if we are to learn from the past. What matters is the situation we find ourselves in now

    I can imagine the world I would have lived in had my grandfather survived and the family not been reduced to poverty. I can imagine the world we might have lived in had my family not been forced to flee Belgium in the sixteenth century as Huguenots. But I cannot live in that world, apportioning blame in every direction with the advantage of hindsight. We are where we are. What matters is not how we imagine past worlds to be, but how we improve the one in which we live now. Neither the situation of the Israelis, nor the situation of the Palestinians can continue as it is. A state of undeclared war almost always breaks out eventually as a real one. What is most required is de-escalation of the present process, with all sides removing deliberate annoyances that it is within their power to remove, and aiding the poor of the region on a humanitarian basis

    Compassion might well achieve what anger only worsens.

  • This is not as crazy as it seems. Before the advent of Islam, and even afterwards, there was a large Jewish population in the Hejaz (now Saudi-Arabia), the Khaybars, who fought Muhamad, though some converted to Islam. The British, however, had big plans for Saudi-Arabia after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and handed it over to a branch of the Hashemite family as a gift.

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