Early American Support for the Establishment of Israel
July 2001

Commentary by Rick Francona

Israeli Flag American support for the establishment of a Jewish national homeland began during the First World War. The impetus of that support was the Balfour Declaration, often cited by Jewish and Zionist organizations a “founding document” of the Jewish state. The declaration, made after negotiation and agreement between British officials and international Zionist organizations, commits the United Kingdom to the establishment of Jewish national homeland. It is but one of a series of conflicting agreements made by the British during the First World War. (The others were the Husayn-McMahon Correspondence and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.) 

The text of the Balfour Declaration: 

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."
The American role

After the agreement between Lord Rothschild (representing the Zionists) and British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on the wording of the document, the British Cabinet sought American support for the declaration. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to support the declaration for fear of angering the Ottoman leaders: the United States was not at war with Turkey, only with Turkey’s allies. 

When international Zionist leaders learned of Wilson’s reluctance, they enlisted the help of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, an avowed Zionist and close friend of the president. Brandeis mobilized the American Zionist community to put pressure on Wilson. Within two weeks, Wilson reversed his position and supported the declaration. With the endorsement of the American president, the British cabinet approved the declaration. Wilson continued to express his support of the declaration for the remainder of his second term (to January 1921).

Following the end of the First World War, the United States supported the award of the mandate for Palestine to Great Britain. An American government commission created by President Wilson advised the president to discourage Great Britain from executing its plans to establish a Jewish homeland because the plans did not fully consider the rights and aspirations of the majority Arab population. Wilson, who had fallen ill and had all but withdrawn from the talks that determined the future of the region, ignored the report. Great Britain took over as the mandatory power in Palestine.

Warren Harding took office as President in 1921. There was some disagreement in the American government over continued support for the commitment to the establishment of a Jewish national homeland as called for in the Balfour Declaration. Harding himself put that internal debate to rest by stating, “It is impossible for one who has studied at all the services of the Hebrew people to avoid the faith that they will…be restored to their historic national home….”  Months later he wrote, “I am very glad to express my approval and hearty sympathy for the effort of the Palestine National Fund in behalf of the restoration of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people.” 

In June 1922, the U.S. Congress passed Joint Resolution 322: “That the United States of America favors the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine be adequately protected.” Harding signed the resolution that September.

Two years later, with Calvin Coolidge as President, the United States formally signed a treaty with Great Britain recognizing its mandate over Palestine. Since the Balfour Declaration was part of the British mandate, the United States again formally endorsed the idea of Jewish homeland.

Since the establishment of Israel in 1948, it has been United States policy to guarantee the security of the Jewish homeland. 

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