The Biltmore Program: a key moment in the origins of the State of Israel

The Extraordinary Zionist Conference at New York’s Biltmore Hotel between May 6 and May 11, 1942 comprising 600 delegates and Zionist leaders from 18 countries, was held in place of what would have been the 22nd Zionist Congress, cancelled due to WWII. Its results were resolutions known as the Biltmore Program, which represented a fundamental departure from the traditional stance of the World Zionist Organisation. It involved a virtual ‘coup d’etat’ in which the views of the president, pro-British Chaim Weizmann were eclipsed by those of David Ben-Gurion of the Jewish Agency in Palestine. Where Weizmann had advocated gradualism and the partition of Palestine between Jews and Palestinians, as well as negotiations with Britain, Ben-Gurion championed immediate statehood and the establishment of a Jewish state in all of Palestine, together with armed resistance, if necessary, to achieve Zionist goals.

The program was motivated by two things: German persecution on the one hand and the British White Paper of 1939 on the other. In resolution 2 the Program offered a ‘message of hope’ to ‘fellow Jews in the Ghettos and concentration camps of Hitler-dominated Europe’, while in resolution 6 condemned the British White Paper’s ‘cruel and indefensible… denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution’. The British White Paper of 1939, not only limited Jewish immigration just at precisely the wrong time in world history, but proposed handing final control of Jewish immigration to an Arab community whose erstwhile leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, had visited Hitler in 1941, and would later aid recruitment of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS Handschar that would fight Tito in Yugoslavia.

In response to these circumstances, the Program stated that:

‘The new world order that will follow victory cannot be established on peace, justice and equality, unless the problem of Jewish homelessness is finally solved. The Conference urges that … the Jewish agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for up-building the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world. Then and only then will the age old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.’

There was nothing overtly hostile in the program to the Arab states, though Palestinian people were not mentioned specifically. Resolution 5 welcomed ‘the economic, agricultural and national development of the Arab peoples and states… and the readiness and desire of the Jewish people for full cooperation with their Arab neighbours.’ However, the new Palestine to which it aspired was one controlled by the Jewish Commonwealth, and not by power sharing, partition or any other compromise. Moreover, resolution 7 demanded recognition of the ‘right of the Jews of Palestine to play their full part in the war effort and in the defence of their country, through a Jewish military force fighting under its own flag and under the high command of the United Nations.’

According to Ami Isseroff, the Program was ‘a crucial step in the development of the Zionist movement, which increasingly saw itself as opposed to Britain rather than a collaborator of Britain.’ While Weizman remained president of the World Zionist Organisation until Ben-Gurion took over in 1946, it was Ben-Gurion and the Jewish Agency in Palestine that would henceforth determine policy towards the British. There was to be peaceful co-operation with Arab neighbours, but the Yishuv had to be in control of its own destiny. As Michael Oren writes, ‘Henceforth the Zionist movement would strive for unqualified Jewish independence in Palestine, for a state with recognized borders, republican institutions, and a sovereign Army, to be attained in cooperation with America (Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present, pp. 242-445).

 

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