Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the thirty-second President of the United States and held this office for an unprecedented thirteen years until his death in 1945.
It would seem that Roosevelt's interest in transferring Arabs from Palestine began in October 1938. At that period, Justice Louis Brandeis had a meeting with Roosevelt. Brandeis reported on this meeting to Felix Frankfurter who in turn passed on the report to Stephen Wise and to presidential advisor and script-writer Ben Cohen.
In his report of this meeting Brandeis pointed out how Roosevelt appreciated the significance of Palestine, “the need of keeping it whole and of making it Jewish. He was tremendously interested - and wholly surprised - on learning of the great increase in Arab population since the War; and on learning of the plentitude of land for Arabs in Arab countries, about which he made specific inquiries.”(1)
Two historians, Zaha Bustami(2) and Leo Kanawada(3) both make an error in stating that this meeting took place between Roosevelt and Frankfurter, instead of with Brandeis. Furthermore Bustami also comments, “it is difficult to tell who brought up this subject during the meeting, but the information on Arab demography was provided by Frankfurter.”(4) But it is quite clear from Frankfurter's letter that this meeting was with Brandeis. However, a few days earlier a meeting did take place between the President and Frankfurter to discuss the Palestine situation,(5) although details of what the Roosevelt said at this meeting have not been traced.
On 25th of that month, Roosevelt had a meeting with the British Ambassador to the U.S., Sir Ronald Lindsay. Reporting on this meeting, Lindsay wrote that the President was “impressed by the fact that the Arab population [of Palestine] had increased by 400,000 since the establishment of the Mandate.” He also considered that by a programme of well-digging across the Jordan, a large quantity of water could be made available for irrigation and the cultivable land thus created “should be set apart for Arabs from Palestine. They should be offered land free, and that ought to be enough to attract them; and failing the attraction, they should be compelled to emigrate to it. Palestine could thus be relieved of 200,000 Arabs”. He added that it would also “be necessary to prescribe that no Arab should be allowed to immigrate into Palestine, and no Jew into the Arab lands.” Roosevelt estimated that this programme would “cost from twenty to thirty million pounds 'but we ought to be able to find that money for the purpose'“. Lindsay concluded “there was an implication that 'we' meant the Jewish community of America, but that is by no means certain.”(6)
A report of this meeting is also given by Adolf Berle, the Assistant Secretary of State. It is possible that Roosevelt had reported to Berle on this meeting, since there is no evidence that Berle was present; (Bustami, however suggests that he was present(7)). Berle wrote, “The President was full of Palestine. He had suggested to Ronald Lindsay that they call a conference of Arab princes; that they lay down, say $200,000,000 buying a farm for every Arab who wishes to leave Palestine, the money chiefly to be used in digging wells, which is perfectly possible in the Hedjaz.”(8) Here, it is quite clear that Roosevelt intended the Arabs to pay for the transfer.
With Roosevelt's frame of mind on that question at that time, it was considered quite possible that he would bring up the question again. Lindsay therefore asked Lancelot Oliphant of the British Foreign Office to have someone prepare a “short answer to this scheme” to have in readiness, although he stressed that he would not take the initiative in sending a reply to the President.(9)
Lindsay's request was first dealt with by Lacy Baggalay of the Foreign Office. He first quoted experts who held that the possibilities of finding water in quantity by boring in Transjordan were “quite restricted”. He then continued, “But even assuming that water could be found in large quantities, it is now out of the question that any Arabs should be 'compelled' to emigrate to the lands thus brought into cultivation. Whatever else may remain uncertain about the problem of Palestine, the impossibility of compulsion on this scale is now beyond dispute. Finally and in general, the President's suggestion, in which he has doubtless been coached by the Zionist leaders of America, is based on the old fallacy that the problem of Palestine, which has now become a political and sentimental issue of the first importance to the whole Arab and indeed the whole Moslem world, can be solved by economic sops and financial assistance.”(10) We must remember that this was written just after the Woodhead Commission had published their report “repealing” the Peel Report which had recommended transfer by compulsion if necessary.
Someone else added a handwritten note, referring to the Woodhead Commission's conclusion that digging of wells in the area would not be effective.(11)
On the basis of this material, Oliphant sent a reply to Lindsay. After quoting in some detail the ineffectiveness of boring wells in the area, he went on say that the British government would not even contemplate such an idea, and it would be “thoroughly unjust” to compel the Arabs to transfer from Palestine “to make room for immigrants [Jews] of a totally different race who have had no connexion with it [Palestine] for at least 2,000 years.” He also brought, in his words, the “fallacy” which Roosevelt was using to try and solve the Palestine problem.(12)
Who gave Roosevelt the idea that irrigation of the Transjordan desert would create a suitable location for the Arab transferees?. Kanawada suggests that the indications are that it came from the State Department where at that period Edward Norman was in contact with government officials to advance his own transfer plans.(13) Although Norman was at the time in contact with the State Department, his plans were in fact to irrigate Iraq by means of the dams it had recently constructed.
A suggestion by Bustami on this question is more plausible. He discounts Kanawada's suggestion(14) and writes, “The genesis of Roosevelt's idea is difficult to determine. A forcible or voluntary eviction of Palestinian Arabs to Trans-Jordan or other neighboring lands was advocated seriously, though not publicly, in Zionist circles in the summer of 1938. The most probable, though perhaps not the only, channels were Brandeis and Frankfurter.”(15)
Roosevelt summoned Lindsay for a further meeting, presumably during the first half of November. At this meeting, the President said that he thought that “the British should call in some of the Arab leaders from Palestine and some of the leaders from the adjoining Arab countries. The British should explain to them that they, the Arabs, had within their control large territories ample to sustain their people.” He also pointed out that Jewish immigration to Palestine and Transjordan would not harm the Arabs since there was plenty of room for everyone. Roosevelt then went on to propose transfer of Arabs, “Some of the Arabs on poor land in Palestine could be given much better land in adjoining Arab countries.”
Lindsay answered Roosevelt by saying that there was opposition in both the Arab and Moslem world but the President “belittled this opposition and thought it due largely to British indecision and conflicting policy.”(16)
Roosevelt also had ideas for financing this transfer. He thought that “if a plan was devised for a settlement of 100,000 families costing $3,000 a family or $300,000,000, the funds might be raised” by the American Government, the British and French Governments, and private subscriptions - largely Jewish; each of these bodies would contribute $100,000,000.(17)
Towards the end of December the British Charge d'Affaires in Washington met with Sumner Welles and handed him a memorandum on transfer received from the British Government, adding that Roosevelt would probably be interested in it.(18)
After pointing out that the latest available evidence did not bear out the belief that any considerable quantity of water could be obtained in Transjordan at shallow levels by boring wells, the memorandum continued, “Suggestions have also been made that if the free offer of cultivable land in Transjordan did not suffice to attract the Arabs from Palestine, they might be compelled to emigrate from it, with the object of vacating land in Palestine for settlement by Jews.” The British Government saw great difficulties in such a compulsion. Not only would it be beyond their powers, but the morality of attempting such coercion would be questioned in Britain, India and the Moslem world. His Majesty's Government would be accused of “unjustly trying to force a long-established community to leave its country in order to make room for immigrants of a race which has, in great part, not lived in Palestine for many centuries.” The British Government also felt that the problem of “redistribution of the Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine and across the Jordan” was not one of finance but rather of politics.(19)
A few days earlier, Louis D. Brandeis, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court and a leading Jewish Zionist had sent a newscutting to Roosevelt regarding the transfer by agreement of an entire Bedouin tribe to Transjordan in order to make way for Jewish villages.(20)
In his reply to Brandeis, Roosevelt enclosed the memorandum which he had received from the British Embassy. Roosevelt felt that apart from Transjordan, “the British ought to explore for water to the south and to the north.” He added that he had heard from the French that “the land in Arabia across the Red Sea from Djibouti and back of the coastal range of mountains, has all kinds of possibility for settlement - and also that the Iraq people are entirely willing to take a large Arab population for settlement on their newly irrigated lands.”(21) Brandeis replied that “the British attitude is deplorable. But ultimately - if we insist - folly will yield to reason and the right.”(22)
About that period, in a letter to Brandeis, Roosevelt put forward his own plan for the transfer of a large number of Arabs from Palestine to Iraq. In a meeting with Solomon Goldman and Stephen Wise, Roosevelt either mentioned his plan or showed them a copy of his letter to Brandeis.
On 13 March 1939, a meeting took place between Brandeis, Goldman, Frankfurter, Wise and Ben Cohen. At this meeting Brandeis showed them a letter he had received from Roosevelt. As far as Goldman recalls this letter, it “included the suggestion that certainly those of the 400,000 Arabs who have entered Palestine since the Balfour Declaration are not entitled to the same consideration as the Jews. Made the suggestion that perhaps a transfer of these Arabs to Iraq could be considered.”(23) It is possible that this is the letter we have just referred to, or alternatively, in view of the further details contained in the letters sent by Goldman to Ben-Gurion and Weizmann during the subsequent months, it is likely that Roosevelt had sent Brandeis a second letter on this subject.(24)
The letter to Ben-Gurion from Goldman was written during the following month. It was a long letter which included a report on the meeting with Roosevelt. Goldman noted that in his letter to Brandeis, Roosevelt wrote like a complete and enthusiastic Zionist showing great sympathy and understanding. Goldman continued, “He writes about the transfer of several hundred thousand Arabs from Palestine to Iraq. In order to make possible this transfer, he suggests the establishment of a fund of three hundred million dollars. He thinks that it would be possible to collect one hundred million from the Jews, the British Government would loan one hundred (million) and the American Government would loan a third of the required sum.” Goldman added that he gained the feeling that here was a true friend who wanted to do a lot to help but whose popularity was unfortunately on the wane.(25)
In June of that year, Goldman wrote a letter to Weizmann in which he also gave the contents of the letter from Roosevelt to Brandeis. Quoting from memory, Goldman wrote that Roosevelt had stated “that two to three hundred thousand Arabs can and must be moved from Palestine to Iraq.” After explaining Roosevelt's ideas for the financing of this plan, Goldman added that Roosevelt “seemed to indicate that as soon as he was somewhat relieved from the pressure of other affairs, he might try to tackle the job.”(26) One should note that unlike the report quoted above, Goldman in his letters to both Ben-Gurion and Weizmann reported that the British and American governments would only be loaning the money.
No trace of this letter sent by Roosevelt to Brandeis has been found, although, since Goldman wrote in his letters to both Ben-Gurion and Weizmann that he saw it, it certainly existed. However we do know that in a meeting which took place on Saturday, 19 November 1938 between “Isaiah” (nickname for Brandeis) and Roosevelt, the latter put forward such a transfer plan. This is reported in a letter sent by Ben Cohen to Frankfurter on 21 November 1938.(27)
The historian Peter Grose in his book “Israel in the Mind of America”, reports that on two occasions, Roosevelt raised his plan with British representatives but he was “firmly told that no amount of financial inducement would move the Palestinian Arabs.” Roosevelt however, was unconvinced by this British reply.(28) Whether Grose is referring to the meetings which took place towards the end of 1938, or to meetings at some later date is not known.
In February 1940, Weizmann had his first meeting with Roosevelt. At this meeting, Roosevelt put forward the idea of bribing the Arabs, asking Weizmann “What about the Arabs? Can't that be settled with a little baksheesh?” Weizmann replied that “it wasn't as simple as all that. Of course they would compensate the Arabs in a reasonable way for anything they got, but there were other factors appertaining to a settlement.”(29) Transfer is not directly mentioned here, although it is indicated in Weizmann's answer - “they would compensate the Arabs... for anything they got.” Historians are divided on the meaning of Roosevelt's statement regarding “a little baksheesh”. Grose(30) maintains that it refers to transferring the Arabs, whereas Selig Adler, Professor of American History at Suny Buffalo and an authority on Roosevelt,(31) understands it to mean bribing the Arabs to accept “large-scale Jewish settlement” in Palestine.
Two and a half years later, in December 1942, Roosevelt told Treasury Secretary, Henry Morgenthau, “I actually would put a barbed wire around Palestine, and I would begin to move the Arabs out of Palestine.... I would provide land for the Arabs in some other part of the Middle East.... Each time we move out an Arab we would bring in another Jewish family.... But I don't want to bring in more than they can economically support.... It would be an independent nation just like any other nation.... Naturally, if there are 90 per cent Jews, the Jews would dominate the government.... There are lots of places to which you could move the Arabs. All you have to do is drill a well because there is a large underground water supply, and we can move the Arabs to places where they can really live.”(32) [The various “4 dots” during the course of this quote indicate questions put by Morgenthau to Roosevelt. For example, Morgenthau asks, “Would you have the Jews buy up the land?” and “Would you propose that the majority should be Jews in Palestine?”(33)]
In October 1943, the question of “barbed-wire” around Palestine came up again in a conversation between Roosevelt and Judge Samuel Rosenman, Justice of the New York Supreme Court and speechwriter and counsellor to Roosevelt. Roosevelt had spoken of the “possibility of settling the Palestine question by letting the Jews in to the limit that the country will support them - with a barbed-wire fence around the Holy Land.” Rosenman thought that this would work “if the fence was a two-way one to keep the Jews in and the Arabs out.”(34)
At the beginning of November 1944, Roosevelt was elected President for an unprecedented fourth term. A few days later, Roosevelt discussed the Palestine situation with the Under-Secretary of State, Edward Stettinius. After telling Roosevelt of their difficulties regarding Palestine, Stettinius wrote in his diary, that Roosevelt felt confident that he would be able to “iron out” the whole Arab-Jewish issue. “He thinks Palestine should be for the Jews and no Arabs should be in it”, continued Stettinius, “and he has definite ideas on the subject. It should be exclusive Jewish territory.”(35)
Roosevelt developed his ideas for the transfer of the Arabs from Palestine during the last six or seven years of his life. His views became more extreme as time progressed. Originally recommending the transfer of two hundred thousand Arabs, he eventually stated unequivocally that “Palestine should be for the Jews and no Arabs should be in it.”
Almost all the statements on this subject are written not by Roosevelt himself, but by the various people he worked and met with. This however, is characteristic of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As Selig Adler wrote, “But FDR (Roosevelt) was a man who always had one eye cocked on historians who would someday assess his role in history. He tried to cover his historical tracks, using unrecorded telephone conversations and unrecorded private interviews. As a result, the Roosevelt papers, too, are not as rich as one would hope.”(36)