Skip to main content

Who Created the Israel-Palestine Conflict?

It wasn’t really Jews or Palestinians. It was the U.S. Congress, which closed American borders 100 years ago this month.

The Jewish population of Palestine by the end of the First World War was just 60,000, roughly one-tenth of the overall population.,Oded Balilty/AP Photo

Without either side even noticing it, we’re coming up on the centenary of the most decisive event in the fraught history of the Israel-Palestine relationship. It was not the 1896 publication of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist manifesto, nor the 1917 Balfour Declaration in which the United Kingdom pledged its support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was not the 1948 founding of the Israeli state and subsequent Nakba—the expulsion of many thousands of Palestinians from Israel. Nor was it Israel’s occupation, following the 1967 war, of what had been Palestinian territories, or either of the two intifadas.

Rather, it was the enactment on May 26, 1924, of the Johnson-Reed Act by the Congress of the United States.

Fueled chiefly by white Protestant xenophobic fear and rage at Jews and Catholics flowing into the United States since the 1880s, the act effectively outlawed immigration from Russia, Poland, Italy, and all of Eastern and Southern Europe. Had that pre-Trumpian wall not gone up on America’s borders, there’s no reason to think there ever would have been more than a trickle of Jews moving to Palestine.

Consider the numbers, and whence they came. The ascension of Tsar Alexander III to the Russian throne in 1881 made state support for violent antisemitism a major priority of Russia’s government, which also ruled Poland until 1918. Bloody pogroms became a regular feature of Jewish life (and death) among the roughly five million who lived under the Tsar’s rule. Not surprisingly, millions began to leave: Approximately 2,367,000 Jews fled Europe from 1881 to 1914, when the outbreak of World War I made any such travel impossible.

Consider the numbers, and where they went. Of those 2,367,000 Jews (the vast majority from Russia and Poland) who left between 1881 and the outbreak of the war, 2,022,000 went to the United States. That’s 85 percent of the European émigrés. Just 3 percent made the trek to Palestine. The Jewish population of Palestine by the end of the First World War was just 60,000, roughly one-tenth of the overall population. At the time, more Jews had come to Canada or Argentina than had come to Palestine.

To be sure, a journey from Minsk to Tel Aviv was arduous, but so was a journey from Minsk to Hamburg or Bremen, and then to the Lower East Side. Next year in Jerusalem? Apparently not.

Large-scale immigration to the U.S. recommenced with the end of World War I, but anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic sentiment was exploding in the American heartland. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan was soaring, and that iteration of the Klan, unlike its 19th-century predecessor, directed most of its ire at the immigrants, who they thought threatened America’s white Protestant identity.

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 effectively outlawed immigration from Russia, Poland, Italy, and all of Eastern and Southern Europe.

This was not simply a backlash of the lumpen; the xenophobia infected much of the nation’s business and political elites, and had a distinguished Brahmin pedigree. Massachusetts’s Republican senator and Mayflower descendant Henry Cabot Lodge had been introducing bills to ban the immigration of Jews and Catholics for many years, and Congress put some preliminary restrictions in place in 1922, before Johnson-Reed slammed America’s Atlantic door shut two years later. (Its Pacific door had largely been slammed shut four decades earlier with the Chinese Exclusion Act, whose scope Johnson-Reed expanded to include—by excluding—all East Asians.)

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

Johnson-Reed, named for Rep. Albert Johnson (R-WA) and Sen. David Reed (R-PA), had two aspects. The first restricted the yearly number of immigrants from anywhere who could come to the United States to 150,000—nothing like the million-plus who’d been coming in the years preceding the World War. The second established annual limits on who could come from particular countries, setting quotas that effectively limited immigration to people coming from Northwest Europe.

That was accomplished by setting the level of immigrants from particular countries to match the percentages of the nations of origin of Americans who were tallied in the 1890 census, when damn few Americans either came, or had their ancestors come, from places like Russia and Poland. A 1927 amendment to Johnson-Reed made those strictures a tad less Nordic and Aryan, but even under those, just 10.4 percent of the 150,000 immigrants admitted annually could come from all the nations of Eastern Europe: Russia (by then, the USSR), Poland, the Baltics, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The hundreds of thousands who’d been coming each year from those nations were reduced to 15,400.

Not surprisingly, it was only then that Jewish immigration to Palestine began to soar, particularly after the Nazis took power in Germany and antisemitic movements and governments came to dominate Poland, Hungary, and much of the rest of Eastern Europe. The 3 percent of Jewish emigrants from Europe who were going to Palestine before the U.S. closed off its border soared to 46 percent from 1932 to 1939, as the Nazis took over Germany and loomed as a threat over the rest of Europe.

Which is to say that the appeal to European (or non-European) Jews of Zionism—of building a Jewish state—was not so persuasive that they chose to go to Palestine over other non-European options, the U.S. in particular, while those other options were still very real. Rather, after 1924, they came to Palestine for the same reason they had come to America: to get the hell out of a Europe where simply being Jewish was in itself dangerous. Like many of the hundreds of thousands of would-be immigrants who today trek to our southern border, they felt driven to leave their homelands and flocked to a place where they thought they could get in.

That, in and of itself, was not settler colonialism, though Zionism per se did have those aspects. Many, perhaps most, of the first generations of Zionists were also socialists, for whom the appeal of building genuinely socialist institutions like the kibbutzim was part of Zionism’s appeal. Then again, many of the Jewish immigrants who came to America were socialists, too, and they built social democratic institutions like the clothing unions and socialist political parties. In Palestine, of course, those Zionist socialist institutions were explicitly Jewish, though the ferociously anti-Palestinian wing of Zionism was centered among the explicitly anti-socialist and ultranationalist Jabotinskyites.

Ultranationalism is a politics that almost invariably creates ultranationalism in its opposing camp, and the synergies between both Palestinian and Jewish ultranationalists had both so determined to overthrow Britain’s rule over Palestine and then establish their own (Jew-free or Palestinian-free) state that each camp had elements that tried to enlist Nazi Germany in their cause. Lehi (the Stern Gang) made overtures to Hitler during World War II to join them in attacking the Brits, while the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, actually spent World War II in Germany, trying to arrange a meeting with Hitler in the hope that Germany’s war on the Jews might be extended to Palestine.

There’s plenty that both sides need to answer for over the contested history of Israel and Palestine, and there’s no question that Israel’s occupation and suppression of Palestinian territories since 1967 has been a catastrophe for Palestinians, not to mention a moral catastrophe for Israelis—in both cases, never more so than right now. But the real author of the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy is the American xenophobia, nativism, and bigotry that planted the seeds for that conflict 100 years ago this month, and that, wielded against other peoples fleeing for their safety to the banks of the Rio Grande, is malignantly alive and well in America today.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of The American Prospect.

Used with the permission. The American Prospect,, 2024. All rights reserved.

You can count on the Prospect, can we count on you?

There's no paywall here. Your donations power our newsroom as we report on ideas, politics and power — and what’s really at stake as we navigate another presidential election year. Please, become a member, or make a one-time donation, today. Thank you!