The King-Crane Commission of 1919 was the first of what would become a very long series of commissions of inquiry to Palestine that have been sent to investigate the violent conflict with Zionism/Israel and find a path to peace. Dispatched by US President Woodrow Wilson in the midst of the Paris Peace Conference that would divvy up the post–Ottoman Middle East among European powers, the King-Crane Commission was led by businessman Charles R. Crane and history professor and ordained minister Henry Churchill King. Wilson sent them and seven other men to Palestine and the region to assess “the state of opinion there with regard to [the post–Ottoman Middle East], and the social, racial, and economic conditions” that obtained, in order to guide the Peace Conference in assigning mandates. As stated in the commission report, the goal was to ensure “that President Wilson and the American people may act with full knowledge of the facts in any policy they may be called upon hereafter to adopt concerning the problems of the Near East—whether in the Peace Conference or in the League of Nations.”
The King-Crane Commission excited great interest among the people of Palestine. The Arabic press followed the progress of the commission’s appointment and travels assiduously. Encouraging this interest were the public pronouncements of the US president. In his famous “Fourteen Points” speech to Congress on 8 January 1918, Wilson had promised that “the interests of the populations concerned” would guide the postwar settlement and that the “nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development.” In another speech to Congress on 11 February, he reassured the “concerned” populations that self-determination was “not a mere phrase” but “an imperative principle of actio[n].”
The Arabs in Syria, including the inhabitants of “southern Syria”—Palestine—looked forward with apparent hope to establishing their own independent state. The General Syrian Congress, which convened in Damascus in June-July 1919 during the commission’s journey, called for the independence of Syria and the preservation of its unity and affirmed that “there should be no separation of the southern part of Syria, known as Palestine, nor of the littoral western zone which includes Lebanon, from the Syrian country.” People debated how to represent their political demands to the Americans in numerous newspaper articles and op-eds. There were those who expressed their doubts about the commission in the regional press, questioning the sincerity of American promises. But the general attitude was one of hopeful anticipation. Newspapers described the commission as carrying out a “great historic job” that was awaited with “impatience” by the Arabs of the Middle East.
The commission was originally planned to include representatives of Britain and France. Neither government was keen on the investigation, however; they had little interest in learning about the Arabs’ negative opinions about their imperial greed. There was some evidence that British officers sought to orchestrate the commission’s reception in Palestine to influence who and what they would hear. According to William Yale, a “technical advisor” with the investigators, the British military governor in Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, boasted that he could put the commission “in his pocket when it arrived in Palestine.” Yale proudly records in his papers that he steered the commission to land in Jaffa without informing the British military ahead of time, to ensure the investigators free access to those they wished to see. In Beirut, French officials attempted to handpick only Arab representatives who would tell the commission of their pro-French views. But throughout their sojourn the investigators heard from a wide range of people with varying viewpoints, from political notables to workers, women, and tradespeople. And what they heard from most people in Palestine was a demand for political independence.
Palestinians—like others—understood Wilson’s pronouncements to mean that they too would enjoy national independence, free of imperial or settler-colonial oppression. It was the people’s choice that Arab unity and autonomy be recognized. Those who represented southern Syria—a term which became synonymous with Palestine—to the commission believed that it was only just that Palestine remain a “natural part” of Greater Syria, since, in their view, it was an integral, national part with religious, linguistic, moral, economic, and geographical links. They believed that religious tolerance and democratic procedures of self-governance were the ideals that would organize international life for all and that their commitment to representative democracy was shared with the westerners deciding the fate of the peoples left in the defeated empires. With its professed commitment to listening to public opinion, fostering representative government, and respecting the facts, the King-Crane Commission inspired optimism that imperialism in the Middle East was at an end.
Starting their tour in Jaffa, the committee spent 10 days of their 42-day journey in Palestine. They heard the statements of delegations and collected petitions from diverse groups. According to the commission’s classification of the delegations, those whom they saw included religious leaders, merchants, mayors, notables, shaykhs, administrative council members, tribal representatives, farmers, and some groups of women. A majority of the 260 petitions that the commission collected in Palestine—each containing the signature or seal of dozens of claimants—included appeals against the Zionist project, rejecting the idea that Jews were a distinct people entitled to unique political rights. Arab political representatives from Palestine prophesied their destruction to the commission’s American diplomats: “If the Jews come to our land, they do not come to coexist and share it with us, but with the intent to wipe us out, and build their nation upon the ruins of our own.” Akram Zu‘aytir, Palestinian nationalist and contemporary chronicler, recorded that the commission recognized the Arabs’ mature nationalism and believed that the commission was impressed by the unified way in which they had expressed their political demands. He reported that congratulations poured in from across the country to the people of Palestine for their “great success, their credible nationalism, and their strong agreement.”
Although Arab representatives to the commission conveyed their political wishes with logical argumentation, offering their views in reasoned discourse and proving their commitment to democratic politics, some of the Americans who could hear only inappropriate emotions remained skeptical. Yale was unimpressed by the Arabs’ orderly displays, unconvinced that they were sufficiently bound by nationalist loyalty. In the intense efforts of Arab representatives to ensure that the demands they presented to the commission were indeed representative of their people, they presented their petitions calling for a non-sectarian state with democratic protections for minority rights. But Yale detected religious fanaticism and worrying tones of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. Arab objections to western tutelage emerged from “profound anti-western feeling,” Yale reckoned, not nationalist feeling.
A distinctive aspect of this commission was the fact that it recorded, quite faithfully, the wishes of the region’s Arabs, the majority of whom called for the establishment of a democratic constitutional monarchy in a unified Greater Syria, emphasizing that religious minorities would be ensured equal status in such an independent state. The commission heard assurances from many in Palestine that in their future state, native Jews and Christians would be considered citizens with equal rights and duties, distinguishing between colonizing Zionists and the indigenous Jewish residents of Palestine. The King-Crane Commission recommended that the Zionist program develop a limited Jewish national homeland in Palestine, which makes the report significant in the history of the Arab-Zionist conflict. The commission report also recommended that the United States act as mandatory power for the new Syrian state, which would include Palestine and Lebanon.
Palestinians’ demands for national independence within Greater Syria were convincing to many members of the King-Crane Commission, but they did not sway the Westerners who decided the fate of Palestine and other Arabs after World War I. They failed to convince the Western powers to grant them independence as an Arab nation-state. Palestine was given over as a national home to the Zionists under British protection and the rest of Greater Syria was likewise doled out to the Western powers under the League of Nations mandatory scheme. US President Wilson may not have seen a copy of the report, which was not publicly circulated until 1922 when the Editor and Publisher magazine published it finally, with summaries and translations published in Arabic newspapers.
Although the King-Crane report made no impact at the time—some members of the commission believed that the State Department and Zionists were responsible for repressing the report—it stands as a testament to and evidence of the political values and international legal principles that predominated in the region of the time: democracy, representative government, equal citizenship, minority protections. Had these values been respected and independence granted to the Arabs who were demanding it, perhaps the subsequent century of conflict and bloodshed could have been avoided.
Allen, Lori. A History of False Hope: Investigative Commissions in Palestine. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020.
Allen, Lori. “Determining Emotions and the Burden of Proof in Investigative Commissions to Palestine.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 59, no.2 (2-17): 385–414.
Arsan, Andrew. “Versailles: Arab Desires, Arab Futures.” Public Books, January 26, 2021. https://www.publicbooks.org/versailles-arab-desires-arab-futures/
Crane, Charles K. and Henry Churchill King. “Report of the American Section of the International Commission on Mandates in Turkey.” In Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, The Paris Peace Conference, 1919, Volume XII. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1947.
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Makdisi, Ussama. Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.–Arab Relations: 1820–2001. New York: Public Affairs/ Perseus Books, 2010.
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