The Proposal Balfour Rejected: A Jewish State in the Persian Gulf

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Lord Balfour
Lord BalfourCredit: Agence RoI

BERLIN - On September 12, 1917, the British ambassador to France, Lord Francis Bertie received a letter with an odd request: Dr M. L. Rothstein, a Russian Jewish doctor living in France, requested that Bertie assist him in founding a Jewish state. In essence, Rothstein requested that the British government send forces to conquer Al-Hasa, a desert oasis located in present-day eastern Saudi Arabia. Rothstein wrote that his goal was to found a Jewish state in the Persian Gulf.

The letter, typed in French on a typewriter, was revealed last week on the British Library blog. Rothstein's very detailed request read: “I undertake to assemble, for next spring, a Jewish fighting troop, a force of 120,000 strong men.” These men were supposedly meant to join British forces in conquering the area where the Jewish state would be founded. Rothstein admitted in his letter that at first glance, the plan seemed “illogical,” but he promised that it would become serious as the first 1,000 men traveled to the area.

According to the plan, after 30,000 men conquer Bahrain, a quick assault on the Turkish Al-Hasa province would make it ripe for founding a Jewish state. Following the invasion, Rothstein estimated that Turkey would declare war, but assured Bertie that the “Jewish forces would quickly enter the fray until final victory.”

Rothstein wasn’t entirely accurate on this point, as a few years earlier, Al-Hasa had passed from Ottoman rule into the hands of Ibn Saud, founder of the Saudi Arabian kingdom and its first king. The British had even signed an agreement with Saud, recognizing him as ruler of the area.

Either way, Rothstein’s proposal was reviewed by the British Foreign Minister, Arthur James Balfour, who ultimately rejected the plan. Balfour’s secretary sent a letter to Bertie on October 3, 1917, in which he asked the British ambassador to inform Rothstein that “His Majesty’s Government regret that they cannot give effect to his proposals.”

A map of the oasis of Al-Hasa, where Dr. Rothstein proposed a Jewish state be established.Credit: British Library

Who was this Jewish doctor who proposed forming a Jewish army that would carve a Jewish state out of Turkish territory with British protection? Daniel Lowe, an Arabic language and Gulf history specialist, who researched the letter for the British Library, wrote on the library’s website that sufficient documentation, evidence and biographical information on Rothstein is lacking, though Lowe believed that the doctor’s plan wasn’t part of any organized movement.

Rothstein’s plan for founding a Jewish state outside of Palestine wasn’t the only such proposal to be rejected, of course. Similar plans in Uganda, Argentina, Russia and Cyprus were all suggested as options for a Jewish national home.

British diplomat Francis BertieCredit: Agence Rol

A month after Britain turned down Rothstein’s plan, Balfour himself published his famous declaration in favor of creating a national home for the Jewish people in what was then Palestine.

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