In the wake of World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman and German forces, leaders of the Allied Powers set out to reorganize Europe and, in particular, the wide reach of the defeated Ottoman Empire. As part of the effort to do so, a conference took place in London in the winter of 1920, followed by the San Remo Conference in Italy which convened 102 years ago this week.
San Remo was significant in many ways, but it’s perhaps best known for the partitioning of the Ottoman-controlled Middle East. It established an irreversible precedent and support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Given how dramatic the outcome of San Remo was, it's surprising that remains among the least known, recognized, and celebrated milestones of Israel’s establishment.
The participating leaders representing Britain, France, Italy and Japan convened, which resulted in the San Remo resolution – establishing “mandates” for three former Ottoman territories – and was ratified by the League of Nations. These territories included “Palestine,” “Syria,” and “Mesopotamia.”
This resolution followed the 1915-1916 McMahon–Hussein correspondence and the secret 1916 Sykes–Picot Agreement, which albeit contradictory, established a precedent for independent Arab states under handpicked leadership by the French and British, based on alliances and commitments to advance their respective interests.
McMahon-Hussein committed to Arab independence in exchange for support against the Ottomans, and Sykes-Picot divided up the Ottoman Empire even before the end and loss of World War I.
San Remo essentially divided up the remnants of the defeated Ottoman Empire which controlled much of the Middle East for some 400 years. San Remo provided exclusive legal and political rights in “Palestine” to the Jews, and set aside similar rights for Arabs in the rest of the Arab world. The “mandates” for Syria, Mesopotamia, and Palestine were established under French and British control. They were empowered to carry out the mandates until the respective territories could "stand alone." The British mandate for Palestine included all of Israel and modern Jordan, and Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. France gained control of Syria, including modern Lebanon.
The San Remo resolution was adopted on April 25, 1920 and incorporated the historic 1917 Balfour Declaration. Through the Balfour Declaration, the British government committed to “the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” This became a central foundation upon which the British Mandate for Palestine was established. Under Balfour, a world power went on record as prioritizing the establishment of a Jewish state. By incorporating Balfour into San Remo, which was adopted by the League of Nations and signed by 51 countries, there was now world recognition, affirmation and commitment to it.
While many interpreted that the commitment under Balfour to establish a Jewish state in Palestine did not include eastern Palestine, today’s Jordan, if did affirm that Britain would be “responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on the 8th November, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
In short, San Remo affirmed Jewish rights to the land of Israel, and established the legal foundation and borders of Israel under international law. It was so significant that British Lord George Curzon is said to have called it “Israel’s Magna Carta.”
The significance of San Remo drew attention from the United States and representatives of the Jewish leadership of Israel at the time, including Chaim Weizmann, who would become Israel’s first president nearly two decades later. It was especially noteworthy that the conference took place immediately following Passover, when Jewish people celebrate their liberation and exodus from slavery in Egypt. So noteworthy, in fact, that Weizmann declared the Jewish state was born on April 25, 1920 in San Remo.
Not since the Balfour Declaration was there such a significant milestone toward re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. San Remo was celebrated widely by Jewish communities across the world. This would not happen again until the 1947 UN partition vote and Israel’s May 1948 declaration of independence.
The division of the former Ottoman Empire under San Remo established many precedents toward the formation of a Jewish state. Lord Arthur Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration on behalf of the British government, explained that it provided a niche for the Jewish people within the predominantly Arab-controlled Middle East.
Howard Grief, author of “The Legal Foundation and Borders of Israel Under International Law” explains that the San Remo resolution supersedes even later UN resolutions, according to a precedent in international law that once you recognize a certain situation and execute it, you cannot reverse or change it.
It’s understandable why Balfour and the 1947 UN partition plan are celebrated as significant milestones. They are. But San Remo was an inextricable link between the two. The adopted resolution represented for the first time in 2000 years – since the Roman conquering of Israel – the destruction of the Second Temple. It also marked the ensuing exile, causing the international community to call for the establishment and restoration of a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel. With 51 world powers and the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, adopting the San Remo resolution, it not only established the legal right for Jews to settle in Israel, but mandated the world’s obligation to help do so.
While San Remo and all the other events leading up to the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel are significant, whether the players in this process were cognizant of it – or motivated by it – ultimately, they all simply affirm the biblical authority and promise by God to do so.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He is married and the father of six. Throughout his life and career, he has become a respected bridge between Jews and Christians and serves as president of the Genesis 123 Foundation. He writes regularly on major Christian websites about Israel and shares experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel. He is host of the popular Inspiration from Zion podcast. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.