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Biltmore Conference  Definition

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Biltmore Conference - The Biltmore conference was held in the Biltmore Hotel in New York City on May 6-11, 1942. It was held in lieu of a regular Zionist congress, which was prevented by World War II.  

The 1939 British White Paper had closed Jewish immigration to Palestine and limited or barred land purchases. Effectively, it had rescinded the Balfour Declaration and reneged on the British commitment to a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The White paper brought about the eclipse of the President of the Zionist Organization, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who had been the architect of the Zionist policy of cooperation with the British, and who had been instrumental in obtaining the Balfour declaration. In Nazi-occupied Europe, there were still millions of Jews trapped in the Nazi occupation, and the Zionists were looking desperately for a wa y to get them out, though it is not clear how much was known of Nazi plans for the extermination of European Jewry was known at this time.

Though the World Zionist Congress had been cancelled owing to the war, a small group of leaders met in the Biltmore Hotel in New York on May 6-11 of 1942. This included Weizmann, David Ben-Gurion as Chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, and Nahum Goldman as a member of the Executive. Weizmann had hoped that this conference would reaffirm his position as head of the World Zionist movement, but a somewhat different sentiment developed. The conference adopted a series of resolutions calling for:

"the fulfillment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate"

"to found there a Jewish Commonwealth"

"unalterable rejection of the White Paper of May 1939"

"that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world"

Though the resolutions claimed to reaffirm the original purpose of the Balfour declaration, they went somewhat beyond the original declaration. The British, in their most favorable policy declarations, had always stated that it was their intention to make Palestine a Jewish National Home, and NOT a "commonwealth", or independent state as Weizmann had sometimes stated informally. Though Balfour himself, and Winston Churchill had both made statements privately receptive of the idea of a Jewish state, neither had said so in any public statement, and neither had any other British official. Zionist officials had been careful to steer away from a concrete demand for a state except when it was offered in the Peel Commission Report.

Moreover, beginning with The Churchill White Paper of 1922 in particular, the British had emphasized that a Jewish national home would be formed in Palestine, that is, in a part of Palestine.  The Biltmore resolution now declared that the Zionists desired that all of Palestine would be a Jewish "commonwealth."

The Biltmore Program was a very important turning point in the development of the Zionist movement, which increasingly saw itself as opposed to Britain rather than a collaborator of Britain. It officially set the goal of an independent Jewish state as the goal of the Zionist movement, and it determined that henceforth Ben-Gurion and Zionist executive in Palestine, rather than Weizmann, would lead the Zionist movement and determine policy toward the British. The announcement of the intention to form a state was not new, since the Zionists had accepted the Peel Commission Report which had called for creation of two states in Palestine. However, it was the first time that Zionist and non-Zionists alike had called for establishment of a Jewish state.

There was, likewise no intention to remove the Arabs of Palestine implied in this declaration. It was not part of any sinister international Jewish conspiracy as some assert, but rather a desperate attempt to save the trapped Jews of Europe. In 1942, there were still about 5 or 6 million Jews living in Western Europe, and it was still possible to believe that immigration of some of these Jews to Palestine would create the majority needed for the Jewish commonwealth as well as saving them from Nazi persecution. The resolutions included a conciliatory paragraph:

...The Jewish people in its own work of national redemption welcomes the economic, agricultural and national development of the Arab peoples and states. The Conference reaffirms the stand previously adopted at Congresses of the World Zionist Organization, expressing the readiness and the desire of the Jewish people for full cooperation with their Arab neighbours.

The resolutions were designed to appeal to American Jews, who had supported Jewish statehood since the Peel plan of 1937, and they did appeal to American Jews. Weizmann was at least willing to live with the program, which in fact had been drafted by his close aid, Meir Weisgal, and which he supported in a speech in December 1942. He viewed it however as a maximal and theoretical demand, not as a program for action. Soon after the Biltmore meeting, Ben Gurion tried to unseat Weizmann as president of the Zionist organization, arguing that he was too conciliatory and pro-British, but his arguments were rejected as baseless by American Zionists.  

The Biltmore Program was opposed by the then Marxist Hashomer Hatzair (later Mapam, Meretz) movement, which supported a binational state. They argued that in addition to closing the door to Jewish Arab reconciliation, the program would be used as an excuse by Britain to abrogate all of its responsibilities in Palestine. As they had not supported a mandate, they would certainly not be party to supporting a state. Their's was the main opposition in the councils of the Zionist movement. The Zionist action committee adopted the Biltmore programme on November 19, 1942 21 votes to 3 with 3 abstentions.

The Biltmore program was based in part on assumptions that would soon prove incorrect. At the Biltmore conference, Weizmann asserted that perhaps a quarter of European Jewry would be destroyed by the Nazis. The rest, it was assumed, would be willing to emigrate to the new Jewish state in the mass program that Ben-Gurion envisioned. By the end of 1942, news of the extermination of European Jewry was becoming available. The State Department estimated that two million Jews had already been murdered. For this reason, the eminent historian Walter Lacquer asserted that the Biltmore program was not a crucial juncture in Zionist history:

Both adherents and opponents of the Biltmore programme were mistaken in believing it was a decisive turning point in the history of Zionism. It failed to materialize because it was based on premises that were not realistic. Nor did it do much harm, as its critics at the time believed. Churchill, for instance, seems not to have been deterred by it. In April 1944 he wrote to the colonial secretary that he had always regarded the White Paper as a gross breach of faith and that the majority of the war cabinet would never agree to any positive endorsement of this policy. The Arabs in any case believed the worst as far as Zionist intentions were concerned, and did not need the Biltmore programme to confirm their suspicions. In the last resort Biltmore was not a  policy but a symbol, a slogan, reflecting the radicalization of the Zionist movement as the result of the war and of the losses suffered by the Jewish people. It foreshadowed the bitter postwar conflict with the British government. (Lacquer, Walter, A History of Zionism, 2003, pages 548-549).

Lacquer to the contrary notwithstanding, a Jewish State came into being on May 15, 1948, six years and four days later. Was it just a coincidence? A declaration by a small nationalist movement cannot be viewed in the same light as a declaration of purpose by a great power. In retrospect, it may seem "obvious" that the Zionist movement wanted an independent Jewish state. At the time it was neither obvious, nor was it known to most of the world. The Biltmore declaration became the platform for propagating this purpose.

The Zionist movement could not, of course, control the fate of European Jewry, nor did it have the armed force to compel the British to keep the letter and spirit of the mandate and the Balfour declaration. However, the Biltmore declaration was crucial nonetheless. It planted a flag that united Zionists around a common cause and made possible the understood common purpose of the post-war Jewish revolt. It explained the purpose of the Zionist struggle to the world and it provided the moral backing for that purpose in the framework of the struggle against Fascism. It made the cause of the Jewish State into a moral issue that could be recognized (and then denied) by the British Labor Party and it it made it into a viable public issue that could be brought before the President of the United States as well as the United Nations when the time came.

Ami Isseroff

Notice: Copyright

Portions of the above work are copyright by MidEastWeb for coexistence and were adapted from material posted by the author at MidEastWeb: Middle East. The text of the declaration is in the public domain. 

adopted by the Extraordinary Zionist Conference at the Biltmore Hotel of New York City, May 11, 1942

The following programme was approved by a Zionist Conference held in the Biltmore Hotel, New York City:

1. American Zionists assembled in this Extraordinary Conference reaffirm their unequivocal devotion to the cause of democratic freedom and international justice to which the people of the United States, allied with the other United Nations, have dedicated themselves, and give expression to their faith in the ultimate victory of humanity and justice over lawlessness and brute force.

2. This Conference offers a message of hope and encouragement to their fellow Jews in the Ghettos and concentration camps of Hitler-dominated Europe and prays that their hour of liberation may not be far distant.

3. The Conference sends its warmest greetings to the Jewish Agency Executive in Jerusalem, to the Va`ad Leumi, and to the whole Yishuv in Palestine, and expresses its profound admiration for their steadfastness and achievements in the face of peril and great difficulties ...

4. In our generation, and in particular in the course of the past twenty years, the Jewish people have awakened and transformed their ancient homeland; from 50,000 at the end of the last war their numbers have increased to more than 500,000. They have made the waste places to bear fruit and the desert to blossom. Their pioneering achievements in agriculture and in industry, embodying new patterns of cooperative endeavour, have written a notable page in the history of colonization.

5. In the new values thus created, their Arab neighbours in Palestine have shared. The Jewish people in its own work of national redemption welcomes the economic, agricultural and national development of the Arab peoples and states. The Conference reaffirms the stand previously adopted at Congresses of the World Zionist Organization, expressing the readiness and the desire of the Jewish people for full cooperation with their Arab neighbours.

6. The Conference calls for the fulfillment of the original purpose of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate which recognizing the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine' was to afford them the opportunity, as stated by President Wilson, to found there a Jewish Commonwealth. The Conference affirms its unalterable rejection of the White Paper of May 1939 and denies its moral or legal validity. The White Paper seeks to limit, and in fact to nullify Jewish rights to immigration and settlement in Palestine, and, as stated by Mr. Winston Churchill in the House of Commons in May 1939, constitutes `a breach and repudiation of the Balfour Declaration'. The policy of the White Paper is cruel and indefensible in its denial of sanctuary to Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution; and at a time when Palestine has become a focal point in the war front of the United Nations, and Palestine Jewry must provide all available manpower for farm and factory and camp, it is in direct conflict with the interests of the allied war effort.

7. In the struggle against the forces of aggression and tyranny, of which Jews were the earliest victims, and which now menace the Jewish National Home, recognition must be given to the right of the Jews of Palestine to play their full part in the war effort and in the defence of their country, through a Jewish military force fighting under its own flag and under the high command of the United Nations.

8. The Conference declares that the new world order that will follow victory cannot be established on foundations of peace, justice and equality, unless the problem of Jewish homelessness is finally solved. The Conference urges that the gates of Palestine be opened; that the Jewish Agency be vested with control of immigration into Palestine and with the necessary authority for upbuilding the country, including the development of its unoccupied and uncultivated lands; and that Palestine be established as a Jewish Commonwealth integrated in the structure of the new democratic world.

Then and only then will the age old wrong to the Jewish people be righted.

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Biltmore Program

Further Information: 

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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Biltmore Conference