Fools never differ
So this is the centenary of the famous (some will say infamous) Balfour Declaration. And these days, anything to do with Zionism and Israel causes a real furore. Journalists waste tons of hapless ink, activists work themselves into a frenzy and politicians exploit the opportunity to attract a few votes – or at least some attention.
The lines seem to be clearly drawn: if you are pro-Israel, you celebrate; if you are anti-Israel – you mourn, accuse, threaten to sue and demand apologies. It depends whether one thinks that the birth of the Jewish state was a good outcome – or a very bad deed.
But on one thing everybody seems to agree: that the Declaration was a momentous event, one which set in motion a process leading directly to the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
The none-too-friendly (from an Israeli point of view) The Guardian writes:
The promise by Arthur Balfour, then foreign secretary, led to the British mandate, mass Jewish immigration and eventually to the creation of Israel in the wake of the second world war and the Holocaust, and to the Palestinian ‘Nakba’ (catastrophe).
Israel’s supporters appear to agree (except for the Nakba bit, obviously). In a recent tweet, Matthew Offord, Tory MP for Hendon, states:
Proud to lead the debate on the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a document which led to birth of Israel.
So it’s obvious, ‘innit? The Balfour Declaration led to the creation of the State of Israel. Oh wow! Rarely have I seen more poignant evidence that ‘fools never differ’. So let’s demolish a few myths here.
What was the Balfour Declaration?
Let’s start with what it wasn’t: it was not an international instrument, an agreement between states. Or any kind of agreement, for that matter: signed by then Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and addressed to Jewish magnate Lionel Walter Rothschild, this was a unilateral statement. Of course, unilateral undertakings can sometimes constitute unbreakable commitments. Except this one wasn’t unbreakable – in fact it wasn’t even a commitment. It’s worth reading again the text of the ‘Declaration’:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.
Note the ‘woolly’ quality of the terms: “view with favour”, rather than ‘supports’; “will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”, rather than ‘will secure this objective’. And what the heck is “a national home” (except, that is, an ill-defined euphemism never used before or since, except in a Jewish context)?
The wording (carefully chiselled over a few months) is designed to obfuscate. This becomes even more obvious if one examines the evolution of the document through a number of drafts: the clear commitment initially proposed by the Zionists is gradually diluted with each subsequent version – until it morphs into the final ‘woolly’ product. To give just one example, the term ‘homeland’ employed in the early drafts turns into ‘national home’.
Let’s also point out that the Declaration was bereft of any practical details: it said nothing about how “this object” was to be achieved, or when. No plan of action reinforced the vague, feeble statement of intention.
In its final, official form, the Declaration was very far from an enforceable commitment; it wasn’t even a clear-cut promise. In fact, His Majesty’s Government was in no position to promise anything – even if they genuinely wanted to: progressing north from Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, the British forces had barely reached a front line stretching from the small coastal town of Gaza to the even smaller oasis settlement of Beer Sheba in the Negev Desert. The bulk of ‘Palestine’ (the populated and fertile landmass, including the major towns) was still under Ottoman control and there was no certainty that it could be taken by the British Army. But even if that happened, it still was no foregone conclusion that His Majesty’s Government could dispose as they pleased of that (ill-defined) piece of territory. Like the entire Levant, ‘Palestine’ was subject to some half-baked understandings with the French, as well as – arguably – with the British Empire’s newly found ally, Hussein the Sharif (Lord) of Mecca.
In other words, the British Government was ‘offering’ the Jews something it did not yet possess and that was arguably not in its gift anyway. But the truth is that the Declaration was not actually offering anything; this was the oldest trick in the book: if you want a dog to run, dangle some prized bait in front of its eager nose. The Jews were the dog in this instance; but where to exactly were they expected to run?
Why was the Declaration issued?
Much has been written, in the intervening century, about the British government’s motivations in issuing the declaration. Some of these writings are really touching – but only because of their enormous stupidity. Take, for instance an article hammered a few years ago by a certain Josh Glancy for the Jewish Chronicle and entitled ‘Chaim Weizmann and how the Balfour Declaration was made in Manchester’. According to Josh (or, rather, according to the third rate ‘sources’ he recycled), there were three main reasons why the Declaration was granted:
- David Lloyd George and Balfour were ‘Christian Zionists’ – they wanted to help the Jews out of religious conviction;
- Chaim Weizmann (who happened to be a talented chemist as well as an ardent Zionist) helped the British war effort by inventing a process to make acetone – a substance used to make high explosives.
- Chaim Weizmann was a charming individual able to ‘schmooze’ the British political elite into granting him personal favours.
The irony is that all the items above are basically true – if a bit overstated. But the notion that hard-nosed British politicians award territories based on messianic impulses, gratitude for services rendered and/or feelings of personal sympathy – that notion is just ludicrous.
In fact, one does not have to use psychoanalysis (nor to recycle fanciful theories) to find the motivations that drove the likes of Lloyd George and Balfour. The latter explained his reasoning himself clearly enough – for those who, unlike Josh Glancy, bother to read the minutes of the 31 October 1917 meeting of the British War Cabinet, which approved the Declaration. Those minutes record as follows:
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [Balfour] stated that […] from a purely diplomatic and political point of view, it was desirable that some declaration favourable to the aspirations of the Jewish nationalists should now be made. The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.
So there we are: the Declaration was motivated by “purely diplomatic and political” considerations. But what kind of “extremely useful propaganda” was Balfour intent on carrying on? And why “in Russia and America”, of all places?
Well, it’s 31 October 1917; the world is convulsed by the greatest, bloodiest military confrontation ever known – World War I. It is a war of empires: the British, French and Russian Empires (the so-called Entente Cordiale) have taken on the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires (a.k.a. the Central Powers). It’s not just about who fights better, but also about which of the blocs can attract strong allies to fight on their side. In April 1917, USA formally enters the war. But it does so gingerly and half-heartedly. It declares war on Germany, but not on Germany’s allies. Many American politicians are reluctant to send ‘American boys’ to die in what they see as ‘somebody else’s war’. In the East, another mighty ally – Russia – is in the throes of revolution; for the new powers that be in Petrograd – and especially for the Bolsheviks – this is also ‘somebody else’s war’. Britain needs one ally – USA – to fully join the battle; it needs the other ally – Russia – to battle on. And in the rather antisemitic minds of ‘Christian Zionists’ Lloyd George and Balfour, Jews hold enormous power in both America and Russia. Enough power to push the former full speed into the war and prevent the latter from bailing out.
If only, of course, one could dangle a suitable bait in front of those Jewish noses…
How ‘momentous’ was the Declaration?
If we are to believe Ian Black, Middle East Editor at The Guardian the Balfour Declaration “led to the British mandate [of Palestine]”.
Did it, really? True, the Declaration was referenced in the text of the Mandate – which would seem to vindicate Mr. Black’s contention. But only if one ignores the much more ‘momentous’ Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was already being negotiated 2 years prior to the Declaration, under Lloyd George’s and Balfour’s predecessors. Finally signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement included much of the future Mandate of Palestine in the ‘British Sphere [of influence]’, with the rest an ill-defined ‘International Sphere’ (which, in diplomatic terms of the time, probably meant ‘we’ll decide about that later’).
In reality, European/Christian powers (Britain, France, Italy, as well as Germany and Russia) have long coveted ‘Palestine’ – not for its potential as ‘Jewish national home’, but because of the putative prestige imparted by control of the Christian holy sites.
But by 1917 religion was becoming less important in European politics; and prestige has always been a rather intangible asset. Britain had a more pragmatic reason: in the minds of early 20th century politicians, who thought in terms of land and sea (rather than aerial) journeys, ‘Palestine’ sat across the route linking the British Isles with the all-important jewel of the imperial crown – India. So did ‘Mesopotamia’ (future Iraq) – which is why that territory was also included in the ‘British Sphere’. In fact, when the British diplomats eventually drafted the mandates, they included ‘Palestine’ and ‘Mesopotamia’ in one document; both were, after all, supposed to serve the same imperial interest.
Needless to say, nobody bothered to write a Balfour-like declaration concerning Mesopotamia, or concerning any of the other 10 territories wrestled away from the defeated powers and awarded as ‘League of Nations Mandates’ to the victors.
The Balfour Declaration did not lead to the British Mandate; what led to the mandate was imperial interests and the age-old custom of dividing the ‘spoils of war’ among the victors. A custom for which the League of Nations mandates provided just a modern veneer.
But what about Mr. Black’s next assumption, that the Balfour Declaration “led to […] mass Jewish immigration”? Unsurprisingly, that statement is also demonstrably false. What Europeans called ‘Palestine’ the Jews have called, for thousands of years ‘Land of Israel’. It was frequently mentioned in the Judaic scriptures, traditions and daily prayers. As individuals and small groups, Jews have always tried to reach ‘Palestine’ and settle there. But what about ‘mass immigration’? Historically, there have been 5 waves of Jewish ‘mass immigration’ (i.e. thousands and tens of thousands of people) before the establishment of the State of Israel. The first such wave (known as the First Aliyah in Zionist chronology) took place between 1882 and 1903 and saw the arrival in ‘Palestine’ of around 30,000 Jews – mainly from Eastern Europe and Yemen. The Second Aliyah lasted between 1904 and 1914, bringing to ‘Palestine circa 35,000 Jews, mostly from the Russian Empire and Yemen.
The Balfour Declaration could not have led to these waves of ‘mass immigration’ – unless, that is, Mr. Black believes that those 65,000 Jews that immigrated between 1882 and 1914 had somehow foreseen the Declaration issued in November 1917.
The “mass Jewish immigration” started long before the Declaration, when ‘Palestine’ was a rather nondescript, under-developed part of the Ottoman Empire. It practically stopped during the Great War and resumed afterwards.
The Ottomans did not lift a finger to stop that immigration. They could not be suspected of ‘Christian Zionism’; they simply did not share the European obsession with Jews – one way or another. There was plenty of nationalism which threatened to break up their multi-ethnic, multi-faith empire: Greek, Armenian, Slavic, Egyptian, Levantine and Bedouin-Arab… The Jewish flavour of it – Zionism – was at the bottom of the Sultan’s long list of worries.
No, Mr. Black: the Balfour Declaration did not lead to “mass Jewish immigration”. Jews immigrated to ‘Palestine’ not because His Majesty’s Government declared the place a ‘national home for the Jews’; but because they (the Jews) felt it was their homeland.
And what about the Mandate?
But didn’t the League of Nations Mandate require the British Government to establish the Jewish National Home and help grow it into an independent state? It certainly did; but that requirement was simply not fulfilled. In fact, the British Government repeatedly ignored, deliberately twisted and, ultimately, blatantly violated the terms of the Mandate.
Let us examine the text – and the facts.
In its all-important preamble, the Mandate explained that
recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country;
‘Historical connection’ and ‘reconstituting’ are key terms here. This was not conceived as a gift to the Jews – but as restitution of a homeland that had been unjustly taken away from them. The Preamble also nominated
His Britannic Majesty as the Mandatory for Palestine
Article 1 of the Mandate gave the Mandatory wide powers – but also curtailed them:
The Mandatory shall have full powers of legislation and of administration, save as they may be limited by the terms of this mandate.
In effect, Article 1 makes the text of the Mandate into a kind of Constitution, curbing the legislative and executive powers of the Mandatory.
So what were the main limitations and the rigid requirements included in that ‘Constitution’?
Article 5 required the Mandatory to maintain the territorial integrity of the Mandate:
The Mandatory shall be responsible for seeing that no Palestine territory shall be ceded or leased to, or in any way placed under the control of the Government of any foreign Power.
Except that the territory of ‘Palestine’ referred to by the Mandate extended on both banks of the Jordan River, i.e. it included today’s Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
In fact, soon after the Mandate was issued, the British government separated the area east of the River – which comprised three quarters of the Mandate of Palestine – into a different entity called ‘Transjordan’. It did so by using a provision it managed to sneak into the Mandate precisely for that purpose: Article 25.
In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined, the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions…
Note that Article 25 empowers the Mandatory “to postpone or withhold the application” of Mandate provisions, but not to change or violate them; it certainly did not empower it to violate Article 5 – territorial integrity.
In theory, Transjordan was still Mandate; yet in practice the British Government created Transjordan an Emirate and handed it over to the Hashemite family. In 1946, Britain did away with even the appearance of compliance: Transjordan was given its independence as a separate state. The British Government not only proceeded to recognise the new Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan (in blatant violation of Article 5); they immediately signed a Treaty of Alliance with it.
But if you think that the mandate provisions were applied at least in the remaining quarter of the Mandate of Palestine – think again.
Article 6 required:
The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
Moreover, Article 24 required the Mandatory to report annually to the Council of the League of Nations on the implementation of Mandate provisions. No doubt irked by attempts to obfuscate information in these reports, the Council even required specific questions to be answered. This is fortunate, as the historian is provided with an account (compiled by the British Administration itself) documenting its lack of compliance.
Let’s examine, for instance the Report issued in 1930 – 13 years after the territory passed under British control and circa 10 years into the Mandate regime.
Referring obviously to Article 6, the Council asked the Mandatory:
What measures have been taken to facilitate Jewish Immigration?
What are the effects of these measures?
The response to this question stretches over two pages of the Report – and is therefore too long to reproduce here. Suffice to say, however, that nothing in that response can be interpreted as ‘facilitating’ Jewish immigration. At best, the British authorities seemed to understand ‘facilitating’ as merely ‘permitting’: Jews were allowed to immigrate to the British Mandate of Palestine – just as they had been to the Ottoman sanjaks that preceded it. In fact, the British immigration policy was distinctly more restrictive than the Ottoman one: under Arab pressure, the British Government adopted the principle that immigration to Palestine should be limited to the territory’s ‘economic absorptive capacity’. This ‘principle’ (never mentioned in the Mandate and not employed anywhere else in the vast dominions of the British Empire) oddly ignored the reality – that Jewish immigration brought economic growth and increased prosperity – in favour of a hypothetic danger. The Peel Commission report was to conclude, a few years later:
The Arab population shows a remarkable increase since 1920, and it has had some share in the increased prosperity of Palestine. Many Arab landowners have benefited from the sale of land and the profitable investment of the purchase money. The fellaheen are better off on the whole than they were in 1920. This Arab progress has been partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the National Home. In particular, the Arabs have benefited from social services which could not have been provided on the existing scale without the revenue obtained from the Jews.
While on one hand the mandatory limited Jewish immigration purportedly to avoid exceeding the ‘economic absorptive capacity’, on the other hand it allowed non-Jewish immigration – including illegal immigration. As the Report states, in 1930
6,433 immigrants were admitted to Palestine, that is 3,386 men, 2,116 women, and 931 children, of whom 2,550 men, 1,700 women, and 694 children were Jewish. Included are 695 Jews, 493 Christians, 112 Moslems, and 6 Druze who had entered without permission but were allowed to remain.
But of course, the ‘economic absorptive capacity’ was nothing but a convenient excuse. The Arab opposition to Jewish immigration was caused by nationalist/religious resentment – not by genuine economic worries. The British authorities adopted the same excuse, which allowed them to restrict Jewish immigration to try and appease the Arabs, while still claiming to comply with the terms of the Mandate.
Again with reference to Article 6, the League of Nations Council queried:
What measures have been taken in co-operation with the Jewish Agency to encourage the close settlement by Jews on the land (give figures)? […] What are the effects of these measures?
The response of the Mandatory is most enlightening. It lists a total of 5 (five) cases in which – in its own estimation – it had fulfilled the mandate requirement to
encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
It is worth examining these cases, one by one:
(1) An area of approximately 45,000 dunums (a dunum is approximately a quarter of an acre), consisting of the Athlit marshes, the Zor Kabbara and Mallaha and the Caesarea sand dunes was leased in December, 1921, to the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association for a period of one hundred years, at a rental nominal at first but subject to reassessment by agreement or arbitration at intervals of thirty-three years.
We are talking here about waste land (marshes and sand dunes), which had never been claimed before – because it was considered unusable and lacking any value. Yet the lease came with strict conditions:
The lessees, under the agreement of lease with the Palestine Government, were required to complete, within eight years, the drainage of all swamps within the area leased and within a period of twenty years to reclaim and plant the sand dunes.
In other words, the Jews were required to develop the land and make it valuable. For which efforts they were to be charged a rent “nominal at first but subject to reassessment” (needless to say, the rent could only sharply increase, since the land was being developed). Still, according to the letter of the Mandate (if not its spirit), it would seem that the Mandatory authorities were doing what they were supposed to. Until, that is, one notices that this was no new initiative of the British administration. In fact it was just the completion of a deal already made with the Ottoman government!
In this case an uncompleted concession of a similar nature for part of the area leased had been under negotiation at the outbreak of war by the lessees with the Turkish Government.
But let us proceed to the next case of British compliance with Article 6 provisions:
(2) A grant to the inhabitants of Rishon-le-Zion of an area of 21,000 dunums of sand dunes adjoining the village, on the coast south of Jaffa, was made during the War by the Mejlis Idara (Administrative Council) of Jerusalem. This grant has been confirmed, and the area has been set aside as ‘Metrukeh’ (common) land for the benefit of the inhabitants of the village in common.
Mejlis Idara was the Ottoman equivalent of a County Council. In this case, too, the British mandatory administration claims credit for a transaction made with the Ottoman authorities that preceded it.
On to the next ‘case’:
(3) A lease for a hundred years to the Township of Tel-Aviv of a plot of land on the seashore abutting on Tel-Aviv for the purpose of erecting a bathing establishment, restaurant and esplanade.
This lease deals with the establishment of a public entertainment facility (a beach) of the type any local government is supposed to provide for its citizens. Clearly, this is not what the Mandate intended by “close settlement by Jews on the land”.
(4) A lease to the inhabitants of Petach-Tikvah for fifty years, renewable under fixed conditions, of the Bassa swamps adjoining the village land, on requirement to drain the swamps within five years, and cultivate or afforest the land.
Again, we are talking here about land previously seen as unusable and valueless, which the Jews were supposed to make valuable within 5 years.
(5) A lease of 6,000 dunums at Tel-Arad, near Hebron, to Jewish ex-soldiers. In this case, lack of water led to the abandonment of the plan of colonization.
“Jewish ex-soldiers” – just to make it ultra-clear – does not mean, in 1930, IDF veterans. It means ‘ex-British soldiers of Jewish persuasion’. The British authorities – emulating perhaps the practices of another empire, the Roman one – rewarded their own soldiers with a piece of (waste) land and tried to portray this as fulfilling the Mandate requirement to “encourage […] close settlement by Jews on the land”. Except that the land so generously leased proved in this case genuinely unusable.
And that’s it. In 10 years of Mandatory regime, the British authorities had
- ‘confirmed’ two transactions already made with the Ottomans;
- allowed the establishment of a beach facility;
- leased a swamp under draconic conditions; and
- leased a totally unusable plot of land to a group of British soldiers.
Over the 1921-1930 decade, that’s the entire extent of the Mandatory compliance with the Mandate requirement to “encourage […] close settlement by Jews on the land”.
But violating the Mandate provisions by omission only is hardly the entire story. In reality, almost immediately upon being granted the Mandate, Her Majesty’s Government began to adopt policies in complete contradiction first with its spirit and ultimately with its letter, as well. The more transparent portion of those policies was contained in the so-called White Papers – in effect a series of colonial decrees that (under Arab political pressure stiffened by periodic outbursts of mass violence) grew progressively harsher and departed more and more from the purpose and conditions of the Mandate.
The process culminated with the White Paper of 1939, which:
- Strictly limited Jewish immigration between 1939 and 1944 and prohibited it completely from 1945 onwards;
- Prohibited the sale of land to Jews (but not to non-Jews) in the vast majority of the Mandate.
- In effect, condemned the Jewish community in the Mandate to the status of an isolated ethno-religious and linguistic minority in an Arab Muslim state.
One cannot overstate the extent to which the 1939 White Paper violated the provisions and the very purpose of the Mandate. But the consequences of that draconic decree should not be seen only in the cold light of the law. Let us remember, instead, that this was May 1939: six months after Kristallnacht, four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland. The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants that His Majesty’s Government was so determined to keep out of Palestine were in effect refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and who had nowhere else to go. We will never know how many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust (including my maternal grandmother’s entire family) could have been saved – had the White Paper not been issued; but it is not unreasonable to assume that that number would have been in the hundreds of thousands.
Many things changed after the Holocaust, of course; but not the Mandatory attitude. The Jewish community in ‘Palestine’ may have contributed to the Ally war effort – not in the least by enrolling in the Jewish Brigade; conversely, the Arab world – initially at least – sympathised with the Axis. But there were many Arabs and much fewer Jews – and the British Government continued to prioritise perceived interests over commitments and humanity.
Europe was heaving with ‘displaced persons’ – a euphemism that, when it came to Jews, mostly meant concentration camp survivors. Many were still kept in overcrowded camps, others were roaming like ghosts upon war-devastated lands. There was overwhelming evidence that a huge majority of these wretched survivors wanted to join the Jewish National Home; they did not wish to stay in Germany or Poland; not did they wish to return and live among former neighbours who had delivered them to be slaughtered.
But the British government had no interest in the desires of Jewish survivors; its prominent ministers advocated the ‘resettlement’ of those ‘displaced persons’ in Europe – though not in Britain of course. Those refugees who tried to reach the Mandate illegally were hunted down and interned in detention camps. By May 1948, there were tens of thousands of Jews detained in British camps in Cyprus, Jews guilty of trying to illegally enter the Jewish National Home…
Meanwhile, the ‘Jewel of the British Imperial Crown’ – India – was in the process of gaining its independence. By 1947, from the point of view of British interests, the Mandate of Palestine had outlived its purpose and His Majesty’s Government swiftly and unceremoniously dropped it in the lap of the newly-formed United Nations Organisation.
But in November 1947, when the UN voted on a solution to the conflict, the United Kingdom abstained. The Partition Resolution was nonetheless adopted. This was no Declaration. It contained a practical implementation plan, including the formation of a UN Commission charged with organising and managing the transition between the Mandate and the two independent states. To enable that, the UN Resolution required the Mandatory to cooperate with the UN Commission:
The [British] administration of Palestine shall, as the mandatory Power withdraws its armed forces, be progressively turned over to the Commission, which shall act in conformity with the recommendations of the General Assembly, under the guidance of the Security Council. The mandatory Power shall to the fullest possible extent coordinate its plans for withdrawal with the plans of the Commission to take over and administer areas which have been evacuated.
In the discharge of this administrative responsibility the Commission shall have authority to issue necessary regulations and take other measures as required.
The mandatory Power shall not take any action to prevent, obstruct or delay the implementation by the Commission of the measures recommended by the General Assembly.
But the mandatory Power did nothing of the kind. Far from cooperating with the Commission, it did not even allow it to enter the territory.
In January 1948, the Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, bluntly informed the UN Commission that
His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would not regard favourably any proposal by the Commission to proceed to Palestine earlier than two weeks before the date of the termination of the Mandate.
The Commission protested bitterly:
… the proposal of your Government that the Commission should not proceed to Palestine earlier than two weeks before the date on which the Mandate is to be terminated is entirely unacceptable.
The Commission is convinced that this limitation on its arrival in Palestine would make it impossible for the Commission to discharge the responsibilities entrusted to it by the resolution of the General Assembly. The Commission has been informed that the Mandatory Power proposes to relinquish its responsibility for the Government of Palestine as a whole and not piecemeal. In consequence, the Commission, in two short weeks in Palestine, would he required to prepare itself to assume responsibility, under most difficult circumstances, for the full burden of a complex administrative structure and for maintaining law and order in the country.
But such protests were met with contempt; faced with what was, in the absence of cooperation of the Mandatory power, obviously an impossible task, the Commission adjourned sine-die and disappeared somewhere in the ample archive of failed UN projects.
We will never know whether full cooperation by the Mandatory administration with the UN Commission could have prevented the war and (at least some of) the human suffering that followed. But one thing is clear: given the situation on the ground, the British administration’s sabotage of the Commission’s role rendered violence in Palestine unavoidable.
On the diplomatic front, the British government of the time attempted to surreptitiously overturn (or at least subvert or make ineffective) the Partition Resolution; among other things, by lobbying the US administration to withdraw its support from the Resolution.
Finally, it attempted (both by omission and commission) to influence the outcome of the military confrontation to the detriment of the Jewish community and the nascent Jewish state.
Thus, the British administration in Palestine did nothing (in either diplomatic or military terms) to prevent or stop the infiltration of ‘irregular’ Arab forces from Iraq, Syria and Egypt into Palestine. That infiltration started as early as December 1947 and continued in 1948. Although formally not part of the regular armies of the Arab states, these ‘volunteers’ were typically armed, trained and officered by those states. The presence of the ‘irregulars’ – who did not just attack Jewish settlements and traffic themselves, but often bullied local Arab villages into joining such attacks – had a huge destabilising effect and exercised a major aggravating influence on the extent and intensity of violence.
The conduct of the British administration and army during the last months of the Mandate was far from neutral. Officially, the overriding aim was to maintain ‘peace and order’ – at least to the extent necessary to maximise the safety of British withdrawal. In practice, however, various officials and officers followed their own political preferences. And, given the clash between the Jewish Yishuv and the British administration that characterised the previous months and years, those sympathies, more often than not, tended to favour the Arab side. Numerous instances are documented in which British troops failed to intervene or were slow to intervene when Jews were attacked ‘under their noses’; strategic positions evacuated by the withdrawing British army were handed over to Arab irregulars. There were even cases when Jewish guerrillas were captured by British soldiers, disarmed and handed over to Arab irregulars or villagers, who promptly lynched them.
But arguably the most blatant British intervention was related to the so-called Arab Legion. Established in the 1920s by British ‘advisors’ to the Hashemite court, the Legion became in 1946 Transjordan’s official, regular army. It was armed, trained and at least partially funded by Britain. The upper commanding echelon was staffed with British officers, including the Commander-in-Chief, General John Bagot Glubb. The latter nominally reported to Transjordan’s monarch, but in reality often got his marching orders from London. Although modest in numbers, the Legion was by far the most effective Arab force in terms of training, discipline, command-and-control and weaponry.
As the army of Transjordan – an Arab state rejecting the Partition Resolution – the Arab Legion was, from the point of view of the Jewish Yishuv, a hostile force. Yet the British administration had deployed this force across Palestine, ostensibly as an auxiliary to the British army. It was withdrawn from Palestine very late in the process and only under heavy American pressure. It re-entered Palestine on 16 May 1948 as part of the coordinated Arab attack on the newly-declared State of Israel and engaged with it in some of the toughest, most costly battles of the 1948-1949 war. It was the Arab Legion that besieged Jerusalem; it managed to occupy the eastern neighbourhoods of Jerusalem including the Old City. It even conquered the Jewish Quarter and expelled its civilian population. All the while using British weapons and munitions and under the command of British officers.
In conclusion: it is absurd to claim – as the Middle East Editor at the Guardian did – that the British Mandate led to the creation of Israel. In reality, the random twists and turns of history caused the winds of British imperialism to blow into the sails of Jewish nationalism – for just a short, fleeting moment. They soon veered however and turned into headwinds; far from contributing to the creation of Israel, the British governments in the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s did everything in their power to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.
Why does this ‘ancient history’ matter now?
One of the most intractable challenges related to the Arab-Israeli conflict is the stubborn refusal of the Arab side to recognise the connection between the Jewish people and ‘Palestine’ or the Land of Israel. For those like me, who do not believe that people can coexist in close proximity in peace and freedom, while believing in diametrically opposed narratives, this is the major obstacle to peace. Because, whatever else occurred, a 2000 year-long connection implies – at the very least – some obvious moral rights. And once the conflict comes to be seen as one of right-vs.-right (rather than right vs. wrong), it becomes amenable to solutions based on reason and accommodation.
Now, I have no doubt that Arab leaders – at least some Arab leaders – understand that connection. But they see mileage in denying it, both to gain external support and stiffen the internal one.
But if there is no connection between Jews and the Land of Israel, how does one explain the six and a half million Jews who live there? Simply: it’s the work of external factors. It’s not love of Zion that drove Jews to dream up Zionism and settle in Rishon-le-Zion; it’s the Balfour Declaration; it’s British colonialism, American imperialism, European racism – anything but Jewish nationalism, because to admit the latter is to admit that ‘the other’ is but a mirror image of one’s own humanity.
Blaming ‘external factors’ (especially when those factors already have a poor reputation) is a magic strategy. It is easy to grasp; it is just as convincing for the illiterate fellah in the Nile Delta as it is for the Middle East Editor of The Guardian: the former had no opportunity to study history; the latter is too lazy to bother. Like any conspiracy theory, the ‘externality explanation’ can be embraced both by fanatics animated by hate and by scholars perpetually in love with their own intellectual phantasms.
Just google ‘Zionist settler colonialism’ and you’ll find hundreds of thousands of articles, web pages, blogs and social media hubs claiming that Jewish settlement in places like Tel Aviv and Zikhron Yaakov is entirely similar to the European colonisation of Australia, Africa and the Americas. That is a very handy and attractive explanation, having only one tiny downside: that it’s untrue.
But discovering the truth takes some dedication, patience, honesty and intellectual curiosity – commodities that are in short supply in Guardian Editors, in many of our politicians and – let’s face it – in your average Joe on the street.
Which makes the clear and uncompromising enunciation of that truth even more imperative. But when stupid Israeli ‘diplomats’ and hapless pro-Israel MPs wish to ‘celebrate Balfour’ (with or without ‘pride’), they inadvertently reinforce that most toxic anti-Israel narrative. The one that not only denies the legitimacy of the State of Israel, but denies the morality of making peace with it.
I can understand the desire to buttress legitimacy, especially when it is under attack; I get the craving for friends and allies – especially when they are scarce. But this is counter-productive.
States are not created by imperial Declarations; nor by League of Nations Mandates or by UN Resolutions. Recognition by the ‘international community’ (whatever that oft-used cliché means) is usually post-factum; it acknowledges the reality, it does not create it.
The only thing that creates a state is the will of a nation. What gives a state legitimacy (and enough social solidarity to make it stable and successful) is the national aspiration upon which it is built.
The Balfour Declaration was not a philanthropic gesture – nor was it motivated by noble ethics; it was an act of political expediency, which only coincidentally served a higher purpose. The same can be said about the British Mandate for Palestine. Equally, there is nothing particularly evil in either, in the context of that time. In issuing the Declaration and engineering the Mandate, the British Government did what most governments did then (and still do most of the time): pursued their own country’s selfish interests, as perceived by them at a particular moment in history.
Neither the Declaration nor the Mandate created (or, in deceitful journalistic jargon, ‘led to the creation of’) Israel. What ‘created Israel’ was an age-old longing preserved through generations in the Jewish people’s faith, culture and identity. That was the itch that ‘created’ the scratch. Of course, like any other historical process, the re-emergence of Jewish statehood did not happen in a political vacuum; on the contrary, it happened in the midst of political tumult. And, out of the thousands of historical acts and events that interacted with that process, some helped it along, others hindered it. There is as little point in ‘celebrating’ the former as in ‘mourning’ the latter. They are collateral, incidental externalities.
The State of Israel exists in the Jewish ancestral homeland; it’s once again populated by Jews who speak Hebrew, pray to the One God and further develop the Jewish flavour of humanity. All that did not happen because of the Balfour Declaration, but because of Jewish collective longing, because of treasured national memory, because of perennial desire for freedom and human dignity, And that is what we should celebrate.