Thinking about The Balfour Declaration, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

An essay by Jane M. McCabe

For the enormous influence it has had on the world, the Balfour Declaration is a remarkably short and concise document. As pointed out in a recent book by Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Balfour Declaration was crafted by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary to the British government when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. It is dated November 2nd, 1917, and was a formal statement of policy by the British government stating that:

"His Majesty's government views 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." (underlining mine)

Schneer’s well researched book concerns the modern State of Israel and traces its historical and religious roots to the Biblical Land of Israel, known as Zion, a concept central to Judaism since ancient times. Political Zionism took shape in the late 19th century under Theodor Herzl, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 formalized British policy, preferring the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.

Following World War I, the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Mandate for Palestine, which included responsibility for securing "the establish-ment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," Schneer writes.

In November 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of Palestine, proposing the creation of a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an UN-administered Jerusalem. Partition was accepted by Zionist leaders, but rejected by Arab leaders, leading to civil war. Israel declared independence on May 14th, 1948, and neighboring Arab states attacked the next day.

Background information

Some might think that the Arab/Israeli conflict goes back to the initial formation of the state of Israel under King David in the 11th and 10th Centuries B.C., but I believe it can be traced to an even earlier time, to the time of Abraham, in 20th Century B.C., 4000 years ago.

As you will recall, in the Bible, when God told Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the grains of sand at the oceans, Abraham asked how could this be because his wife Sarah was barren and he had no offspring.

In those days, having no offspring was a terrible thing, so Sarah urged Abraham go into her handmaiden Hagar, which he did. Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. Now it was Hagar’s insolence that caused a problem between her and her mistress, causing Sarah to urge Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael to a country far from Palestine.

The Bible does not tell of Abraham taking Hagar and Ishmael all the way to what is now Saudi Arabia, and leaving them in what is now Mecca, but the Koran does.

Sometime after the birth of Ishmael, Sarah, even though she was now quite old, conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Therefore, Abraham is not only the biological father of the Jews, but also of the Arabs. 

It may be fanciful of me to think in this fashion, but I often think of the Jews and Arabs, the Semite peoples, as long-lost cousins. I have always hoped they would recognize themselves as such.

Isaac was the father of Jacob, and he had twelve sons, the next to youngest of which was Joseph. Because of their jealousy, his brothers stripped Joseph of his coat of many colors and sold him to a caravan of traders traveling into Egypt. Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became his vizier. The Jews toiled in Egypt under the yoke of the Egyptians for four hundred years before they were released from their bondage when Moses brought them out. We refer to this as the Exodus. One of the most important Jewish holidays is Passover, which celebrates their release from bondage.

For forty years, they wandered in the Sinai desert before they were allowed to take possession of “the land of milk and honey,” i.e., Palestine, or present-day Israel.

Twice they were driven from this land, in 586 bc during the Babylonian Exile, and in 70 ad after the Romans destroyed the second temple. For nearly 2000 years the Jews of the world have lived in other lands and dreamt of one day returning to Palestine.

The fact that this happened nearly 200o years later is one of the marvels of modern times, and attests to the marvelous power that governs the world. It reminds me of Constantine’s dream in 325 ad that led to his being able to conquer his foes and establish Christianity as the religion of the Byzantine Empire.

The seeds of dispossession and misery are sown

My dictionary defines chauvinism as “fanatical patriotism or prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group or kind.” During the Age of Imperialism, the British and French didn’t believe that people with darker skins than theirs were capable of self-government; hence, they assumed the right to carve up the Middle East according to their own self-interests following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

History is ever complex. The 20th century saw the fighting of two world wars. At the time of the first, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was old, and on the verge of collapse. It was referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” Its jurisdiction nevertheless extended to Saudi Arabia, and Syria, including Palestine. The Arabs resented being controlled by the Turks and were ripe for rebellion. At the same time, in Europe, Zionists were moving in political circles, advocating that as a by-product of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews should be given a homeland in Palestine.

All of this 20th Century maneuvering is well documented in Schneer’s book.

Fourteen months after the European powers declared war upon one another, in November, 1914, Enver Pasha brought Turkey in on Germany’s side, an incentive for Great Britain to do what she could to bring about the collapse of his empire. Britain began to work at cross purposes—she both encouraged the Arab revolt AND looked kindly on the possibility for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

Considering the importance of what was at stake, it’s ironic, as Schneer points out, that some of what happened was the result of poor communications. Sir Henry McMahon carried on a delicate correspondence with Emir Hussein, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, concerning the division of the Middle East following the war. He wrote in English—he could neither speak nor write in Arabic—so his letter to Hussein had to be translated. The language he used was imprecise and poorly translated and thereby misconstrued. Hussein mistakenly thought he would be the ruler of an Arab nation extending over much of the Middle East, including Palestine.

“Conceivably the imbroglio that resulted from this most infamous letter can be traced to nothing more than an imprecise rendering of English into Arabic caused perhaps by ignorance or even haste,” Schneer writes.

Likewise, The Sykes-Picot Agreement has cast just as long a shadow into modern times as the Balfour Declaration. It gave France control of Syria and Lebanon, and Great Britain control of Jordan and Iraq, suggesting that Palestine be governed by an international condominium.

Schneer notes: “Early in 1916 Grand Sharif Hussein began laying the groundwork for rebellion in earnest. He knew little if anything of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, and absolutely nothing of the agreement the two men had reached regarding Arabia and that the three Entente powers had subsequently ratified. Had he known of such matters, Middle Eastern history might have unwound very differently. Instead, with the careful but encouraging letters of Sir Henry McMahon fresh in his mind, the emir pushed his chess pieces into position.”

The same condescension that allowed Sykes to cavalierly redraw the borders of countries in the Middle East and the British government in India to look upon Mesopotamia as its own preserve is revealed in the letter McMahon wrote to Lord Hardinge that promises made to Arabs need not be binding upon the British government.

“The declarations of war in late July and early August 1914 burst upon an unprepared world like a volley of gunshots at a summer garden party” and set into motion the events that brought about the formation of the state of Israel.

Zionism was a world movement—Jews lived everywhere, fought everywhere and on every front, even against each other, for their respective countries of residence. Two branches of political British Jewry—the Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann and the assimilationists led by Lucien Wolf—were fated to engage in a fierce competition for the support of the British government.

“Like two ships headed for a collision in the dark of night—or rather, given that part of the world, like two desert caravans separated by trackless wastes but following intersecting routes—the Arab and Jewish nationalist movements pushed relentlessly forward, oblivious to each other, fated nonetheless to coincide eventually,” Schneer observes.

T.E. Lawrence played a key role in the Arab Revolt, successfully blowing up any number of bridges and train tracks instrumental in the Turks being able to govern Arabia. T.E. Lawrence had developed genuine sympathy for Arab nationalist aspirations.

Jews of the world now had financial clout that they used to persuade the British government to support their cause for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, by offering support for the Allied cause.

Palestine was like a woman promised to four suitors: she was promised to the Arabs, to the Zionists, to an international consortium and to the Turks.

“The Balfour Declaration was the highly contingent product of a tortuous process characterized by deceit and chance as by vision and diplomacy. It produced a murderous harvest, ”Schneer wisely notes.

At the end of the war, Britain ruled Palestine by virtue of a military occupation. The Paris Peace Conference, in 1919, and the San Remo Conference, in 1920, ratified her rule and extended it indefinitely with the mandate system established by the League of Nations. Zionism had achieved its objective, but Zionists’ doubts about Britain were reviving. Leon Uris’ Exodus chronicles the Jews’ successful struggle to wrest control of Palestine from the British and the Arabs, and in 1948, Israel became a nation.

The rest is history. The seeds of dissension were sewn. Palestinian Arabs still feel their homeland was taken from them, and the entire Arab world would like nothing better than to drive the Jews into the sea; but Israel has proved to be a formidable enemy. From a sleepy nothing of a country, the Jews built Israel into a modern nation.

Unfortunately, the problem defies solution BECAUSE this postage-stamp sized nation happens to be at the fulcrum of civilization, and houses the holiest of sites to Jews, Christians and Muslims, so drawing a line and saying Jews to the north and Arabs to the south, or vice versa, is not viable. It’s the Jews that made her what she is today. Learning the lesson of the Holocaust, she had proven herself adept at defending herself. Yet one’s heart also bleeds for the Arabs who lost their homes in the Arab Diaspora.

Schneer offers an interesting conclusion: “The most famous result was the declaration itself. Zionists and many others have viewed it ever since as a terrific achievement, a foundation stone along the way to the establishment of modern Israel. Many Arabs on the other hand have seen it as a terrible setback, the real starting point of their dispossession and misery.”

“An equally consequential result of the process was the development of profound mistrust, of all parties, by all the parties, and growing from the mistrust a bitterness that would lead to the spilling of much blood.”

It’s all very troubling and year after year passes without a satisfactory solution to the problem.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.

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