Seeds of Permanent Conflict in Palestine
To comment on this article go to B’Man’s Revolt.
Wars themselves are bad enough, with all the death and misery that they visit upon those who fight them and get caught up in them. The consequences of the wars, though, can be as bad or worse. Had Russia not participated in World War I, it’s a virtual certainty that the Communists would not have taken over that country. That war and the peace arrangement that followed it were primarily responsible for the even larger World War II. Had there been no World War II, the Communists would have had a very small chance of coming to power in the most populous country on earth, China.
A less well-known consequence of World War I is that it planted the seed for the endless conflict in Palestine and surrounding areas in the Middle East. When the war began in 1914, the entire region was still a part of the Ottoman Empire, as it had been for centuries. That Turkish empire had also been in a state of decline for quite a long time. Its alliance with the losing Central Powers in WW I resulted in its final dissolution.
We know from the movie Lawrence of Arabia that the British worked closely with the Arabs during WW I as a means of undermining Germany’s Ottoman ally. The British promised independence to the Arabs as their reward for assisting them. But the British made a lot of promises as part of their war measures, and they were in direct conflict with one another. In the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement, between British Foreign Officer Sir Mark Sykes and French diplomat Franćois Marie Denis Georges-Picot, concluded in early 1916, the two allies divided up control of much of the Middle Eastern Ottoman territory among themselves upon successful conclusion of the war. A third fateful promise was made to the leaders of Zionism in the form of a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to leading British Zionist Baron Walter Rothschild promising a “national home” for Jews in the Ottoman territory of Palestine, the famous Balfour Declaration.
Thus, laying out Britain’s contradictory promises, Doreen Ingrams sets the stage in the introduction to her very revealing 1972 book, Palestine Papers 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict. She has gathered various letters and minutes of meetings dealing with the Palestine question from the British Archives and, for the most part, lets them speak for themselves. How they speak is well summed up by the subtitle of her book. It’s a sad story.
A War Measure
That Lord Balfour and the British War Cabinet viewed the eventual declaration as a vital war measure is captured in these minutes from the cabinet’s October 4, 1917, meeting:
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Balfour) stated that the German Government were [sic] making great efforts to capture the sympathy of the Zionist Movement. This movement, though opposed by a number of wealthy Jews in this country, had behind it the support of a majority of Jews, at all events in Russia and America, and possibly in other countries…Mr. Balfour then read a very sympathetic declaration by the French Government which had been conveyed to the Zionists, and he stated that he knew that President Wilson was extremely favorable to the movement…
Balfour was certainly wrong that the majority of Jews in the United States at that time supported Zionism. Only a very small minority did, but they were an extraordinarily powerful and zealous, even fanatic, minority as we learn from Alison Weir’s very important book, Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel. The Unites States also had its share of counterparts to the rich British Jews who opposed Zionism, as we learn from the first volume of Alan Hart’s Zionism, the Real Enemy of the Jews.
Numbers aside, it was the political strength of the Zionist movement that was of primary importance, as this quote from Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s 1939 Memoirs makes clear:
The Balfour Declaration represented the convinced policy of all parties in our country and also in America, but the launching of it in 1917 was due, as I have said, to propagandist reasons... The Zionist Movement was exceptionally strong in Russia and America... It was believed, also, that such a declaration would have a potent influence upon world Jewry outside Russia, and secure for the Entente the aid of Jewish financial interests. In America, their aid in this respect would have a special value when the Allies had almost exhausted the gold and marketable securities available for American purchases. Such were the chief considerations which, in 1917, impelled the British Government towards making a contract with Jewry.
The Prime Minister’s statement about the support of “all parties in our country” goes too far, though. The minutes of that very same October 4 meeting, cited above, reveal the truth of Lord Balfour’s observations about the opposition to Zionism of certain wealthy Jews in Britain. One of them, Edwin Montagu, was, as Secretary of State for India, a member of the War Cabinet:
Mr. Montagu urged strong objections to any declaration in which it was stated that Palestine was the “national home” of the Jewish people. He regarded the Jews as a religious community and himself as a Jewish Englishman. He based his argument on the prejudicial effect on the status of Jewish Britons of a statement that His Majesty’s Government regarded Palestine as the national home of Jewish people. Whatever safeguarding words might be used in the formula, the civil rights of Jews as nationals in the country in which they were born might be endangered. How would he negotiate with the peoples of India on behalf of His Majesty’s Government if the world had just been told that His Majesty’s Government regarded his national home as being in Turkish territory? ... He also pointed out that most English-born Jews were opposed to Zionism, while it was supported by foreign-born Jews, such as Dr. [Moses] Gaster [Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Communities of England] and Dr. J. H. Herz [Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregation of the British Empire], the two Grand Rabbis, who had been born in Roumania and Austria respectively, and Dr [Chaim] Weizmann, President of the English Zionist Federation, who was born in Russia. He submitted that the Cabinet’s first duty was to English Jews, and that Colonel [Edward] House had declared that President Wilson is opposed to a declaration now.
Other prominent British Jews weighed in with letters echoing Montagu, and in all likelihood they reflect the opinions of most American Jews at the time, Lord Balfour notwithstanding. This is from the letter of Member of Parliament, Sir Philip Magnus:
In replying to your letter of the 6th October I do not gather that I am expected to distinguish my views as a Jew from those I hold as a British subject. Indeed, it is not necessary, even if it were possible. For I agree with the late Chief Rabbi, Dr. Herman Adler, that “ever since the conquest of Palestine by the Romans we have ceased to be a body politic,” that “the great bond that unites Israel is not one of race but the bond of a common religion,” and that we have no national aspirations apart from those of the country of our birth…I cannot agree that the Jews regard themselves as a nation, and the term “national” as applied to a community of Jews in Palestine or elsewhere seems to me to beg the question between Zionists and their opponents, and should, I suggest, be withdrawn from the proposed formula. Indeed, the inclusion in the terms of the declaration of the words “a national home for the Jewish race” seems to me both undesirable and inferentially inaccurate…It is essential…that any privileges granted to the Jews should be shared by their fellow-citizens of other creeds…
L. L. Cohen, Chairman of the Jewish Board of Guardians made this comment:
The establishment of a “national home for the Jewish race” in Palestine, presupposes that the Jews are a nation, which I deny, and that they are homeless, which implies that, in the countries where they enjoy religious liberty and the full rights of citizenship, they are separate entities, unidentified with the interests of the nations of which they form parts, an implication which I repudiate.
Claude G. Montefiore, President of the Anglo-Jewish Association, was only lukewarm in his support:
For the true well-being of the Jewish race emancipation and liberty in the countries of the world are a thousand times more important than a “home.” In any case only a small fraction of the Jews could be collected together in Palestine…
I and my friends do not desire to impede colonization and immigration into Palestine, on the contrary we desire to obtain free facilities for them. We are in favour of local autonomy where ever the conditions allow it. Whoever the suzerain Power of Palestine may be, we are in favour of the Jews, when their numbers permit it, ultimately obtaining the power which any large majority may justly claim. (The population breakdown of Palestine at the time was approximately 512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews, and 61,000 Christian, as reported on page 44. Ed.)
Ingrams also reprints strong letters of support for the declaration from British Jewish leaders, though, with the exception of Lord Rothschild, they were, as Montagu noted, all foreign born. With even Jewish opinion in Britain divided over the question of the creation of a “national home” for the Jews in Palestine, the obviously deciding reason for the pronouncement in its favor is summed up in the following quote from Ingrams:
Meanwhile numbers of letters from Jews in Britain and abroad pressing for the declaration were received at the Foreign Office. [Assistant Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs] Ronald Graham addressed a Memorandum to Mr. Balfour regretting the Cabinet’s delay in giving an assurance to the Zionists as this delay would throw them into the arms of the Germans. The moment, he said, this assurance is granted the Zionist Jews are prepared to start an active pro-Ally propaganda throughout the world. (Emphasis added)
And so, in the midst of their death struggle with the Germans, and with that threat and that promise firmly in mind:
The War Cabinet authorized:
The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to Foreign Affairs to take a suitable opportunity for making the following declaration of sympathy with the Zionist aspirations:
His Majesty’s Government view [sic] 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 the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
The letter embodying this declaration was sent by Balfour to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917.
An Impossible Assignment
To further the war effort, the British government didn’t waste any time putting out the message that the declaration promised a great deal more to the Jews than what its carefully chosen words actually said:
The Foreign Office set up a special branch for Jewish propaganda within the Department of Information under the control “of a very active Zionist propagandist named A. Hyamson, whose business it is to produce suitable literature and ultimately as soon as can be arranged, look after its distribution.” Propaganda material was distributed to virtually every known Jewish community in the world through local Zionist societies and other intermediaries. Leaflets containing the text of the Balfour Declaration were dropped over German and Austrian territory: pamphlets in Yiddish were circulated to Jewish troops in Central European armies—after the capture of Jerusalem—which read: “Jerusalem has fallen! The hour of Jewish redemption has arrived…Palestine must be the national home of the Jewish people once more…The Allies are giving the Land of Israel to the people of Israel. Every loyal Jewish heart is now filled with joy for this great victory. Will you join them and help to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine? ... Stop fighting the Allies, who are fighting for you, for all the Jews, for the freedom of all the small nations. Remember! An Allied victory means the Jewish people’s return to Zion…”
It didn’t help at all after the war and after the British were given the Mandate over Palestine that the Zionist organizations continued to repeat this message in order to encourage immigration, that is, that Palestine had been given to the Jews. For larger public consumption, the British government and the Zionist leaders maintained that the declaration meant no more than what it said. Edwin Montagu had probably been instrumental in getting the passage, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” into the declaration, but the subsequent British propaganda and the messages of Zionist leaders to the world Jewish community promised, in so many words, to run rough shod over those civil and religious rights.
Hearing the British propaganda and the Zionist messages to their followers, the residents of Palestine were not easily reassured that the purveyors of the scary message didn’t really mean it. They feared the worst, and as it turned out, the worst is what they got and are continuing to get. It fell upon the British military administration of Palestine, known as Occupied Enemy Territory Administration or O.E.T.A. to try to keep the peace.
Shortly afterward the British government set up a Zionist Commission headed by Chaim Weizmann, himself, “to carry out, subject to General Allenby’s authority, any steps required to give effect to Government declaration in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people.”
The following internal memorandum from Sir Ronald Storrs, who was, as he put it, “the first military governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate,” captures very well the difficulty of the task before him:
From the first announcement of the formation of the Zionist Commission, the Arab and Christian elements of Palestine have been labouring under grave disquietude which has not been allayed by the arrival of the gentlemen themselves. A variety of enthusiastic articles upon the future of Zionism published in many organs of the British Press have for obvious reason wrought uneasiness and depression in the other elements of Palestine generally, and in particular, the Moslems. These feelings have been accentuated by numerous meetings of Jews… On the 17th Dr. Mekler speaking upon the geographical, agricultural, and health situation of Palestine closed his speech by attempting to show “how the Jewish people in their present state could take over the Holy Land” … At the beginning of March in the Hebrew Seminary Dr. Morchak delivered a speech on the return of Israel to Zion in which he elaborated a system of the future ruling of Palestine by the Jews. Such proceedings…caused no little despondency and searchings of heart and produced, as might have been expected, the usual ineffectual rejoinders in the shape of Moslem and Christian Land Unions for the protection of the soil, with a heroic programme and no subscriptions or results…
I cannot agree that, as Dr. Weizmann would seem to suggest, it is the business of the Military Authorities “to bring home to the Arabs and Syrians the fact that H.M.G. has expressed a definite policy with regard to the future of the Jews in Palestine.” This has already been done by Mr. Balfour in London, and by the Press throughout the world. What is wanted is that the Zionists themselves should bring home to the Arabs and Syrians an exposition at once as accurate and conciliatory as possible of their real aims and policy in the country…
Speaking myself as a convinced Zionist, I cannot help thinking that the Commission are [sic] lacking in a sense of the dramatic actuality. Palestine, up to now a Moslem country, has fallen into the hands of a Christian Power which on the eve of its conquest announced that a considerable portion of its land is to be handed over for colonization purposes to a nowhere very popular people. The despatch of a Commission of these people is subsequently announced…
What Storrs was requesting of Weizmann was, in reality, every bit as contradictory as the wartime promises that the British government had made. A statement of the Zionist’s real aims, as we now see from hindsight, could not be at the same time accurate and conciliatory.
Curzon, the Realist
One who saw clearly the contradiction at the time was Lord Curzon, the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Like Montagu, he had been a dissenting member of the War Cabinet that approved the Balfour Declaration, but his opposition had been more on practical than ideological grounds. From his long experience in the region, he just didn’t see how this Jewish home in Palestine could work without completely upsetting the social and political applecart.
In January 1920 he warned Balfour that a Jewish government of any kind in Palestine would result in an Arab uprising. Balfour responded:
…As far as I know Weizmann has never put forward a claim for the Jewish Government of Palestine. Such a claim is in my opinion certainly inadmissible and personally I do not think we should go further than the original which I made to Lord Rothschild.
Curzon wrote back six days later:
…As for Weizmann and Palestine, I entertain no doubt that he is out for a Jewish Government, if not at the moment, then in the near future…
On December 17th, he [Weizmann] telegraphed to Eder of the Zionist Commission at Jaffa: “The new proposal stipulates first that the whole administration of P. shall be so formed as to make of P. a Jewish Commonwealth, under British trusteeship, and that the Jews shall so participate in the administration as to secure this object.”
Further “The Jewish population is to be allowed the widest practicable measure of self-government and to have extensive powers of expropriating the owners of the soil, etc.”
What all this can mean except Government I do not see. Indeed a Commonwealth as defined in my dictionary is a “body politic” a “state” an “independent community” a “republic.”
I feel tolerably sure therefore that while Weizmann may say one thing to you, or while you may mean one thing by a National Home, he is out for something quite different. He contemplates a Jewish State, a Jewish nation, a subordinate population of Arabs etc. ruled by Jews; the Jews in possession of the fat of the land, and directing the Administration.
He is trying to effect this behind the screen and under the shelter of British trusteeship.
I do not envy those who wield the latter, when they realise the pressure to which they are certain to be exposed…
One of those who had been put in the unenviable position was Major-General H.D. Watson, Chief Administrator of Palestine, who reported to the Foreign Office in August 1919:
On taking over the Administration of O.E.T.A. South I had an open mind with regard to the Zionist movement and was fully in sympathy with the aim of the Jews for a National Home in Palestine—and with that aim I am still in sympathy, as long as it is not carried out at the expense of the rightful inhabitants and owners of the land. There is no doubt whatsoever that the feeling of the great mass of the population is very antagonistic to the scheme… The people of the country, the owners of the land have looked with eager eyes to the peaceful development of their country and the better education of their children—for their own benefit, and not for the benefit of peoples of alien nationality. Certain of the long established Jews also are not in sympathy with the Zionist movement.
The antagonism to Zionism of the majority of the population is deep rooted—it is fast leading to hatred of the British—and will result, if the Zionist programme is forced upon them, in an outbreak of a very serious character necessitating the employment of a much larger number of troops than at present located in the territory…
The great fear of the people is that once Zionist wealth is passed into the land, all territorial and mineral concessions will fall into the hands of the Jews whose intensely clannish instincts prohibit them from dealing with any but those of their own religion, to the detriment of Moslems and Christians. These latter, the natives of the soil, foresee their eventual banishment from the land…
Churchill, The Fantasist
In 1921 responsibility for the administration of Palestine, as well as other mandated territories, was passed from the Foreign Office to the Colonial Office. As Christopher Sykes put it in Crossroads to Israel, “In terms of personalities this change meant that the territories left the care of Lord Curzon, an emphatic opponent of Zionism but one who had never allowed his prejudice to influence his official actions, and entered the care of the Colonial Secretary, Mr. Winston Churchill who wished Zionism well from his heart.”
As we shall see, the change also meant the replacement of Curzon’s gumption and practicality with Churchill’s dreamy idealism and high-sounding rhetoric.
Upon the occasion of his first visit to Palestine after assuming his new responsibility, he was greeted by a delegation of Muslims and Christians in Haifa that made this observation to him:
…Had Zionists come to Palestine simply as visitors, or had matters remained as before the war, there would be no question of Jew or non-Jew. It is the idea of transforming Palestine into a home for the Jews that Arabs resent and fight against. The fact that a Jew is a Jew has never prejudiced the Arabs against him. Before the war Jews enjoyed all the privileges and rights of citizenship. The question is not a religious one. For we see that Christians and Moslems alike, whose religions are not similar, unite in their hatred of Zionism…
Churchill gave them this response:
It is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a national home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire. But we also think it will be good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine, and we intend that it shall be good for them, and that they shall not be sufferers or supplanted in the country in which they dwell or denied their share in all that makes for progress and prosperity. And here I would draw your attention to the second part of the Balfour Declaration which solemnly and explicitly promises to the inhabitants of Palestine the fullest protection of their civil and political rights. I was sorry to hear in the paper you have just read that you do not regard that promise as of value. It seems to be a vital matter for you and one to which you should hold most firmly and for the exact fulfillment of which you should claim. If the one promise stands, so does the other; and we shall be judges as we faithfully fulfill them both…
Readers might be reminded that when British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did his best to fulfill the promise of the second part of the Balfour Declaration in the 1940s the Zionists tried their best to assassinate him. The British promise of respect for the rights of the non-Jewish natives of Palestine was wholly inconsistent with the Zionist agenda.
After Churchill’s visit, Captain C.D. Brunton of General Staff Intelligence made this observation in an internal memorandum:
Ever since our occupation of the country the inhabitants have disliked the policy of founding a national home for the Jews in Palestine. This feeling has gradually developed into nothing short of bitter and widespread hostility, and the Arab population has come to regard the Zionists with hatred and the British with resentment. Mr. Churchill’s visit put the final touch to the picture. He upheld the Zionist cause and treated the Arab demands like those of a negligible opposition to be put off by a few political phrases and treated like bad children…
Some three months later, on June 14, 1921, Churchill made this statement to Parliament:
…The Arabs believe that in the next few years they are going to be swamped by scores of thousands of immigrants from Central Europe, who will push them off the land, eat up the scanty substance of the country, and eventually gain absolute control of its institutions and destinies. As a matter of fact these fears are illusory. The Zionists in order to obtain the enthusiasm and the support which they require are bound to state their case with the fullest ardour, conviction and hope, and it is these declarations which alarm the Arabs, and not the actual dimensions of the immigration which has taken place or can take place in practice…
There is really nothing for the Arabs to be frightened about. All the Jewish immigration is being very carefully watched and controlled both from the point of view of numbers and character. No Jew will be brought in beyond the number who can be provided for by the expanding wealth and development of the resources of the country…We cannot possibly agree to allow the Jewish colonies to be wrecked or all future immigration to be stopped without definitely accepting the position that the word of Britain no longer counts throughout the East and the Middle East. If representative institutions are conceded, as we hope they will be, to the Arabs in Palestine, some definite arrangements will have to be made in the instrument on which those institutions stand, which will safeguard within reasonable limits the immigration of Jews into the country, as they make their own way and create their own means of subsistence. Our task, using a phrase of the late Lord Salisbury, will be to persuade one side to concede and the other to forbear, but keeping a reasonable margin of force available in order to ensure the acceptance of the position of both parties.
The task, as it turns out, was impossible. The Arab fears were based upon down-to-earth reality; Churchill’s attempt at calming reassurance was so much pie in the sky. He reminds us of no one so much as Vice President Dick Cheney telling Tim Russert on Meet the Press that Americans would be greeted in Iraq as liberators.
How did we get into this mess? Pick your mess in the Middle East. Doreen Ingrams’ valuable book is a very good starting place to begin to answer the question.
January 15, 2015