The Balfour Declaration’s Bitter Fruit

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Most people these days think of the state of Israel as a sort of payback to the Jewish people for the suffering visited upon them by Adolf Hitler and the awful Nazis during World War II; never mind that the people of Palestine had nothing to do with that. Hardly anyone realizes that the die had already been cast in 1937 for the sort of partition of Palestine that the United Nations performed in 1948, giving rise to today’s state of Israel.

That was the year that Britain’s Peel Commission came up with its plan to resolve the problem of the growing turbulence resulting from its own policy of permitting ever growing numbers of Jewish Europeans to settle in the region. From the beginning of the British mandate, granting “temporary” governance by the League of Nations in the wake of World War I over the region ruled for centuries by the Ottoman Empire, the immigration policy had been strongly opposed not only by the overwhelmingly Muslim and great-majority Arabs of the region, but also by the native Arab Christians and the small community of native Jews.

As Wikipedia reports, that first partition plan received the same sort of rejection from the Palestinian Arabs that President Donald Trump’s recent proposal has duly and predictably received:

The Arabs opposed the partition plan and condemned it unanimously. The Arab High Committee opposed the idea of a Jewish state and called for an independent state of Palestine, “with protection of all legitimate Jewish and other minority rights and safeguarding of reasonable British interests”. They also demanded cessation of all Jewish immigration and land purchase. They argued that the creation of a Jewish state and lack of independent Palestine was a betrayal of the word given by Britain.

The “independent Palestine” they were talking about at that time was all of it, not just the rump state comprised of the West Bank and Gaza, which is all they have left now, with the former riddled with Jewish settlements and the latter suffocated by continued Israeli control of trade and transportation.

The last sentence of that Wikipedia quote about the Arab reaction to the Peel Commission’s partition plan goes right to the heart of extraordinarily powerful 1939 book written by the British journalist of Irish extraction, J.M.N. Jeffries, entitled Palestine the Reality: The Inside Story of the Balfour Declaration 1917-1938. The sense of righteous indignation that Jeffries felt over the blatant betrayal of the solemn word of the British government to the Palestinian Arabs permeates virtually every page of the book.

Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley state the matter delicately at the beginning of their chapter entitled “The Palestine Imbroglio” in their 1992 book, Driven Patriot: The Life and Times of James Forrestal:

The question of a Jewish state in Palestine was one of the most vexing and explosive issues confronting the American government in the immediate postwar period. It created a conflict between the rational claims of U.S. national interest and the humanitarian claims of an organized religious group 6 million of whose members had been systematically exterminated by Adolf Hitler. It posed an international diplomatic and a domestic political problem.

The goal of a Jewish state had long antedated the Holocaust. The World Zionist Organization had fixed on Palestine before the end of World War I, and with single-minded determination had exacted from the British government the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised “favorable consideration” of a Jewish homeland in that ancient, barren land; at the same time, however, the British promised self-government to the Palestinian Arabs. After World War I, Britain held a mandate from the League of Nations to administer Palestine, to mediate relations between Arabs and Jews, and to control immigration. (p. 387, emphasis added)

From Jeffries we see, however, that the British government, yielding to Zionist power as wielded primarily both in Britain and in the United States, was a good deal worse than just duplicitous:

In the case of Palestine, the excuse is that we have made promises all round, to Arabs and to Jews, in public and in private. The only common-sense, straightforward course therefore is to cancel “the lot of them” and to make a new beginning. So runs the plea which is an ignoble in attitude as it is indefensible in argument. If there were any basis to it, what a prospect it would open.

Anyone who had repented on a contract which he had made could slip out of it always, by making another and later contract or contracts which were incompatible with the previous one. If the person to whom he was contracted ventured to hold him to their bargain he could go to court, display his documents, and plead “All these engagements of mine are in contradiction one with another, “So they are. The court annuls them all therefore.” What morality and what nonsense!

No, when an individual invokes a plurality of contracts, or a nation protests a superfluity of treaties or of official declarations, there is but one means of deciding which of them holds good. Which was the first of them? If that was duly transacted, it is by that the citizen or the cabinet must adhere.

The Balfour Declaration was issued over two years after the pact with King Hussein had been made. It is incompatible with this previous pledge and therefore it is null and void. It has no more status than have the vows made to a woman before the altar by a man who has a discarded wife still living. The best description in fact of the Balfour Declaration is that it is a bigamous declaration. (p. 196)

The Arabs had it absolutely right in their reaction to the Peel Commission’s partition proposal. It represented a low-down, dirty, rotten betrayal by the British of their solemn promises that High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon had made with King Hussein, the Shereef of Mecca, in correspondence around the turn of the new year of 1916. “On our part, the essential pledges we made were clearly and definitely phrased, ‘Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories included in the limits and boundaries proposed by the Shereef of Mecca.’” (p.91)

“It constitutes the negotiations of a treaty and the conclusion of a treaty. The pertinent portions of its text enunciate and then ratify the terms. It is a treaty. The Shereef of Mecca described it in his first document as a treaty, and the terms thus enunciated were accepted. Mr. Lloyd George himself as Prime Minister acknowledged, and indeed insisted to the French Government that it had treaty-force.” (p. 90)

Jeffries refers to the correspondence throughout his book as the McMahon-Hussein Treaty. If you search that term on the Internet, what comes up the “McMahon-Hussein Correspondence.” You can read the Wikipedia treatment of the subject for yourself and see that Jeffries is on very solid ground in his “treaty” designation.

Book Re-issued

Palestine, the Reality was published at a very unfortunate time for getting the publicity that it deserved. Longmans and Company brought it out in 1939 just months before the outbreak of World War II. Then most of the copies that Longmans had printed were destroyed in the blitz of London during the war and the book was pretty much flushed down the memory hole. Now we have the good fortune that it has been republished in paperback in 2017 by Olive Branch Press in the United States and Skyscraper Publications, Ltd., in the United Kingdom, with an excellent new introduction by the British Palestinian, Dr. Ghada Karmi. American readers will notice the same sort of wildly distorted and biased British news coverage of Palestine that she describes in her introduction:

Jeffries had already observed how the Zionist case was always given preference, and those who tried to put the Palestinian one across never “obtained in the newspapers or upon the platform one thousandth part of the space or of the time which they needed to say all that they had to say.” The effect of this bias was to leave the other side free to present its own version of the facts with little opposition, and for the British public to hear only from sympathetic ministers and from Zionists and their supporters, and nothing at all from the Arabs. It was already the case, Jeffries points out, that the Zionist point of view was well represented to the public through the variety of influential positions held by pro-Zionist Jews in parliament, the press, and in commerce.

Growing up in the Britain of the 1950s as I did, that was the situation I faced. It was virtually impossible to put forth the Palestinian side of the story. Even the name, “Palestine”, had gone out of popular usage, and when asked where I came from and I answered, “Palestine”, people would respond, “did you say Pakistan”? Astonishingly, the name of a new state only created in 1947, Pakistan, was better known by 1955 than that of Palestine, the country of the bible, of pilgrimage, and the historical destination of scores of pious Christian travelers. Everywhere the concept of my country as the land of the Jews, in which non-Jews were more like squatters than natives was rife. As a child, I found it the most frightening deletion of my identity, history and memory imaginable, further compounded by so profound a British dismissal of our side of the story as to make me doubt the reality of my own living experience.

Jeffries goes a very long way toward setting the record straight. Like much of the legislation that comes down from the United States Congress, the Balfour Declaration, we learn from him, was not written by the representatives of the British people in their government. Numerous Zionist hands were involved in the crafting, with the input from across the Atlantic in the United States being particularly influential. The finished product, a one-sentence statement in a November 2, 1917, letter signed by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and sent to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, is deceptively simple:

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.

Wikipedia echoes Jeffries on the statement’s intentional ambiguity: “The term ‘national home’ had no precedent in international law, and was intentionally vague as to whether a Jewish state was contemplated. The intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified, and the British government later confirmed that the words ‘in Palestine’ meant that the Jewish national home was not intended to cover all of Palestine.” And, as Jeffries puts it (pp. 182-183), “The same culpable lack of definition was in [the letter’s] preamble, wherein the Declaration was described as ‘a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,’ but no clue was supplied to these desires. What were Jewish Zionist aspirations? They were not identified. How could a British Government guarantee its sympathy to an enigma?”

The part of the declaration that appears to safeguard the interests of Palestine’s Arabs is just as bad. This is from page 185 of Jeffries:

Therefore we have Palestine with 91 percent of its people Arab and 9 percent Jew at the time of the Declaration. It was an Arab population with a dash of Jew. Half of the Jews were recent arrivals.

Before this unpalatable reality, what did the framers of the Balfour Declaration do? By an altogether abject subterfuge, under colour of protecting Arab interests, they set out to conceal the fact that the Arabs to all intents constituted the population of the country. It called them the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”! It called the multitude the nonfew; it called the 670,000 the non-60,000; out of a hundred it called the 91 the non-9. You might as well call the British people “the non-Continental communities in Great Britain.” It would be as suitable to define the mass of working men as “the non-idling communities in the world,” or the healthy as the “non-bedridden elements amongst sleepers,” or the sane as “the non-lunatic section of thinkers”—or the grass of the countryside as “the non-dandelion portion of the pastures.”

The fact of the matter is that the Balfour Declaration had to be deceptive and dishonest because the people of Britain and of the world would have been repulsed by what the Zionists intended, had their aspirations been laid out explicitly.   “It is manifestly impossible to please partisans who officially claim nothing more than a ‘National Home,’ but in reality will be satisfied with nothing less than a Jewish State and all that it politically implies” (pp. 374-375), wrote Major General Sir Louis Bols, who, early on, had been given the impossible task of preserving peace in the region.

The intent all along, in spite of the great sacrifices the native Arabs had made in throwing in their lot with the British in World War I and the solemn promises of independence that had been made to them, was ultimately for the British government to adopt the attitude toward them that the Zionists had had all along, that is that Palestine’s original residents really possessed no rights at all that deserved to be respected. It was as though they were somehow less than human.

J.M.N. Jeffries saw the disaster shaping up in 1939. It was already bad enough for Palestine’s native Arabs at that time, but since then things have grown almost inconceivably worse for them. The quote from Dr. Karmi on her Wikipedia page sums the situation up quite well:

There is actually nothing — repeat, nothing — positive about the existence of Israel, as far as the Arabs are concerned. You know, sometimes there are events, historical events, that happen against people’s will. But, in time, they can find some positive aspect to something they didn’t want to happen in the first place. This is not the case with Israel. On the contrary, as time has gone on, the existence of Israel has only increased the problems for the Arab region. It has increased the danger in the Arab world and is a threat not only to the security of the region, but the security of the whole world.

David Martin

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2 Thoughts to “The Balfour Declaration’s Bitter Fruit”

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