Citizens International

There are two narratives, but one reality: Palestinian dispossession


I just finished reading Palestine The Reality: The Inside Story of the Balfour Declaration 1917-1938, by J.M.N. Jeffries, a British journalist for The Daily Mail at the time of the events discussed.  Who would think that a 748-page book on the diplomatic history of the Balfour Declaration and its aftermath could be a page-turner, but this book definitely is.  It’s a truly remarkable achievement and a fascinating read in many ways.  First a bit of back story.

The book was published originally in Great Britain in 1940.  It appears it was largely ignored, with very few reviews.  But then what really sent it to oblivion was the German blitz, in which the warehouse holding almost all the copies of the book was destroyed.  Recently Michel Moushabeck, a Palestinian man who runs Interlink Publishing (and a neighbor of mine, a musician, and fellow activist, here in Western Massachusetts), was told about a copy of the book held by the British Museum and, after reading it there, decided it needed to be reissued.  It came out in time for the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, and the world of Palestine scholarship and activism owes a great debt of gratitude to Interlink Publishing for bringing this extraordinary work to light.

If one is looking for an “objective”, impartial treatment of the history, this isn’t it.  Far from it.  Jeffries makes clear from the outset that he has a polemical goal and that is to present “the Arab case”.  This he does with passion, skillful writing, meticulous attention to detail, amazing wit, and insightful analysis.  It’s especially interesting to see the events leading up to and including the first two decades of the British Mandate through the eyes of a contemporary – someone without the knowledge of what was yet to come – WWII, the Holocaust, and then the Nakba and creation of Israel in 1948.  Jeffries, a man of his times, is no foe of European colonialism in general, but still he finds the treatment of the indigenous people of Palestine by the British and the Zionists to be an affront to justice and the honor of Great Britain.  His sense of righteous indignation screams out from almost every page, yet not in a way that either clouds his judgment (which appears razor sharp throughout) or obscures the narrative he has to tell.

No short review can do this book justice, so I’ll just try to hit some of the points that I especially found striking.  Not being a trained historian of Zionism or the British Mandate, I’m not in a position to determine how much of what he presents is news; but I have to say that as someone who has read quite a bit as an amateur, I found a number of his arguments either totally new to me or at least a new spin on what I already was aware of.

The first point that struck me – and it’s consonant with the material presented in John Judis’s recent book, Genesis, which deals with the American role in the creation of the State of Israel, especially the American Zionist movement – is how similar the political climate in Great Britain during the period Jeffries covers was to the political climate in the US now.  As WWI’s end was envisaged by the British and deliberations about what to do with the former Ottoman colonies, including Palestine, were conducted at the highest levels of the government, Zionist leaders – both British and American – had special access to and influence over these deliberations. Arab voices were almost completely ignored.  This situation prevailed during the entire period covered by the book.  What is clear from his description of the diplomatic maneuvers of the time is that, despite whatever anti-Semitism was present in British society and ruling circles, figures like Chaim Weizmann and Louis Brandeis were treated as worthy partners in the project of spreading European – i.e. white – culture around the world.  For Palestine, it seems, the fix was in from the get-go.

Three features of the early years are especially noteworthy and take up a good bit of Jeffries’s discussion.  First, the British clearly had signed a treaty, thus legally binding them to its provisions, with Sherif Hussein of Arabia.  In a series of letters between Sir Henry McMahon (High Commissioner in Egypt during WWI) and Sherif Hussein, then the principal Arab leader residing in what is now Saudi Arabia, the British government committed itself to the establishment of an Arab state, under Arab control, within a wide swath that included Arabia and Syria – in particular Palestine.  In exchange Sherif Hussein promised to begin the “Arab revolt” against the Ottoman forces to help Great Britain’s war effort against the Turks. Jeffries goes to great pains to document the detailed correspondence, and the fact that the Arab forces fully lived up to their commitment and were crucial in enabling Great Britain to wrest control of Arab lands, including Palestine, from the Turks. Though Winston Churchill later, in 1922, tried to argue that Palestine was not originally included within the borders of the promised Arab state, Jeffries methodically refutes his claim.  In his usual witty manner, Jeffries notes that Damascus would have to be 300 miles long to make sense of Churchill’s argument.  So giving Palestine away to the Zionists to build the “national home” for the Jewish people was, as Jeffries saw it, a clear-cut violation of Great Britain’s treaty commitments to the Arab people (not to mention an affront to plain justice).

The second noteworthy feature is the degree to which Zionist leaders – again, both British and American – had a leading hand in constructing the Balfour Declaration itself, the document that essentially pulled sovereignty out from under the feet of the indigenous people of Palestine.  Jeffries goes through all the different drafts of the document circulated by Zionist leaders during 1916-1917, demonstrating both that it was they who formulated the policy and also that they had always intended to erect a state in all of Palestine under exclusive Jewish control.  This was envisaged at a time when Jews made up less than 10% of Palestine’s population.

With regard to their real program, Jeffries presents the position put forward by the Zionist Organization in October 1916 as their official representation to the Allied Powers concerning the disposition of former Turkish colonies should they fall under the control of the Allied Powers.  As Jeffries emphasizes, it is in itself a remarkable fact that Great Britain, along with the other powers, accepted this formal statement in an official capacity,

as though the Zionist Organization possessed an internationally established status which might be affected by the advance of England and of France into Syrian territories.  Whence this status was gained remains undiscoverable.  But the document which presupposed it was adroitly presented by the Zionist leaders and was adroitly accepted by the British government and thereby the said status, though it did not exist (my emphasis), was recognized. (page 133)

When added to all of the other events and documents presented in this book, I think it terribly important to let this passage sink in.  What he shows is that the initial, game-changing trick, long before the Nakba, long before “the Occupation”, was pulled off back in 1916.  Representatives of an organization with no legal or moral claim to be a “stakeholder” in the disposition of Arab lands following the war was recognized to have such a right, and indeed deference to their interests was shown over and above those of the people who had lived there for centuries.  This very recognition of the Zionist Organization’s status as a “stakeholder” was already a great violation of the Palestinian Arabs’ rights, violations that only were compounded as time went on.

Among the demands presented to the Allied Powers was for the establishment of a Jewish Chartered Company that would “…exercise the right of pre-emption of Crown and other lands and to acquire for its own use all or any concessions which may at any time be granted by the suzerain Government or Governments.” (page 133) As Jeffries wonders in response, “Why have a suzerain Government at all?… Nothing was left for the suzerain to do but the clerical work of surrendering everything and expropriating everybody.”

Finally noting that there is after all an indigenous population on the ground, the Zionist proposal adds, “The present population, being too small, too poor, and too little trained to make rapid progress, requires the introduction of a new and progressive element in the population, desirous of devoting all its energies and capital to the work of colonization along modern lines.” (my emphasis, page 134)  So much for the argument that Zionism was not a colonial enterprise.

Of course there was a lot of editing of drafts and back and forth negotiations among the British and American Zionists and the British and American governments before the final text of the Balfour Declaration was approved, but Jeffries demonstrates that the Zionist leaders very much dominated that process.  Indeed, a much stronger statement would have been promulgated but for the intervention of important non-Zionist Jewish voices – not marginal, as in contemporary times, but leaders of the British Jewish community.  For instance, in July of 1917, about four months before the official issuance of Balfour’s letter, the following draft of the letter had been agreed to and almost issued:

“His Majesty’s Government, after considering the aims of the Zionist Organization, accepts the principle of recognizing Palestine as the National Home of the Jewish peopleand the right of the Jewish people to build up its National life in Palestine under a protection to be established at the conclusion of Peace, following upon the successful issue of the War.

His Majesty’s Government regards as essential for the realization of this principle the grant of internal autonomy to the Jewish nationality in Palestine, freedom of immigration for the Jews, and the establishment of a Jewish National Colonizing corporation for the resettlement and economic development of the country.” (my emphasis, page 171)

Notice, unlike the letter Balfour finally sent, copied below, the whole of Palestine was to be turned into the National Home and the rights of a state almost immediately given to the Zionists.  No mention of the indigenous people whatsoever appears in this draft.

The letter that was ultimately issued, sent on November 2, 1917, from Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild, was this:

“I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet.

His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.

I should be grateful if you would bring this Declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.”

As Jeffries acidly observes, after recounting the commanding role played by the Zionists in writing this letter, “Nothing more cynically humorous than the final couple of lines of this letter has ever been penned.” (page 178)

While the actual declaration was an improvement, from the Palestinian Arab point of view, over the draft of July, in that it didn’t promise the entirety of Palestine as the National Home, but only the establishment in Palestine of a national home, and it also mentioned safeguards for the “non-Jewish” communities, it still basically gave away the store.  What’s more, as Jeffries documents in gruesome detail, what actually happened once the British took over, with immediate privileges granted to the newly established “Zionist Commission” and the complete denial of any political rights to the Arabs, was basically in line with the earlier drafts and the Zionists’ October 1916 program.  Jeffries is especially cynical about the apparent safeguards for the Arabs.  As he points out, to refer to over 90% of the population, a people with a culture rooted in the land for centuries, as the “existing non-Jewish communities” is patently absurd.  Also, while denying any political rights to the indigenous people, even its provision to protect their “civil and religious rights” is empty, given that no explanation is presented as to the content of these rights.  In one of my favorite passages in the book, Jeffries goes off on this point:

“The crux arrives with ‘civil rights’.  What are ‘civil rights’?  All turns on this point.  If civil rights remain undefined it is only a mockery to guarantee them.  To guarantee anything, and at the same time not to let anyone know what it is, that is Alice in Wonderland legislation.  ‘I guarantee your civil rights’, said the White Queen to Alice in Palestineland.  ‘Oh, thank you!’, said Alice, ‘what are they, please?’  ‘I’m sure I can’t tell you, my dear’, said the White Queen, ‘but I’ll guarantee very hard!’” (page 186)

The third feature of Jeffries’s account that I want to highlight is something I’ve never run across before.  It turns out that the British ruled Palestine illegally for a crucial period of about three years.  The standard story is that the British conquered Palestine from the Turks in 1917 under General Edmund Allenby and then ruled under the law of military occupation until passage of the Mandate by the League of Nations gave civil control to Great Britain in 1922.  (See Raja Shehadeh’s piece in the latest New York Review of Books on the West Bank, an otherwise excellent article, in which he presents precisely this history).  However, that isn’t actually how it went down.  The military government was expressing its exasperation with the Zionist Commission and attempting to govern Palestine in a way that didn’t prejudice the ultimate disposition of the country and this caused British leaders in London to replace the military government with a civil government pledged to the Zionist project three years before a treaty with Turkey was signed.  Until this treaty was signed, Turkey still held sovereignty, and so no civil administration by Great Britain was legal – only the rule of military occupation was internationally recognized.  Yet Great Britain proceeded to act under the Mandate as if they already had it!

The process of writing the Mandate was quite similar to the one for the Balfour Declaration.  Zionist leaders were collaborators with British officials in writing the terms of the Mandate which was allegedly being granted to Great Britain by the League of Nations, but into which the League had essentially no input.  Jeffries presents a detailed analysis of both the language of the Mandate itself and also of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, under which authority to grant the Mandate was exerciced.  Jeffries shows, over and over again, how the Mandate, by incorporating the Balfour Declaration into it, violated one of the most basic tenets of Article 22.  The relevant passage reads:

“Certain communities formerly belonging to the Turkish Empire have reached a stage of development where their existence as independent nations can be provisionally recognized subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a Mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone.  The wishes of these communities must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory.”

Leave aside for now the incredible hubris and expression of white European supremacy screaming from the passage.  Still, what’s clear is that provisional governments expressing the popular will were supposed to be instituted, with the role of the Mandatory to be the nurturing of this expression of self-determination until such time as they were deemed capable of standing on their own. But allowing the Arabs of Palestine representative rule would be inconsistent with the Zionist project, for the simple reason that the Palestinian Arabs, like pretty much every other people, were adamantly opposed to handing over their country to another people.  So given this conflict between the clear meaning of Article 22 of the Covenant and the fostering of the Zionist project, it was the clear meaning of Article 22 – and, much more importantly, the aspirations of the native population – that went ignored.

The saga of the next twenty years, with violent eruptions of Arab discontent punctuating the steady rise and power of the Zionist forces, always followed by official commissions to report on the causes of the “disturbances”, is recounted in great detail by Jeffries.  While those investigating the causes of disturbances were clear that it was opposition to the Mandate’s Zionist project that fueled them, the British government kept hiding behind its alleged sacred trust from the League to build the National Home.  But of course this was Britain’s own trust to itself and never had legal or moral status.

One of the more poignant passages – and yes, one that exhibits Jeffries’s own European chauvinism – is his description of a letter by Palestinian Arab notables during the “Arab revolt” of 1936-1939.  He says:

“To read the memorandum carries the mind back to the Damascus Resolutions of the Syrian Congress, seventeen years before. [This Congress, during WWI, voted to seek independence for the Arab nation and to determine the parameters of engagement with Great Britain in order to shake off Ottoman rule.]  It has the same quiet reasonableness.  The same thought must come to the mind upon reading it as upon reading the Damascus Resolutions – how could men who wrote like this be treated as illiterate tribesmen unable to govern themselves.” (page 692)

After reading Jeffries’s account of how delegation after delegation from the Palestinian Arabs was ignored and disrespected over the course of twenty years even as the Zionist leaders were treated as if they were part of the government themselves, it’s hard not to share in the outrage coming from these pages. This quote from Jeffries, at the close of the book, summarizes the whole sordid story of the Mandate.  He writes,

“There is not very much more to say.  Perhaps it is as well to recall and to expose again the other falsetto cry which tinkles side by side with the appeal to the verdict of the Fifty-seven.  [He’s referring here to the 57 nations who constituted the League of Nations and to whom appeal was often made by Great Britain and the Zionists for their legal and moral basis in pursuing the national home policy.]  ‘We must act impartially towards the two peoples of Palestine.’  Once and for all, there are not two peoples in Palestine.  [my emphasis] There is the Arab people there.  The Zionists we have imported.  In Palestine, when we came there, there was only an Arab population with a small Jewish colony in it.  There were ninety-one Arabs for every nine Jews, and these were not political Zionists.  We have imported some hundred thousand Zionists to [emphasis in original] Palestine, and our Zionophile politicians dishonestly speak of them as though they always had been there.” (page 740)

As you can see, nothing much has changed, only it’s gotten a lot worse.

Finally, I have two thoughts about the book, one about its significance for someone reading it today and the other about a nagging question he never really addresses. First, the nagging
question. It’s clear from Jeffries’s account that British Zionist leaders – in particular, Chaim Weizmann, but not only him – had enormous influence over the early, crucial determinations of what to do with the former Turkish colonies. It also seems clear that American Zionist leaders had enormous influence over US policy, which itself was a major factor in determining British policy. In fact, Jeffries has a habit of referring to the Wilson administration, when speaking of its policies vis-à-vis Palestine, as the “Brandeis regime”. The question: what accounts for this influence? Why were British and American leaders, but especially British ones, during the crucial years of the Mandate, so wedded to the Zionist project? From Jeffries’s point of view, it was not helpful to overall British security and strength in the region. So why did they do it? Here the old debate about the influence of “the Lobby” vs. great power interests rears its head, though during a much earlier period. I don’t pretend to have an answer. Probably, as usual in history, a number of factors – a “perfect storm” as it were. You take the odd Christian Zionist beliefs of personalities like Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, their simultaneous elite anti-Semitism (that pushes them to finding a place outside of Europe for the Jews), their deep-seated white Eurocentrism, which is probably stronger than their anti-Semitism, and so moves them to totally discount the aspirations of indigenous Palestinian Arabs, and some ideas that having Europeans (even if Jews) in charge of a strategic location near the Suez Canal is a good idea, and together you have a recipe for the Mandate policy. Maybe that’s all one can say.

Regarding the significance of the book for us, I think it’s important for people to read an account by an honest observer of the formative events early on, someone who hasn’t yet had time to grow accustomed to the reality of the Jewish State in Palestine. I keep reading in lots of liberal venues about how the two peoples each have their narrative and claims and a way forward must be found that takes legitimate account of both sides. What Jeffries shows so dramatically is that there may be two narratives, but only one of them, the Palestinian one, has much connection to reality. As we see from his vantage point so clearly, the land of Palestine was stolen from its people by a major world power and given to another group of people who had no claim to it whatsoever. That last quote from Jeffries near the end of the book says it all. Of course there is now a Jewish community in Palestine that cannot be ignored or just sent back to where they came from, so one cannot undo the original sin. But so long as we don’t properly acknowledge that original sin – and this is what Jeffries’s book helps us do so well – I don’t see that genuine peace with justice is possible.

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