When Britain Promised the Promised Land

When Britain Promised the Promised Land

Map of Palestine

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Why you should care

Because they will say all is fair in love and war

A 43-year-old chemist waited patiently deep within the hallway maze of London’s Westminster Palace. It was early afternoon, October 31, 1917, and in one of the smoke-filled rooms, the most powerful men of Great Britain scanned a 67-word document, checking every word — this was the fifth iteration — before moustachioed Prime Minister David Lloyd George finally nodded. Arthur Balfour, his foreign secretary, signaled to news to his Middle East advisor.

Sir Mark Sykes opened the door to the hallway and, with a smile, shouted to the nervous chemist, “Dr Weizmann, it’s a boy!”

Sir Mark Sykes

Sir Mark Sykes in 1918, months after advising British Prime Minister on the Balfour Declaration.

Source Public Domain\Wikipedia

It seemed a flippant joke, but the terse declaration, officially sent out two days later, indeed lead to the birth of a nation: Israel. For Zionists like Dr. Chaim Weizmann, it was the triumphant culmination of years of lobbying and diplomacy started by his mentor Theodor Herzl. For the British government, it seemed a guarantee of territorial suzerainty (and a way to keep the French at arms length from the lucrative Suez Canal).

But for the 600,000 Arabs in Palestine who made up over 90 percent of the population, it was the ultimate betrayal, one that intellectual Edward Said would later label as an example of “the moral epistemology of imperialism.”

It certainly brought new meaning to the “Promised Land” …

The now infamous Balfour Declaration reads:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour 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 existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration, published on November 9, 1917.

Source Universal History Archive\Getty

Unsurprisingly, how they got to those 67-words has been a reoccurring point of contention over the last 100 years, since it was first published in the London papers. Contrasting narratives have emerged about whether it was owed to the skilled diplomacy of folks like Weizmann, or the romanticist support of colonial gentiles like Balfour.

For the Israeli historian Tom Segev, the Balfour Declaration is actually anti-Semitic, writing in his book on the British mandate in Palestine that the motive behind the Declaration “was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests, but of prejudice, faith and sleight of hand… [The British Government] believed the Jews controlled the world.”

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl, a founder of modern political Zionism, formed the World Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland, 1897.

Source Public Domain\Wikipedia

More than 30 years before Balfour signed his name to the 1917 declaration, Herzl, a Hungarian-born Jew who lived in Austria, published a book entitled The Jewish State, which brought about political Zionism. A year later in Basel, Switzerland, he convened the First Zionist Congress, whose discussions about the Holy Land prompted the rabbis of Vienna to send two men to Israel on a fact-finding mission.

Their telegrammed report famously surmised: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”

Unperturbed, the years that followed saw Herzl march on with what Historian Avi Shlaim called “his preference for playing the game of high politics,” and considered Cyprus and the Sinai as potential homes, both of which were rejected by the British, who counteroffered a plot of land in Uganda, itself rejected by the sixth Zionist Congress shortly before Herzl’s death in 1904. Any attempts to talk with the Ottoman Empire about Zionist ambitions in Palestine were unsurprisingly laughed away by the Sublime Porte (the government of the Ottoman empire).

But that all changed when the world went to war in 1914. With the Ottomans backing the German Empire, the British and French knew they needed a distraction from the South. In 1915, the British high commissioner in Egypt told Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities, that Britain would back him to lead an Arab kingdom if only he would help lead an Arab uprising against the Turks. For Sharif Hussein, that Arab kingdom included Palestine together with the third holiest city in Islam: Jerusalem.

Sykes picot

Zones of French (blue), British (red) and Russian (green) influence and control established by the Sykes–Picot Agreement.

Source Rafy\Wikipedia

Unfortunately for Sharif Hussein, a year later a different kind of promise was being made for the future of the region: an imperial promise no less. French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot met with Sir Mark Sykes to discuss carving up the region into preferred spheres of influence. A year after they concluded what would be known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the same Sykes would peer his head out the door of a Westminster meeting room to promise Palestine to Weizmann.

With all three agreements taken into account, it certainly brought new meaning to the idea of a “Promised Land,” although in the end it was only Hussein who lost: The Palestinian mandate fell to the British post-war, thanks to further Zionist lobbying. But for Avi Shlaim, it was all shady dealings. “Even by the standards of Perfidious Albion,” he says, “this was an extraordinary tale of double-dealing and betrayal.”

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