|Forget Herzl -- it's Lord Balfour;|
"If you declare it, it is no dream!"
“His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.It was, by all standards, a short and diplomatically-worded message. Nevertheless, a veritable blame industry has been built around it – one which attempts to make Brits 'feel bad' and exploit their 'pangs of conscience' to extract sympathy towards 'the Palestinian cause' and (even more, it seems) antipathy towards Israel or 'the Jews'. In the words of the (very pro-Palestinian) Mark Thomas:
“After a week on the West Bank I have decided that I need a T-shirt with the words: ‘Yes, I am British. Yes, I know about the Balfour Declaration.’ Every single day someone, finding out that I am British, will say in a manner intended for all to hear, ‘Ah, British … are you aware that in 1917 Lord Balfour of Britain signed away our land to the Jewish?’ [sic!] […] The Palestinian questioner will then, with varying degrees, blame Britain and, by default, me, for the Palestinian situation. Facing this question three or four times a day leads me to the conclusion that this is more of an accusation than a question, and I wonder how I should answer.” [His “answer”, by the way, was in the end to pretend being Scottish and hence not responsible for the misdeeds of the ‘English’ Lord Balfour!].This is one of the ‘staple items’ of Arab propaganda and is part of a wider narrative aimed at de-legitimising Israel (on one hand) and legitimising Arab rejectionism (on the other).
According to this narrative, Jews have no connection whatsoever to the Land of Israel. They either are not a people (Arab propagandists often present Jews as ‘a religion’) or they resulted from some later conversion (Arafat attempted at some point to persuade people that modern-day Jews are the descendants of the Khazars and have no ‘blood connection’ to the ancient People of Israel).
Hence, the story goes, Jews neither desired nor deserved a country of their own – and certainly not in ‘Palestine’. Zionism was, in the words of a Palestinian Solidarity Campaign flyer “a European Jewish political movement which emerged towards the end of the 19th Century”.
But how come such a movement ever succeeded? If the Jews did not even desire a country of their own until the end of the 19th Century, how come they achieved one in the space of just a few decades? Enter Great Britain, the Balfour Declaration, etc. Thus, rather than being the result of age-old national aspirations culminating in a struggle for national emancipation, the Jewish State becomes – in the Arab narrative – a mere creature of European colonialism.
Thus, the Jews are portrayed as ‘illegal immigrants’ (at best) and ‘colonialists’ (at worst), intent on ‘stealing Palestine’. As for Brits like Mark Thomas, they are persuaded of their 'collective guilt': having ‘encouraged the immigration/colonisation’ by Jews of ‘historic Palestine’, they need to 'make amends' by kicking the Jewish State in the shin.
With the likes of Mark Thomas, it certainly works. But not for anyone who’s concerned with facts.
Zionism – a recent European invention?To deny the Jewish age-old longing for the Land of Israel is to wilfully close one’s eyes against obvious evidence. Suffice to open a Jewish prayers book to find clear evidence of that, in prayers written many centuries before “the end of the 19th Century”.
The ‘Amidah’ (Standing) Prayer, which is recited three times a day, contains the following supplication:
“Sound the great horn for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land. Blessed are You Lord, who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel”.For centuries, Jews have sung the words of the Psalmist
"If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue stick to my palate if I cease to think of you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory even at my happiest hour."For centuries Jews – wherever they were – wished each other, as the conclusion of the Seder meal:
“Next year in Jerusalem!”.But did they actually try to go there? Were they a people animated by national feelings and aspirations? Or was it all talk and no substance? Here are, in chronological order, a few facts which managed to reach us from the fog of history:
66–73 CE: “Great Jewish Revolt” against Roman occupation. After defeat, the Romans demolish the Temple. Jews are prohibited from entering Jerusalem and are gradually expelled from the Land of Israel.
115–117: "Rebellion of the Exile". Exiled Jews in several places in the Roman Empire rise against the Romans and return to the Land of Israel. They are eventually defeated.
132–135: “Bar Kokhba revolt”. Jews rise against the Romans under the leadership of Bar Kokhba. They regain Jerusalem, proclaim independence, even make coins with the text ‘To the freedom of Jerusalem’. They are ultimately defeated by superior Roman forces. Emperor Hadrian prohibits the practice of Judaism. He prohibits the terms ‘Israel’ and ‘Judaea’ and re-names the country ‘Syria-Palaestina’ after the Philistines, the ancient enemies of the Jews.
351–352: “Revolt against Gallus”. Jewish revolt liberates Galilee, before being defeated.
362-572: Several Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule. The Samaritan faith (a sect of Judaism which had survived in the Judean Hills) is outlawed.
602-628: Persian Jews form an army, join forces with the Sassanids against the Byzantines and reconquer Jerusalem. A semi-autonomous Jewish state is declared, but is ultimately defeated in 628.
636: Arab conquest of “Syria” (including the Land of Israel). Jews are initially allowed back into Jerusalem, but are later prohibited again from entering. The Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are built on the site of the destroyed Jewish Temple.
1160: Revolt of Jews in Kurdistan. Failed attempt to reconquer the Land of Israel.
1198: Jews from Maghreb arrive and settle in Jerusalem.
1204: Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) dies and is buried in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
1211: Around 300 Jews from England and France manage to reach the Land of Israel and settle in Jerusalem. The majority are killed by the Crusaders in 1219. The few remaining are exiled from Jerusalem and find refuge in Acre.
1217: Judah al-Harizi (rabbi, translator, poet and traveller who travelled from Spain to the Land of Israel) bemoans in his writings the state of the Temple Mount.
1260: Having settled in the Land of Israel, Yechiel of Paris (French rabbi) establishes a Talmudic academy in Acre.
1266: Jews banned from entering the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
1267: Nachmanides (leading medieval Jewish scholar from Catalonia) arrives in Jerusalem; Ramban synagogue established.
1286: Meir of Rothenburg (famous rabbi and poet from Germany) is incarcerated after attempting to emigrate to the Land of Israel.
1355: Physician and geographer Ishtori Haparchi (born in France and settled in the Land of Israel) dies in Bet She'an.
1428: Jews attempt to purchase the Tomb of David; the Pope issues a prohibition for ship captains to carry Jews to the Land of Israel.
1434: Elijah of Ferrara (famous Talmudist and traveller) settles in Jerusalem.
1441: Famine forces Jerusalem Jews to send emissary to European Jews, asking for help.
1455: Failed large scale immigration attempt starting from Sicily. The would-be immigrants are condemned to death, but the punishment is commuted to a heavy fine.
1474: Great Synagogue of Jerusalem demolished by Arab mob.
1488: Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro arrives in Jerusalem on March 25, 1488, having commenced his journey October 29, 1486. When, on the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many of the exiles settled in Jerusalem, Bertinoro became their intellectual leader. These Spanish Jews presented Bertinoro with a site for a yeshivah (religious academy) in Jerusalem, which he founded. Considerable support for the maintenance of the yeshivah was given by the Jews of Egypt and Turkey at Bertinoro's written solicitation.
1493: Joseph Saragossi travels from Spain and settles in Safed. He becomes the leader of the local Jewish community and dies in 1507.
1561: Spanish Jews travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Don Joseph Nasi. They settle in Safed. Joseph Nasi secures permission from Sultan Selim II to acquire Tiberias and seven surrounding villages to create a Jewish city-state. He hoped that large numbers of Jewish refugees and Marranos (Jews forced to convert to Catholicism) would settle there, free from fear and oppression; indeed, the persecuted Jews of Cori, Italy, numbering about 200 souls, decided to emigrate to Tiberias. Nasi had the walls of the town rebuilt by 1564 and attempted to turn it into a self-sufficient textile manufacturing centre by planting mulberry trees and producing silk. Nevertheless, a number of factors during the following years contributed to the plan's ultimate failure. But by 1576, the Jewish community of Safed faced an expulsion order: 1,000 prosperous families were to be deported to Cyprus, "for the good of the said island", with another 500 the following year. The order was issued as an instrument of extortion: it was rescinded once a hefty bribe was extracted from the Jews in the form of ‘rent’.
1648: Jews from Turkey attempt to return as a group to Israel, under the leadership of Sabbatai Zevi. His arrival in Jerusalem triggers an anti-Jewish pogrom.
1700: A group of 1,500 Ashkenazi Jews attempt to travel to the Land of Israel under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid. A third die on the way. The Rabbi himself dies within days of arrival. The survivors settle in Jerusalem.
1764-1850: Small groups of Jews (between 5 and 500 each) make their way to the Land of Israel under various rabbis.
1812: Austrian government issues instructions to the Governor of Galicia to prevent Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel. Austrian consuls in Odessa and Istanbul are instructed to refuse passports to Austrian Jews who want to travel to the Land of Israel.
1868: Judah ben Shalom leads a large movement of Yemenite Jews to Israel.
1882: A convention of Jewish "Unions for the Agricultural Settlement of Israel" is held on January 11, 1882 in Focsani, Romania. A few ships are organised, which take immigrants to the Land of Israel.
1882-1903: Circa 35,000 Jews from Eastern Europe immigrate and settle in the Land of Israel.
1897: First Zionist Congress. Although held in Europe, it was not a meeting of “Europeans”. It brought together representatives from all major Jewish communities, including the Americas and the Arab World.
1904-1914: Circa 40,000 Jews (most from the Russian Empire and Yemen) immigrate and settle in the Land of Israel, which was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
1915: A Jewish espionage network called NILI is established in the Land of Israel. It cooperates with the British in the fight against the Ottomans – the hope being that unlike the Ottomans the British will allow the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. Several members of the network die: Absalom Feinberg is shot while trying to escape on foot to the British lines in Egypt; Sarah Aaronsohn is captured, but manages to commit suicide after being tortured for four days; Na'aman Belkind and Yosef Lishanski are hanged. In 1919, the Chief of British Military Intelligence at the War Office Major General George Macdonogh referred to the group in his lecture at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich: “Allenby [the British general who defeated the Ottomans in the Levant] knew with certainty from his intelligence of all the preparations and all the movements of his enemy. All the cards of his enemy were revealed to him, and so he could play his hand with complete confidence. Under these conditions, victory was certain before he began”.
The term ‘Zionism’ is indeed recent. But it is just a modern name for an age-old yearning.
Was the Balfour Declaration a “crucial” document?Arab propaganda assigns exaggerated importance to the Balfour Declaration. The suggestion is that, were it not for the Declaration, there would have been no Jewish state. Again, this is an attempt to assign the re-birth of Israel to an external, colonial influence and deny that it was the product of age-old Jewish national aspirations. Such propaganda is aimed both at brainwashing the Arab masses and at fooling Westerners whose knowledge of Middle Eastern history is no match for their naivety. In the words of a Guardian blogger
“without that declaration, there could not have been the Jewish immigration to Palestine that laid the foundations for the state of Israel”.It seems that, with some Guardian bloggers at least, lack of real knowledge won't stand in the way of assertively pronounced judgements. The problem with that particular assertive statement is, however, that by the time the Balfour Declaration was issued (1917), there had already been two large waves of Jewish immigration. Between 1882 and 1917, close to 100,000 Jews had immigrated and settled in the Land of Israel, despite the fact that it was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire. The Balfour Declaration did NOT cause the Jews to immigrate and settle in the Land of Israel; immigration and settlement started long before the Declaration.
The famous Declaration was nothing but a letter written by a Foreign Minister (Balfour) to a community leader (Rothschild). Of course, Zionists welcomed it and hailed it as a victory. But, objectively, the Declaration was not ‘crucial’ in any way. It was not an international agreement or a contract; it was not even a firm promise. It did not include any plan of action. As such, it was nothing but a loosely worded statement of intention, not enforceable in any way.
To understand just how weak the “promise” contained in the Declaration really was, suffice to say that another state-less people, the Kurds, got a much stronger promise: the Treaty of Sèvres (signed in 1920by the official representatives of the defeated Ottoman Empire, as well as by those of Great Britain, France and Italy), promised them a state of their own. Yet nothing came out of that much stronger promise, as the three Western powers lacked interest in enforcing it... The Balfour Declaration was NOT a legally-enforceable document; it had none of the importance propagandists seek to assign it today.
In the case of Palestine, the relevant legal instrument was not the Declaration – but the Mandate issued by the League of Nations (the precursor of the United Nations) on 22/07/1922. Recognising “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and [...] the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country”, the Mandate earmarked Palestine (including modern-day Jordan) as the National Home of the Jewish people. The document was approved by the 42 founding members of the League of Nations. Yet the importance of the League of Nations Mandate should also be judged in the context – and not overstated: this was by no means a unique document; the Palestine Mandate was just one of a total of 12 Mandates issued by the League, each dealing with a different piece of territory.
Neither the Balfour Declaration nor the League of Nations Mandate ‘created’ modern Zionism or the State of Israel. As a national emancipation movement, modern Zionism evolved naturally from the national aspirations of the Jewish people. It was translated into practice by mass immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel, which started decades before the Declaration and the Mandate.
British ‘support’ for the Jewish causeAn additional myth fabricated by the Arab propaganda machine is that Britain (as the Mandatory Power) ‘encouraged’ Jewish immigration to Palestine and ‘the dispossession’ of Palestinian Arabs. Hence, the implication that today’s Brits somehow need to ‘atone’, that they owe ‘compensatory discrimination’ to Palestinian Arabs.
These accusations are deliberately vague and never explained, so we are left to wonder: what type of ‘encouragement’ was provided?
One might indeed have expected the British authorities to provide support for Jewish immigration and settlement – that is what they undertook to do under the terms of the League of Nations Mandate. The Mandate included the following provision:
“ART. 6: The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes”.In practice, however, the British Government did no such thing. They did NOT ‘facilitate’ Jewish immigration – they barely allowed it (as did the Ottoman government before them). Jews immigrated because they wanted to – not because the British ‘encouraged’ them. They settled in the Land of Israel, revived their ancient language, helped each other and worked to earn their livelihood. What, then, is the nature of the ‘encouragement’ offered by Britain? In reality, the British government was not concerned with the welfare of the Jews at all – but with the interests of the British Empire, i.e. maintaining British dominance over an area perceived as strategically important. The history of the British Mandate of Palestine is one of continuous restriction of Jewish immigration, in contravention to the Mandate provisions. During WW1, the British sought allies against the Ottomans in the Middle East and found one in the person of Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca and head of the Hashemis, a clan of Bedouin Arabs from Hijaz (modern-day Saudi Arabia).
|First partition of the Mandate of Palestine; |
establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan,
prohibited to Jewish immigration and settlement.
In reality, even the British authorities’ passive acceptance of Jewish immigration into those 20% lasted only between 1923 and 1939. By 1939, the British Government (under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain – the one who 'avoided the conflict' by offering Czechoslovakia to Hitler) saw their main interest as appeasing the Arabs. Hence, in flagrant contravention to the terms of the League of Nations Mandate, they adopted a ‘White Paper’ limiting Jewish immigration to an absolute maximum of 75,000 over the next 5 years and terminating it thereafter. In effect, the White Paper condemned the Jews in the promised ‘Jewish National Home’ to the status of a minority in an Arab country. As an aside, it should be mentioned that these draconian restrictions on Jewish immigration were implemented at the very time when the ‘final solution of the Jewish problem’ was being adopted in Nazi Germany and in the territories it occupied. None of the Western countries (including Britain and USA) accepted Jewish refugees at the time. Thus, the White Paper closed the last door still open to Jews trying to escape the Nazi extermination machine. It is impossible today to estimate how many of the 6 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust would have been able to save themselves, had the White Paper not been adopted. But it is not unreasonable to expect their numbers to have been in the hundreds of thousands. Including, perhaps, some of my own relatives who were eventually gassed at Auschwitz.
But while the British authorities were busy appeasing the Arabs by throttling Jewish immigration, they made little effort to control (let alone restrict) Arab immigration from the neighbouring countries. In 1930, the Hope-Simpson Commission (sent from London to investigate the 1929 Arab riots) said that the British practice of ignoring illegal Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan and Syria had the effect of displacing the Jewish immigrants. C.S. Jarvis, the British Governor of the Sinai between 1922 and 1936 observed:
“This illegal immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Transjordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery.”The Peel Commission reported in 1937 that the
“shortfall of land is, we consider, due less to the amount of land acquired by Jews than to the increase in the Arab population”.These Arab immigrants from Syria, Egypt, Transjordan, etc. were to join the ranks of those later called ‘Palestinians’, who – we are so often told – ‘have lived in historic Palestine for many centuries’.
Between World War I and World War II, the Jewish population of the Mandate increased by 470,000, while the non-Jewish population rose by 588,000.
The anti-Jewish immigration restrictions were not lifted after the Holocaust. Although Europe was full of Jewish refugees who wanted to immigrate to the Land of Israel (many of them survivors of concentration camps), the British Government continued to prevent them (often by force) from entering the Land of Israel. The case of the ship ‘Exodus’ is well-known and immortalised (in romanticised form) in a famous film. The ship sailed from the port of Site, near Marseilles, on July 11, 1947, with 4,515 immigrants, including 655 children, on board. As soon as it left the territorial waters of France, British destroyers escorted it. On July 18, near the coast of Palestine but outside territorial waters, the British rammed the ship and boarded it, while the immigrants put up a desperate defence. Two immigrants and a crewman were killed in the ensuing battle and 30 were wounded. The ship was towed to the port of Haifa, where the immigrants were forced onto deportation ships bound for France. At Port-de-Bouc, in southern France, the would-be immigrants remained in the ships’ holds for 24 days during a heat wave, refusing to disembark despite the shortage of food, the crowding and the abominable sanitary conditions. The French government refused to force them off the boat. Eventually, the British decided to return them to Germany, and on August 22 the ship left for the port of Hamburg, then in the British Occupation Zone. The immigrants were forcibly disembarked and transported to two camps near Lübeck, where they were detained.
The case was not singular, but interning Jewish refugees in a camp in Germany two years after the Holocaust caused a huge public outcry, forcing the British Government to seek other ‘solutions’. Thereafter, Jewish ‘illegal immigrants’ were interned in British camps in Cyprus. Approximately 50,000 people were detained in the camps, many of them survivors of the Nazi death camps; 28,000 were still imprisoned when Israel declared independence in 1948.
As for encouraging “close settlement by Jews on the land” (as required by the terms of the League of Nations Mandate), the British authorities gave the Jews no land. They sold some public land – more to Arabs than to Jews – between 1923 and 1936. The sales of land (public or private) to Jews were prohibited by the 1939 White Paper in 95% of the territory. By 1947, Jewish holdings in Palestine amounted to about 463,000 acres. Approximately 45,000 of these acres had been acquired from the Mandatory Government; 30,000 had been bought from various churches and 387,500 had been purchased from Arab and Turkish landowners.
By 1947, the British Government had lost interest in the Mandate of Palestine. Their influence in the region seemed secure through the alliance with Transjordan, whose King was British educated and whose army was trained and officered by British personnel. With the entire British Empire in advanced stage of disintegration, the Mandate had become a mere nuisance. Hence, Britain reverted to the United Nations (successor to the League of Nations) and dropped the issue in its lap. A UN team performed an inquiry in the field and recommended the partition of territory between an Arab State and a Jewish State. The UN General Assembly adopted the recommendation as Resolution 181; Britain abstained at the vote and afterwards made clear that, despite its role as Mandatory Power, it would do nothing to implement the Resolution. This ‘washing of the hands’ outraged the Jews (who had accepted the Resolution) and pleased the Arabs (who had rejected it).
The independent Jewish State was proclaimed in May 1948, as the last British soldiers were leaving. The next day, the armies of neighbouring Arab states joined irregular local Arab ‘militias’ and semi-regular ‘volunteers’ in attacking the newly proclaimed State of Israel. While officially the United Kingdom was neutral in this war, the British-trained and equipped Transjordanian Army (the Arab Legion) included numerous British officers and was commanded by the British general John Glubb.
In the Middle East (as in many other regions of the world) British imperialism caused human suffering and lasting damage. But the myth of Israel as a ‘creature of British colonialism’ is nothing but a deceitful attempt to re-write history. Of course, it is in any case ridiculous to imply that today’s Brits are responsible for whatever the British government did then. It is important, however, to tell the truth: if there is one side in this conflict which was most grievously wronged by the British rule, it was the Jewish side.