British policy and Arab Displacement in Palestine, 1915-23: Contingency. Imperialism and Double-Dealing

            By  William M. Mathew, Senior Fellow in History, University of East Anglia

Lecture given as part of the Contemporary Middle East Lecture Programme,               School of Oriental and African Studies, 28 October 2014


I should begin by briefly explaining the three-part title: “Contingency, Imperialism, and Double-Dealing” – these bearing on the one central issue of Arab political displacement in Palestine at the outset of the British Mandate – and the related general point that in seeking some proper historical understanding of the present continuing conflict, it is essential to go back beyond 1967, and beyond 1948, to the effective year zero, the Balfour year, 1917. The Balfour Declaration, offering official British support for a Jewish National Home in Palestine, and the protection of civil and religious but not political rights for the resident Arab majority, might well be viewed as a decisive coup d`ḗtat at one remove: a coup that has never been undone, thanks to the compelling, high-speed drive and determination of the Zionist pioneers, and the critical recruitment of external supporting forces majeures in the form of, sequentially, the UK and US governments.

And what I want to offer here, getting away from the increasingly dense documentation of the comings and goings around the Declaration, is some analysis of simple fundamentals as I see them – and this set very much in the context of British political and imperial circumstance.

Contingency because the Balfour Declaration was the short-term consequence of unanticipated war circumstance, the policy rapidly engineered by British ministers and Zionist propagandists in London – far distant from Palestine, and taking the local population there by near-total surprise, giving them no time to mount any preventive lobbying.

Imperialism, because British Levantine policy was essentially Suez-focussed and India-focussed, Palestine itself being part only of Britain`s peripheral vision, dimly viewed and dimly understood.

Double-dealing, because the Balfour Declaration implicitly contradicted earlier promises of Palestine independence made by the British government in the form of the celebrated McMahon-Hussein correspondence, 1915-16.

And if I may introduce further on this issue: double-dealing relates to a short book I`ve just edited, based on the writings of the journalist Joseph Jeffries in 1923, these put together in a series of 26 newspaper articles reporting on his extended visit to post-Balfour Palestine: his title (and mine) – The Palestine Deception. Jeffries had been a war correspondent in Europe and the Middle East, born in Cork in 1880 from what he described as “a triangular ancestry”, English, Irish, and American.

He was, for the record, no sort of anti-Semite. His invective was powerfully directed against successive British governments – “all the Balfours” as he liked to call them – and their sponsorship, partly unwitting, not of Zionism as such, but of, as he saw it, a dangerously exclusivist “political” Zionism: “…political Zionism is one thing,” he wrote, “and Zionism is another, with Judaism pure and simple even more remote….Your political Zionist aims at establishing a Jewish nationality, a Jewish State in Palestine. The non-political Zionist wishes to return to Palestine as to the religious cradle of his creed. He seeks to create no Jewish nationality”. That was the form of Zionism that Jeffries espoused.

His particular importance lay in his making available to a British readership for the very first time extended translations from the Arabic (actually re-translations, since the original UK official drafts were, of course, in English) of the critically important McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16 whereby the Arabs, in the person of Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, had been offered, in return for military assistance to the British, post-war independent polities over a broad swathe of the Levant – including, as Jeffries was at special pains to point out, the entireterritory of Palestine. It was a matter of some urgency, insisted Sir Henry McMahon, at the time British High Commissioner in Egypt, writing to Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary in London: “immediate assurances were necessary if the Arabs were not to be lost to the British cause”, with the consequence of their being taken “into the hands of Germany”

Numerous, eminent, current and retired ministers, and old imperial pro-consuls, appealed in Parliament for official publication of the full correspondence following Jeffries` revelations, but all entreaties were brushed aside with a series of specious excuses. The correspondence, remarkably, only formally saw the light of day 16 years later, in 1939, at the time of the London round-table conference on Palestine when the government really had no option but to come clean.

The senior Colonial Office official in 1923, Sir John Shuckburgh, seemed to confess all in three private communications in 1922:

–          though “the view taken in this Office is that Palestine was so excluded [from the McMahon pledges]…there is sufficient doubt in the matter to make it desirable not to drag the controversy out into the daylight”

–          the official British line on the issue, denying any Palestine undertakings, was “one of the weakest points in our armour”

–          and: “our best policy is to let sleeping dogs lie as much as possible”.

All that simply by way of introduction, placing Jeffries and his polemic in context. I shall return to him in more detail later on.

Returning now to the three main analytical categories:


Contingency” concerns the fact, as I`ve argued elsewhere, that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 emerged unheralded from no powerful, long-term, perceived historical processes but from a cluster of chance occurrences and circumstances, either resulting from the First World War or coincident with it – Lloyd George`s fairly sudden accession to prime ministerial power in December 1916, displacing the anti-Zionist Herbert Asquith, being arguably the most significant. (It also, as James Renton and others have argued, arose from mistaken assumptions about Jewish power and Jewish aspirations world-wide, and the probability of their recruitment, by way of Balfour, to the cause of winning the war.) Political leaders in Palestine, taken unawares, had no representative presence in London to enable the immediate and persuasive lobbying of British government offices – most notably the Lloyd George War Cabinet and the Foreign Office under Arthur Balfour, both of which were having regular, confidential exchanges with the Zionist interest.

“It is said”, wrote Sir Philip Palin in his Commission`s report on the causes of the 1920 Jerusalem riots, “that the effect of the Balfour Declaration was to leave the Muslims and Christians dumbfounded. This, however, was not the immediate effect, for it evidently took four or five months for the true meaning of the Declaration to filter through to the minds of the people”.   And the document was not formally published in Palestine until 1920.

Compounding this weakness was the fact of sheer distance from the centres of imperial decision-making. The Australian historian Keith Hancock made the general, perennial point in his 1937 Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs that: “The Arabs were too far away, too poor, and too unskilled to appeal persistently and effectively to the democracy of Great Britain….There was inequality of access….Jewry [on the other hand] was represented in every layer of English society…`.

And Ronald Storrs, successively military governor of Jerusalem and civil governor of Judea between 1917 and 1926 (and the man who, as McMahon`s Oriental Secretary in 1915, had himself helped prompt the correspondence with Hussein): “Zionism is a world movement. Arabism does not exist…”.   And by the very phraseology of the Balfour Declaration the Arab majority in Palestine was denied any proper identity, being, as Storrs put it, “lumped together under the negative and humiliating definition of `Non-Jewish Communities`, and relegated to subordinate provisos”.

When delegations of Palestine Muslims and Christians did finally make it to London, in the early 1920s, they were treated with varying degrees of contempt. Sir John Shuckburgh, irritated at their demands for political equity in Palestine, commented in November 1921 that `the time has come to leave off arguing and announce plainly and authoritatively what we propose to do. Being Orientals, they will understand an order…`.   For Chaim Weizmann, they were a body of “political blackmailers” and “trash”.

Weizmann`s fortuitous presence in Britain (again an aspect of contingency) was particularly energising for the Zionist cause – one of his biographers, Isaiah Berlin, describing him as an “irresistible political seducer”.   Joseph Jeffries wrote in 1923 that “as early as 1916 political Zionism `was billeted upon` the British Government. If you talk about a cause and write about it regularly, in the end men get accustomed to it and are almost ready to accept it. By the autumn of 1916 Zionism was accepted”.

And as Walter Laqueur saw it, in his 1972 History of Zionism, “Zionists had their historical opportunity only after the First World War….A few years later the decision would, in all probability, have gone against” them, their territorial scheme representing a “utopian and reactionary attempt to arrest the movement of history” – with no countervailing response whatsoever from the residents of Palestine, indigenous Jewish as well as non-Jewish.

It was an opportunity that was seized vigorously during the domestic and overseas distractions of war and its consequences. “The war was at its height and responsible ministers were working day and night”, Sir John Glubb (Glubb Pasha of the Arab Legion) later observed). “Nobody had time to call for statistics or read up reports or travellers` accounts of Palestine. The fact that there were Arabs living in Palestine passed almost unnoticed”.   D.G. Hogarth, T.E.Lawrence`s archaeological mentor and one-time head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo, wrote in 1923: “It was not realized by our Government of 1917 how far … [Palestine] was a settled land in occupation of a people Arab in tradition and hopes…whose ancestors had been on the land before the Normans landed in England”.


“Imperialism”, my second category, relates to a very fundamental issue in the Levant, namely Britain`s measuring of all policy appraisals in the region against paramount anxieties concerning the security of India – and military and commercial access thereto through Egypt and the Suez Canal. Palestine, on a small atlas only a centimetre or two away from the Canal, was not taken over in 1917-18 by the Lloyd George coalition to provide a Jewish national home. Nor was that the key concern when the Conservative Baldwin administration finally confirmed official British commitment to the League of Nations mandate for Palestine in the summer of 1923.

Like almost all imperial annexations of the late-19th and early-20th centuries – negative, fearful, anxiety-driven – the overwhelming preoccupation, in Africa and the Far East as well as the Middle East, was the continuation of British rule in India, and all that that implied in terms of trade, finance, the national balance of payments, military manpower, and that vaporous but critical necessity for a great power – prestige: the self-serving, functional semblance, however fanciful, of potent, unchallengeable authority around the world. It was a fiction had to be preserved.

India, then, overwhelmingly, the main concern – Palestine a mere stepping-stone by the routes to the east. One can be shamelessly reductionist on all this. Andrew Bonar Law, Lloyd George`s Chancellor of the Exchequer, and effective deputy in the War Cabinet, told the House of Commons in March 1918, just four months on from the Balfour Declaration, how it would be, quote, “a great mistake to suppose that the value of that operation [the invasion of Palestine] is purely political or moral. This is very far from being the case….We are a great Eastern Power, and anyone who regards the situation at all closely will realise that the view which is taken of our position in India…is…a question of our strength in India and of what possible prestige may come of it…”.

Two years later the-then foreign secretary, and a previous viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, informed the House of Lords that, regarding Palestine, “we went there…for distinct military and strategic objectives – namely, to protect the flank of Egypt…”. A little later, on expansionist policy generally in the Middle East, he remarked: “You ask why should Great Britain push herself out in these directions? Of course, the answer is obvious – India”.

The Declaration`s author, Arthur Balfour, confessed to some confusion in the matter in 1918. “Every time I come to a discussion – at intervals of, say, five years – I find there is a new sphere which we have got to guard, which is supposed to guard the gateways of India. These gateways are getting further and further from India, and I do not know how far west they are going to be brought…”. One answer, ironically, was Palestine.

Similar strategic perspectives were set out in the 1923 deliberations surrounding the final commitment to the Mandate, with few dissenting voices. Sir John Shuckburgh again, at Winston Churchill`s Colonial Office: Palestine “occupies an extremely important geographical position in relation to the Suez Canal, the main line of communication with India, and many important colonies. The importance of Palestine in this connection has obviously been greatly increased by the change of our policy in Egypt [ie granting a degree of self-government]”.

So: how did all this damage the Arab interest? Two basic points: one is that for essentially orientalist, vaguely racist reasons, Arabs seemed less trustworthy than Jews as a political presence in such a sensitive part of the globe. It was, for example, the conclusion of the 11-man Cabinet Committee set up in June 1923 to review Palestine policy that any abandonment of control there and of attendant Zionist commitments, would mean the risk of local Arabs, if they didn`t actually run the show themselves, either allowing or inviting their co-religionist Turks back in, thereby making nonsense of all Britain`s war efforts in the Levant and once again threatening her strategic power in the region.

Jewish immigrants from Europe, on the other hand, responding to London`s national-home offer, might be expected to perform as direct agents of Empire, acting as grateful, loyal, and developmental servants of the British imperial interest. In Churchill`s words in 1920, a future “Jewish state [note the language] under the protection of the British Crown…would be especially in harmony with the truest interest of the British Empire”.   The Zionist Labour MP, Josiah Wedgwood, declared in his 1928 book, The Seventh Dominion (again, note the language): “Palestine is emphatically a place where we do want a friendly and efficient population – men on whom we can depend, if only becausetheydepend on us”. Zionists like Max Nordau encouraged such fantasies, telling an Albert Hall audience in 1919, that included Lloyd George and Balfour: “We shall have to be the guards of the Suez Canal. We shall have to be the sentinels of your way to India via the Near East”.

So the privileging of Jews, not Arabs, as the strategic partners.

A second point concerning the Arab interest. The British preoccupation with the security of India meant that Palestine was annexed and mandated not because of any intrinsic appeal, but because of what Barbara Tuchman has termed its “fatal geography”, close by Egypt and Suez): that is – to stress again – without its own internal social, cultural, economic, political, and demographic history or present circumstances being considered or understood by the British official mind. Ignorance prevailed at the outset – as it did with most so-to-speak Other-focussed invasions and annexations around the world.

Joseph Jeffries made the point graphically. The Balfour Declaration, he wrote, played “upon general ignorance. What in 1917 did the war-worn British public, what did the deluded Jews of Russia, what did any general body of people outside the Near East know about the composition of the population of Palestine? Nothing”. (And I`ve already quoted Sir John Glubb and D.G. Hogarth to similar effect.)

Ronald Storrs observed some years later, with characteristic dramatic flourish, that the Palestine Arabs, in making pleas for political justice, had “about as much chance as had the Dervishes before Kitchener`s machine guns at Omdurman” (a rout in 1898 in which around 10,000 Sudanese were slaughtered).


And so to the third issue: “Double-Dealing”. This was the specific and detailed charge laid against the government in January and February 1923 by Joseph Jeffries in, as mentioned, 26 newspaper articles – offering, for the first time, publically, and in English, extensive extracts from the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.

(I shall, by the way, restrict myself to his frame of reference – his focus being strictly on the actuality of the pledges and their implications, with little comments about the complex background to the exchanges – their origins with Storrs and others in Cairo, the matter of their drafting and translating into Arabic, and the general political context of troubled Anglo-French relations in the Levant.)

His indictment was straightforward:

that the British, responding to initial overtures from Hussein, had made promises of post-war political independence to the Arabs in return for their participation as allies in the conflict;

that the only territorial exclusions agreed were the areas of French interest roughly coterminous with present-day Lebanon and the northern Syria coast;

and that the pledges had been effectively abandoned, first in the form of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of March 1916, and second – Jeffries`s main concern – by the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917.

When the question was taken up in Parliament in March and June of 1923, prompted by Jeffries` revelations, and demands made for the publication of the letters in full, the government refused to oblige – and, as cited earlier, did not permit that publication to take place until 1939. Sir John Shuckburgh`s “sleeping dogs” had to be allowed to snooze on.

Concerning the government`s uneasy conscience in this matter, it is worth noting an oddity in the record-keeping of the Colonial Office at the time of Jeffries` publications. As it happens, they pasted cut-outs of the articles into their official documents, and as I took the opportunity to digitally photograph these at the PRO in Kew, I had the whole source easily loadable onto my computer. Or at least I thought I had the full series. Noticing a small break in the dating, I checked out the microfiche at the old newspaper library in Colindale, discovering to my considerable surprise that an entire article, entitled “Broken Faith with the Arabs. McMahon Letters Disclosures” was missing; and that a large part of the subsequent article, “Inventing a province. Vilayet of Churchill” was sliced off half-way through.

In short, most of Jeffries actual translations from McMahon-Hussein were not allowed to appear in the confidential official record.

I`ll read out the start of what is missing from the second, cropped article. Right way Jeffries deals with the areas excluded from the McMahon pledges, and the manifest fact that these did not include Palestine. “Now the modifications with equal clarity specify that `portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo [ie roughly, as mentioned, present-day Lebanon and the coast of north-west Syria]cannot be said to be purely Arab and therefore should be excluded from the Arab boundaries. Get an atlas of your own out, if you like, to find what are these portions of Syria. It is as easy as possible. Find Damascus first: it is the key place. There it is…;  Where is the next place, now, Homs? North. Where is Hama? North again. Where is Aleppo? Northernmost of all. The four towns form a line, as it were, on the desert`s edge. What are the excluded portions lying west of them? Approximately it is the country facing Cyprus…”.

But – “Where does Palestine lie? Where are Haifa, Nablus, Jaffa, Jerusalem, the cities and towns of Palestine? South, south, far to the south. The decisive line that went westwards from Damascus struck the coast between Tyre and Sidon….Below it, safe from exclusion, are the cities of Palestine, 60, 80, 120 miles below. Besides, does not Sir Henry McMahon only speak of reconsideration where the [quote] `interests of France are interwoven`? And the Shereef Hussein in his final letter, has he anything more to ask for but `the northern ports and their coasts…now left to France`? And `France` stops some 15 miles below Tyre.   All that is south goes, by the word of Sir Henry McMahon, which is the word of Great Britain, to form an independent kingdom for the Arabs. And yet our Cabinet could impose a `Jewish National Home` within these boundaries to the conservation of which it was pledged!”

Winston Churchill, however, came along with his 1922 White Paper, and – by Jeffries` account – simply invented an Ottoman vilayet of Damascus that he claimed stretched all the way south to the Gulf of Aqaba, declaring, ipso facto, that Palestine lay to the west of it – and therefore part of the McMahon exclusion zone. Thus Jeffries` article title: “Inventing a Province. Vilayet of Churchill”.   He comments: “There is no vilayet of Damascus; it does not exist! Naturally it is not to be found in the McMahon text; if you read you will see the word used is `district`….As in English, it is a word of loose general meaning, with the sense of the immediate surroundings of a city….A pretty position for a British minister….And the word of England…in the waste-paper basket…”.

Historians have, rather too often, left the whole issue a matter of, at best, uncertainty and ambiguity – especially since McMahon himself weighed in belatedly to insist that he had not specified Palestine as part of any independent polity, and indeed that it had always been his intention to exclude Palestine from it. (Rather pathetically – and offering further evidence of imperial ignorance – McMahon wrote to Shuckburgh at the Colonial Office in 1922 saying the fact he restricted himself, regarding exclusions, to the territory west of the Aleppo-Damascus line should not be taken too seriously: “there was no place I could think of at the time of sufficient importance for purposes of definition further south of the above”.)

Importance is also sometimes attached to the fact that Hussein never asked McMahon for any clarifications regarding Palestine – but then Palestine had never been a formal Ottoman administrative unit.   Scott Anderson in his recent, lively, Lawrence in Arabia is succinctly dismissive: such scholars, he writes, “seem determined to avoid the most obvious explanation: since Palestine fell outside of the exclusion zone McMahon had described … there was simply nothing to discuss”.

Such blatant cartographic deceit represented, in Margaret MacMillan`s words, “a defiance of geography”.   John Marlowe, writing back in the 1940s, called it “the most inexcusable…piece of duplicity in the whole tale of Allied promises to the inhabitants of the Middle East…”.   It was Arnold Toynbee`s view, at the Foreign Office Intelligence Bureau in 1918, that, regarding Palestine and the promised Arab polity: “His Majesty`s Government are committed by Sir Henry McMahon`s letter to the Sherif on the 24th October, 1915, to its inclusion in the boundaries of that independence”. Lord Curzon, in the War Cabinet, declaring himself conversant with “the facts of the case” as laid out by Toynbee, confirmed at a private meeting in the Foreign Office shortly after that in that October letter to Hussein “we gave him the assurance that…Palestine…should be Arab and independent”.

When the whole issue was finally brought out into the open at the time of the 1939 London conference on Palestine, the British conceded that:   “the Arab contentions…have greater force than has appeared hitherto”. Although they continued to declare that “Palestine was in fact excluded”, they had to admit “that the language…was not so specific and unmistakable as it was thought to be at the time….[I]t is evident [in any case] … that His Majesty`s Government were not free to dispose of Palestine without regard for the wishes and interests of the inhabitants of Palestine”.


To Conclude: despite my emphasis on British malpractice, deception, and imperial realpolitik, it has to be stressed that there was also, in the country, a broad sense that the privileging of the Zionist interest in Arab Palestine was manifestly unjust and, for the British, potentially dangerous – despite grand declarations as to a Jewish Palestine being a guaranteed strategic ally of Britain`s.

If there was an appropriate analogy, suggested Lloyd George`s predecessor as prime minister, Herbert Asquith, it was, fatefully, Ulster. The M.P. F.A Macquiston expressed the fear in the Commons that the Balfour Declaration “may cause as much trouble as the Pope`s gift in the twelfth century of Ireland to England”.

Jeffries agreed – quoting sarcastically from contemporary Zionist claims that Palestine would become, delightfully, “a little loyal Jewish Ulster amid the enveloping hosts of Arabism”. As he and others pointed out, British Zionists in Palestine formed only a tiny minority in an otherwise Judaeo-Slav secular polity of Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, and Russians. The idea that they would have any ties of sentiment with the British Empire was, as he put it, “preposterous nonsense”.

One is reminded in this respect of Barbara Tuchman`s comments in her The March of Folly that: “To qualify as folly…it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight…[and] Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available….”.

“Perceived as counter-productive in its own time”.  It is well established in the literature that Lord Curzon and Edwin Montagu, the latter secretary-of-state for India at the time, and himself Jewish, opposed the Balfour Declaration and warned of likely dire consequences. I`ll leave them to one side – save to cite Curzon`s remark that the Declaration represented “a striking contradiction of our publicly declared principles” – with Palestine a future “rankling thorn” in the flesh of the mandatory power.

But come in prime minister David Lloyd George, in Parliament, December 1920 – admitting that the sense that ”somebody has broken faith with them” [ie Lloyd George himself!] was “disturbing the Arabs throughout the whole of this great area….The Arab race, its pride, its sense of justice and fair play, has been outraged by the feeling that somehow or other things have not quite been done in the way they had expected”.

And colonial secretary Winston Churchill, 1922, admitting that the idea of a Jewish homeland had aroused “irritation, suspicion and disquietude…in the hearts of the Arab population”. The Zionist privileging “conflicted with our regular policy of consulting the wishes of the people in mandate territories and giving them a representative institution as soon as they were fitted for it”.

And Balfour himself – describing that inconsistency as “flagrant”, and writing to Curzon in 1919 about the “extraordinary muddle” characterising British policy in the Levant, this resulting in part, as he put it, from “the contrasting and contradictory character” of British promises to different parties.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Thomas Davidson, told the House of Lords in June 1920 of his “exceedingly anxious forebodings as to what are going to be the results of the present movements in Palestine”.   In that same chamber in June 1922 anti-Zionist peers, led by three retired imperial pro-consuls, Lords Islington, Lamington, and Sydenham, arguing for a revision of the terms of the Mandate, won a debate by a margin of 60 to 29 – with only Balfour himself, recently ennobled, defending government policy, despite the fact that 16 other lordly members of the Lloyd George administration were available in the chamber to assist him   make his case: but sat silent.

The British military establishment in Egypt and Palestine was almost universally apprehensive; and, from the distance of Baghdad, the English Arabist and colonial administrator, Gertrude Bell, declared: “I hate Mr Balfour`s Zionist pronouncement. It`s my belief that it can`t be carried out….It`s like a nightmare in which you foresee all the horrible things which are going to happen and can`t stretch out your hand to prevent them”.

At which point, with the phrase “horrible things” in mind, I should like to end.In sum: the history of Arab political – and subsequently physical – displacement in Palestine is, in its fundamental origins, a clear consequence of Britain`s abandonment of its McMahon undertakings, compounded, as I`ve suggested:

  • by the unanticipated contingencies of war;
  • by metropolitan ignorance attendant upon the United Kingdom`s basic concern not with Palestine but with India;
  • and by the general absence of the Arab interest from the centres of political power in Britain and its marginalisation when it presented itself there.

And how did Arthur Balfour, a published philosopher, reflect on the matter? Talking to the French foreign minister, Paul Cambon, shortly after the issuance of the Declaration, he apparently remarked that “it would be an interesting experiment to reconstruct a Jewish kingdom”. When M. Cambon reminded him of the biblical prophecy that a restored king of the Jews would mean the end of the world, Balfour replied: “such a dḗnouement would be even more interesting”.

Civilising the desert one week; welcoming the End of Days the next.

Thus the British imperial mind at work.





















This entry was posted in Balfour Declaration, Current Positions, McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.