Contradictory Promises, by Peter A Shambrook

The seeds of 100 years of conflict

Britain, the Arabs and the Jews, 1914 – 1918

2014 – 2018: Britain’s opportunity to acknowledge.

In 2014, the centenary of the Great War will be marked in a variety of ways right across the globe. Every country involved will remember and honour those millions who made the ultimate sacrifice during the ‘war to end all wars’. Through plays, TV, films, documentaries and services of remembrance we will all be reminded of the horrors of the trenches, the slaughter of a generation by artillery, machine gun and disease, as well as the ultimate victory of the Allies, and the moral ambiguities of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which in hindsight contributed directly to the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the use of nuclear weapons by a civilised country.

Our current world of superpower politics and disputes over oil resources, water and nuclear weapons – as well as many national boundaries – are all a direct outcome of the two global wars of the last century. Like it or not, we cannot escape history, nor its consequences. In both wars, we British emerged as victors. As nations and as individuals, we prefer to reflect more on our successes than our failures, yet acknowledgement of the latter is a source of wisdom, not a sign of weakness. Two thousand and fourteen could be a unique opportunity for us British to take an honest look at both the upside and downside of our twentieth century imperial experience and its long term impact on the world.

Nowhere is the spotlight of honesty needed more than on the murky and highly contentious history of British political decision making concerning the Middle East during the Great War. But why, many may ask, rake over the same old ground. There’s a library of books on the Middle East conflict – many, if not most of the facts are out there. Well, the answer is that the decisions – some secret, some public – made then by a series of British Cabinets undoubtedly sowed the seeds of the current conflict in the Middle East. By 2014, the Holy Land will have been a region of active conflict for one hundred years. Since the Great War, no British government has ever accepted that it or its predecessors have anything to acknowledge concerning its policies during this decisive period of war and which included the creation of a number of nation states by Britain and France in the Middle East. Millions of individuals in that region and throughout the Islamic world have a different perspective. A forthright acknowledgement of mistakes made nearly one hundred years ago, by the British government between 2014 and 2018, would be a healthy step forward towards more harmonious relations with that important region of the world. It is in our own long-term interest to take such a step.

For clarity, this document is divided into 2 parts:

1 The four promises

2 Commentary on each promise

The four promises

1 The McMahon – Hussein correspondence

In 1915 Britain promised Hussein, the Sharif of Mecca, that it would support an independent Arab kingdom under his rule in return for his mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally in the war. The promise was contained in a letter dated 24 October 1915 from Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca in what later became known as the McMahon – Hussein correspondence.

2 The Sykes – Picot Agreement

In 1916 Britain reached a secret agreement with France to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence in the event of an Allied victory. Under the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Palestine was to be placed under international control.

3 The Balfour Declaration

In 1917 Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.

4 The Anglo-French declaration

In 1918, an Anglo-French declaration pledged that the Arabs in the territories to be liberated from Turkish rule would ‘be free to form their own government’.

Commentary on each promise

1 The McMahon – Hussein correspondence

In November 1914 Turkey joined Christian Europe’s civil war in alliance with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary against Britain, France and Russia. During the nineteenth century the European powers had interfered to bring pressure on successive sultans to further their interests, but did not consider (with the intermittent exception of Russia) partitioning the four-hundred year old Muslim Ottoman empire, labelled somewhat dismissively as ’the sick man of Europe’.

Britain’s single-handed occupation of Ottoman Egypt in 1882 was reluctant and almost accidental, but once achieved, Egypt became a vital link in Britain’s world-wide imperial system which could not be abandoned. As the world’s most powerful empire, Britain’s foreign policy priority was simply the maintenance of the security of the empire. All else was secondary.

Strategically, once the war broke out, one essential factor that all three Allies had to consider was the reactions of the millions of Muslim subjects in their empires –Arabs in French North Africa and Muslim peoples in British India and in Russian central Asia. Britain’s eastern Empire was home to 100 million of the global population of nearly 300 million Muslims. Would they be willing to fight for their Christian rulers against the sultan/caliph? It was a popular belief that any Muslim was only waiting for the call to jihad or holy war to slaughter the infidel. Allied fears of widespread unrest heightened after the Turkish authorities declared a jihad on 14 November 1914.

Britain had two immediate strategic concerns in the Middle East – the protection of the Suez Canal and the protection of the Persian Gulf. Both were vital links with India: the Canal had to be kept open for the transport of Indian troops to Europe, and the Gulf region now had the additional value of the oil installations at Abadan (at the head of the Gulf).

At the beginning of the war the British cabinet had no clear policy towards the Arabs or for the future of the Ottoman provinces in Asia after Turkey’s defeat. It was obviously desirable that Turkey should be knocked out of the war as soon as possible, but this was primarily to give Britain and France access to Russia and Romania to encircle the Central Powers.

In Egypt the pan-Islamic feeling which Britain feared led to little unrest, mostly because of the vast weight of British military power. Moreover, the British authorities saw the possibility of harnessing the latent Arab resentment against their rulers in the vast Ottoman Arab dominions (Arab nationalism, in its infancy, appeared in the decade or so before the war).

In fact, six weeks before Turkey entered the war, Lord Kitchener approached Sharif Hussein in Mecca to find out which way the Arabs would turn if Turkey allied itself to Germany. The Sharif hinted that he might bring the Hejazis out in revolt against the Turks if he was ensured of enough British support. A further message from Kitchener (who by now was minister of war in the British cabinet) promised Hussein that, if he would come out against Turkey, Britain would guarantee his retention of the title of Grand Sharif and defend him against external aggression. It hinted that if the Sharif were declared caliph he would have Britain’s support, and it included a general promise to help the Arabs to obtain their freedom.

The message was enough to cause Sharif Hussein to contemplate the much wider objective of a general revolt against the Turks, under his leadership. But for this he required much more specific assurances from the Allies, and the year 1915 was spent trying to elicit them from the British authorities in Cairo, while he continued to sound out the other leading Arabs of the peninsula with whom he was in contact. To the Arab Bureau – the group of high-level British experts gathered in Cairo – there were sound political reasons for looking to the Hashemites from the Hejaz to lead the Arabs. Sharif Hussein’s position as keeper of the Islamic holy places made him the obvious person to counter the Ottoman call for a jihad against the infidel.

At the same time, Britain also had to consider the interests of its principal allies, Russia and France. In 1915, there was already a fear that huge Russian losses were causing the Russian people to lose enthusiasm for the war. France, bearing the brunt of the trench warfare on the western front, had a claim to a special position in Syria, based on long-standing cultural and political ties that had been acknowledged by Britain before the war. During 1915, Britain began secret negotiations with its two allies on the future of all the Ottoman lands (see later). Although British, the government of India also had its own interests and means of pressure on London, and it regarded Mesopotamia, the Gulf and the Arabian peninsula as its special concern. It is hardly surprising that Britain lacked a coherent policy towards the Arabs.[1]

The British government negotiated the agreement with Sharif Hussein to launch his revolt against the Turks by a correspondence which took place between July 1915 and February 1916, being conducted officially, but secretly, through Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt. McMahon did not inform the French of his dealings with the Sharif.

The Sharif’s aim was to secure British support for Arab independence in all the Arab provinces in the Ottoman Empire from Mersin (in southern Turkey) in the north, the Persian frontier in the east, the Mediterranean in the west, and the Indian Ocean in the south. The only temporary exception he was prepared to make was Aden, then a British colony governed by the government of Bombay. Doubtless he knew that Britain would not accept all his demands, but he was setting out his maximum negotiating position.

McMahon’s crucial letter is his second, dated 24 October 1915, in which he pledged British support for Arab independence in the areas proposed by the Sharif subject to certain reservations The districts Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation.

Subject to that modification, and without prejudice to the treaties concluded between us and certain Arab chiefs, we accept that delimitation. As for the regions lying within the proposed frontiers, in which Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interests of her ally France, I am authorised to give you the following pledges on behalf of the Government of Great Britain, and to reply as follows to your note: That subject to the modifications stated above, Great Britain is prepared to recognise and uphold the independence of the Arabs in all the regions lying within the frontiers proposed by the Sharif of Mecca.[2]

McMahon’s phrases were deliberately ambiguous, and the ambiguity which sowed most trouble for the future concerned Palestine. According to historian James Barr, McMahon’s objective was to ‘string Sharif Hussein along’.[3] In a recent book, A Line in the Sand, Barr describes a significant meeting in Whitehall in December 1920 at which the English and Arabic texts of McMahon’s crucial letter of 24 October 1915 were compared. McMahon had used an ambiguous phrase that hinged on the absence of a comma to make it look as if he had accepted Hussein’s demands, when in fact he was preserving Britain’s room for manoeuvre with the French. According to Barr

For five years the British believed that he had successfully done so, until, to the horror of those present at the December 1920 meeting, it was revealed that this sleight of hand had then been lost in the Arabic translation. As one official, who was present, put it: ‘In the Arabic version sent to King Husain this is so translated as to make it appear that Gt Britain is free to act without detriment to France in the whole of the limits mentioned. This passage, of course, had been our sheet anchor: it enabled us to tell the French that we had reserved their rights, and the Arabs that there were regions in which they would have eventually to come to terms with the French. It is extremely awkward to have this piece of solid ground cut from under our feet. I think that HMG will probably jump at the opportunity of making some sort of ‘amende’ by sending Feisal to Mesopotamia’.[4]

The above is significant: the British (in Whitehall) realised in December 1920 that the Arabic version sent to Hussein was not imprecise, but a clear promise. Moreover, it seems to have encouraged the British to put Feisal into Mesopotamia as a sop.

The name ‘Palestine’ was not mentioned in the correspondence because Palestine was not an Ottoman administrative division, although it was a geographical expression employed throughout the Christian world (most notably, in the context of this essay, in the Balfour Declaration). British cabinet ministers certainly referred to Palestine in their discussions. By no stretch of the imagination could McMahon’s ‘exemption of portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo’ – which was a vague attempt to accommodate French interests in Lebanon – have referred to the sandjak of Jerusalem, which covered two-thirds of Palestine and lay well to the south of those ‘portions of Syria’. Britain could easily have clarified the situation by saying that Palestine must have a special status because it was sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but it chose not to do this. Clarity was not McMahon’s objective.

McMahon’s assumption that he could afford to be vague, based on his belief that his offer to Hussein was a temporary wartime expedient rather than a long-term commitment, was widely shared among those British officials who knew of it. Sir Reginald Wingate, Governor General of the Sudan and Sirdar (commander) of the Egyptian Army wrote After all, what harm can our acceptance of his [Hussein’s] proposals do?..If the embryonic Arab State comes to nothing, all our promises vanish and we are absolved from them – if the Arab State becomes a reality, we have quite sufficient safeguards to control it…In other words the cards seem to be in our hands and we have only to play them carefully.[5]

The correspondence is important because it became the subsequent basis of Arab nationalist charges against Britain of betrayal. After the war the British government refused repeated requests to publish the letters. A junior minister informed Parliament in August 1930 that there were ‘valid reasons, entirely unconnected with the question of Palestine, which render it in the highest degree undesirable in the public interest to publish the correspondence’.[6] In fact, Whitehall was worried that, if published in their entirety, the letters would reveal an uncomfortable degree of British meddling in the issue of the Caliphate – still then a sensitive issue in a pre-independent India – and do nothing to clarify whether or not Palestine was excluded from the area offered to the Arabs by McMahon. British officials went to enormous lengths to interpret what McMahon had said, to try to exclude Palestine from the area the Arabs claimed was theirs. Some even claimed that Palestine lay to the west of Damascus, about as accurate as claiming that Cumbria lies to the west of Edinburgh. However, during the 1930s, with the deteriorating situation in Palestine, Arabs and their supporters were particularly keen to see the correspondence published, as it seemed to undermine the basis of the Balfour Declaration. But it wasn’t until 1937 that the government granted a Royal Commission (concerning Palestine) permission to comment on the correspondence. ‘It was in the highest degree unfortunate that, in the exigencies of war, the British Government were unable to make their intention clear to the Sharif’, was the Royal Commission’s verdict.[7]

However, by the late 1930s, with war looming yet again, the British needed to maintain the Arabs’ support. In 1939, at a London conference on Palestine, the British agreed to a full examination of the correspondence by a committee comprising British and Arab representatives. The essential issue was whether or not Palestine was included in McMahon’s offer to Hussein. A single sentence in the committee’s report summed up the story: ‘Both the Arab and the United Kingdom representatives have tried (as they hope with success) to understand the point of view of the other party, but they have been unable to reach agreement upon an interpretation of the Correspondence’.[8]

2 The Sykes – Picot Agreement

Britain’s foreign policy during the world’s first global war was understandably complicated, given our widely scattered empire, and it evolved as the war proceeded and as circumstances and allies changed. At the same time that Britain was negotiating with the Sharif Hussein over the future of the Asian provinces of the Ottoman Empire it was discussing the same subject with France and Russia and keeping the two sets of negotiations separate. It is difficult to argue that this was not being deceitful towards the Arabs, although the British could claim that they were involved in a deadly war with Germany and Turkey, and had to take account of their Allies’ wishes. In the event, Britain’s Arab policy evolved in a way that the British considered pragmatic, but which the Arabs came to regard as unprincipled.

The secret Anglo-French-Russian accord, known as the Sykes-Picot agreement after the principal British and French negotiators (Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Picot), was reached in May 1916. The details are unimportant today because they were later modified in practice, but the agreement was a clear decision in principle to divide the whole of what is today’s Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and southern Turkey into spheres of British or French control or influence, leaving only Jerusalem and part of Palestine (on Russian insistence) to some form of international administration. Only the area comprising the present-day Saudi Arabia and the Yemen Arab Republic were to be left independent.

For understandable reasons, Britain and France chose to keep this agreement secret. As the war developed, Sharif Hussein became increasingly suspicious of the Allies’ intentions, and in early 1917, Sir Mark Sykes was sent to Jedda by the British Foreign Office to allay his fears. But although they discussed the question of French arms in Lebanon and the Syrian coastal regions, with Hussein maintaining the principle that these regions were as much Arab in character as the interior, Sykes did not inform him of the broader aspects of the Sykes-Picot agreement. In fact it was the Turks who informed Hussein of the details of the agreement.

In the Autumn of 1917, as Allenby was slowly advancing through Syria, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, discovered documents referring to the Sykes-Picot agreement among the imperial archives, and informed the Turks about these, who immediately passed the details on to the Arabs, as proof of treachery by the Christian powers against the Muslim peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Britain was embarrassed by the revelation. Hussein and Feisal continued to put their faith in Britain, but only because they were so dependent on British support – the basis of their trust had been destroyed. Sharif Hussein at once asked for an explanation from Sir Reginald Wingate (who had succeeded McMahon in Cairo). Wingate endeavoured to reassure Hussein by describing the Petrograd documents disingenuously as ‘provisional exchanges’ between the British, French and Russian governments, rather than any hard agreement. Moreover, he claimed, the success of the Arab Revolt and the withdrawal of Russia from the war had created an entirely new situation.[10]

Yet the success of the Arab Revolt hardly improved Sharif Hussein’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the British and the French, whose mutual and independent interests remained unchanged. Of these two powers, Britain was much the stronger in the region, with its huge base in Egypt, Allenby’s armies in Palestine and control of Mesopotamia (Baghdad had fallen in March 1917). Its priority was the security of its empire, present and future. France was Britain’s only major partner in the total war with Germany, so it was not going to frustrate the Middle East ambitions of its ally for the sake of the Hashemites, who were heavily dependent on British money, arms and military advice.

Meanwhile, although the Arab Revolt launched by the sharif (June 1916) aroused little response in Mesopotamia and Syria, which were still firmly under Turkish control, it made an important contribution to the war in the Middle East. It immobilised some 30,000 Turkish troops along the Hejaz railway from Amman to Medina and prevented the Turko-German forces in Syria from linking up with the Turkish garrison in Yemen. Allenby launched a new offensive in October 1917and drove the Turkish forces northwards. Jerusalem was taken on 9 December 1917, but most of Syria remained in Turkish hands for a further nine months.[11]

3 The Balfour Declaration

On 2 November 1917, at the same time as Allenby’s forces pushed northwards towards Jerusalem (including Lawrence of Arabia…), and Hussein became aware of the detail of the Sykes-Picot agreement (via the Bolsheviks and Turks), the British government issued a letter whose consequences reverberate to this day – the Balfour Declaration

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.[12]

The letter, from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to a leading British Jew, Lord Rothschild, was the fruit of twelve months’ intensive negotiations between leading British Zionists and Foreign Office officials, and ultimately, the Lloyd George wartime cabinet.

Rothschild’s original draft of the letter, handed to Balfour on 18 July 1917, contained three important elements. The first was the reconstitution of Palestine as a whole as the national home of the Jews. The second was unrestricted right of Jewish immigration. The third was Jewish internal autonomy. These gave the Zionists everything they could reasonably have wished. As it was, the letter was not approved by the cabinet until 31 October, and it had undergone substantial changes.

Although the letter has never been publically commented upon in any detail by any British government since it was issued, it is undoubtedly one of the key foundation stones of the Arab-Israeli dispute, and has stirred acrimonious debate among generations of historians of all opinions. In a recent article, ‘The Balfour Declaration and its consequences’, the Oxford revisionist historian Avi Shlaim maintains that Britain’s failure as a Mandatory power in Palestine can be at least partly attributed to it, that it was Britain’s ‘original sin’and that it gave rise to ‘one of the most intense, bitter and protracted conflicts of modern times’.[13] According to the pro-Zionist historian Paul Johnson, the final draft, as published on 2 November

…no longer equated Palestine with the national home, it had no reference to unrestricted Jewish immigration or internal rule, and it safeguarded the rights of the Arabs…All the same, [it] was the key piece in the jigsaw, for without it the Jewish state could never have come into existence.[14]

On the other hand, the distinguished Zionist historian Sir Martin Gilbert, in his 700 page study, Israel: a history devotes a mere half a page to it, and only quotes the first half of the Declaration.

Before delving into exactly why the British cabinet issued the letter, three brief points need to be made about the contents of the letter itself. Firstly, as mentioned before, although Palestine was not a specific Ottoman political entity with defined borders in 1917, it was certainly not merely a mythical concept. That the Balfour Declaration referred to it is proof enough of this. For Christians, Jews and Muslims throughout the world, it had a very real and special meaning. The southern half of the area which became the British mandated part of Palestine after the First World War, until the creation of Israel in 1948, was the Ottoman sandjak (county/district) of Jerusalem. The western half formed part of the vilayet (province) of Ottoman Beirut. The city of Jerusalem itself and the area surrounding it enjoyed special administrative status under direct rule from Constantinople.

Secondly, at the time some 700,000 Arabs and 50-60,000 Jews inhabited Palestine. Of the latter, some 40,000 could be described as indigenous Jews, with roots on the land stretching back at least 2,000 years. The other 12,000 were Zionist pioneers who lived in scattered, but fortified Jewish settlements. It is therefore quite understandable that the Arabs, who formed 90 per cent of the population, and whose ancestors conquered Palestine some four hundred years before England became a Norman colony, should have resented the letter’s reference to them as ‘the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, a reference that Shlaim calls ‘arrogant, dismissive and even racist’. The offending reference also implied there was one law for the Jews, and one law for everybody else.[15]

Thirdly, did Britain have any moral right whatsoever to promise a national home for a tiny Jewish minority in a predominantly Arab country? Moreover, the size and borders of the national home referred to in the Declaration were deliberately left undefined by Britain in 1917 – and there was no precedent for it in international law.

So how did a small, militarily powerless, but highly articulate group of British-based Jews manage to persuade a wartime British cabinet to issue the Declaration? According to Shlaim, there are two main schools of thought on its origins, one represented by Leonard Stein (The Balfour Declaration, London, 1961), the other by Mayir Verete (‘The Balfour Declaration and its Makers’, Middle Eastern Studies, 6 (1), January 1970). Stein’s implicit conclusion is that it was the activity and skill of the Zionists, and in particular Dr Chaim Weizmann, the remarkable Belarus-born chemist (and later the first President of Israel), that induced Britain to issue the letter. According to Verete, however, the letter was the work of hard-headed pragmatists, primarily motivated by British imperial interests in the Middle East – it was the desire to exclude France from Palestine, rather than any sympathy for the Zionist cause. Moreover, the British thought a declaration favourable to the ideals of Zionism was likely to enlist the support of the Jews of America and Russia for the war effort against Germany. In contrast to Stein, Verete concludes that Zionist lobbying played a negligible part in the process.

With the benefit of new source material, Tom Segev’s book on the British Mandate in Palestine (One Palestine: Complete, London, 2000) provides another interpretation. In Segev’s version, the prime movers behind the letter were neither the Zionist leaders nor the British imperial planners, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose support for Zionism, he argues, was based not on British interests, but on ignorance and prejudice. In Segev’s summary, according to Shlaim, the British entered Palestine to defeat the Turks; they stayed there to keep it from the French; and they gave it to the Zionists because they loved ‘the Jews’ even as they loathed them, at once admiring and despising them. The Declaration was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests but of prejudice, faith and sleight of hand. The men who sired it were Christian and Zionist and, in many cases, anti-Semitic. They believed the Jews controlled the world.

Segev argues that, in fact, the Jews were helpless, with nothing to offer – having no influence other than that generated by the myth of clandestine power. Moreover, the Zionists at this time represented only a small minority of the world’s Jews, so could not authentically speak in the name of world Jewry.[16]

Underpinning the hard-nosed military convictions of much of the British political leadership was undoubtedly the Christian-Zionist factor – the romantic appeal of the return of the Jews to Zion after two thousand years, which founded on Old Testament Christianity, was part of their Victorian upbringing, even if most were agnostic in their views. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, a close friend of C.P. Scott, the Gentile Zionist editor of the Manchester Guardian, was a convinced Zionist, as was Arthur Balfour, the formidable Foreign Secretary (and ex-Prime Minister), who had been assiduously courted by Weizmann since they had first met during the 1906 election. Following a meeting with Weizmann on 9 January 1906, Balfour wrote to his niece saying that he could see ‘no political difficulty about obtaining Palestine, only economic ones’.[17] Weizmann convinced Balfour that none of the other Jewish homeland ‘solutions’ offered, such as Uganda or Argentina, were tenable. According to his niece, shortly before his death Balfour remarked that ‘the Jewish form of patriotism was unique…Their love of their country refused to be satisfied by the Uganda scheme. It was Weizmann’s absolute refusal even to look at it that impressed me’.[18] Weizmann was undoubtedly a great persuader. According to Johnson, in a further decisive talk on 14 December 1914, after Weizmann had put the case for action concerning the ‘Jewish Question’, Balfour was moved to tears, shook Weizmann’s hand and said that ‘the road followed by a great and suffering nation had been illuminated for him’.[19] By 1914, Weizmann was on familiar terms with half the British cabinet. Balfour was Weizmann’s most important convert, because behind a diffident manner lurked a sharp intellect and steely will, much needed in overcoming the hesitations of Foreign Office officials and colleagues. Once convinced of a case, he was a hard man to deflect.

But what was ‘The Jewish Question’?

Anti-semitism, in the sense of hatred towards the Jews, has been endemic throughout European history, but it was in the Christian Tsarist Russian Empire, where most Jews lived and where Weizmann grew up, that the ill-treatment of Jews was the most systematic and embittering. Anti-semitism was the official policy of the Tsarist government: basically, Jewish communities were treated publicly as undesirable and semi-criminal, Jews were confined to a specific ‘Pale of Settlement’ region within the Empire, legislation concerning their activities ran to nearly one thousand pages and in the 1880s the government organised pogroms. The major pogroms (an old Russian word meaning ‘round-up’ or ‘lynching’) which began in April 1881 were incited, condoned or organised by the Minister of the Interior, Ignatiev. They spread over one hundred centres, lasted nearly a year, and in some cases involved huge mobs. Not only the government but the police and innumerable ethnic groups were involved. The whole aim of the Tsarist regime was to bolster its crumbling popularity by attacking an easy target.

For the Russians, the ‘Jewish Problem’ was to be solved either by assimilation (preferably by baptism) or expulsion. They engaged in the first modern exercise in social engineering, treating human beings (in this case the Jews) as earth or concrete, to be shovelled around. The pogroms produced the inevitable consequence – a panic flight of Jews from Russia westwards. In 1891, over 10,000 Jews were expelled from Moscow – in total, 110,000 left Russia that year. In the pogrom year 1905-06, over 200,000 left. One result of that emigration is today’s successful and influential Jewish community in the USA.[20]

Before the Russian pogroms, the great majority of Jews saw their future as assimilation in one form or another. After them, some Jews began to look for possible alternatives. Under the influence of their environment, and the pressure of prosecution, Jews began to think in terms of a new nationalism. However, nearly two thousand years had passed since the last (unsuccessful) attempt to restore Jewish independence in Palestine in AD 134, and since then, Jews had become scattered throughout the world. Until the end of the nineteenth century, the ancient Jewish prayer ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ was more the expression of a spiritual or Messianic ideal than a political slogan.

But without an initial process of colonisation, how could a new Zion, religious or secular or both, emerge? Once Jews thought of colonisation, they tended to turn to Britain. She was the great colonising power of the nineteenth century. Moreover, during the nineteenth century, a handful of influential, aristocratic politicians began to translate their deeply-held evangelical convictions into political reality. Foremost among them was Lord Shaftsbury, who became convinced that the restoration of the Jews to Palestine was not only predicted in the Bible, but also coincided with the strategic interests of British foreign policy. British protection of the Jews, Shaftsbury argued, would give a colonial advantage over France for the control of the Middle East, provide better access to India via a direct land route, and open up new commercial markets for British products. He persuaded the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, to appoint an evangelical/restorationist, William Young, as the first European vice-consul in Jerusalem, and later was instrumental in the founding of a Protestant Bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841, and an Anglican church in Jerusalem in 1845. It was Shaftsbury who, imagining Palestine to be empty, came up with the slogan, ‘A country without a nation for a nation without a country’. According to Stephen Sizer, ‘Shaftsbury’s influence… in promoting the Zionist cause within the political, diplomatic and ecclesiastical establishment in Britain was immense’. Theologically, Shaftsbury appeared to see ‘the conversion of the Jews as a means to bringing the whole world to faith before Christ returned’.[21]

Pro-restorationist books appeared, including Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Alroy (1846), which describes its hero’s quest to restore Jerusalem to the Jews. Through the hero of her novel Daniel Deronda (1876), George Eliot voiced her Zionist hopes, that re-building Zion would pacify and civilise a barbarous region. Sales of the novel were worldwide and immense, and to all of them, especially to hundreds of thousands of assimilated Jews, the story presented for the first time, the possibility of a return to Zion. The book was particularly read in political circles. To the generation of Arthur Balfour, who first met George Eliot in 1877, the year after publication, it was their introduction to the Jewish issue. So although Weizmann and his colleagues had an uphill struggle in the decades before 1914, there was increasing sympathy for the Zionist cause among the British ‘Christian’ leadership.

The onset of Jewish nationalism (Zionism), first in cultural and later in political form, was part of the nineteenth century, Europe-wide nationalist trend. Political Zionism, which came to the fore in 1897 (First World Zionist Congress, Basle) under the leadership of Theodor Herzl, a Hungarian Jewish journalist, differed from other manifestations of European nationalism mainly in the fact that its sacred national soil lay outside Europe. Otherwise, it possessed all the characteristics of the other national movements of the day – a dedicated, visionary elite; a complex ideology based on nationalist interpretations of history and culture; a wide spectrum of political opinions; a mass clientele that still needed to be convinced; a full panoply of enemies; and, at the outset, no obvious chance of practical success. A year before the First Zionist Congress, Herzl had expounded his vision and the deep longings of many Jewish people for their own homeland in his book, A Jewish State.

From the start, deep divisions separated the religious and the more dominant, secular wing of Zionism, but all shared the conviction that life for Jews in Europe was becoming less and less tolerable. For the time being, the future of Zionism turned on three great imponderables – the fluctuating levels of anti-Semitism, the radicalisation of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, and negotiations for a suitable tract of land. Negotiations for the acquisition of a Zionist homeland produced few results. Herzl’s audiences with the Ottoman Sultan in 1901-2 did not bear fruit; and in 1903 the British offer of a land grant in the Kenyan highlands of East Africa split the World Zionist Organisation from top to bottom. This last experience strengthened the conviction that the Zionist dream could not be divorced from the historic ‘land of Israel’ in Palestine. No progress could be made on that front until the British conquest of Jerusalem in 1917, and the Balfour Declaration which followed.

As early as 1915, Sir Herbert Samuel, a dedicated Zionist who was later to become the chief executive of the British mandatory government in Palestine, expressed the hope that Jewish immigration would ensure that in due course a Jewish majority would prevail and rule over the country. True there was, until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in 1917, little inclination on the part of the British Cabinet to support Samuel’s aspirations, although Balfour and other leading Ministers had already declared their sympathy for Zionism. But when the seat of power in Petrograd was seized by the Bolsheviks, among whose leaders were several prominent Jews, and it became evident that Germany was actively promoting the Bolshevik cause in order to winkle Russia out of her war-time alliance with Britain and France, the British Government suddenly awoke to the importance of Zionism to the Allies’ war effort.

Sir Ronald Graham, an Assistant Under-Secretary of State in the Foreign Office whom Weizmann was to describe as being most helpful to the Zionist cause, sent a memorandum to the Permanent Under-Secretary saying that We ought…to secure all the political advantage we can out of our connection with Zionism and there is no doubt that this advantage will be considerable especially in Russia.[22]

Ministers, he suggested, should now meet the wishes of the Zionists and give them an assurance that His Majesty’s Government are in general sympathy with their aspirations.[23]

To which suggestion, Balfour responded by inviting Weizmann and Lord Rothschild ‘to submit a formula’. After further discussion the Cabinet duly agreed to this proposal and, on November 2, Balfour issued his famous declaration. Whereupon, to exploit the propaganda advantage of this British flirtation with Zionism, leaflets were dropped over German and Austrian territory and pamphlets circulated to Jewish soldiers in the armies of Germany and her Central European allies, proclaiming that …the hour of Jewish redemption has arrived…The Allies are giving the Land of Israel to the people of Israel…Will you join them and help to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine?…Stop fighting the Allies who are fighting for you, for all the Jews…An Allied victory means the Jewish people’s return to Zion.[24]

Such a claim was of course far beyond the actual terms of the Balfour Declaration. But it was no more than the author of the declaration himself intended: he envisaged an outcome far beyond what the guarded language of his letter to Lord Rothschild actually said. For when he and his colleagues were discussing the wording of the draft declaration three days before it was issued, Balfour made it very clear that, in his judgement, the Jewish national home would become a Jewish state ‘as a matter for gradual development in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution’.[25] Both Balfour and David Lloyd-George later told Weizmann that in using the phrase ‘national home’ in the Declaration, ‘we meant a Jewish state’.[26]

It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that Lord Curzon, who was to succeed Balfour as Foreign Secretary in 1920, made no impression on the latter when he warned him that Weizmann contemplates a Jewish state, a Jewish nation, a subordinate population of Arabs, [and that Weizmann was]…trying to effect this behind the screen and under the shelter of British trusteeship.[27]

Curzon’s warning was ignored, as was also his protest that, on historical grounds, the British had a stronger claim to parts of Francethan the Jews had to Palestine, considering that their connection with the land had terminated 1,200 years ago.[28]

What is evident from the Cabinet documents of this period is that the British Government never intended to allow the Arab majority any voice in shaping the future of their own country. In a telegram in early 1918 to Sir Reginald Wingate, the High Commissioner in Cairo, the Foreign Office advised it is most important that everything should be done to…allay Arab suspicions regarding the true aims of Zionism.[29]

In February 1919, Balfour informed Lloyd George The weak point of our position is of course that in the case of Palestine we deliberately and rightly decline to accept the principle of self-determination.

If the existing population were consulted, he added, they would unquestionably return an anti-Zionist verdict.[30] And in reply to Curzon, Balfour stated quite categorically that in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country….The Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.[31]

In the same memorandum he discounted the reassurances which had been given to quieten Arab suspicions regarding British intentions by saying In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.[32]

According to Peter Mansfield, Balfour admitted frankly that the West had ‘deceived the Arabs, but thought that it was in everyone’s higher interests that it should be so’.[33] Clearly, in our Foreign Secretary’s view, the ‘ancient’ land of Palestine did not belong to the Arabs, they just happened to inhabit the country at that moment in time. They did not constitute ‘a people’, and certainly not a potential nation state. As Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1887, Balfour had held similar views about the Irish.

A Foreign Office memorandum (19 December 1917), written jointly by Arnold Toynbee (an expert on the Near East) and Lewis Namier (a British Jew and part of Weizmann’s inner circle) reveals the government’s perspective

The objection raised against the Jews being given exclusive political rights in Palestine on the basis that it would be undemocratic with regard to the local Christian and Mohammedan population is certainly the most important which the anti-Zionists have hitherto raised. But the difficulty is imaginary. Palestine might be held in trust by Britain, or America, until there was a sufficient population in the country fit to govern it on European lines. Then no undemocratic restrictions of the kind suggested would be required any longer.[34]

And this was to become, according to Martin Gilbert the centrepiece of British policy, that Britain would withhold representative institutions to Palestine as long as there was an Arab majority.[35]

At the beginning of 1921, responsibility for Palestine was been taken out of Curzon’s hands (at the Foreign Office) and transferred to the Colonial Office. Lloyd George appointed Churchill to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, charged with drawing up the terms of the Mandate and presenting them to the League of Nations In the cabinet, only Curzon and Montagu had raised any objections. Curzon had protested that the Zionists are after a Jewish State with the Arabs as hewers of wood and drawers of water…I want the Arabs to have a chance and I don’t want a Hebrew State.

But his objections were brushed aside in favour of the argument recorded in the Cabinet minutes of August 18, 1921 that the Arabs had no prescriptive right to a country which they had failed to develop to the best advantage.[36]

According to Gilbert throughout 1921 and 1922 Churchill and his officials at the Colonial Office worked hard to secure for the Jews the possibility of a future Jewish majority in Palestine, despite strong local Arab objections.[37]

And when there was agitation and Samuel, to appease local Arab sentiment, temporarily restricted Jewish immigration, he received unambiguous instructions from the Colonial Office  The present agitation is designed in the hope of frightening us out of our Zionist policy. We must firmly maintain law and order and make concessions on their merits and not under duress.[38]

After an Arab delegation visited London in August 1921 to seek assurances regarding their future, the Foreign Secretary received a memo from a senior Foreign Office official, Sir Hubert Young, stating that although the general strategic idea was the gradual immigration of Jews into Palestine until that country becomes a predominantly Jewish State, it was questionable whether we are in a position to tell the Arabs what our policy really means.[39]

Churchill’s selective memory was in evidence when he issued the first of many White Papers on Palestine (1922), and denied that it had ever been British policy to allow Palestine to become a wholly Jewish state. In fact, in previous Cabinet meetings at which Churchill was present, Balfour and Lloyd George had made it clear that in their view, the Jewish national home meant a (future) Jewish state.[40] In similar vein, Weizmann categorically denied to Feisal that the Zionists intended to set up a Jewish government. He could hardly say otherwise, given that the Holy Land then consisted of some 700,000 Arabs and 56,000 Jews. All that they wanted to do was to help in developing the country ‘without encroaching on other legitimate interests’.[41] Churchill himself had been on an official visit to Palestine some three months before the issue of the White Paper, and had met with a deputation of Muslim and Christians, who told him that the Arabs had not hated the Turks and trusted the British because of any national prejudices, but because they craved that independence which the former had denied to them and the latter had promised as a reward for shedding their blood in the cause of the Allies. Yet now it seemed that the Arabs’ reward was to see Palestine denied independence and ‘isolated for a thought-out purpose’. In reply, Churchill insisted that the fulfilment of the Balfour Declaration would be ‘good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine’.[42]

According to Shlaim by a stroke of the imperial pen, the Promised land [thus] became twice promised. Even by the standards of Perfidious Albion, this was an extraordinary tale of double-dealing and betrayal, a tale that continued to haunt Britain throughout the 30 years of its rule in Palestine.[43]

This Declaration by a world power gave Zionism – for the first time – a measure of political legitimacy, or political ‘legitimacy’, depending on the writer’s perspective. It was integrated into the post-war Mandate Document (22 July 1922) with the full support and guidance of Lloyd George, Churchill and in particular Balfour, it provided a further impetus for the colonisation of Palestine and it became the foundation stone of Zionist international legitimacy and strategy for developing their future state. For the Palestinian Arabs, the Declaration created the political iron cage that they found themselves locked into by the British Administration for the following twenty five years.

4 The Anglo-French declaration

In September 1918 Allenby resumed his advance to drive the Turks out of Syria. Damascus fell on1 October. The first Allied troops to reach the city were a body of Australian cavalry, but Lawrence (of Arabia fame) arranged for Feisal’s Arab forces to make the triumphal entry and install their own governor. Aleppo fell to the Allies on 26 October, and two days later the Ottoman government capitulated and signed the armistice agreement at Mudros. Four hundred years of Ottoman rule came to an end. The Arabs rejoiced at the liberation of Syria.

Allenby and his military administrators faced a prospect of immense difficulty, which was not helped by the frequently conflicting instructions they received from Whitehall. Apart from France and the Zionists, with their demands, the new American ally had entered the scene. The fact that the United States had no imperial ambitions, publically at least, greatly added to the moral force of President Wilson’s sermon-like speeches about the post-war settlement, and in particular, that all nations have the right to ‘self-government’.

In the region, relief at the end of Turkish oppression was combined with high hopes for a new independent future. The Hashemites and other well-informed Arabs had doubts about the Allies intentions, but Britain and France took steps to allay the fears of the general public. For the British, peace on the streets – military security – was paramount. So when a group of seven prominent Arabs living in Cairo presented a memorandum asking for a clear definition of British policy, Britain’s reply – known as the Declaration to the Seven, and given wide publicity – was that the future government of Arab territories liberated by the action of Arab armies would be based on the principle of the ‘consent of the governed’.[44] Wilson included this phrase among his Four Ends of Peace which, under his influence, were later incorporated in the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The Declaration to the Seven was later given even greater force by an Anglo-French declaration of 7 November 1918 (i.e., in the week between the signing of the armistice agreements with Turkey and Germany), which was issued by the British military commands in Palestine, Syria and Iraq and which said that the goal of the British and French governments was the complete and final liberation of peoples oppressed by the Turks and the setting up of national governments and administrations which should derive their authority from the free exercise of the initiative and choice of the indigenous population. Declarations of this kind by the Powers raised the expectations not only of the Arabs of Syria and Iraq, but of the Egyptians and of all peoples in the world who were living under some form of colonial or imperial rule.[45]

Even allowing for American pressure, it is difficult to see why Britain and France should have felt that such dishonesty was necessary. Turkey had already been defeated, and there was no need to sustain the Arab Revolt. But Britain was still in imperial mode and there was no intention in London or Paris of allowing the indigenous populations in the former Ottoman territories the free choice of their rulers.


All I would add is that during the Mandate period in Palestine, in particular the second half of the Mandate, we endeavoured to portray ourselves – as we did in Ireland throughout most of the twentieth century – as dispassionate, even-handed arbiters between two relatively evenly matched local groups, whose interests we attempted to balance. In fact, our pro-Zionist Mandatory policy in Palestine hardly wavered until war clouds gathered in 1939, the two groups were never evenly matched and – as in Ireland – we were the most powerful protagonist and at the heart of the conflict.

Every protagonist in history has wanted to hug the moral high ground. And as in other conflicts, every group in this conflict had (and has) exaggerated preconceptions concerning the uniqueness of their national history and experience. But in this complex conflict, Veritas has been a particularly elusive quarry, and continues to be so. During our commemorations of the Great War, some official veritas concerning our legacy of contradictory promises would be refreshing and could herald a healthier and more equal relationship between ourselves and what we call the Middle East.

Compiled by Peter A Shambrook December 2011

This is a discussion document, compiled from a wide range of secondary sources, and makes no claim to be an original piece of research. The selection of facts and opinions are, of course, my own. For the contextual description of the course of the war, I have mostly followed Peter Mansfield’s ‘A History of the Middle East’ (Penguin, 1991). A short bibliography of my other sources is at the end of the document.

Dr. Peter A Shambrook is a historian of British and French Imperialism, and author of French Imperialism in Syria, 1927-1936, Ithaca Press, 1998.


Barr, James. A Line in the Sand. Britain, France and the Struggle for the Mastery of the Middle East (Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2011).

Barr, James. Setting the desert on fire (Bloomsbury, 2006).

Gilbert, Sir Martin. Irene and Hyman Kreitman Annual Lecture: ‘Sowing the Seeds of Jewish Statehood: Britain and Palestine, 1909-1922’, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 29-31 May 2011. Accessed 5 November 2011:

Ingrams, Doreen. Palestine Papers. 1917-1922: Seeds of Conflict (Eland, 1972).

Johnson, Paul, A History of the Jews (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987).

Mansfield, Peter. The Arabs (Penguin, 1976).

Mansfield, Peter. A History of the Middle East (Penguin, 1992).

Nutting, The Rt. Hon. Sir Anthony. Britain and Palestine. A legacy of deceit (The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, n.d.).

Sachar, Howard A. A History of Israel from the rise of Zionism to our time (Knopf, 1996).

Shlaim, Avi. ‘The Balfour Declaration and its Consequences’, in Israel and Palestine (Verso, 2009).

Sizer, Stephen. Christian Zionism (Inter-Varsity Press, 2010).

Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error. The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (Greenwood Press, 1972).

Young, Kenneth. Arthur James Balfour (G. Bell & Sons, 1963).

[1] See Mansfield, A History of the Middle East, ch.8.

[2] Ingrams, p. 2.

[3] Barr, p. 313.

[4] Barr, pp. 118-19.

[5] Barr, p. 21.

[6] Barr, p. 312

[7] Barr, p. 312.

[8] Barr, p. 313.

[9] Mansfield, The Arabs, p. 192.

[10] Mansfield, A History of the Middle East, p. 158.

[11] See Mansfield, A History of the Middle East, ch. 8.

[12] Ingrams, p. 18.

[13] Shlaim, pp. 23-24.

[14] Johnson, p. 430.

[15] Shlaim, p. 23.

[16] Shlaim, p. 10.

[17] Young, p. 256.

[18] Young, p. 256.

[19] Johnson, p. 428.

[20] Johnson, pp. 364-65.

[21] Sizer, p. 57.

[22] Ingrams, p. 8.

[23] Ingrams, p. 8.

[24] Ingrams, p. 19.

[25] Ingrams, p. 17.

[26] Shlaim, p. 14; Nutting, p. 12.

[27] Ingrams, p. 58.

[28] Nutting, p. 4.

[29] Ingrams, p. 22.

[30] Ingrams, p. 61.

[31] Ingrams, p. 73.

[32] Ingrams, p. 73.

[33] Mansfield, The Arabs, p. 222.

[34] Martin Gilbert. Irene and Hyman Kreitman Annual Lecture: ‘Sowing the Seeds of Jewish Statehood: Britain and Palestine, 1909-1922’, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 29-31 May, 2011. Accessed 5 November 2011:

[35] Ibid.,

[36] Ingrams, p. 144.

[37] Gilbert, op.cit.,

[38] Gilbert, op.cit.,

[39] Ingrams, p. 140.

[40] Ingrams, pp. 146-47.

[41] Ingrams, pp. 36-37.

[42] Ingrams, pp. 118-19.

[43] Shlaim, p. 4.

[44] Mansfield, The Arabs, p. 207.

[45] Ingrams, p. 42.

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