Unseen question? Zionism and the Palestinians under the British Mandate

A live online talk given in October 2020.

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Ian Black:

Thanks very much for inviting me to give this talk.

It is based on the research for my book, Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017, which was published in November 2017 on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, and my doctoral thesis that I did at LSE in the second half of the 1970’s.

From the early days of Zionist settlement in Ottoman Palestine it was clear that the project faced opposition from the native Arab majority. Hostility escalated with the start of British rule and the violence that engendered. Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion admitted privately that a national confrontation was under way – and inevitable – but official public messaging was that Arabs would benefit from the Jewish economic development of the country. By the end of the Palestinian “great rebellion” of 1936-1939 that was exposed as an illusion.

The “official” Zionist view of the majority population of Palestine, from the late 19th century onwards, was that the natives had no distinct national identity – and were no different from people in the other territories of the Ottoman Levant – in line with the concept of Bilad ash-Sham – Greater Syria. If they were mentioned at all in early Zionist literature they were normally referred to as Muslims and Christians rather than Arabs, and not least because the concept of Arab nationalism was then in its early days. It would be boosted by the First World War.

 But from the beginning the Zionist movement, then still very much a minority in Eastern Europe (where the majority of the world’s Jews then lived) was not unaware of the existence of other people in what they defined as Eretz-Yisrael – the land of Israel. “The slogan: “a land without a people for a people without a land” (actually coined by the Earl of Shaftesbury – a Christian Zionist) has often been misinterpreted to imply that there were no people at all. But the slogan or phrase was a political argument that many mistakenly took to be a demographic argument, as the historian Gudrun Kramer has written. What it meant was NOT that there were no people in Palestine. Rather, it meant that the people living in Palestine were not a people with a separate  history, culture, and legitimate claim to national self-determination… In other words, Palestine contained people, but not a people. Reality on the ground – whether in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Hebron or Safed, or in the agricultural colonies that were created in the last two decades of the 19th century – meant that there was daily contact with Arabic-speaking natives. And some of them were native-born Jews of course.

In 1916 Chaim Weizmann wrote an 11-page introduction to a book called Zionism and the Jewish Future: he didn’t use the words Arab, Muslims or Christians at all.

Now I know that I entitled this talk about Zionist attitudes during the British Mandate, but when I started thinking about actually doing it I realized that I needed first to talk about what happened in the years before 1917 (the Mandate actually began formally in 1923) in order to provide the relevant background and the ability to make comparisons between different periods.

So here are some basic facts:

In 1882, when the Zionist movement first began to make its mark, the population of Palestine – which it is important to stress was not a single Ottoman administrative or political unit – was around 680,000. The Jewish population of 20,000-25,000 – between 3-4% of the total – was concentrated in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. They were mostly poor, Orthodox and – in Jerusalem – largely of Ashkenazi (European) origin. That population was distinct from Jews who later defined themselves as Zionists. But over time, of course, that distinction was eroded.

Early Zionist settlers experienced problems over the demarcation of boundaries with former tenants who had been dispossessed by the sale of lands they had previously worked, often for absentee owners. Disputes also took place over harvesting rights. In 1886 rioting erupted in the early settlement of Petah Tikvah after a Jewish farmer confiscated Arab-owned donkeys. By 1889 the 200 Jews of Zichron Yaakov (south of Haifa) had 1,200 Arab agricultural workers serving them. In Rishon LeZion 40 Jewish families attracted nearly 300 Arab families to work as labourers. The colonists were quick to “reach for the whip and beat the offender for every transgression.” Arab workers were easily available, cheap and far hardier than Jewish immigrants. The Arab labourer, in the words of one Jewish observer, “is almost always a submissive servant who may be exploited without opposition and accepts lovingly the expressions of his master’s power and dominion.” Zionist memoirs recorded Arab fascination with modern agricultural machinery – and laughter when the inexperienced colonists of Rishon LeZion – known later as the “mother of colonies,” “tried to coax camels into pulling carts like horses.”

Overall numbers of settlers were still very small – just over 2,000 by 1893 – but local problems occasionally echoed more widely. In 1890 a group of Bedouin protested to the sultan that they had been expelled from land purchased for the Jewish settlement of Rehovot. Nearby Gedera, founded by the Bilu pioneering movement in 1884, was known for bad relations with its neighbours. The Arab villagers of Qatra lost their land because of debts but continued to cultivate it as tenants until the arrival of the Jewish colonists. In 1891 a group of Muslim notables sent a petition to Constantinople demanding an end to Jewish immigration and land purchases. Theodor Herzl, the Hungarian-born Viennese journalist who was the father of political Zionism, paid his first and only visit to Palestine in 1898, trying but failing to secure the backing of the German Kaiser for the recognition of Jewish aspirations in their ancient homeland. “If you will it,” as he famously wrote, “it is no dream.” In 1899  Yusuf Diyya al-Khalidi, from a prominent Jerusalem Muslim family, wrote to Zadok Kahn, the chief rabbi of France: “Who can deny the rights of the Jews to Palestine? My God, historically it is also your country!” But he went on to suggest that, since Palestine was already inhabited, Zionists should find another place for the implementation of their national and political goals. “In the name of God,” he famously implored, “let Palestine be left alone.” 

But eight years before that, in 1891, a Ukrainian-born Jewish writer called Asher Ginzburg (his pen-name was Ahad haAm – the Hebrew means “one of the people”) had written an article entitled the Truth from Eretz-Yisrael  – following a trip to Palestine:

 “We who live abroad,” he wrote in a key passage,  “are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp minded and shrewd. All the townships of Syria and Eretz Yisrael are full of Arab merchants who know how to exploit the masses and keep track of everyone with whom they deal – the same as in Europe. The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them…But, if the time comes that our people’s life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.

 Ahad haAm’s article is often quoted because it provided the first serious recognition that relations with the Arabs would be one of the Zionist project’s hardest tests. Yet there is a risk, with hindsight, of endowing his comments with more significance than they had at the time. The article was criticized when it appeared, not so much because of his brief comments about Arabs but rather because of his attacks on Jewish ‘charlatans’, who had been promoting the holy land as ‘a new California’ with an easy life, producing ‘a motley mixture of gold-diggers and indigent exiles’. Arabs simply did not loom as large for the Zionists in those early years as they were to do only a decade or two later.

 Still, Arab hostility was becoming harder to ignore by the turn of the 20th century. The eviction of peasants from land purchased in Galilee by the Jewish Colonization Association, (founded in 1901), led to attacks on Jewish surveyors. An Arab official in Tiberias ignored the orders of his Turkish superior in Beirut and opposed the transaction, against a background of mounting Arab opposition to the Ottoman authorities. By 1904, some 5,500 settlers were living in 25 agricultural colonies in three blocs: in eastern Upper Galilee, south of Haifa, and south-east of Jaffa. That year the authorities forbade the sale of land to foreign Jews, which was a more direct method of control than the previous practice of registering transactions in the name of Ottoman Jewish citizens.

In Zionist speeches and discussions, “the Arabs, their presence and their settlement in Palestine are belittled and nullified, as if they did not exist”, one Jewish intellectual complained in 1905. “The Arabs…were viewed as one more of the many misfortunes present in Palestine, like the Ottoman authorities, the climate, difficulties of adjustment – no greater or smaller than other troubles the settlers had to grapple with.” The theft of Jewish agricultural produce or livestock by Arabs was a common complaint.

 In 1905, at the Zionist Congress in Basel, the Odessa-born educationalist Yitzhak Epstein returned to, and sharpened, the point that had been made by Ahad haAm in 1891 – 14 years earlier. Epstein belonged to a movement called Hovevei Tzion. (the Lovers of Zion) He had witnessed the purchase of the lands of Ras al-Zawiya and al-Metulla (known in Hebrew as Rosh Pina and Metullah) from absentee landlords several years earlier, and he remembered clearly the anger of the dispossessed farmers from the Druze community. “The lament of Arab women…still rings in my ears,” he wrote. “The men rode on donkeys and the women followed them weeping bitterly, and the valley was filled with their lamentation. As they went they stopped to kiss the stones and the earth.”

“In our lovely country there exists an entire people who have held it for centuries and to whom it would never occur to leave…The time has come to dispel the misconception among Zionists that land in Palestine lies uncultivated for lack of working hands or the laziness of the local residents. There are no deserted fields.”

Epstein – clearly ahead of his time – warned that relations with the Arabs were the ‘unseen question’ that the Zionist movement had failed to address. Only by taking care not to dispossess Arab farmers and generally sharing the benefits of Zionist progress could their enmity be avoided. But his argument attracted little response.

The same year Epstein’s speech was published (in 1907) in HaShiloah, (one of the earliest modern Hebrew-language publications), .an Ottoman official complained about the growing presence of ‘foreign Jews’ in Jaffa where immigrants disembarked, often shocked by their raucous reception. ‘You must tell the passengers not to be impatient, not to be in a hurry to get off the ship, and not to be overawed by the shouts and cries of the Arab sailors’, a Zionist official urged a colleague who arranged steamship voyages from Odessa, the port on the Black Sea. ‘Teach the travellers to Palestine the importance of the words ‘Shwaia, shwaia’(slowly, slowly) and tell them that if they say this to the Arabs suddenly appearing on the ship, they will calm down a bit and not shout ‘Yalla, Yalla!’ (hurry, hurry) – a cry that has something contemptuous about it.’ In March 1908 fighting broke out in the port city between young Muslims and Jews, the violence blamed by the British consul on resentment of the Jewish population. The growth of prostitution and alcohol consumption caused serious problems. Arabs, warned a Jewish writer, ‘regard all the “Muscovite” women as cheap and promiscuous’, and behave with ‘a sexual vulgarity that they would never dare to do in the case of Sephardi women, and still less, of German or English Christian women’. In 1909 an Ottoman deputy demanded that the port be closed to Jewish immigrants.

Decades of research  – including my own at LSE on the 1930s – have contradicted the widespread assumption of Zionist ignorance of Arab opposition. Palestine Jewry, known as the Yishuv, was “acutely aware of a real gap separating the basic positions of Jews and Arabs in Palestine,” according to one study, in the early years of British rule.  

And that of course began shortly after the Balfour Declaration of November 2 1917, and the entry of General Edmund Allenby into Jerusalem just over a month later. I am sure you are familiar with the diplomatic background to that: contradictory promises, the sense of Arab anger and a historic achievement for the Zionist movement by having won a promise “to view with favour” the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people from the most powerful country on earth!

In terms of attitudes to Arabs, another landmark postwar moment is a statement by David Ben-Gurion, the Labour Zionist leader (and future Israeli prime minister), who had arrived in Palestine from Poland in 1906 – and had the same negative reaction to Jaffa as I described a few moments ago. His words came just after the Versailles peace conference of 1919. He declared to a closed session of colleagues: “Everybody sees a difficulty in the question of relations between Arabs and Jews,’ he said. “But not everybody sees that there is no solution to this question. No solution! There is a gulf and nothing can fill this gulf. It is not possible to resolve the conflict between Jewish and Arab interests [only] by sophistry. I do not know what Arab will agree that Palestine should belong to the Jews – even if the Jews learn Arabic. And we must recognise this situation. If we do not acknowledge this and try to come up with ‘remedies’ then we risk demoralisation…We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”

Other participants in that 1919 debate offered different views, including a man called Chaim Margalit Kalvarisky who worked on relations with Palestinian individuals and groups – including financing and simply bribing them – but the majority agreed with Ben-Gurion.

In early 1920 an English-language publication called the Zionist Review published an article addressing this issue. It said: “The land-owning and commercial classes among the Palestinian Arabs are genuinely afraid that the Zionist plan involves their land being expropriated and ousted from taking any part in the industrial and commercial development of the country.  They are opposed, and justifiably opposed, to an exclusive Jewish domination either in the political or in the economic sphere, and they are bound to oppose Zionism so long as they think that such domination is among the aims of Zionism. But it would be a great mistake for Zionists to conclude that this opposition is irremovable, and to base their policy on that hypothesis.’

That was an optimistic conclusion, and arguably a false one. It was already clear that the Arabs rejected the Balfour Declaration along with Jewish immigration and land sales, even if that genuinely meant greater prosperity for all and not just for the individuals who sold land at inflated prices.

That Zionist promise of prosperity for all was unconvincing however, and not least because of the land question: in Ottoman times, tenants had not been evicted when land ownership changed, but simply answered to a new landlord. Now, in the wake of the second wave of immigration, (aliya, 1904-1914) they were evicted because of the principle of “Hebrew Labour” and what was described as that ‘incomprehensible innovation’ naturally fueled fears about the future.At best, the Zionists continued to argue, relations with the Arabs of Palestine would improve as the Jewish presence became stronger and generated economic growth and employment opportunities. If relations did not improve, then so be it. And so, of course, it was.

From 1920 onwards there began a series of events that widened the gap between the two communities – as the number of Jewish immigrants increased slowly but steadily. (In 1922 the British census showed that Palestine’s Jewish population was about 84K. By 1931 it had more than doubled to 175K.) In April 1920 there took place disturbances in Jerusalem that were known as the Nebi Musa riots. Only five Jews and four Arabs were killed, although several hundred were injured, but it was a warning sign of what was to come. One result was that the Haganah, the Jewish defence organization, was created by the Histadrut (the federation of Jewish Labour).

In May 1920 an official  Zionist document laid out a plan for countering Arab opposition. It proposed cultivating individuals, building alliances with Bedouin emirs and sheikhs both in Transjordan and southern Palestine, purchases of Arabic newspapers, promoting friendly relations with Arabs; and provoking tensions between Christians and Muslims.

“This plan was based on the presumption that there was NO authentic Arab national movement in Palestine,” according to the Israeli scholar Hillel Cohen. “This was true to a certain extent, but those who promoted it ignored the process taking place before their eyes.”

The plan provided the framework for setting up two organisations for Arab collaborators: the Muslim National Associations and the Farmers Parties.

The following year, May 1921, saw a significant escalation with what were known as the Jaffa Riots – although they extended beyond the port city. In total 47 Jews and 48 Arabs were killed; the wounded numbered 146 Jews and 73 Arabs. This outbreak of violence was followed by the report of the British Haycraft Commission, which quoted Jewish witnesses as saying “that Zionism has nothing to do with the anti-Jewish feeling manifested in the Jaffa disturbances.”

In July 1921, Hassan Shukri, the mayor of Haifa and president of the Muslim National Associations, sent a telegram to the British government in response to the delegation of Palestinians that travelled to London to try to prevent the implementation of the Balfour Declaration. Shukri wrote: “We are certain that without Jewish immigration and financial assistance there will be no future development of our country as may be judged from the fact that the towns inhabited in part by Jews such as Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa and Tiberias are making steady progress while Nablus, Acre and Nazareth where no Jews reside are steadily declining.”

There then followed a few years of calm, to the extent that in 1923-24 overt Arab hostility appeared to be on the wane. But at that time there was another important statement: this one was made by Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the Zionist Revisionist movement – which was the ideological predecessor of what became Israel’s Likud Party. Jabotinsky wrote his essay after Winston Churchill, then Britain’s Colonial Secretary prohibited Zionist settlement in Transjordan. Jabotinsky argued that the Palestinian Arabs would not agree to a Jewish majority in Palestine, and that “Zionist colonisation must either stop, or else proceed regardless of the native population. Which means that it can proceed and develop only under the protection of a power that is independent of the native population – behind an iron wall, which the native population cannot breach.”

Jabotinsky’s concept of the “iron wall” – the title of an important book by Avi Shlaim – has often been cited as a brutally frank and realistic admission of how to achieve Zionist goals – compared to the lip-service of co-existence plus economic development paid by the labour movement and leaders such as Ben-Gurion – who, as we have heard, held different views privately.

In 1924, the Ahdut HaAvoda convention at Ein Harod, concluded that the solution of the “Arab question” lay in the joint organization of Jewish and Arab workers – and that there was no Arab national movement worthy of the name. It was also agreed, however, that at that stage of the development of the National Home, a political agreement with the Arabs of Palestine was neither practical nor desirable.

1929 was another landmark, with the worst violence yet erupting in Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. It has been described as “year zero’ of the conflict though the evidence was already there of an accelerating confrontation along national lines. One effect of 1929 was that Mizrahi Jews started joining the Haganah, which had hitherto been largely confined to Jews of Ashkenazi origin.

Occasionally, more critical voices were heard. Hans Kohn was a supporter of the dovish group called Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), which promoted a bi-national state who unusually – though appropriately for a future leading scholar of nationalism – described the Zionist–Arab confrontation against the wider background of resistance to colonialism elsewhere:

 ‘I cannot concur with [official Zionist policy] when the Arab national movement is being portrayed as the wanton agitation of a few big landowners’, he wrote. ‘I know…that frequently the most reactionary imperialist press in England and France portrays the national movements in India, Egypt, and China in a similar fashion – in short, wherever the national movements of oppressed peoples threaten the interest of the colonial power. I know how false and hypocritical this portrayal is. We pretend to be innocent victims…Of course the Arabs attacked us in August. Since they have no armies they could not obey the rules of war. They perpetrated all the barbaric acts that are characteristic of a colonial revolt. But we are obliged to look into the deeper cause of this revolt. We have been in Palestine for twelve years…(HE MEANT SINCE THE BALFOUR DECLARATION) without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people. We have been relying exclusively upon Great Britain’s military might. We have set ourselves goals which by their very nature had to lead to conflict with Arabs…We ought to have recognised that these…would be…the just cause, of a national uprising against us…we pretended that the Arabs did not exist.”

Judah Magnes, the American reform rabbi and pacifist who became the first chancellor of the Hebrew University, had drawn similar conclusions in a controversial address around the same time, during which he was heckled by students. ‘If we cannot find ways of peace and understanding, if the only way of establishing the Jewish National Home is upon the bayonets of some empire, our whole enterprise is not worthwhile; and it is better that the eternal people that has outlived many a mighty empire should possess its soul in patience, and plan and wait.’

But these were the arguments of a tiny Jewish minority with very little ability to influence the hardening mood in the wake of the 1929 bloodshed. Brit Shalom ceased to exist in 1933 due to the desertion of many members and a chronic lack of funds.

And despite distancing themselves from Jabotinsky, the Yishuv and its leadership began to internalise the logic underpinning his approach.. The consensus in favour of the ‘iron wall’ philosophy grew stronger after 1929 and the issuance by Britain of the Passfield White Paper in 1930 (which imposed limits on Jewish immigration).

As a result pessimism grew about the future of the Zionist enterprise and Arab opposition to it: Chaim Arlosoroff took over the Jewish Agency’s Political Department in 1931 and the following year he wrote a famous letter – which is often described as “prophetic” – to Chaim Weizmann. Arlosoroff’s conclusion was that “Zionism cannot, in the given circumstances, be turned into a reality without a transition period of the organized revolutionary rule of the Jewish minority” in which the Jews would develop the country, save as many Jews as possible as the approaching world war and emerging Arab nationalism might otherwise prevent the ultimate realization of Zionism. 

Weizmann did not answer.

It was around this time that the Zionists abandoned the strategy of establishing or encouraging Arab organisations designed to construct an alternative leadership. That policy was based on false assumptions – that the majority Arab population had no genuine national sentiments. It was also wrong to believe that conflicting or different interests between urban and rural Arabs, – effendis versus fellahin – as well as Christians and Muslims, could be exploited to the benefit of the Zionists. That didn’t mean that all Arabs supported Haj Amin al-Husseini or viewed selling land to Jews as an act of treachery: plenty of them did just that – and Palestinians far outnumbered absentee Lebanese landlords. “But it did mean that the fear of takeover by the Zionists rendered overt political alliance with them unacceptable for the majority of the Palestinian population,” as Hillel Cohen has argued.

In 1935 Jewish immigration, largely from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, peaked at 62,000.

That was the year before another landmark event – the Arab general strike of April 1936 and the fully-fledged rebellion (al-thawra al-kubra) that followed it from October 1937. The strike and violence created yet another British enquiry (the Peel Commission, which was announced less than a month after the trouble erupted). It recommended in July 1937 that the Palestine problem be resolved by the creation of separate and independent Arab and Jewish states in the area of the Mandate.

The Zionist movement and Palestine’s Jews were again concerned to portray events as the result of terror, agitation and corruption on the part of the Arab leadership, largely foreigners – and not the expression of mass popular sentiment. In October that year a leading British Zionist, Lord Melchett – in consultation with Ben-Gurion – published the second edition of a book called “Thy Neighbour.” He described the Arab movement as “led neither by a dispossessed Palestinian fellah nor by a disappointed Palestinian effendi, but Fawzi Kawakji, an ex-Turkish officer of Syrio-Turkish extraction and of Syrian citizenship. He has collected around him Druses, Syrians, Iraqis and brigands who …flock to any place where there is a chance for excitement and perhaps booty.”

Ben-Gurion also challenged fellow Zionists who argued that there had not been an Arab uprising. His colleague, Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), the head of the political department of the Jewish Agency, was struck by the mass, popular character of the disturbances and the self-discipline displayed by the strikers. The participation of Arab women, he noted, was an entirely new phenomenon which bore eloquent witness to depth of national feeling.

And Palestinian witnesses to the 1937 Royal Commission, flatly contradicted the argument that it was all about outside intervention and Jewish-driven economic development.  “You say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it,” said one. “But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor or bare it is if only I am master in it.”

Another effect of the rebellion was to boost Zionist cooperation with British intelligence and security designed to crush Arab opposition. That was the period of Orde Wingate and his Special Night Squads. The “British question” had replaced the “Arab question.”

In the big picture the effect of the Arab rebellion was to weaken the Palestinians – and pave the way for the Nakba – the catastrophe – of 1948. An estimated 5,000 Palestinians were killed in violence between 1936 and 1939, but up to one-third were killed by rebels themselves. Jewish casualties were around 500. The rebellion has produced a vast literature over the years, but one of the finest was published in 2019 by Matthew Hughes: “Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: The British Army, the Colonial State and the Arab revolt, 1936-39.”

Leadership was divided between the Husseinis and the Nashashibis, and those divisions were exploited by the Jews and the British to create the so-called “Peace Bands.” In May 1939 the British issued their White Paper, restricting Jewish immigration and land sales.  That marked the end of Britain’s 22-year pro-Zionist policy. By then Palestine’s demographic reality was changing too: the Jewish population had nearly doubled in the preceding six years, from 234,000 to 445,000 by 1939 – rising from 21% of the total to 30%. And it wasn’t just about demography: by the outbreak of the second world war Arabs and Jews lived more separately than they had done before, continuing a trend that begun in 1921 and accelerated after 1929.

The Palestinian leadership rejected the White Paper of 1939, even though it was a significant retreat from British support for the Zionist enterprise – provoking later criticism from Palestinian historians.

Given the rise of Hitler and what was already happening in Europe it was a tragic moment for Jews. Ben-Gurion famously pledged “to fight the White Paper as if there were no war and to fight the war as if there were no White Paper.” The Zionist movement/Yishuv finally abandoned the illusion that it could come to any kind of agreement with the Arabs of Palestine. No-one doubted that renewed conflict lay ahead.

And I want to end on a sad but relevant note. Meron Benvenisti, who was one of the most brilliant, original and inevitably controversial analysts of the Israel-Palestine conflict, died last month. In 2012 he gave an interview to Haaretz on the occasion of the publication of his autobiography in Hebrew. Meron was talking about issues that were relevant at that time – and in the current bleak reality of the conflict – but I am sure you will recognize some of the elements that I have talked about:

“Zionism was not born in sin, but in illusion. The illusion was that we are coming to a land in which there are no Arabs. And when we figured it out, we pulverized the country’s Arabs into five different groups: the Arabs of Israel, the Arabs of Gaza, the Arabs of the West Bank, the Arabs of Jerusalem and the refugee Arabs. We succeeded in creating a divide-and-rule system that made it possible for us to rule them and to preserve hegemonic power between the Mediterranean and the Jordan.”

Diana Safieh:

So quite a few of our audience have expressed disappointment in the British media and its reporting of the situation, feeling that it’s biased and so forth. But I want to ask you a question based on all of those questions that have come in. I want to ask you what can we do to keep this issue in the media? If we feel like it’s unbiased, how can we draw attention either to publications or to journalists? What can we do to try to make the publications more balanced?


Well gosh, I worked for 36 years for one publication, The Guardian, and of course maybe I should make a few introductory remarks. Everybody who is watching this news that this is arguably the most toxic and divisive issue on the planet, so there are always going to be complaints from either side of bias and downplaying the arguments in support of one side or the other.

So I worked for The Guardian for many years, it was always a toxic and divisive issue. I think that over the years we did it pretty well but of course, that can’t convince everybody. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. It’s such a big topic, isn’t it? It’s quite hard to know how to tackle it and look, the issue isn’t going to go away. The most important story in the last few weeks, as I’m sure you’re perfectly well aware, is of the historic, maybe inadvertent comments between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. I think it’s got a lot of attention and indeed critical attention too certainly from my old employers. For what it’s worth, I wrote a piece for The Guardian saying that the agreement, the Abraham Accords brokered by Donald Trump, of course in his own self-interest, made the prospect of the two state solution to the conflict even more remote than it was. I think that that was a widely held view but of course, I’m up for hearing specific questions or complaints about the coverage.

Again, I mean this conflict of all the conflicts on the planet is famously toxic and divisive and my view is that the media is doing okay. Well, obviously with certain exceptions but I would say that, wouldn’t I.


Thank you so much for that. Well, I would just like to take a moment to thank everyone for the donations that have come in, we really appreciate it. Since COVID, we’ve been hosting these online lectures instead of being able to do in person events and we’ve managed to host monthly events and hope that you have all been finding it very interesting. So we really appreciate your support in the form of donations because it helps us keep going so thank you for the people that have donated already and we really appreciate that.

So I had a question coming in advance from Rob Cox, who’s here and it’s about Jenny Tonge’s question in the House of Lords and it’s quite exciting because we have Jenny here in the audience as well. So hello, Jenny, thank you for asking a question. The question was about the Balfour Declaration, which is obviously where the name of the Balfour project comes from and the Balfour Declaration, as most of us are familiar states that nothing should be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

Jenny asked about this in the House of Lords and Lord Ahmed, his response was that Israel is a thriving democracy with a long-standing commitment to equality for all. So I guess we just want to ask your thoughts on that, as does Jenny because she’s just said, “Hello everyone,” in the chat. So everyone say, “Hello,” to Jenny.


Thriving democracy with equality for a while, I mean, it’s clearly not true, is it? The State of Israel within the 1967 borders also contains an Arab minority of I think 20%, 21% possibly. And they are represented in the Knesset as well as parliament, but the nation state law of 2018 obviously was correctly interpreted as act of prejudice against them. It also downgraded the official status of the Arabic language. The larger issue is the continuing occupation and the phrase thriving democracy with equality clearly does not apply to that, there’s no question about that.


Thank you for that. So I’ve got a question here from Johnny Rizq. Zionism emerged in an age when colonialism was still an accepted form of international relations, why do you think it is that countries that which have themselves renounced their own colonial past have continued to support the Zionist colonialization project?


Well, the fact is that the State of Israel is a reality that can’t be whatever your view of it can’t be wished away. So there are two peoples who live in this Holy Land and they have to find a way to come to terms with each other, there’s no question about that. Neither side is going to go away and they have to work it out. The problem is this is an exceptionally asymmetrical conflict in which one side is far stronger and enjoys far more support than the other but it’s in the interest of both sides, of course, to reach an agreement and the current existing model of a two-state solution, which dates back to the appeal commission recommendation of 1937, I do not believe that there’s any substitute for that. But of course, it’s never seemed further away than it is right now, but I don’t believe myself that there is any alternative to that.


Well, we’re coming up to the end of time. Ian, thank you so much for that, loads of people thanking you in the chat, which by the way, I always tell my speakers not to look at the chat because it’s distracting but I do relay all the comments to the speaker after the event. So I will be passing all of your comments on to Ian later so thank you so much for all of your questions, your positive responses.

We’ve had so many questions that we’re just never going to get through all of them in the time that we have, but I’m going to take one from your long-time buddy, Vincent Fean. So how would you summarize the attitude of the British authorities in the face of the Gulf Ben-Gurion described and was there a gap between London’s attitude and that was a local British administrators?


That’s a question that only Vincent could have asked. I think towards the end of the mandate, in the course of 1947, there was a sense that in the British government, both in London and in Jerusalem, that the mandate was going to come to an end and it wasn’t going to end well. And that was, of course, the British motive in the handing over the end of the mandate to the United Nations.

There was clearly opposition to both from government house in Jerusalem to the terms of the mandate but of course, the British were overtaken by events, if you like. When the Balfour Declaration was issued on November the 2nd, 1917, what happened to the Jews of Europe during the second world war was not possible to imagine. So in 1942, when the dimensions of the Holocaust being carried out by the Nazis was becoming apparent, in May of that year, the Zionist Congress convened in a hotel in New York called the Biltmore and the name of the hotel doesn’t matter, but that became attached to the program that was unveiled on that occasion. And the Biltmore Program ended any lack of clarity about the goals of the Zionist movement. The British have committed to the Jewish national home in Palestine and we’ve heard the qualifications that were issued in that famous 67 word document. But in May 1942, the Zionist Congress, the Biltmore Hotel in New York demanded a Jewish Commonwealth, which basically meant a state.

The moment that happened, I think that the numbers of Jewish immigrants, the size of the Jewish community in Palestine meant that that was likely to be seen as the achievable goal and all bets were off. Britain had been through the Second World War, it had just given up the jewel in the crown of its empire in India and it wanted to cut its losses. But it does bear a historic responsibility for the creation of what remains one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. And it’s good that the Balfour Project is trying to increase the knowledge and awareness of that.


Thank you so much Ian. If you have enjoyed this talk, we will be putting it on the website very shortly, along with the transcript. The links that I’ve been sharing in the chat will be shared over email, so if you’ve signed up for our mailing list, you’ll get them. If not, head over to our website balfourproject.org and join our mailing list. And if you come to our upcoming events, such as our conference, if you come to our conference Jerusalem on the 27th of October, you’ll get to see Ian again, as he’s moderating the Q&A session at the end of the conference, it’s an all day free conference. So please do have a look at that. We’ve got some amazing speakers lined up on topics of religion, history, politics, the current situation, and on and on and on. So hopefully you can all join us there.

Ian, thank you again so much for taking the time to come speak to us all today. Thank you everyone who’s come along to listen, you’ve been fantastic. As I said in the chat, it’s the fact that we have this amazing turnout every single time that we continue hosting these monthly talks. So thank you for joining us and we hope you have a lovely evening. Ian, thank you. Bye.


Thank you.

Ian Black is a visiting senior fellow at the Middle East Centre, LSE. He was Middle East editor, European editor, diplomatic editor and Middle East correspondent of the Guardian. He is the author of several books, including Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 (Allen Lane, Penguin, 2017).

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