The Palestine Deception, 1915-1923, by William Mathew

In 2015, historian William Mathew published a book consisting of a series of articles from the Daily Mail of 1923. These presented a hitherto uninformed British readership  with details of official promises made to the Arabs in 1915-16 of post-war independence for Palestine in exchange for their support in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire and its German ally – something that London later reneged on.

These articles, vivid in their documentation, wit, and argumentative power, are published in edited, annotated form by the Institute for Palestine Studies, Washington D.C., under the title The Palestine Deception, 1915-1923. The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Jewish National Home .

Speaking in Parliament in March 1923, some months before the final settlement of Britain`s Palestine Mandate, the former foreign secretary, Viscount (Edward) Grey pleaded with the recently installed Conservative government to acknowledge openly that the British had made contradictory official pledges concerning Palestine during the recent war: the first, to the resident Arab population by the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915-16, promising them, in written statements by the British high commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, to the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, post-war political independence in return for military support in the conflict with Germany and its Ottoman ally in the Levant; the second, to world Jewry, in the form of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, promising support for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Pledges, Grey insisted, had been “undoubtedly given to the Arabs” well in advance of the quite different priorities implicit in the Declaration. The “best way of clearing our honour in this matter is officially to publish the whole of the engagements” and leave it to the public “to consider what is the most fair and honourable way out of the impasse”.#

“the best way of clearing our honour in this matter is officially to publish the whole of the engagements” and leave it to the public “to consider what is the most fair and honourable way out of the impasse”

A number of other peers – former government ministers and imperial pro-consuls among them – also spoke on the subject in debates in March and June, concerned that a serious injustice, likely to be confirmed by the forthcoming Mandate, had been committed against the Arabs, threatening British strategic interests in the region, and, in line with Grey, asking for publication of the relevant correspondence. The government, however, refused. Indeed, there was to be no official presentation of the documents until 1939, almost a quarter-century after the correspondence had taken place.

What had stimulated these parliamentary exchanges in 1923 was the appearance in Britain’s highest-circulation newspaper, Lord Northcliffe`s Daily Mail, of 26 articles by the journalist Joseph Jeffries, a former war correspondent who had recently undertaken his own investigations in Palestine, appraising the government`s pro-Zionist policies, recording the tribulations of the various resident and immigrant communities in the territory, and – most significantly of all – offering for the first time to a general British readership a translation, from the original Arabic, of the McMahon undertakings. As Grey remarked in the House of Lords, the facts of the correspondence had “become public through other sources”; or, as Jeffries himself later recorded, “there was no Question till we had made one”.

Jeffries` commentary opens tersely, going straight to fundamentals:

“Palestine to-day presents perhaps one of the finest opportunities which have ever been given to a British Government for repentance, even if that repentance be only for the deeds of its immediate predecessors in office [the Lloyd George Coalition, 1916-22], who erred greatly. When , in the course of the war, our late Cabinet had to decide what should be the fate of the Holy Land, and especially what part Great Britain was to play in there, surely only one course was open to them. That was to be just and straightforward; to determine that at least on that sacred soil each word they uttered bear nothing but its plain meaning, and each act be done for no other reason than the reason they openly gave. What they did was the exact opposite”.

It was demonstrably a fact, he wrote, that the only territorial exclusions McMahon outlined in his proposals to Hussein were the lands to the west of a Syrian line joining Aleppo in the north through Homs and Hama to Damascus in the south (roughly coterminous with present-day Lebanon, and north-west Syria), where there were large Christian and Druze communities as well as developing French imperial concerns. It was Britain`s particular wish, McMahon wrote, “to act without detriment to the interests of her Ally, France”. Hussein disliked these exceptions, pointing out that the people in question were Arab for the most part, but in the end agreed that this north-western corner of the Levant could form no part of the independent polity.

What particularly scandalised Jeffries was that the British colonial secretary, Winston Churchill, in his White Paper of June 1922, had casually asserted that Palestine also lay to the west of the Aleppo-Damascus line, on the specious grounds that a so-called vilayet of Ottoman Damascus had run all the way down to the Red Sea. In short, virtually the entire Mediterranean coast seemed now to be excluded. “Get an atlas of your own out”, Jeffries instructed. “There is no vilayet of Damascus; it does not exist! Naturally, it is not to be found in the McMahon text; if you read you will see the word used is `district` (moukataa in the Arabic). As in English, it is a word of loose general meaning, with the sense of the immediate surroundings of a city….A pretty position for a British Minister. He had invented a province and invented a territory….And the word of England?…In the waste-paper basket…”.

Jeffries contentions were effectively confirmed by the government in its refusal, despite much parliamentary pressure, to make public any part of the McMahon correspondence. The senior civil servant at the Colonial Office, Sir John Shuckburgh, had indeed been making strenuous efforts behind the scenes, with the previous as well as the present government, to sit tight on the documents. He offered his own circumlocutive confessions, minuting in January 1922 that “there is sufficient doubt in the matter to make it desirable not to drag the controversy out into the daylight”, advising some months later “that our best policy is to let sleeping dogs lie as much as possible”. And in a letter of November 1922 to the British high commissioner in Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, he commented that the question remained “troublesome” and that the official version of McMahon, as paraphrased to the outside world, was “one of the weakest points in our armour”.

Back in 1918, it was the view of Arnold Toynbee, then at the Foreign Office Intelligence Bureau, that, regarding Palestine and the promised Arab polity: “His Majesty`s Government are committed by Sir Henry McMahon`s letter to the Sherif on the 24th October, 1915, to its inclusion in the boundaries of that independence”. This statement formed part of a memorandum sent to the British delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference.   Lord Curzon (later to succeed Arthur Balfour as foreign secretary) expressed himself persuaded that same year that in the October letter to Hussein, “we gave him the assurance that Palestine… should be Arab and independent”. Subsequent historians have made some play with the fact that McMahon did not specify Palestine by name, but as Scott Anderson has succinctly suggested in his recent book, Lawrence in Arabia, such scholars “seem determined to avoid the most obvious explanation: since Palestine fell outside of the exclusion zone McMahon had described…there was simply nothing to discuss”.

The sense, declared David Lloyd George in 1920 (as war-time prime minister, the ultimate author of the Balfour Declaration) that “somebody has broken faith with them” was “disturbing the Arabs throughout the whole of this great area….The Arab race, its pride, its sense of justice and fair play, has been outraged by the feeling that somehow or other things have not quite been done in the way they had expected”. The outrage, variously expressed, has lasted close on a century.   At the end of his commentary, Jeffries presented his own brief summary of events: “The Balfour Declaration and the [Churchill] White Paper are both – I speak the truth – dishonest and fraudulent. We pledged ourselves through Sir Henry McMahon to an independent Arab kingdom, with boundaries including Palestine. No later promises in contradiction to that are of any value whatever; they are the second vows of bigamists. People who keep such vows have been dealt with by Tennyson [The Holy Grail]:

“`His honour rooted in dishonour stood,
And faith unfaithful made them falsely true`”.

It was this charge against the men in London, designated “all the Balfours”, that resonated most powerfully in British political circles in 1923 – but beyond that particular polemic Jeffries had much to say about Palestine itself and the Zionist settlement that was taking place. He was no sort of anti-Semite, writing eloquently in other publications about Jewish sufferings – a people “oppressed” in Eastern Europe, and “tolerated at best” in Western Europe”.   On Zionism, he pronounced himself sympathetic to the movement in its cultural and spiritual – but not political – aspects, praising the sacrifice and “great bravery” of the early Zionist activist Joseph Trumpeldor, the “sense of duty” of the British high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, and the remarkable beauty of the new Jewish settlements – “white, pink-roofed, garden-girdled, infinitely delectable in the wilderness”; and declaring: “If I were a Jew, I believe I should imagine I had rights in Palestine, and be a Zionist” The “guilty parties” were not the Jews, “but our politicians who know the Jews have no such rights but for their own purpose encourage them to think they have”.

Arguments concerning the likely benefits to the British empire of establishing a community of grateful Jews – “a little Jewish Ulster amid the enveloping hosts of Arabs” – who would protect imperial interests close by the strategic waterway of Suez were, he considered, “preposterous nonsense”. The new immigrants were not remotely sensitive to British strategic preoccupations, being largely “Judaeo-Slav” (and to a degree communistic) in complexion. And while their leader, Chaim Weizmann, seemed to be “a moderate man”, others in Palestine, most notably his successor as head of the Zionist Commission, Menachem Ussishkin, were clearly aspiring to an exclusivist political Zionism, consistently subverting the writ of the British military and civilian authorities, and aggravating tensions with the pre-existing “devout, and eminently respectable” Jewish communities in Palestine. They were, moreover, encouraging a scale of immigration – much of it uncontrolled – that the weak, post-war Palestine economy was unable to support, and which could cause only grief to the unsuspecting young idealists, “in their fresh stalwartness” who were arriving from Eastern Europe, pawns in a ruthless British and Zionist game of “Insincerity and Illusion”.

The principal pain, however, lay with the resident Arab population – unwitting, unprepared, and unprotected; and named in the Declaration as the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, giving the impression, Jeffries observed, that they – 670,000, against 80,000 Jews – “were some specialised sort of bodies and not the mass of the population….Does Lord Balfour call the British people the `non-foreign community in England?`” And such tendentious phraseology had been compounded by guarantees of only “civil and religious” rights to these non-Jews. There was “no mention in the Balfour Declaration of `political rights` for the preponderating majority” The purpose was clear: “There is no intention of guaranteeing political rights ending in a National Government” of “Moslems, Christians, and Jews”. But to convey “the air of doing so, the vague expression `civil rights` is inserted”. Examine the language, Jeffries suggested, “as people in Palestine have examined it, and are examining it to-day, and you will open your eyes”. Civil and religious rights only, then, for the resident non-Jewish majority, inhabiting a Palestine that, by Winston Churchill`s cartography, lay in a political exclusion zone to the west of Damascus.

Such was “The Palestine Deception”, its consequences enduring to this day.

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