Palestine, Britain and the Balfour Declaration: Dr Peter Shambrook

Lecture given at the Middle East Monitor conference Palestine Britain and the Balfour Declaration, London Oct 7th 2017

Balfour researcher, Dr Peter Shambrook assessed the reasons why the Balfour Declaration was created, ranging from wartime objectives, anti-Semitism and even the influence of key Zionist advocates. He emphasised that the British policy of “double speak” had led to the deliberate withholding of democracy from Palestine as long as there was an Arab majority.

1 TITLE SLIDE:  Reflections on the “Balfour” letter and its consequences

2 SLIDE: Standard Empire Policy:  adaptable promises

In 1914, Great Britain was still – just – the world’s most powerful empire.  Over a period of 500 years or so, through exploration, trade and settlement, treaties and the sword, missionaries, slavery, massacres and ethnic cleansing, Britain colonised Ireland, part of the Americas, parts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and much more.  During the 18th and 19th century, negotiating with allies concerning the control of and division of unexplored territories, or the provinces of potential enemies was standard empire policy.

Empires plan, conquer, impose and dispose, according to their interests. In August 1914, the British government was neither pro-Arab, nor pro-Zionist; it was pro-British Empire and its only objective in 1914 was to win the war.  In the Spring of 1915, the Allied plan to take Istanbul

3 SLIDE:           Ottoman Empire map

and knock Turkey out of the war precipitated the first detailed wartime negotiations between them for the partition of the Ottoman Empire.

4  SLIDE: Constantinople Agreement

The Russians said ‘We want Istanbul and the straits’. The French said ‘OK, but in return we want Syria, Alexandretta and Cilicia’; the British said, ‘OK, but we reserve the right to stake our claims to Ottoman territories in due course’”…keeping all options open. This agreement – a series of letters, March/April 1915, is known as the Constantinople Agreement.

Then we come to 

5  SLIDE: McMahon-Hussein Correspondence

In June 1916, on the strength of this promise, the Sherif and his men duly started to attack Ottoman forces. The archives make it perfectly clear that the British regarded the letters between the two men – there were nine in all, between July 1915 and March 1916 – as if written on a sheet of water.

During the same period, in November 1915, George Picot arrived from Paris, and eventually ended up negotiating, one to one, with Sir Mark Sykes – which led to this:

6  SLIDE: Sykes-Picot Agreement

The first contacts between the Zionist Organisation and the British government were unofficial and indirect, around April 1916. By February 1917, Weizmann was endeavouring to persuade Sykes that Britain alone, and not an Anglo-French condominium, should determine the future of Palestine.

7  SLIDE: Balfour portrait;  Declaration text 

Never had a single-sentence declaration been longer prepared, every word the subject of negotiation – 18 months of drafting and re-drafting.  Its chief characteristic: deliberate ambiguity – the deliberate possibility of endless interpretations. For seventeen months, the second and third phrases of the Declaration did not exist.  However, in October 1917, in order to neutralise Curzon and Montagu’s opposition to the Declaration, Lord Milner instructed Leo Amery, one of the War Cabinet’s secretariat, both of them pro-the Zionist project, to draft, and add on, two additional phrases. Moreover, Balfour deliberately withheld the word ‘political’ from the second phrase of the draft, so that only ‘civil and religious’ rights were mentioned.

The Declaration was not simply a statement of intent. It reflected a determination on the part of the British government of the time, and of the Zionist organisation, to set up, post-war, an exclusive, pro-Zionist administration that would transform Palestine, through Jewish immigration/colonisation, into a Jewish state. 

As Walid Khalidi succinctly remarked, the Declaration changed Zionism overnight from a fantasy to a possibility. 

So, to summarise, very briefly, the five factors which led to the Declaration:

8  SLIDE: War-time Propaganda

In 1917, the war was in the balance; the British government was desperate for allies.  It wanted to keep Russia in the war. Lloyd George’s government hoped that Russian Jews and the Jews of the USA would become the agents of pro-British propaganda, to aid the war effort.

9  SLIDE: Secondly, anti-French sentiment

By 1917 Lloyd George wanted to keep France out of Palestine; to acquire Palestine for Britain.  One way of doing this was to make an alliance with the Zionists.  A successful Zionist claim would also provide an entrée/half a fig-leaf, to ward off post-war accusations of British imperial land-grabbing.

10 SLIDE: Anti-Semitism / Colonial Mind Sets

Combine this with Lloyd George’s and others, anti-Semitic misconceptions:  that some Jews held – on a global level – inordinate financial and political power; Jews made the wheels of history turn.  The British Cabinet, in fact, held exaggerated beliefs in the influence of Jews both in Russia and America. Moreover, the colonial mentality of these decision-makers dismissed as of no significance the Arab majority in the region.  

11 SLIDE: Fourthly: Chaim Weizmann – Visionary Lobbyist

12 SLIDE: Weizmann portrait

Weizmann is indeed, a key figure, key lobbyist in this drama. He grew up under the Tsar’s oppressive regime, arrived in Britain in 1904, met Churchill first in 1905, Balfour in 1906, and Lloyd George in 1914. In fact, he met with Prime Minister Lloyd George seven times during the war, and by his own account, had 2,000 meetings with British officials at the highest level, during this decisive period. A persuader extraordinaire – There was no Palestinian equivalent of Weizmann: The Palestinian Arabs had no such entrée or influence – none whatsoever, in the corridors of power of London, Washington or Paris.

13 SLIDE: Fifthly, Christian Zionism (minor factor then, more significant today)

In Britain, during much of the nineteenth century, some evangelical movements espoused the conversion of the Jews and their restoration to Palestine. Foremost among them was Lord Shaftsbury (1801-85),

14  SLIDE: Shaftsbury and Palmerston

a leading British politician and reformer, who campaigned actively for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  A strong advocate of Jewish conversion to Christianity, he lobbied Prime Minister Palmerston, to have them returned to Palestine.  However, in 1917, although Lloyd George and his war cabinet certainly saw Palestine as the landscape of the drama of the Bible, none of them were born-again Christians.  They were hard-nosed imperialists.

The other major element in this 19th century mix is Zionism.

In the late 19th Century, Zionism was transformed from an intellectual, cultural exercise into a political project through the drive and vision of Theodor Herzl:

15  SLIDE: Herzl portrait

By the beginning of the 20th century, after centuries of discriminatory legislation, persecutions and massacres/pogroms, increasing number of Jews concluded that there was no future for them where they were. Assimilation had not worked. The new world beckoned – and Palestine.

For some evangelical Christians and for Zionist Jews, therefore, the colonisation of Palestine was seen as an act of return and redemption.  In some respects, Political Zionism initially had a noble aim, as a reaction to centuries of persecution and pogroms. However, the problem for the Zionists, a problem they studiously and consistently ignored, was that Palestine was not empty.

So, from 1920, for twenty years the British supported the establishment in Palestine of Jewish political, economic, social, cultural and educational organisations – the embryo of a Jewish state. During the same period, the British successfully blocked all Palestinian Arab political development.

According to Rashid Khalidi, Palestine was already lost to the Zionists by the late 1930s, before the Second World War, before the Holocaust, and before the events of 1948. 

16  SLIDE:  Double-speak does not work

I would describe British attitudes/policies towards the Jews during the Mandate period as a mixture of sympathy, support and benign distain, all subsumed beneath imperial priorities.  It’s simpler to characterise British policy towards the Arabs of Palestine: indifference, humiliation and duplicity are the words that come to mind. Not surprising. Standard empire behaviour. Two brief examples of British duplicity – still unacknowledged after 100 years:

Firstly: Post-World War One, during the 1920s, government ministers and officials repeatedly and explicitly denied that the Government intended to establish a Jewish state in Palestine – when in fact, that was the deliberate intention, from 1917 onwards

Secondly: and more significantly, the state records reveal that the highest priority British policy, unspoken bedrock of British policy, in Palestine from 1920 to 1938, was (in contrast to Egypt and Iraq) the deliberate withholding of democracy. Balfour was absolutely clear on this.  He wrote that ‘Palestine was an exceptional case’. There would be no self-government in Palestine until the Jews became a majority. Only then would democracy be allowed to develop.  The policy rested on two fundamental issues: immigration and democratic representation.

The British knew that the Palestinian Arab leadership were aware of Zionist intentions. Privately, and correctly, the British assessed that a representative legislative assembly, if established, and however limited its power, would therefore vote to restrict Jewish immigration. So it was blocked. Nevertheless, successive British governments proclaimed to the Palestinians and annually to the League of Nations that Britain was (a) endeavouring to be even handed – holding the ring between two competing communities, and (b) to be preparing Palestine for democratic self-government, as required by the Sacred Trust clause in the League Covenant.  The reality was the opposite. The state records clearly reveal this decades-long British ‘double speak’.

The reality of this undeclared policy was confirmed a few years ago, surprisingly, by the late Sir Martin Gilbert, advisor to four British Prime Ministers on the Middle East, and the most distinguished Zionist historian of his generation.  At a lecture he gave in Israel, he said this:

17  SLIDE: Sir Martin Gilbert text

“The cornerstone of British Mandatory policy was the withholding of representative institutions for as long as there was, in Palestine, an Arab majority”.

This statement is, I would argue, the key to understanding much of what actually happened in Mandate Palestine, namely the growth of Jewish institutions and immigration, the increasing frustration of the politically powerless Palestinians Arab population, and the inevitable outbreak, and suppression, of the Arab revolt between 1936 and 1939.  The implementation of the Declaration from 1920 to 1939 thus led directly to 1948 and to much of what has happened since.  Instead of simply celebrating, Mrs. May and her government should also mark this centenary by publicly grappling in a transparent fashion with the moral and political legacy of Sir Martin’s statement. 

18 SLIDE: Acknowledgement / a sign of civilisation

A nation, including its government, which only has room for celebration, for national pride, and no room for honest reflection about its past has little, if any claim, to describe itself as either moral or civilised.