The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

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9780385662598: The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Winner of the National Jewish Book Award

Issued in London in 1917, the Balfour Declaration was one of the key documents of the twentieth century. It committed Britain to supporting the establishment in Palestine of “a National Home for the Jewish people,” and its reverberations continue to be felt to this day. Now the entire fascinating story of the document is revealed in this impressive work of modern history.

With new material retrieved from historical archives, Jonathan Schneer recounts in dramatic detail the public and private fight for a small strip of land in the Middle East, a battle that started when the Ottoman Empire took Germany’s side in World War I. The key players in this conflict are rendered in nuanced and detailed relief: Sharif Hussein, the Arab leader who secretly sought British support; Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist folks-mensch who charmed British high society; T. E. Lawrence, the legendary British officer who “set the desert on fire” for the Arabs; and the other generals and prime ministers, soldiers and negotiators, who shed blood and cut deals to grab or give away the precious land.

A book crucial to understanding the Middle East as it is today, The Balfour Declaration is a riveting volume about the ancient faiths and timeless treacheries that continue to drive global events.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Schneer, a specialist in modern British history, is a professor at Georgia Tech's School of History, Technology, and Society. He is the author of five additional books, as well as numerous articles and reviews. A fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1985-86, he has also held research fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK, as well as at the Erich Remarque Center of New York University. He was a founding editor of Radical History Review and is a member of the editorial board of 20th Century British History and the London Journal.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part I, Sirocco

Chapter One


Palestine Before World War I

the land called palestine gave no indication, early in the twentieth century, that it would become the world’s cockpit. Rather, if anything, the reverse. A century ago it was merely a strip of territory running along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The remote, sleepy, backward, sparsely populated southwestern bit of Syria was still home to foxes, jackals, hyenas, wildcats, wolves, even cheetahs and leopards in its most unsettled parts. Loosely governed from Jerusalem in the south and from Beirut in the north by agents of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine’s borders were vague. To the east it merged with the Jordanian plateau, to the south with the Arabian deserts, and to the north with the gray mountain masses of Lebanon. And it was small: Fewer than two hundred miles long and fifty miles wide, it was not much bigger than present-day Massachusetts (to put it in an American context) and about the size of Wales (to put it in the British).

The strip of land, resting mainly upon limestone, was devoid of coal, iron, copper, silver, or gold deposits and lacked oil, but it was happily porous (“calcareous,” the geologists said), meaning that it was capable of absorbing moisture whenever the heavens should open, which they might do, especially when the wind came from the north. When it came from the east, however, as it frequently did in May and October, the wind was a malign enervating force. It was a furnace-blast sirocco in hot weather and a numbing chill in cold. The two mountain ranges that ran in rough parallel the length of the country from north to south could not block it. The western range, which includes “the Mount of the Amorites” of the Book of Deuteronomy, runs between the Jordan Valley (to its east) and the maritime plain (to its west). The eastern edge of this range is an escarpment that drops (precipitously in places) to the fabled Jordan River below. The second or eastern range of hills, which include the mountains of Moab, Judea, and Galilee, is a continuation of a chain that begins in Lebanon and reaches southward into Jordan. To its west lies the river valley; to its east is a desert plateau. In the north of the country the mountains are quite tall: Mount Hermon rises more than 9,200 feet above sea level. (People ski there in winter now.) To the south the mountains are typically half as high, and the surrounding landscape is bleak, empty, and inhospitable.

For such a tiny land, Palestine contains extraordinary topographical contrasts. The Jordan River runs southward along a descending valley floor, passing some seventy miles from the clear waters of the Sea of Galilee, where the surrounding hills and fields are relatively green, welcoming, and fruitful. It empties into the brackish bitter Dead Sea, thirteen hundred feet below sea level, where the landscape is barren, freezing during winter, broiling in summer. In the Dead Sea area the Jordan Valley has never been cultivated, although at the turn of the twentieth century the wandering Bedouins might camp there. Even they, however, would move on during the hottest months, when temperatures scale 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and the land opens in cracks and fissures.

Elsewhere in Palestine, however, life flourished. “It drinketh of the rain of heaven,” Moses is supposed to have said of his “Promised Land,” and although it did not drink deep (rainfall averaged 28 to 32 inches annually, except in the south, where 6 inches marked a good year), and it rarely drank at all from March until November, nevertheless it drank sufficiently. Parts of the country were nearly luxuriant. In 1869 even that American innocent abroad, Samuel Clemens, whose wonderfully dyspeptic view of Palestine is legendary, could refer without irony to groves of lemon trees, “cool, shady, hung with fruit,” by the village of Shunem near “Little Hermon,” and to “breezy glades of thorn and oak,” south of the Sea of Galilee near Mount Tabor. A horseman riding the Hauran plateau, east of the eastern mountain range, could view unbroken wheat fields extending to the horizon on every side. A British visitor to the Circassian village of Gerasa was reminded “of a Scotch glen, though the hills are not so high nor the land so barren.” Local markets sold a diverse range of fruits and vegetables, some of remarkable size. “We have cauliflowers that measure at least a foot across, and water-melons hardly to be spanned by a grown person’s arms . . . grapes in clusters from three to four feet in length . . . We have in their season [also] . . . apricots, nectarines, plums, damsons, quince, mulberries, figs, lemons, oranges, prickly pear, pomegranates and many kinds of nuts.” In spring the countryside (some of it) ran riot with wildflowers: “anemones . . . hyacinths, ranunculus, narcissus, honeysuckle, daisies, buttercups, cistus.” The writer lists a dozen additional varieties and claims to have seen “many more whose names elude me now.” Such reports may have been exaggerated—other European visitors insisted the land was no cornucopia. But one hundred years ago the countryside was far from being wasteland.

As many as 700,000 people lived there then, although figures vary and are imprecise. Many were descended from the Canaanites or Philistines (who gave the land its name) or from the Arabs, even from the ancient Hebrews. They spoke Arabic, and most of them may be termed Arabs, although commonly only nomadic Bedouins were referred to as “pure” Arabs. The majority were Sunni Muslims, who accepted the caliphs as Muhammad’s legitimate successors, but some were Shiite Muslims, who believed that Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad, originated the true line of succession. There were as well Druze and other Christians, some of them European or of European descent, and Jews, some of whom were also European transplants or of European origin. Flocks of Christian tourists, thousands every year, came to visit the holy land, and even greater numbers of Muslim pilgrims passed through on their annual trek to Mecca.

Of the total permanent population, only a tiny fraction were rich. This fortunate minority derived their wealth in one way or another from ownership of land, but they resided in the largest towns; their well-appointed large brick houses were whitewashed with lime and built around courtyards. The middle class, composed of well-to-do bankers, merchants, and clerics, as well as a handful of professionals and local traders, lived more modestly in the towns and villages, in stone houses well adapted for keeping out the heat of the sun. The vast majority of the inhabitants, however, were poor. Many lived in tiny isolated villages, set on hilltops within high walls, a reminder of the times, not long past, when safety demanded such protection from Bedouin marauders. In northern and central Palestine the typical village home was a square mud-plastered, whitewashed hut one story high with a straw roof. In the south it was a rough straw shelter or, for the semi-nomads based there part of the year, merely a tent. Inside these dwellings one might see only a few mats, baskets, a sheepskin, and some earthenware and wooden vessels.

Most villagers were fellahin, peasants. Within the village walls they sometimes worked in gardens or orchards or vineyards, for themselves or for their more wealthy neighbors; more commonly, they worked in the surrounding fields and pastures as sharecroppers for one of the great landowning families; or for the imperial Turkish state, which owned or controlled much Palestinian land; or for the villages themselves, since some villages owned land and periodically allocated it to residents for cultivation under a system called musha. Outsiders were impressed by the fellah’s industry. “He abominates absence from his fields,” observed one. And the fellah had a reputation for generosity, “such as his poverty allows.”

Outside the towns and villages Bedouin nomads roamed ceaselessly, oblivious to boundaries and borders that, anyway, were vague to all. These “dwellers in the open land,” or “people of the tent” as they called themselves, were the “pure Arabs” romanticized by certain Europeans for their swashbuckling behavior, independence, and egalitarianism. Divided among clans and tribes who occasionally made ritualistic and not very bloody war upon one another, the Bedouins might prey upon caravans and travelers, whom they viewed as fair game unless protected by previous agreement with a local sheikh, in which case the traveler’s safety was inviolate. But robbery was only an interlude; mainly the Bedouin tribes wandered the countryside with their camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys in more or less regular patterns and rhythms according to the weather and needs of their livestock. Their material possessions were few. Their tents were little more than a few coverings of coarse goat or camel hair dyed black and spread over two or more small poles; on striking camp, they could quickly load their few possessions onto their beasts. When on the move, Bedouin tribes tended to skirt villages and to give towns an even wider berth. But this was a recent development: Within living memory Bedouins had raided them periodically.

Among the large towns of Palestine, Jerusalem was biggest and most important, containing sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. In 1911 its 60,000 inhabitants included 7,000 Muslims, 9,000 Christians, and 40,000 Jews. The city stood on a rocky plateau, 2,500 feet above sea level, overlooking hills and valleys except to the east, where the Mount of Olives looms 200 feet higher still. Peering down from that perch to the city below, one would have seen timber and red tiles among the vaulted white stone roofs of the more ancient structures: These hotels, hospices, hospitals, and schools were mainly the work of Christian missions embarked upon building programs. A pharmacy and a café opened at the Jaffa Gate, and in 1901 a clock tower and fountain were added. According to one visitor, the new structures displayed a “striking want of beauty, grandeur and harmony with their environment.” Meanwhile Jerusalem had begun to overspill its ancient and massive walls. Now perhaps half the total population lived outside, in suburbs, of which Karl Baedeker, author of the famous guidebooks, deemed the Jaffa quarter most salubrious.

Overall, however, it was “a dirty town,” as T. E. Lawrence observed. “The streets are ill-paved and crooked, many of them being blind alleys, and are excessively dirty after rain,” sniffed Baedeker. Just before World War I the regime in Constantinople began to make improvements, but rubbish heaps continued to choke the alleyways, many cisterns were polluted, and dust thickened the air. As a result, typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria, and other epidemics remained common. But at least Jerusalem’s provincialism was diminishing: After 1892 it connected with its port, Jaffa, by a paved road and a French-worked railway. Carriage roads extended to Bethlehem, Hebron, and Jericho. Christian tourists and, in season, as many as fifteen thousand Mecca-bound Muslim pilgrims clogged its streets. Residents did brisk business selling supplies, services, and trinkets typically of olive wood and mother-of-pearl. Local artisans were known for their work in tin and copper; skilled stonemasons were essential to the burgeoning building trade.

To the south of Jerusalem, the most significant towns were Gaza and Hebron; Beersheba, with only about eight hundred residents, was practically deserted by 1914. To the north and west, Nablus was a significant trading center: The fastidious Baedeker deemed its inhabitants “fanatical and quarrelsome.” To the north and east stood Jericho, of whose residents Baedeker wrote, “They usually crowd round travelers with offers to execute a ‘Fantasia,’ or dance, accompanied by singing, both of which are tiresome. The performers clap their own or each other’s hands, and improvise verses in a monotonous tone.” Farther up the coast lay Haifa, at the foot of Mount Carmel, at the southern end of the Bay of Acre. The best natural harbor on the Palestine coast, it increasingly overshadowed the older port, Acre, located at the northern end of the bay. A commercial hub, it connected by rail to Damascus.

Since 1517 Palestine had been governed more or less despotically by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, which had been named for a Turkish Muslim warrior, Osman, whose followers were known as Osmanliler or Ottomans; the sultans made Constantinople their capital. When they conquered Arabia, they wrested the caliphate from the last survivor of the Abbasid line and made Constantinople its seat too. The two positions merged, and the sway of the caliph (or Prince of the Faithful) extended ostensibly to wherever Sunni Muslims might live, while the sway of the sultan extended, at its height, west and north through the Balkans all the way to Hungary; east into southern Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia; south along the eastern and southern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Algeria; and southeast all the way to Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Then the empire began to contract: The tsars of Russia nibbled from one direction, the Habsburgs of Austria from another. During the nineteenth century more or less successful independence movements developed in the Balkans.

For centuries the sultans paid little attention to Palestine, but during the nineteenth century conditions there slowly improved. Ottoman leaders realized they must modernize or perish at the hands of Russia or one of the great European powers. They instituted a program called Tanzimat (literally “reorganization”), which meant modernization in administration and in land tenure, among other things. The classic period of Tanzimat was 1839–76, but the last sultan of the nineteenth century, Abdul Hamid II (reigned 1876–1909), continued parts of it for longer. Abdul Hamid II was infamous for autocracy and brutality, employing many thousands of agents to spy upon his subjects; nevertheless, he favored the construction of roads, railways, schools, and hospitals throughout his dominions, and in Palestine, they led to increased domestic and external trade and to rising living standards for a fortunate few. The so-called Young Turks of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) who brought his reign to a generally unlamented end during 1908–09, continued the modernizing policies.

Wealthy and middle-class Palestinians benefited most from these improvements. Increasingly cosmopolitan, they commonly adopted European dress and were more aware of general European developments and European thinking than their parents and grandparents had been. They maintained closer contact with their Arab cousins than had previous generations, linked as they were by rail and telegraph lines and by journals of opinion and newspapers, seven of which were circulating in Jerusalem alone in 1914. These fortunate Palestinians knew not only their country’s main towns but the greatest cities of the empire as well: They traveled regularly to Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Constantinople, and to other Middle Eastern and North African cities, such as Cairo and Khartoum. For all that their land was backward by European standards, a new world was opening to them.

It was not opening yet to the Bedouins, who lived much as they always had. As for the fellahin, the backbone of the country, some left the land for the towns, where few prospered, but the vast majority remained where they had always been, to wrest such living as they could from the soil. For them, the forty years before 1914 were not so good. Land ownership was increasingly c...

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Published by Anchor Canada (2012)
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