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Posts Tagged ‘Arab Nationalism

Palestine 3 – the early 20th century, Zionism, the Balfour Declaration and the beginnings of Arab nationalism

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the very brief ‘Balfour Declaration’, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild – note the reference to the rights of existing non-Jewish communities

Canto: Before we go on, I should point out that we’re using the term “Palestine” fairly loosely, much as we might use the term Canaan of old. The misadventures we’re talking about have taken place not just in the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but in the whole of what is now Israel, and surrounding regions covered nowadays by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. 

Jacinta: So now we’re going to jump from the diaspora under the Romans, and the wandering, persecuted Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages, to the late 19th century and the rise of the Zionist movement. Modern Zionism is most commonly associated with the writings of Theodor Herzl, particularly his 1896 pamphlet The Jewish State, though the term ‘zionism’ was first coined by Nathan Birnbaum a few years earlier. Birnbaum was prominent in the first Zionist Congress of 1897, but became an anti-zionist activist in later life. 

Canto: Just an indication that there were, and are, plenty of Jews who had no interest in the movement, and some who actively opposed it.

Jacinta: Of course Jews are a heterogenous group, and we should at least differentiate between secular and religious Jews, who would have had different reasons for supporting or opposing Zionism. But the events of the Second World War clearly boosted the Zionist cause. 

Canto: The Palestinian region was under the faltering control of the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, when Herzl’s political version of Zionism was becoming popular (Herzl’s preference for Argentina over Palestine for the new Jewish state is indicative of his lack of religion). The Jews of Europe at this time were no doubt seeking a permanent solution to the latest anti-semitic flare-ups, such as the Dreyfuss affair in France and the Russian Pale of Settlement and the pogroms there in the 1880s. 

Jacinta: And notwithstanding Herzl’s preference for Argentina, he recognised that Palestine was the favoured option of most Zionists, and came to favour it himself before he died. And his diary writings reveal – what is clearly the fatal flaw of the whole Zionist Palestinian project – that, to quote Paul Heywood-Smith, ‘it was to be at the expense of the whole native population who were to be spirited out of the country and their land expropriated’.

Canto: Yes, and Herzl died in 1904, so it’s clear that this ethnic cleansing idea – which surely wasn’t confined to the thinking of Herzl – was a feature of Zionism from early on.

Jacinta: Though surely there was some opposition to this? I mean among the Zionists themselves – what were they thinking?

Canto: Well, we’ll get to that, but interestingly, the modern Israeli historian Benny Morris, a Zionist, supports the expelling of some 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their homeland in 1948, the beginning of an act of ethnic cleansing that is yet unfinished. We’ll come to all that later. Morris’ only complaint is that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s ‘founding father’, failed to finish the job, because, according to Morris the stark choice was between ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian Arabs and the genocide of the Jewish population. But that modern view, I suspect, is due to the many decades of animosity created between the two sides before and after 1948. But let’s go back to the turn of the century.

Jacinta: Yes let’s, because Simon Montefiore in his book Jerusalem paints a picture of that city in the late nineteenth century which contrasts sharply with the Zionist monocultural dream:

During the Jewish festival of Purim, Muslim and Christian Arabs dressed up in the traditional Jewish costumes, and all three religions attended the Jewish Picnic held at the tomb of Simon the Just north of the Damascus Gate. Jews presented their Arab neighbours with matzah and invited them to the Passover Seder dinner, while the Arabs returned the favour by giving the Jews newly baked bread when the festival ended. Jewish mohels often circumcised Muslim children. Jews held parties to welcome their Muslim neighbours back from the haj. The closest relations were between Arabs and Sephardic Jews … Ironically the Arab Orthodox Christians were the most hostile to Jews, whom they insulted in traditional Easter songs and lynched as they approached the Church.

Quoted in The Case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith.

Canto: Yes, I don’t know if that paints too rosy a picture of Arab-Jewish relations at that time, but subsequent events in the early twentieth century hardly helped to strengthen those relations.

Jacinta: Yes, and we should note that not all Jews who moved into the region in the early twentieth century were Zionist monoculturalists. However…

Theodor Herzl, Zionism’s most influential early promoter

Canto: The Zionist movement began to buy up land in Palestine. Herzl visited Jerusalem for the first time in 1898 and in 1903 sought the support of Pope Pius X for their Jewish homeland, but this was rejected as the Jews denied the divinity of Christ (the acceptance of which would’ve turned them all into Christians presumably). Tsarist persecution brought a wave of Russian Jews into Palestine in the early 1900s. And more land was claimed. An organisation called the National Jewish Fund was established in 1901, and it claimed, presumably without any legal authority at the time, that all acquired land would thenceforth, in perpetuity, be inalienable Jewish property – and if farmland, worked only by Jews as well. This land claim has been treated as law ever since.

Jacinta: And meanwhile, Britain was becoming another place of refuge for persecuted Jews, which led, in turn, to them being persecuted in that country, with riots and abuse and the like. The country’s leaders, seeking a solution, were naturally inclined to listen to Zionist overtures. Chaim Weizmann, a brilliant biochemist and later to become the president of the World Zionist Organisation, and later still Israel’s first president, is credited with persuading the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour to lend support in an official capacity to the recognition of Palestine as the homeland of a future Jewish nation.

Canto: So the Balfour Declaration of 1917 needs to be understood in terms of the complex Euro politics of the time. Not only was there a humanistic desire to find a solution for a persecuted people, but there were also the sorts of colonialist ambitions and jockeying that caused the Great Stupid War of 14-18 in the first place. The Palestine region was under the putative control of the fading Ottoman Empire, which was unlikely to survive the war, and the region was of strategic interest to Britain, particularly as a staging post to its prize possessions of India-Pakistan, but for many other reasons.

Jacinta: Yes, and Britain was also double dealing, because it had occupied Egypt from the beginning of the war in 1914 and had sought Arab support against the Ottoman Turks by signing the McMahon Agreement in November 1915, which guaranteed or at least supported Arab independence in the Arabian Peninsula, including Palestine.

Canto: Well this is controversial. Henry McMahon was the British High Commissioner in Egypt. His agreement was with Sharif Hussein of Arabia, and because it contradicted the later Balfour Declaration, there have been attempts to argue that it didn’t include Palestine, based on different translations. However, it’s generally agreed that these arguments are very strained. And these contradictory agreements with the Arabs and then the Jews weren’t the only headaches for the Brits. In between the McMahon Agreement with the Arabs in late 1915 and the Balfour Declaration for the Jews in 1917 was the notorious secret Sykes-Picot agreement involving Britain, France and, to a lesser degree, Russia. It was made public by the Russians after their October Revolution of 1917, much to Britain’s embarrassment. Basically this was an agreement to carve up the Levant region, southern Turkey and Mesopotamia between Britain and France – as protectorates, of course.

Jacinta: Yes it all sounds very high-handed, but to be fair, many of these negotiations, which went back to near the beginning of the war, did involve examining the situation on the ground, and the local sensitivities there. And there may have been a more or less benign paternalism at play – ‘we’ll take responsibility for this region until the locals grow up and become civilised like us’. Though it’s notable that all the squabbles were over the most productive and strategic regions. Most of the Arabian Peninsula was of no interest whatever to western powers before the discovery of oil there.

these Arabs are revolting (against the Ottoman Turks in 1916-18) in the Hejaz of western Arabia

Canto: So while the western powers were negotiating and wrangling over the projected spoils after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks, the Arab Revolt of 1916 broke out, initiated by Sharif Hussein and his sons. Its aim was to overthrow the Ottomans and to create a pan-Arabic state, and it represented and furthered a rise of Arab nationalism which had barely existed before. It was only partially successful, but in contributing to Arab identity it helped to provide a lens through which they would observe western interventions in what they considered to be Arab lands.

Jacinta: Yes, notably the Arabs refused to allow the Europeans to assist them in their revolt beyond material and logistic support – they rightly feared a European takeover. And Palestine certainly was a focus of global affairs, with zionists in the USA pushing for intervention in the war in exchange for backing the Brits in their promise for a Jewish settlement there.

Written by stewart henderson

January 28, 2019 at 1:24 pm