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When Britain Promised the Promised Land

When Britain Promised the Promised Land

By Adam Ramsey


Because they will say all is fair in love and war.

By Adam Ramsey

A nervous 43-year-old chemist waited deep within the maze of hallways in London’s Westminster Palace. It was early afternoon, Oct. 31, 1917, and in one of the smoke-filled rooms, the most powerful men of Great Britain scanned a 67-word document, checking every word — this was the fifth iteration — before mustachioed Prime Minister David Lloyd George finally nodded. Arthur Balfour, his foreign secretary, signaled the news to his Middle East adviser. 

Sir Mark Sykes opened the door to the hallway and, with a smile, shouted to the chemist, “Dr. Weizmann, it’s a boy!”

Sir Mark Sykes

Sir Mark Sykes, 1918

Source Public Domain / Wikipedia

It seemed a flippant joke, but the terse declaration, officially sent out two days later, indeed led to the birth of a nation: Israel. For Zionists like Chaim Weizmann, it was the triumphant culmination of years of lobbying and diplomacy started by his mentor, Theodor Herzl. For the British government, it seemed a guarantee of territorial suzerainty (and a way to keep the French at arm’s length from the lucrative Suez Canal).

But for the 600,000 Arabs in Palestine who made up over 90 percent of the population, it was the ultimate betrayal, one that intellectual Edward Said would later label an example of “the moral epistemology of imperialism.”

It certainly brought new meaning to a “promised land.…”

The now-infamous Balfour Declaration reads: 

“His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration, published on Nov. 9, 1917.

Source Universal History Archive / Getty

Unsurprisingly, how they got to those 67 words has been a recurring point of contention over the past 100 years, since it was first published in the London papers. Contrasting narratives have emerged about whether it was owed to the skilled diplomacy of folks like Weizmann, or the romanticist support of colonial gentiles like Balfour.

For Israeli historian Tom Segev, the Balfour Declaration is actually anti-Semitic. He writes in One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate that the motive for the declaration “was the product of neither military nor diplomatic interests, but of prejudice, faith and sleight of hand… [The British government] believed the Jews controlled the world.”


Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl formed the World Zionist Organization in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897.

Source Public Domain / Wikipedia

More than 30 years before Balfour signed his name to the 1917 declaration, Herzl, a Hungarian-born Jew who lived in Austria, published a book titled The Jewish State, which brought about political Zionism. A year later, in Basel, Switzerland, he convened the First Zionist Congress, whose discussions about the Holy Land prompted the rabbis of Vienna to send two men to Palestine on a fact-finding mission. Their telegrammed report famously concluded: “The bride is beautiful, but she is married to another man.”

Unperturbed, Herzl marched on in the years that followed with “his preference for playing the game of high politics,” says historian Avi Shlaim. The Zionist leader considered Cyprus and the Sinai as potential homes, both of which were rejected by the British, who counteroffered a plot of land in Uganda, itself rejected by the sixth Zionist Congress shortly before Herzl’s death, in 1904. Any attempts to talk with the Ottoman Empire about Zionist ambitions in Palestine were unsurprisingly laughed away by the Sublime Porte (the government of the Ottoman Empire).

But that all changed when the world went to war in 1914. With the Ottomans backing the German Empire, the British and French knew they needed a distraction from the south. In 1915, the British high commissioner in Egypt told Hussein bin Ali, the sharif of Mecca and guardian of Islam’s two holiest cities, that Britain would back him to lead an Arab kingdom if only he would help lead an Arab uprising against the Turks. For Sharif Hussein, that Arab kingdom included Palestine together with the third holiest city in Islam: Jerusalem.

Sykes picot

Zones of French (blue), British (red) and Russian (green) influence and control as established by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Source Rafy / Wikipedia

Unfortunately for Sharif Hussein, a year later, a different kind of promise was being made for the future of the region: an imperial promise, no less. French diplomat François Georges-Picot met with Sir Mark Sykes to discuss carving up the region into preferred spheres of influence. A year after they concluded what would be known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Sykes would poke his head out the door of a Westminster meeting room to promise Palestine to Weizmann.

With all three agreements taken into account, it certainly brought new meaning to the idea of a “promised land,” although in the end it was only Sharif Hussein who lost: The Palestinian mandate fell to the British postwar, thanks to further Zionist lobbying. But according to Shlaim, it was all shady dealings. “Even by the standards of Perfidious Albion,” he says, “this was an extraordinary tale of double-dealing and betrayal.”

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