Israeli History through Palestinian Eyes

Rashid Khalidi (2020) The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine

A Review by Howard Adelman – Part III: The Balfour Declaration

Arab nationalism received a huge burst following the McMahon-Hussein correspondence in 1916 promising an Arab independent state. The Arab revolt against the Ottomans broke out on 16 June 1916 in Mecca. Unequivocally, Arab nationalism was initially fostered by the British Empire in its conflict with the Ottoman Empire, though Khalidi tends to emphasize only Israel as receiving colonialist power support. Though he acknowledged that Zionism was “both a national and a colonial settler movement at one and the same time,” he chose to focus almost exclusively on its colonial ties rather than its nationalist side. Further, with respect to Palestinian nationalism, he argued that all neighbouring territories developed a state nationalism without the instigation of Zionism. Why would Palestine be the exception? Palestinian nationalism emerged independently of Zionism and at about the same time.

As Khalidi tells the story from a Palestinian Arab perspective, large-scale immigration of European Jewish settlers, supported by the British Mandate authorities, set in motion the dismantling of the indigenous Palestinian society. That population had already been decimated by World War I. “Greater Syria, which included Palestine and present day Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, is estimated to have suffered half a million deaths between 1915 and 1918 due to famine alone (which was exacerbated by a plague of locusts).”

“Husayn al-Khalidi, my uncle, who served as a medical officer during the war, recalled similar heartbreaking scenes in Jerusalem where he saw the bodies of dozens of people who had starved to death lying in the streets.” The implication is that the families of those who died for a country should be its heirs. But there could be another implication – indifference to the poor as observed much later by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP). In what other countries did so many die of famine and where else would their bodies be allowed to rot in the streets?

The Ottoman Empire also lost 15% of its population due to the appalling casualties in WWI. Army units from Greater Syria (which included Palestine) were disproportionately present in the most bloody battles “on the Ottoman eastern front against Russia, as well as in Gallipoli, Sinai, Palestine and Iraq.”

Would the fear of Jewish immigration been as strong without these traumas? Would that fear have arisen if Arab Jews were at the frontier of return to Palestine? They could easily have formed a majority. The problem seems to have been that the Zionists were European and that they planned on creating a Jewish state. As Europeans, they carried with them the disease of condescension to the local population.

Between 18880 and 1920, because of the flight of Jews to America, the Jewish population there grew from 250,000 to 4 million, Khalidi pointed out. The implication was simple. If the Jews could escape persecution in Eastern Europe by relocating to the United States, why did even 60,000 have to end up in tiny Palestine? Of course, the argument could be reversed. If the United States could absorb 3,750,000, why could underpopulated Palestine not absorb 60,000, especially since it was a return of Jews to their original home two thousand years ago and since the monies and skills they brought would help Palestine modernize?

Khalidi never examines the possibility that the Jewish state could be created side by side a Palestinian one or that a federal state might emerge. When the English came to settle in British North America after the victory over the French and the loss of the American colonies, that settlement did not arrive to “displace” what would become the Québecois. Out of that settlement emerged two nations living side-by-side in a single federal state. Instead, from the very start in Palestine, this was “a colonial war waged against the indigenous population by a variety of parties to force them to relinquish their homeland to another people against their will.” In Khalidi, there is a total absence of self-critical analysis questioning whether the proposition is correct. Rather, it is the fundamental assumption from which all else follows.

“If before World War I many prescient Palestinians had begun to regard the Zionist movement as a threat, the Balfour Declaration introduced a new and fearsome element. In the soft, deceptive language of diplomacy, with its ambiguous phrase approving ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,’ the declaration effectively pledged Britain’s support for Theodor Herzl’s aims of Jewish statehood, sovereignty, and control of immigration in the whole of Palestine.” The wishes of 94% of the population had been ignored. “This overwhelming majority of the population was promised only ‘civil and religious rights,’ not political or national rights.”

“(F)or the inhabitants of Palestine, whose future it ultimately decided, Balfour’s careful, calibrated prose was in effect a gun pointed directly at their heads, a declaration of war by the British Empire on the indigenous population.” Why would Britain do this? Why would this powerful empire initiate a policy that would arouse opposition throughout the Arab world?

“The British government’s intentions and objectives at the time have been amply analyzed over the past century. Among its many motivations were both a romantic, religiously derived philo-Semitic desire to ‘return’ the Hebrews to the land of the Bible, and an anti-Semitic wish to reduce Jewish immigration to Britain, linked to a conviction that ‘world Jewry’ had the power to keep newly revolutionary Russia fighting in the war and bring the United States into it. Beyond those impulses, Britain primarily desired control over Palestine for geopolitical strategic reasons that antedated World War I and that had only been reinforced by wartime events.”

That anti-British perspective should be no surprise since this position was shared across a wide spectrum of Palestinian leaders at the time. However, with respect to Palestinian views of Zionists, towards each end of both the Jewish and Arab spectrum were leaders who believed in symmetry and that the two movements and the two people could co-exist. These were expressed through inter-ethnic dialogue, cooperation and recognition of shared interests. But even these Jewish and Arab leaders did not agree on the basis of that coexistence. At the same time, at the other end of the shades of difference on each side were spokespersons who insisted that active mutual antagonism was unavoidable and, hence, clash was inevitable. The issue across the boards entailed:

  • Economic competition in both labour and commerce
  • Immigration
  • Only a small minority of Zionists advocated adaptation to the dominant Arab language and culture
  • Jews were viewed as having deep pockets and worldwide political connections.

At the outbreak of WWI, Raghib al-Nashashibi ran for parliament in total opposition to Zionism and won. On the other hand, Husayn al-Husayni advocated cooperation with the Zionists, but even he initially advocated limits on land purchases and immigration. Zionists expressed a similar range of views with the mainstream leadership advocating cooperation, but from a condescending perspective, believing as they did that they need not assimilate to Arab culture and that Arabs would welcome Zionists because of the economic benefit they brought with them. But just as the Arabs were united by fears of immigration overwhelming their culture, most Jewish Zionists of all stripes underestimated the strength and degree of opposition to Zionism.

As this opposition increasingly dawned on the Zionists, a small minority at one extreme advocated adopting the Arab culture and language. Others pushed for cooperation between separate movements while supporting the primacy of Jewish labour. Still others thought that not only conflict was inevitable, but expulsion of the Arabs would be prerequisite for Zionism to succeed. Israel Zangwill was widely quoted. “We must be prepared to expel the non-Jewish population from the land by the sword.” Further, “For Zionists, their enterprise was now backed by an indispensable ‘iron wall’ of British military might.” Men like Herzl and Ben Gurion vacillated on the issue of expulsion.

As long as Jews did not attempt to take over the country and even establish a separate state, a forefather of Rashid Khalidi, Nasif Bey al-Khalidi, was prepared to cooperate with the Zionists. Muhamad Ruhi al-Khalidi, who was elected to the new parliament in 1913 alongside al-Nashashibi, did not even oppose Jewish immigration but advocated that Jews resettle throughout the Ottoman Empire and not concentrate on Palestine. However, in his moderation, he strongly opposed a separate Jewish polity.

Given these political shades, is it any wonder that Palestinians, though divided on how to oppose Zionism after the Balfour Declaration, were largely strongly opposed to a document that prioritized Jewish national rights, ignored Arab political rights and restricted the latter to civil and religious rights. Further, the document was not just inspired by sympathy for Zionism, but was seen as advancing Britain’s war needs (in bringing America into the war) and long-term imperial strategic interests relative to Egypt and India. The latter motive pushing a western friendly dependent colony may have been even more important than Christian Zionism. That is the reason Chaim Weizmann claimed that Jews suffered from unrequited love for the British.

Given the imperial context, Faycal Ibn Husayn and Chaim Weizmann  saw that it was in their mutual interests to engage in the closest cooperation in the face of both British and French imperial interests that indicated that Zionism was not simply a vassal of British imperialism. Prior to the Paris Peace Conference that officially ended WWI, they agreed that, “All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible” provided the rights of Arab peasants and tenants were protected. (Article IV) Faysal Ibn Husayn believed that Arab independence would be greatly enhanced and even guaranteed by Jewish economic investment and political clout. Rashid Khalidi does not reference this dissenting vision of cooperation.

This Zionist-Arab alliance against imperialism and for Arab independence might seem to muddy the thesis that Zionism was an instrument of British imperialism, except that Khalidi’s complementary thesis focused on the perfidy and short-sightedness of Arab leadership. In this, Khalidi shared Weizmann’s disdain for the Arab political upper class, though not Ibn Husayn who was completely out of touch with the Arab street. Weizmann’s own breach with Ibn Husayn came when, at the peace conference, he supported a British trusteeship for Palestine thereby reinforcing the thesis that Zionism was primarily in the service of British imperial power.

Rashid Khalidi holds a complementary thesis. The leadership of the Palestinian noble families had been shattered by WWI. “In 1917 my grandfather Hajj Raghib al-Khalidi, and my grandmother Amira, known to us all as Um Hasan, together with the other residents of the Jaffa area, received an evacuation order from the Ottoman authorities. To escape the encroaching dangers of war, they left their home at Tal al-Rish near Jaffa…with their four youngest children, my father among them.” In 1918, leading families had been scattered, with sons emigrating to America to escape conscription, others held in POW camps, still others hiding in the hills and some even fighting with the British in the Arab legions engaged in the great revolt. Arab Palestinian leadership had been shattered.

Lacking leadership, disoriented by the rapid change in politics from 400 years of Ottoman rule to governance by Western imperial powers, “It was in the midst of this great trauma, as one era ended and another began, against a grim background of suffering, loss, and deprivation, that Palestinians learned, in a fragmentary fashion, of the Balfour Declaration.” This tale of noble families both emigrating and instructing the local population to follow suit provided Zionism with a competing narrative. This was a precedent for 1948. Ordered evacuations and compliance had been part of Palestinian history.

The 1919 American King-Crane Commission supported a British mandate over Palestine and, although sympathetic to Zionism, saw Jewish and Arab goals as fundamentally incompatible. Since the Zionist political program could not be advanced except at the expense of the Arabs, it recommended that Jewish immigration be restricted. “The majority now faced the prospect of being outnumbered by unlimited Jewish immigration to a country then almost completely Arab in its population and culture.” The British largely ignored the American proposals and the French and British divided up their interests at San Remo.


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