The recent unveiling of the “deal of the Century,” begun with the probably forlorn hope of bringing peace to the Holy land prompts me to go back and see how this small nation came to pass particularly when there are so many people who seem to live and breathe its destruction.
There are a bewildering cascade of events and array of national interests that led to the founding of a Jewish State in Palestine. It is not easy to begin understanding, and made more so by the the cross currents of national interests, few of which had anything directly to do with the “Jewish question.”
I am not going into the futile issue of rights and wrongs and who has the moral high ground- a subject that continues to elicit angry partisans churning out roomfuls of vitriolic literature, few of which add one iota of new information to the “Palestinian Issue.” My quest trying to find a truly neutral historical account has been fruitless. About the closest to that neutrality and a very brief narration of the Israeli origin is found in Michael J. Cohen’s book, The Origins and Evolution of the Arab -Zionist Conflict
So I start with the Jews. The 1860’s in Europe saw a brief and illusionary period in East Europe, especially the Russian Empire where 80% of the Jews resided. Tsar Alexander II, gave the Jewish communities hope of emancipation with a number of liberal decrees but was assassinated in 1881 and the pogroms against Jewish settlements recommenced with renewed fury. A Russian Jew, Leo Pinsker, began to write about the plight of the world wide Jewish community, positing that the Jews were aliens where ever they were, and they would never be accepted into Gentile society. Jews began fleeing from inhospitable Eastern Europe but only a minute percentage chose to emigrate to Palestine. Most went to Western Europe and the United States, prompting the acclaimed father of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, to quip that the Jews might flee anti-Semitism but they carried it with them in their baggage. In France the notorious Alfred Dreyfus case of 1894 substantiated the view that nowhere, even in the home of human rights, could Jews be sure of equitable treatment.
Zionism was not a religious movement but a socialist secular movement with an underpinning of cultural and religious motivations, i.e., a return to their ancestral home¹. Quite understandably, most Western European Jews vociferously opposed the Zionist movement, especially German Jews, which, ironically, was one reason the German Jews were so reluctant to leave Hitler’s Germany in the 1930’s. In fact the most outspoken opponent of Zionism in Great Britain was Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, the highest ranking Jewish member of the British government. Truth to be told, the principal reason so many Western European Jews were against Zionism was the belief that the Europeans would now claim, “Ok you now have a home, leave!” A not ridiculous belief by any means! Among the English upper classes and the military higher ranks, anti -Semitism was prevalent. The political class with the exception of Churchill, Prime Minister Lloyd George sand a few others were also adamantly against establishing a “home for the Jews.” The British renown statesman, George Curzon, and a heavy hitter in political circles, was dead set against the scheme, opining, “that I cannot conceive of a worse bondage than to relegate an advanced and intellectual community to exile in Palestine.” What would become of the original inhabitants he wondered. Would they become simply “hewers of wood and drawers of water?” Curzon also saw the Sykes-Picot treaty as a document drawn up in “gross ignorance” with “fantastic and incredible boundaries” (Curzon by David Gilmour, an excellent but weighty book).
So why did the British end up with “the Palestine?” Well there were many very involved and intricate questions of which I can only provide the essence, not the details. Where to begin? Well maybe with the visit of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II to the Middle East in 1894. He met with the Ottoman Sultan (and last one) Abdelhamid II, a rather weak but well-meaning ruler. He established great rapport with the Sultan giving a fulsome speech of praise. According to some other sources the Kaiser became enamored of Islam and saw it as a manly religion versus the passivity of Christianity. Nevertheless, the Kaiser, who was full of contradictions, also wanted to build up the Lutheran Christianity of Germany in Palestine. German influence was already strong in Turkey and the massive German retinue of 100 soldiers and many palace courtiers accompanying the Kaiser was indeed impressive to the Turkish media and people.
The favorable impression of the Kaiser and German officers who followed up the Kaiser’s visit is chronicled by General Liman Von Sanders in his book, Five Years in Turkey. He wrote an interesting account of his time with the Turks, very positive in his view of their fighting qualities but he deprecated their administrative efficiency. The Germans with traditional efficiency trained an army which fought with great valor, surprising skill, and not so surprising brutality in World War I. They dealt the Allies two of their most devastating defeats, at Gallipoli (1916) and in Mesopotamia.(1916)
The Germans under the grandiose vision of Kaiser Wilhelm sought to rival the British empire in collecting colonies in the East, including Palestine, making a triumphant entrance into Jerusalem on a white charger with a huge escort of Turkish and German soldiers and officials. Moreover the German were constructing the Berlin to Baghdad railroad which had become very important to German imperialistic designs. Turkish support was essential. Turkey heavily influenced by pro German Turkish military men, and poorly conducted British diplomatic efforts joined the Germans and Austrian -Hungarian Empire in the war against France and Great Britain. despite British attempts to win their support, or at least neutrality.
Ok. Let us count the ways Britain came to be to be the unhappy possessors of the Palestinian problem. First off was the East West debate. Within the British government one of the great debates concerning WWI was centered around the question of what strategy was best to defeat Germany. The French and British war on the Western front had turned into a quagmire. Bloody useless offensives resulted in a few miles (or yards) of gain and with the loss of thousands of lives. Far seeing people like Winston Churchill advocated an Eastern strategy, i.e., an attack through the “soft underbelly” of the “Triple Alliance”- an attack on the perceived weakest member of the German allies- Turkey. Therefore the Middle East became the focus of the war, including the people and the territory. However the implementation of this policy resulted in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign as well as the equally disastrous Mesopotamian campaign in Iraq. Turkish valor and spirit with German expertise was greatly underestimated by the British. Moreover, British and French naval and land force coordination, planning, and logistics support was abysmal.They had to look elsewhere for victory.
The British had five strategic objectives in the war: not necessarily in order of importance
- Maintain access to oil.
- Keep the French in the war
- Get the Americans in the war
- Keep the Suez canal in British control
- Control potential Islamic anti-British sentiment
- But at the same time secure perceived world wide “Jewish power.”
- The oil. The great British Navy was switching from coal to oil for their ships and the greatest access to it was from the oil fields of Iraq and Persia , especially around Mosul. As Lord Curzon put it, “the Allies floated to victory on a wave of oil.”
2. Keep the French in the war. The French by 1917 had suffered a huge amount of casualties, and the promise of a war-ending offensive ended in disaster. This resulted in a mutiny that threatened to collapse the French army. Great Britain was desperate to keep France in the War and one of the sweeteners was the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Levant into French-British zones of influence. Palestine fell within the British zone. (The French disagreed but to no avail.) There are a ton of books on the evils of the Sykes-Picot agreement, however after decades of Arab and Western academics moaning and wailing about this agreement, which divided the Arab world into squabbling nations, there seems to be little enthusiasm among Arab leaders to erase the borders. Despite many prognostications predicting the demise of Arab borders, the Arab state system has proven stronger than many short lived unions as well as the Islamic State’s forlorn attempt to reinvent the Caliphate.
3.Get the Americans in the war. The Russian empire had collapsed and with German assistance, the Communists undermined the Russian will to fight, and as a consequence Russia left the War. A tremendous number of German and Austrian forces were then free to move to the western front, facing the war weary British and French. The outcome of the was in question. The question was how to get President Wilson and America in the war? The British astutely decided on an indirect approach. President Wilson had a number of very influential Jewish confidants, sympathetic to the Zionist cause, such as Judge Louis Brandeis, Hans Morgenthau, and Felix Frankfurter. Wilson although sympathetic to a Jewish Palestine, was suspicious of a British Palestine, but in the end, as he did later in Paris, threw out great ideas and then walked away from implementation. Another important figure in winning Western support for a Jewish Palestine was Chaim Weizmann. He was a scientist of considerable repute, born in Russia and a naturalized British citizen, and close to the British politician Arthur Balfour. He was also influential in American political circles, molding public opinion and leading politicians to view the Balfour declaration positively. He also invented and gave to the British government a process for extracting acetone from maize, giving the British a vital lead in developing more lethal explosives. Of course German brutality conducting their submarine warfare, and the infamous “Zimmerman affair” were even more instrumental in pushing the Americans into the war
4.Muslim Sensibilities.The British were deathly afraid of the impact of the Ottoman Empire and the Sultan throwing their lot in with Germans. The Sultan, as the legitimate successor of the Caliphs of the Ommayad and Abbasid dynasties, was the titular head of all Muslims throughout the world, announced a Jihad against the British and French, which, like today, seems to cast a paralyzing fear over the West. The British Empire contained over 100 million Muslim subjects and made a ready-made target for the Germans. The myth of an “Islamic world” seems to perpetuate itself. The German military advisors in Turkey believed that the British Muslim soldiers would refuse to fire on their fellow Turkish Muslim soldiers. The British commanders, who had a very large number of Indian troops fighting for them, mostly Muslim, recalled earlier Muslim Indian soldier revolts, one time based on a rumor that ammunition was greased with pig fat. The Kaiser’s warm relations with the Ottoman sultan and the ongoing Berlin to Baghdad Express railroad which opened the way for German “archeologists” and many German “tourists” to find reasons to stay in the Middle East, worried the British overseers of the British empire. The British, who always pride themselves on an intimate knowledge of the Arab culture, began casting about for a Muslim counterweight to the Sultan, and they believed they found him in the person of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, ruler of Hijaz and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner of Egypt, began a correspondence with Sharif Hussein in 1915-16 making vague promises of some sort of Arab nation with Hussein as the ruler. At first, little became of it, but with the defection of a Kurdish soldier from the Ottoman army, Lt. Sharif Al Faruki, from Mosul, his claims of a secret Arab society al ‘Ahd, which was plotting against the Turkish control of Arab lands, convinced the British to step up their overtures to the Sharif of Mecca. The British then began to see an Arab revolt as an important asset in their war against the Turks. An Arab Bureau was established in Cairo and with that came the adventures of Lawrence of Arabia. Actually the military value of Lawrence and his tribal Arab irregulars was rather minuscule, but later it became very important politically….especially in popular folklore. Later, after the Turks and Germans were pushed out of the Arab world. Sharif Hussein’s third son, Feisal was temporarily installed as the king of Syria, but as the French then reminded the British of the Sykes Picot treaty, and they did not approve of Feisal. Feisal was ousted from Syria by the French but the British found a home for him in Iraq as the new king.
But returning to the central issue of the Jews and the Zionists, the entrance of Prince Feisal into the drama became importance because Prince Feisal and the Zionist prime mover, Chaim Weizman met and discussed the immigration of Jews to Palestine. Apparently the Zionist leader and Prince Feisal got along famously and Feisal signed a document indicating he had no problem with Jewish immigration to Palestine. Of course this is disputed, as is everything else regarding Palestine. But the champion of Arab independence, T.E. Lawrence was there and read the document to Feisal. Other sources remarked that Feisal thought very little of Palestinians as Arabs, a cultural point that tracks with the general eastern and Gulf Arab attitude toward Palestinians today. A similar exchange between Felix Frankfurter, an important American Zionist and later supreme court justice , contained this in a letter from Feisal to Frankfurter.
“We Arabs, especially the educated ones among us, look with deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist organization to the peace conference and we regard them as moderate and proper.”
Later in the same letter , Feisal adds. “We wish the Jews a hearty welcome home.” BTW, 10 years later Feisal said he did not remember writing the latter.
This set the stage for the Balfour declaration, issued by the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, in 1917. This nefarious document, which has been interpreted, reinterpreted, manipulated, scrubbed for satanic verses, blamed for everything including the heartbreak of psoriasis, is a fairly straightforward document. In a letter to Lord Rothschild, a wealthy Jewish banker, Lord Balfour wrote that his majesty’s government “views with favor the establishment in Palestine, a home for the Jewish people……….it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non Jewish communities in Palestine…
6.The “ Jewish international power”
Probably nothing so illustrates the ignorance upon which politicians, rulers, and intelligence agencies made decisions ( and still do) than the belief shared by many Western diplomats and observers that there existed in Constantinople a dark conspiracy which involved the Turkish/ Ottoman and German governments, supported by the financial power of international Jewry. It was a natural result of the fear, prevalent at the time, which brought about the popularity of the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a book supposedly written by Russian intelligence Czarists, feeding suspicions among Europeans that international Jewry was manipulating governments. (It is still popular among Islamists and extreme right wing fanatics). With the demise of the Czarist Russian empire and the advent of the communist take over, the number of Jews involved the communist movement gave rise to suspicions of Russian involvement in ousting the “Colonial Powers” as well. The aggressive Germans, with a star struck and mercurial Kaiser, who had also met Theodore Herzl previous to his trip to the Ottoman Empire, was convinced by him to plead the Zionist cast to the Sultan. He was reputed to have tried to convince the Sultan to give his blessing to Jewish settlement in Palestine. This prompted to the British to attach some urgency to a release of the Balfour letter.
So there you have it, a home for the Jews established by imperial powers with very little regard for the Jews or Arabs, mostly by politicians with very little empathy for the people affected by the swirl of great power politics. Do I blame the Brits? Absolutely not! As Elizabeth Monroe, one of the most noted historians of the British Empire in the Middle East, referring to Palestine, wrote, “Measured by British interests alone, it was one of the greatest mistakes of our imperial history.” Absolutely not! German submarine warfare had so affected the importation of food to the British Isles that people were living on a calorie intake below the minimum amount for sustained survival. The French were faltering of the Western front, the Russian collapse allowed many German and Austrian divisions to return to the Western Front, and the Americans were still debating whether to enter the war. Nation fighting for its survival should not be judged on its actions by chronocentric polemics of ideologues who know little or nothing of history. Do I blame the Zionists? Absolutely not! They were unwanted wherever they were, despite some overcoming adversity to become tolerated, but never entirely accepted. Looking at Palestine in those days, one could see a largely undeveloped land, sparse population and mostly barren. Arab nationalist advocate T.E. Lawrence wrote, “The sooner the Jews farm it, all the better, their colonies are bright spots in a desert.” I cannot blame the Arabs either, although their feigned sense of victim hood has become irritating and a distraction from learning. Their corrupt and rapacious leadership over the years, with the connivance of some Western academics, has turned Palestine into an Islamic and Arab tragedy. It did not need to turn out that way but it has. History is full of serendipitous events for some and disastrous for others. Christopher Columbus sailed to find gold and spices of East Asia and found the new world. That worked out well for the millions wishing to have opportunity and escape persecution from all over the world but not so well for the Indian inhabitants.The Europeans were engaged in a brutal struggle for empire and inadvertently founded a home for people who did not have one. It is the way of the world.
After note.. A Home for the Jews, as earlier proposed by Western Powers included the Sinai, Uganda and later Australia, and Tasmania. But as one might suspect , none of these were very appealing to the Jewish community, especially those of Western Europe and even those of the Middle East. As related by Sir Arnold Wilson, (Loyalties: Mesopotamia 1914-1917). Iraqi Jews said, “This is the garden of Eden (Mesopotamia, Iraq)). It is from this country that Adam was driven forth. Give us good government and we will make this country flourish. For us Mesopotamia is a home, a national home to which the Jews of Bombay, Persia and Turkey will be glad to come.” Unfortunately because of the innate exclusiveness of Arabism and religious triumphalism inherent in Islamism, The Jews were expelled and Iraq is the poorer because of it.
The Zimmerman message was a secret message by the German foreign Office offering Mexico the states of New Mexico, Texas and Arizona to declare war against the United States also it sought to promote rebellion among the many German immigrants in the U.S. The sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine killing 123 Americans was a result of the unrestricted submarine warfare adopted by the Germans to starve the British.
BTW The Mexican President seriously considered the proposal but his Generals said wisely …no way! One of the reasons they gave……. The anglo Texan civilians were too well armed and would not submit to Mexican domination. Keep your weapons Texans!!!