Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper,
Foreign Office, November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet
His Majesty’s Government view with favour 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.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
One wonders if, in the long, dark night of his eternal soul, Arthur James Balfour regrets the short letter he penned to Lord Walter Rothschild, of the international Rothschild financial dynasty, MP and Britain’s first Jewish peer. He remains a hero to Zionists and a villain to Arabs and their respective supporters. The brief document hat bears his name is seen the beginning of what today is widely considered the world’s most intractable conflict. On that, if on little else, Israelis and Palestinians agree.
The Sykes Picot Agreement of May 1916 and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917, the first, divvying up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, the second, ostensibly laying the foundation stone for a Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, were effectively redundant by war’s end, as other agendas interposed. Yet, their misbegotten shots ricocheted through the twentieth century and on into the twenty first.
After 100 years, the two sides in the most closely studied conflict on earth are still battling over the past. Truth and reconciliation, let alone closure, are remote fantasies. Unlike slavery, apartheid, the Irish famine, and western colonialism – all, at least formally, consigned to the dust heap of history – the Arab-Jewish conflict between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan shows no signs of abating. Indeed, it remains as bitter as ever, stuck in a cul de sac of continued occupation and political deadlock.
Here, in this beautiful, ancient, tortured land, the past is not another country. History is alive, exhilarating, toxic, intensely political, and bitterly divisive – and it will be revisited with passion and anger on this resonant anniversary.
In That Howling Infinite presents here three quite different commemorative analyses of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy.
The Guardian presents an historical overview in its “Long Read” essay, Britain’s Calamatous Promise.
Ha’aretz discusses how Balfour’s legacy is toxic for both for Israelis and Palestinians, how it nourishes the idea that somehow the conflict between the sides was caused by external powers and can be solved by them. Palestinians maintain the myth that the Jews are somehow a foreign transplant that must be excised whilst Israelis persist in endeavouring to convince the world of the justice of our cause, as an alternative to actually making it in to a just one. “Lord Balfour did not give Palestine to anyone. Even if he had never written Lord Rothschild a letter, there would still be two nations with claims to this land. Their only hope of ever finding a way to share it is by letting go of these bankrupt historical myths”.
In The Original No – Why Arabs Rejected Zionism and Why it Matters, Natasha Gill examines the conflict from an original dispute resolution perspective. She argues that a viable peace process does not require either party to embrace or even recognize the legitimacy of the other’s narrative. It requires that both have an informed understanding of that narrative, and accept that it cannot be wished away, but must be recognized and acknowledged in the negotiation process.
Gill concludes: “Schoolyard choruses – “they started it” and “they are worse than us” – cannot serve as an interpretive framework for a 130-year-old conflict, or form the basis of national policy”. She is referring here to Israel, but it applies equally to the Palestinians..
A common thread of the three articles referred to above that of reversing out of the dead-end of competing and apparently irreconcilable perspectives and narratives – my story versus yours, my feelings versus yours, my hurt versus yours – and finding common ground to move forward. This is indeed an important aspect of conflict resolution per se. It is also about allaying assumptions and prejudices with regard to your competitor, opponent, or enemy, your mutual fears and suspicions.
Many would argue that the ‘peace process’ has been clinically dead for three years, and moribund for nearly three decades more. With Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition government contemplating the annexation of Area C, and ageing Mahmoud Abbas’ demise imminent, physically or polically, whichever happens first, time is running out for a just and equitable settlement that all sides can live with, no matter how begrudgingly.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow
Dylan Thomas, The Hand That Signed the Paper
The following are some brief thoughts on the destructive aftermath of the Balfour Declaration.
The irony of the present Middle East is that so many many of its problems – its intractable conflicts, its porous and indefensible borders, its mosaics of coexisting, and at times competing and conflicting faiths and ethnicities, its artificially created states with shallow political and institutional roots, its unreconciled and conflicting allegiances to family clan, tribe, sect and country, its atavistic attachment to the ‘ra-is’, the big man – can be traced back to two documents initiated in the midst of a European war, the Sykes Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration .
Two documents that were driven and shaped by the exigencies of that war and the planning for the peace that would follow it – and influenced by the diplomatic, strategic and imperial interests of European powers engaged in a long and bloody conflict, with hardly a thought for the millions of souls whose fate they were deciding, people who were in the most part, totally unaware and ignorant of the waves that were about to break over them. Hence the quotation from Dylan Thomas at the head of this post.
There is a school of thought that holds that the Balfour Declaration, like the Sykes Picot Agreement before it, was the cynical, opportunistic, duplicitous and predictably disastrous outcome of imperial skulduggery that set the Arab Middle East on a fateful course. And yet, others hold that the die were already cast, and that HMG’s formal favour for a Jewish national home was aspirational rather than practicable, let alone realistic, designed to please the influential and wealthy Jewish diaspora – and particularly that in the USA, a late-entrant to the European war. Both, of course, has unintended consequences that led to a century of turbulence (see The Economist‘s article of the centenary of Sykes Picot).
Zionism was already on its determined way. It had grown out of the circumstances that prevailed in Europe at the time when Theodore Herzl was working on his project. Pogroms in the east, the Dreyfus case in France, and the conviction that antisemitism was indelible in the European psyche: Jews would never be fully accepted anywhere, no matter how well they assimilated. Hence the need for a Jewish national home. But he and his early Zionists were not initially exclusively focused on Palestine – there were vague visions of Jewish settlements in Kenya and Latin America. But the old, atavistic – secular Zionists would not have used the term “messianic” – yearning for Jerusalem got the better of them. It was the historical itch that couldn’t be scratched. And the Ottoman government was, as the time, quite amenable to the idea of enterprising, tax-paying settlers.
But, the notion of an actual Jewish state was quite clearly in the minds of the politically-aware and motivated Eastern Europeans, however, and this, augmented by a socialistic fervour common to fin de siècle dissidents and refugees meant hat that there was little doubt about their intentions from the beginning. Regardless of the Balfour Declaration, the endgame was Eretz Israel – although those early pioneers hadn’t conceived a name for their ‘national home’, and indeed did not do so until the very last minutes of the Mandate when David Ben Gurion made an executive decision.
Balfour did not actually commit to doing anything substantive. “Best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object” was as far as he went. It was the qualifier that followed that has forever branded “perfidious Albion”: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”.
The Palestinians Arabs were wise to the Zionist settlers’ long game, raising their concerns with the Ottomans and, post-Balfour, the British Mandate authorities, and rising in revolt when those concerns were ignored – only to be subdued by British arms. During the tumultuous and violent Mandate years, they were out-played, outwitted, out-gunned, never really having a chance against the well organized and determined Yishuv with its shadow government, institutions, and, most critically, military forces. And they were badly let down by the quality of their own leadership, by the political infighting, disunity, and opportunism, and a patriarchal political system that stymied the development of a coherent national consciousness and institutional framework to match that of the Jews.
The British too were outplayed and our-maneuvered, both before the Second World War and during the years leading up to 1948. As with India through the thirties and forties, lacking a cogent policy and a clear vision, Britain hamfistedly endeavoured to please everyone and ultimately satisfied no one. “Best intentions”, and “muddling through” concluded with “cut and run”, resulting in duplicity, desperation, death and destruction. The vagueness of Balfour’s promise came back to haunt them with a vengeance.
As events in Germany gave added urgency to the Zionist project, Ben Gurion and his colleagues adopted a wise if opportunist strategy of siding with the British in the war against Hitler. Arabs, like the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, in Palestine, and the Iraqi military junta led by Rashid Ali al Gaylani and Egyptian military conspirators, threw their lot in with the Third Reich, and indeed conspired against Britain. A bad move, paralleling, as it did, the Shoah. World opinion, or more precisely, the opinion of those who in those days controllled the new-born United Nations – the USA and the Soviet Union – weighed in behind the Zionists.
The Palestinian people, as most commentators have agreed, were essentially abandoned. By the British, by their Arab neighbours, by their own leaders. When all attempts by Britain to resolve the matter of Palestine by partition failed, and the Atlee government decided to abandon its mandate (in much the same hurried and chaotic manner as it had departed India the year before : see my post, Freedom at Midnight), the Arab inhabitants of the towns and villages of the area destined to become a Jewish state were disunited, unarmed and unorganized, and easy prey for the well-trained and determined Jewish military forces tasked by the Jews’ political leadership with the mission of seizing, clearing, and claiming The Land.
By the time neighbouring Arab armies entered Palestine, in numbers too small to make any difference to the military situation, Arab suburbs of the coastal cities has beeen emptied, hundreds of villages erased from the map, and over half a million people had fled to Egyptian Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and what is today the West Bank. The Palestinian state envisaged by British and the UN was strangled in its crib by King Abdullah of Jordan who seized for himself those areas not claimed by the new state of Israel, including Jerusalem, his hearts desire.
Almost seventy years have passed, and the Palestinians are abandoned still, by the world, by their Arab neighbours, and by their own leaders. Meanwhile, Zionism has moved on and has morphed into something much more sinister. Who knows how it will all play out.
Paul Hemphill, October 2017
The Hand That Signed the Paper – Dylan Thomas
Never has as a poem been so precise in description of cause and consequence of great powers’ agreements, treaties, and declarations than that published by Dylan Thomas in 1936, a year replete with its own calamities:
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor pat the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.