This article is adapted from a speech to the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.
Last autumn was the Balfour Declaration’s hundredth birthday. This month marks a hundred years since Britain’s General Allenby completed his World War I conquest of Palestine and Syria. These centenaries relate to the most important–the most basic–argument that anti-Zionists use against Israel today.
It’s the assertion that Palestine is Arab land and the Jews had no right to steal it from the Palestinian Arabs. In its somewhat more sophisticated form, the argument is that British imperialists had no right to steal the Palestinians’ country and give it to the Jews.
If you had a child in college and she came home and said she was challenged on this point by a classmate, could you provide her with a response?
One way to answer is this: For the 400 years before World War I, Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, so it was owned by the Turks, not by the Arabs, let alone by the Arabs of Palestine. Palestine is an old but imprecise geographical term. It remained imprecise because there was never a country called Palestine. Even when—long ago— it was under Arab rule, Palestine was never ruled by its own Arab inhabitants.
So it’s not accurate to say that Palestine was a country, nor to say it was Arab land. Neither the Jews nor the British stole it from the Arabs. The original Zionists came to Palestine without the backing of any imperialist or colonialist power. They bought the land on which they settled. And before Britain invaded Palestine in World War I, the Ottoman Turks had joined Germany and attacked Allied forces.
Was it an injustice for Britain to issue the Balfour Declaration in favor of a Jewish national home in Palestine?
The question is of more than historical interest for it relates to the current controversy about Israel’s nation-state law, which was adopted this past July. Among other controversial things, that law said, “The fulfillment of the right of national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”
Consider the Balfour Declaration’s context. When the British war cabinet approved it on Oct. 31, 1917, the world was more than three years into the Great War, the catastrophe now known as World War I, which ultimately destroyed four major empires. Britain was fighting for its life and, because the war was going badly, the government of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith had fallen at the end of 1916 and David Lloyd George had come to power.
Lloyd George was singularly attuned to the importance of propaganda. He was the first British prime minister in history who had grown up poor. His childhood home didn’t have running water. His political rise testified to the democratization of politics and the power of public opinion.
Within 48 hours after he became prime minister, his cabinet resolved to review British propaganda worldwide. He hoped to win more popular support for the Allies in Greece, Italy, Russia, America and elsewhere. Among British propaganda’s many target audiences was world Jewry. Not unreasonably, the Jews generally were seen as pro-Zionist, with useful influence especially in revolutionary Russia and in Woodrow Wilson’s America.
By embracing Zionism, the British government wanted to give Jews a particular interest in Allied victory. In his memoirs, Lloyd George explained that the Balfour Declaration was “part of our propagandist strategy,” its timing “determined by considerations of war policy.”
In other words, colonialism didn’t bring Britain to Palestine. Britain didn’t seize Palestine from an unoffending native population. It conquered the land not from the Arabs, but from Turkey, which (as noted) had joined Britain’s enemies in the war. The Arabs in Palestine fought for Turkey against Britain. The land was enemy territory.
Supporting Zionism appealed to Lloyd George, Balfour and other officials not just on strategic grounds, but also for moral reasons. They sympathized with the Jewish national cause. Zionism was an answer to the historical Jewish question, a way to remedy some of the harm shamefully done to the Jewish people over history. And it would give Jews an opportunity to normalize their place in the world, by building up a national center and a refuge, a country in their ancient homeland where they could become the majority and enjoy self-determination as a people
When those officials were young men, George Eliot, in her influential 1876 novel Daniel Deronda, foresaw the creation of a movement to create a “new Jewish polity.” The Jews then, she wrote, in the voice of a Jewish character, “shall have an organic centre” and “the outraged Jew shall have a defense in the court of nations, as the outraged Englishman or American. And the world will gain as Israel gains.” That character continued, “[L]et there be another great migration, another choosing of Israel to be a nationality whose members may still stretch to the ends of the earth, even as the sons of England and Germany, whom enterprise carries afar, but who still have a national hearth and a tribunal of national opinion. . . . Who says that the history and literature of our race are dead? Are they not as living as the history and literature of Greece and Rome, which have inspired revolutions . . .? These were an inheritance dug from the tomb. Ours is an inheritance that has never ceased to quiver in millions of human frames.” Lloyd George, Balfour, Winston Churchill and other British leaders in the Great War era echoed the lyrical pro-Jewish sympathy of Eliot’s best-selling novel.
The Balfour Declaration, like Israel’s recent Jewish nation-state law, distinguished between a people’s national rights and the civil and religious rights of individuals. After endorsing “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the Balfour Declaration said, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Critics have argued that it wronged Palestine’s Arabs to deny them a national home in Palestine and it was arrogant to think that they’d be content with civil and religious rights within a Jewish-majority state. But there are other ways of seeing the matter. How did the British decision makers view it at the time?
They didn’t consider Palestine in isolation. It was a small part of a vast region that British forces were conquering from the Turks. Though most Arabs had fought for the Turks, the Allies would put the Arab people on the path to independence and national self-determination throughout that vast region. But the tiny Holy Land had a unique status. It was territory in which Christians and Jews worldwide had profound interests.
That the Arabs composed a single people was a basic principle of the Arab nationalist movement. In February 1919, for example, the first Palestinian Congress took pains to explain why Palestine was not a country. Its resolutions said that Palestine had never been divided from Syria. It declared that Palestinians and Syrians were one people connected “by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographical bonds.” Palestine’s Arabs were not viewed–neither by British officials nor by their own leaders—as a separate nation. (This changed later, of course, but that was later.)
The idea that a small segment of the Arab people – the Palestinian Arabs – would someday live in a Jewish-majority country was not thought of as a unique problem. There were similar issues in Europe. After World War I, new nations were created or revived: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Hungary, for example. Inevitably, some people would have to live as a minority in neighboring states. Seven hundred thousand Hungarians would become a minority in Czechoslovakia, almost 400,000 in Yugoslavia and 1.4 million in Romania. Where they were a minority, they would have individual rights, but not collective rights. That is, ethnic Hungarians would not have national rights of self-determination in Romania, but only in Hungary.
The principle applicable to European minorities applied also to the Arabs of Palestine. In any given country, only one people can be the majority, so only one can enjoy national self-determination there. The Arab people would eventually rule themselves in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Arabia. They were going to end up in control of virtually all the land they claimed for themselves. They naturally wanted to be the majority everywhere. But then, the Jews could be the majority nowhere. The victorious Allies did not consider that just.
If Zionism succeeded, Palestine’s Arabs would eventually live as a minority in a democratic Jewish-majority country. This was an imposition, but as British leaders saw it, a relatively minor one for the Arab people as a whole. In 1922, Arthur Balfour addressed the criticism that Britain had been “unjust to the Arab race.” “Of all the charges made against this country,” he said, that “seems to me the strangest.” It was, he recalled, “through the expenditure largely of British blood, by the exercise of British skill and valour, by the conduct of British generals, by troops brought from all parts of the British Empire . . . that the freeing of the Arab race from Turkish rule has been effected.” He went on, “That we . . . who have just established a King in Mesopotamia, who had before that established an Arab King in the Hejaz, and who have done more than has been done for centuries past to put the Arab race in the position to which they have attained—that we should be charged with being their enemies, with having taken a mean advantage of the course of international negotiations, seems to me not only most unjust to the policy of this country, but almost fantastic in its extravagance.”
In the British war cabinet debates about Zionism, one of the main opponents of the Balfour Declaration was the brilliant conservative aristocrat Lord Curzon. He described Palestine as a “poor land,” small and arid, abounding in “malaria, fever, opthalmia and other ailments,” and ruined by “centuries of neglect and misrule.” He said it would be unable for many years to support a substantial increase in its population, which was around 700,000. He saw the Jews as particularly unsuited to Palestine’s requirements. The land’s challenges, he said, called for the agricultural skills of a people “inured to agriculture.” He added archly that the Jews are “to a large extent trained in other industries and professions.”
Curzon also said the Arabs would not take Zionism lying down. Wittily quoting the Bible, he warned that the local Arabs would refuse to serve as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” for the Zionists. The Jews would not be able to defend themselves, he implied, so they would indefinitely be a burden on the British. “A long vista of anxiety, vicissitude and expense lies before those who desire to rebuild the [Jewish] national home,” he predicted.
In sum, according to Curzon, Zionism was doomed because the Jews couldn’t farm and couldn’t fight. He set out his analysis in a memorandum that was eloquent, reasonable and hard to contradict. But it was wrong. The degree to which the Jews disproved Curzon’s skepticism is, I think, astonishing. They learned how to farm and how to fight.
In fact, their military skills have driven their enemies to concentrate on political battlefields. Hence the ideological war now being waged against Israel–at the United Nations, on university campuses, in newspapers and elsewhere. The campaign to delegitimate Israel has been scoring successes. The efforts to counter that campaign have often proven inept. That too I find astonishing.
In the arena of argumentation, the Jews are practiced, having continuously honed their debating skills since Abraham questioned God about Sodom. They should be formidable in explaining why Israel is not colonialist and refuting other calumnies. Yet they’re often beaten into retreat by anti-Zionist polemicists. There’s no excuse for it.
Supporters of Zionism should learn their history and reacquaint themselves with the reasons that Zionism became a movement. They should study afresh the case for the Jewish state in the Jewish homeland. If Jews could learn to farm and fight, they can remember how to read a history book.
Douglas J. Feith is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration and authored the best-selling memoir War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism (Harper, 2008). He is now writing a history of the Arab-Israeli conflict.