When I first put pen to paper in January 2006, I wrote about the events which led to the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan when there was an attempt by several Arab states to refer a list of grievances to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion. These grievances took the form of a series of questions that were related to various aspects of the Palestine problem during the era of British Mandate over Palestine (1917-1948), such as whether Palestine was promised independence in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in 1915, and whether Palestinians had a right of self-determination. It was at this point that it suddenly dawned upon me that the 1947 UN Partition Plan was actually the end of a long chain of events that had already been in play for fifty years leading up the conflagration that sparked the 1948 conflict. So instead of writing a brief historical chapter leading up to the 2004 advisory opinion I ended up on a detour that took me further back in time, and what a can of worms I uncovered through this digression.
It was my general dissatisfaction with most of the history books on the Arab-Israeli conflict that kept me going. The more time I spent in libraries looking at dusty books and files from the National Archives the more I realized how much of the conflict’s history had not been written. And yet there are so many books on the history of the conflict! How is it then that they do not answer what I think is one of the most important questions any scholar should first consider: why did the conflict start? Ask any historian: Zionist, anti-Zionist, Jew, or gentile, and you will get a different answer. Was it British imperialism and the Balfour Declaration, the aims of the Zionist movement, European anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the 1967 occupation, or a combination of factors? Is it really fair to describe the conflict as a clash of nationalisms as most history books do, considering that Zionism was foreign to the Jewish community living in Palestine prior to the 1897 First Zionist Congress? If this is an accurate description, then surely one must first explain how Jewish nationalism, which emerged in Eastern Europe, ended up being manifested in a distant corner of the Ottoman Empire. Was it just Manifest Destiny that millions of Jews should uproot themselves from Europe and settle in Palestine? Did international law even assume a prominent role among the protagonists?
To answer the last question first. The Zionist movement considered gaining international legitimacy, and that meant legality, to be of the utmost importance. I was struck by the close, one might say almost intimate, collaboration between the Zionist Organization and the British Government when the mandate was being drafted at the British Foreign Office and the Quai d’Orsay in 1919. The travaux préparatoires in Kew were most revealing. The Zionist Organization was even asked to submit several drafts of what they desired to be in the Mandate. And they got their way on many, albeit not all, the issues. Contrary to what Leonard Stein asserts in his book The Balfour Declaration, A. J. Balfour, the British Foreign Minister in 1917, and formerly Britain’s Prime Minister, took a keen interest in the Zionist movement. This interest was not out of altruism or for any general concern for the welfare of European Jews. The truth is that Balfour, who was a confidant of Cosima Wagner, the wife of the famous composer, did not really care much for the Jews. Nor, for that matter, did he care for the Arabs. As for the question of self-determination and who was ultimately to control the destiny of Palestine, this is what Mr. Balfour told the Zionist Federation at a meeting he attended in 1923:
…the critics of this movement shelter themselves behind the phrase – but it is more than a phrase – behind the principle of self-determination, and say that, if you apply that principle logically and honestly, it is to the majority of the existing population of Palestine that the future destinies of Palestine should be committed. My lords, ladies and gentlemen, there is a technical ingenuity in that plea, and on technical grounds I neither can nor desire to provide the answer; but, looking back upon the history of the world, I say that the case of Jewry in all countries is absolutely exceptional, falls outside all the ordinary rules and maxims, cannot be contained in a formula or explained in a sentence.
Notice what Balfour says about the case of "Jewry in all countries" being absolutely exceptional and that they fall "outside all the ordinary rules and maxims." The idea that Jews were so exceptional that the law of nations did not apply to them, struck me as rather suspicious coming from the lips of Balfour, and one will understand why from reading my book. Moreover, were Jews not nationals of the countries they inhabited? And had they not just been emancipated? Why did Balfour, the main supporter of the 1905 Alien’s Act, which restricted Jewish immigration into England just after the height of the pogroms in Romania and Russia, which led to a mass Jewish exodus into Western Europe and the United States, identify with the cause of the Zionist movement? Suffice it to say that Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, and the only Jewish politician in the British government who was specifically consulted about Balfour’s intention to issue the declaration, opposed it. In the first of three memorandums addressed to Balfour in the summer of 1917, Montagu made the following astute observation:
…at the very time when these Jews [referring to Jews in Russia] have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorised to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the 'national home of the Jewish people.' I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mohammedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with this English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans [sic] in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.
Montagu’s memorandum was most prescient. If Palestine was to become the home of the Jewish people as the Zionists desired, so that it would, in the words of Theodor Herzl cure centuries of anti-Semitism, then why issue the declaration in the aftermath of their emancipation in the country where they had suffered most from persecution? Besides, the principle of self-determination, which in the early twentieth century was understood to imply majority rule, favored the Arab case. This would explain why Balfour wanted it set aside in Palestine. He did not, however, get his way entirely. George Curzon, his successor at the Foreign Office, was adamantly opposed to Balfour’s policy, and did his best, once in office, to "water dawn" the mandate he had inherited. "I want the Arabs to have a chance," he wrote one of his colleagues, "and I don’t want a Hebrew State." And of course, whatever the Zionists may have privately desired, the Balfour Declaration never explicitly stipulated Jewish statehood as the end result.
Writing a book is an education. During the research I found so many documents that I had never come across before, or seen in any other history book. For instance, I discovered memoranda and maps that supported the Arab interpretation of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, and I found the first reaction of the U.S. Government to the Balfour Declaration, which, believe it or not, was negative. I also uncovered the British Foreign Office legal advice on the 1948 conflict, which completely contradicts the Zionist narrative. "If the Arab armies invade the territory of Palestine but without coming into conflict with the Jews," they wrote, "they would not necessarily be doing anything illegal, or contrary to the United Nations Charter.” And then there was Anthony Eden’s top-secret memorandum to Winston Churchill lambasting the partition plan and a document prepared by the Foreign Office to tackle what they referred to as "inaccurate Jewish political propaganda" on the refugee question. As that document noted, "many Arabs fled before the Arab invasion of 15th May owing to the brutality and the atrocities of IZL [the Irgun] and Haganah, e.g. at Deir Yassin. This policy of intimidation had since been pursued fairly consistently." It continued: "Jewish settlers have systematically moved into houses and land of Arab refugees."
While writings on Palestine abound, one thing I have definitely learned through the writing of this book, is that there is still a great deal of information on Palestine's Nakba that has not made the journey from the dusty archive to the vibrant realm of common knowledge. There is still much work to be done.