BBC Radio Wales has a Sunday morning programme called “All Things Considered” which is described as a “religious affairs programme tackling the thornier issues of the day in a thought-provoking manner”. The October 8th edition of that programme, however, was devoted to a political topic. Titled “The Balfour Declaration at 100“, the programme’s synopsis includes the following:
“One hundred years on, how should we in Wales view the Balfour Declaration.”
That strange question (do the Welsh people specifically need to hold a “view” of that century old historic event?) was repeated in the introduction by presenter Sarah Rowland-Jones.
Rowland-Jones: “A century ago, in November 1917, the British Government, under Welsh prime minister Lloyd George, gave its support to the establishment of Jewish homeland in Palestine. This was contained in a letter from the Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, to leaders of the British Jewish Community. The Balfour Declaration, as it came to be known, expressed the government’s intention to support a Jewish national home and to do so without undermining the rights of the people already living in Palestine. The declaration was controversial at the time and has remained so ever since. Celebrated and vilified in near equal measure, it sits behind the lasting conflict in the region. While it kindled international support for a Jewish homeland, even the British government has since acknowledged it gave inadequate protection to the political rights of Palestinians. So – 100 years on – how should we in Wales view the Balfour Declaration?” [emphasis added]
As we see, that introduction promotes the facile notion that the Balfour Declaration is the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict and that theme was repeated throughout the half-hour programme. The reference to the British government having “since acknowledged it gave inadequate protection to the political rights of Palestinians” apparently refers to a statement issued by the FCO that included the following:
“We recognise that the Declaration should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination.”
Nowhere in this programme, however, did the listeners invited to form a “view” of the Balfour Declaration hear that precisely such self-determination was, from 1937 onward, repeatedly rejected by the Arab side.
The programme’s three studio guests were then introduced:
“Rabbi Professor Dan Cohn-Sherbok, professor emeritus of Judaism at the University of Wales and author of many books on the subject of Palestine and Israel, Dr Jasmine Donahaye of Swansea University, author of “Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine” and “Losing Israel” and the reverend Mones Farah; Church in Wales rector of Aberystwyth who is himself Palestinian.”
The first half of this programme related to the Balfour Declaration itself and the circumstances under which it was issued. After Sarah Rowland-Jones had read out the text of the declaration and asked “is this something to be celebrated or regretted?” listeners heard Mones Farah (who has lived in the UK since 1983) create false linkage between it and his family story. [emphasis added]
Farah: “For me, looking at this declaration it causes a lot of problems and difficulties for me personally because as a direct result of this we…my family and my community were made refugees. So for me it will have always that tinge of sadness and lack of celebration about it.”
Donahaye: “Well I think it’s difficult not to understand that for many Jews at the time and since it was a matter for great celebration and continues to be because it’s the foundation upon which Israel is based and that is a question of national self-determination. But it’s not one-sided. There are two elements to it and the second element unfortunately has been betrayed. And therefore it’s something to treat with a great deal of care and critical analysis I think. So celebration – maybe not. But investigation – certainly.”
Rowland-Jones: “When you say the second element you mean the promise that it should not prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities?”
Donahaye: “That’s exactly what I mean. Of course there is the subsequent element that it shouldn’t prejudice the status of Jews elsewhere as well and that’s a slightly different issue but that might be something we’ll discuss later.”
That discussion did not come about and so BBC Wales audiences heard nothing about issues such as the persecution and negation of rights of the Jews in Arab lands.
Dan Cohn-Sherbok presented a more realistic view of the significance of the Balfour Declaration, even while absolving the Palestinians of all agency or responsibility.
Cohn-Sherbok: “Well I do want to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, as I think Jews would around the world. It was 100 years ago, it was the beginning of the creation of the Jewish state, so for the Jewish people it was a fundamental step forward – which is not to ignore the problems that this has led for the Palestinians. With my colleagues I do take into account the difficulties that the Palestinians have faced and are facing now. Nonetheless, I think it is a time for celebration and with Jews throughout the world, I want to celebrate what happened in 1917.”
In the next section of the programme Cohn-Sherbok gave a brief overview of the history behind the story (that included the inaccurate claim that at the time of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 70 CE the region was called Palestine) and the advent of political Zionism.
Cohn-Sherbok: “But at the end of the nineteenth century the Jews were suffering in eastern Europe […] and the Zionists – secular Zionists – believed it was time for the Jews to return. It was the only way that they could protect themselves from onslaught, from antisemitism. It was their only refuge, they believed, and they did everything that they could to persuade those in power to allow Jews to settle in what was then Palestine. And the Balfour Declaration was an essential first step.”
Rowland-Jones: “So what was going on there in the holy land – Palestine – in 1917? Mones, can you tell us something about the people who were living there then?”
Farah: “The people of the land were mainly the Arab indigenous population – the Palestinian population – in the land. By 1914 there were only 7% of the population that were of the new Jewish immigrants or Jewish communities that existed for longer times.”
While Farah mentioned the Ottoman policy of “restricting […] the migration of Jews”, he debatably claimed that the reason for that was “because it created tension with the local population” and made no mention of the expulsion of thousands of Jews already living in the region during the First World War. Ignoring events that pre-dated even the First Aliyah such as the pogroms in Tsfat in 1834, he continued:
Farah: “…I think that the communities felt by the new immigration that was opened up by the turn of the 20th century to the land, they begin to feel the tension and the stress in the land even though they themselves mostly were arable farmers. They were small communities. They were not politicized. But a young intellectual small groups and heads of clans began to agitate and they began to actually resist the new migrations coming into the land until the Balfour Declaration. So there was an increasing tension developing. But there was a population living in the land.”
Farah then went on to promote a myth popular in anti-Israel circles:
Farah: “…I take on what Dan said about the Zionist secularist movement of the late 19th century and its declaration of a need for a Jewish state. One thing I will hold against some of those statements is that they wanted a state for a people without land for a land without people. And I think that is one of the things that actually had such an influence in the public opinion or of the people of power at the time which wasn’t true at all because there was a population living in the land…”
The phrase “A land without a people for a people without a land” – not “a land without people”, as Farah claimed – was in fact not widely employed by early Zionists but mainly by British religious and political figures.
Following discussion of the Welsh aspect of the story of the Balfour Declaration, listeners heard another myth that frequently crops up in BBC content.
Rowland-Jones: “So why did the Lloyd George government issue the declaration at this time? Was it just about seeking allies at a difficult juncture in the First World War?”
Cohn-Sherbok: “It was a very complicated situation. The Balfour Declaration though I wish to celebrate it, was in a sense not straightforward. The British government had previously made promises to the Arabs. The British government had said if you help us in the First World War – if you attack the Ottoman Empire – then we’re gonna give you an Arab independent homeland or Arab independence. That was a promise that was in fact betrayed. They never did. And there was also a meeting between the British and the French prior to the 1917 Balfour Declaration where they essentially divided up the entire world – that Arab world. So I think the Arabs quite rightly feel somewhat betrayed or very betrayed by the British government. The Jews welcomed the Balfour Declaration. It was something they desperately, deeply wanted. But the seeds were sown from the very beginning in the Balfour Declaration of the difficulties that we are currently feeling.”
Those “promises” are of course the McMahon correspondence which – despite the inaccurate claims from Cohn-Sherbok and Farah – did not promise the area of land concerned to the Arabs, as was clarified in the British government’s White Paper of 1922.
“With reference to the Constitution which it is now intended to establish in Palestine, the draft of which has already been published, it is desirable to make certain points clear. In the first place, it is not the case, as has been represented by the Arab Delegation, that during the war His Majesty’s Government gave an undertaking that an independent national government should be at once established in Palestine. This representation mainly rests upon a letter dated the 24th October, 1915, from Sir Henry McMahon, then His Majesty’s High Commissioner in Egypt, to the Sharif of Mecca, now King Hussein of the Kingdom of the Hejaz. That letter is quoted as conveying the promise to the Sherif of Mecca to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs within the territories proposed by him. But this promise was given subject to a reservation made in the same letter, which excluded from its scope, among other territories, the portions of Syria lying to the west of the District of Damascus. This reservation has always been regarded by His Majesty’s Government as covering the vilayet of Beirut and the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem. The whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir Henry McMahon’s pledge.” [emphasis added]
The second part of this programme included some personal stories which will be discussed in part two of this post.