The second part (see part one here) of the ‘Newshour‘ Balfour Declaration centenary special that was aired on BBC World Service radio on November 2nd began (from 30:04 here) with a reading of the declaration itself after a short introduction from presenter James Menendez.
[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Menendez: “Now to our main story today: the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – the statement by the British government pledging support for the creation of a homeland for Jews.
Menendez then introduced his next guest:
Menendez: “Well let’s get the Palestinian perspective on that declaration and its legacy. I’ve been speaking to Ahmad Khalidi, a former Palestinian negotiator, now senior associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford University. What does he think the motivation for the deal was?”
Khalidi began by promoting the theme of ‘colonialism’ that appears regularly in Palestinian Authority and PLO messaging.
Khalidi: “There were a number of things. The first was clear British imperial interests in establishing a colony which the British would control and who they believed would be populated by a friendly Jewish Zionist population. The second was to keep the French out because the French had competing interests in the Levant and third was to gain the support of world Jewish communities, particularly in the United States as the British were interested in getting the Americans to come into the war. So they thought that if they could do this then the Jews all over the world would support the British and the allies in the war.”
Menendez: “But was there no humanitarian motivation – the desire to give the Jewish people a homeland given the level – even at that stage – of persecution in Europe even before the Holocaust?”
Khalidi: “Yes there was but it wasn’t matched by any sympathy or understanding for the fact the population of Palestine was 90% Arab – both Muslim and Christian. Second, that this population was not consulted and third that the terms of the Balfour Declaration set up no parity between the two. Balfour decided – or the declaration says – that Jews can have a national home in Palestine and recognises them as a people with national rights but it only refers to the Palestinians as the non-Jewish communities. Balfour made it very clear; he says the Zionist movement has far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit the land.”
Khalidi’s misrepresentation of the context that statement by Balfour conceals from listeners that it was actually made two years after the Balfour Declaration was issued in a memorandum addressing the question of the selection of mandatories in various regions of the Middle East and referred specifically to the debate at the time about consulting the inhabitants of the Middle East with regard to that specific question.
Menendez: “But did everyone think that though? I mean that wasn’t how it was sold to the people at the time. Weren’t there those who felt that both things were possible? That the Jewish people could have their homeland and the Arabs living there also could have a future?”
Khalidi: “Well yes; a future but you know as I keep saying this is a land that had been populated for 1,400 years by an Arab people and that the British, who were not in control of Palestine, decided that the best thing would be to hand it over to somebody else – who was not there!”
Rather than clarifying to listeners that by the time the Balfour Declaration was written Jerusalem had had a majority Jewish population for more than half a century and that Jewish communities had existed in additional towns such as Tsfat, Hebron and Tiberias for centuries, Menendez put his own wind into the sails of Khalidi’s political narrative.
Menendez: “So sort of giving away something that wasn’t theirs to give away.”
Khalidi: “They weren’t even in control of it at the time. It wasn’t theirs to give away and somebody else was there who had as much – if not more – of a claim to the land than anybody else. The Arabs were there for 1,400 years continuously, regardless of who was there before. These were the people of the land; the natives. And they were completely ignored.”
Menendez: “And in fact Winston Churchill came up with this phrase, didn’t he, ‘I don’t agree that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time’.”
That statement by Churchill of course dates from twenty years after the Balfour Declaration and according to Sir Martin Gilbert’s book “Churchill and the Jews” was made in the framework of the 1937 Peel Commission which recommendation partition of Palestine into two separate states – one Jewish and one Arab: a plan that was unanimously rejected by the Arabs. That information of course does not fit it with Khalidi’s narrative of denial of the national rights of Arabs and therefore unsurprisingly listeners were told nothing of that context.
Khalidi: “Isn’t that extraordinary? Frankly, I mean, Theresa May thinks that this is a day to celebrate with pride. I think it’s a day when the British government should hang its head in shame. It’s a day that reveals an extent of duplicity, a lack of concern for the natives of the land. OK you can say that this was the spirit of imperialism at the time. Maybe. But it doesn’t make it any better from the Palestinian point of view.”
Menendez: “But it also gave refuge to the Jews who’d been persecuted for hundreds of years. Surely that is a good thing with the benefit of hindsight?”
Khalidi: “If that could have been done in such a way that it was a consensual act where the Palestinian Arabs and the Jews had come together and agreed on a formula by which this would be mutually acceptable, that would have been wonderful. But the fact is that this is not what happened. We were not recognised as a people with national rights and to a very large extent this is still the case today.”
Refraining from asking Khalidi to clarify why those national rights were not recognised – or demanded – when the Palestinian Arabs were living under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Menedez went on:
Menendez: “And isn’t the problem at the moment that there are loud voices on both sides of the conflict who do not believe that the other side should have any right to that land – both on the Israeli side and Palestinian side?”
Khalidi: “Yes, I mean, you know, we have a formula that’s been around for decades. The sad thing is that whereas the international community put its weight behind the Balfour Declaration and the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, there’s never been a similar international line-up that has made any difference in terms of creating a national home or a state for the Palestinians in what remains of Palestine.”
Had Menendez been playing the role of impartial interviewer rather than facilitator of the amplification of a specific political narrative he would of course have reminded Khalidi – and his listeners – that in 1947 an “international line-up” offered the Palestinians the chance of their own state in the form of the Partition Plan but that it too was rejected by both the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states. However, Menendez closed the conversation with Khalidi at that point and went on instead to describe to listeners Palestinian media coverage of the centenary before introducing his final interviewee as “the view from Jerusalem”.
Menendez: “…I spoke to Michaela Sieff [Ziv] – her grandmother Rebecca founder of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation [WIZO]. She told me first about her grandmother’s role in those years leading up to the creation of the State of Israel.”
While Ms Sieff’s account was interesting in itself, it did not counter the historical revisionism previously promoted by Khalidi and Menendez who, when told of Rebecca Sieff’s work with Jewish women and children in Palestine asked:
Menedez: “So concern for them. Was she worried at all do you know about what would happen to the Arab inhabitants of Palestine?”
His final question steered listeners back to the theme dominating the entire item:
Menendez: “And what do you think now? I mean can you understand Ahmad Khalidi who we’ve just heard from, you know, his feelings of betrayal, feelings of resentment that Britain betrayed the Palestinians with the Balfour Declaration?”
Obviously this ‘Newshour’ special not only did very little indeed to contribute to audience understanding of the topic of the Balfour Declaration but its blatant promotion of a partisan political narrative based on historical revisionism failed to meet the BBC’s professed standards of accuracy and impartiality.