Inaccurate BBC Balfour Declaration claim misleads audiences

On November 1st an article titled “Battle of Beersheba charge recreated for centenary” was published on the BBC News website’s Australia and Middle East pages.

In among an otherwise reasonable account of the commemoration of that First World War battle, readers found the following two paragraphs:

“The Battle of Beersheba led to the Balfour Declaration – the first time the British government endorsed the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.

While many Israelis believe it was the foundation stone of modern Israel and the salvation of the Jews, many Palestinians regard it as a betrayal.” [emphasis added]

The Battle of Beersheba took place on October 31st 1917. The Balfour Declaration was published just two days later on November 2nd 1917. Apparently though the BBC would have its audiences believe – as the use of the words “led to” indicates – that it was the allied forces’ victory in that battle in the Negev desert which caused Lord Balfour’s letter to be written.

That, of course, is an inaccurate representation of events. The document published on November 2nd 1917 was in fact the end product of several months of drafts, revisions and consultations, as the Balfour 100 website explains:

“Balfour’s November 1917 typewritten letter to Rothschild was ‎drafted after a great deal of back-and-forth within Lloyd George’s government and considerable input by Zionist leaders led by Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936) and Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952); and by British Jews adamantly opposed to Zionism.

On June 13, 1917 Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour met with Lord Walter Rothschild, leader of the British Jewish community, and Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann and suggested they submit a draft document encapsulating their hopes for Palestine that he could submit for Cabinet discussion.

The formula which the Zionists preferred was submitted by Rothschild to Balfour on July 18, 1917.

But the to-and-fro over the letter’s wording continued. […]

On October 6, 1917 the War Cabinet decided to send out the latest draft text to eight Jews—four anti-Zionists and four Zionists—for comment. The cover letter acknowledged that “in view of the divergence of opinion expressed on the subject by the Jews themselves,” the Government “would like to receive in writing the views of representative Jewish leaders, both Zionists and non-Zionists.””

One of the four anti-Zionists was Sir Philip Magnus, whose response can be found in the National Library of Israel. Also on October 6th 1917, the British sought the opinion of the US president Woodrow Wilson and, as Martin Kramer documents, the French government had also expressed its approval for “the renaissance of the Jewish nationality [nationalité juive] in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago” in June 1917 in the Cambon letter.

In short, the Balfour Declaration had been a ‘work in progress’ for at least five months before the ANZAC forces won the Battle of Beersheba and the BBC’s claim that the victory against the Ottomans “led to” Lord Rothschild’s letter is historically inaccurate and misleading to audiences.

Update:

Following communication from BBC Watch, the article was amended and the first paragraph now reads:

“The Battle of Beersheba came days before the Balfour Declaration – the first time the British government endorsed the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.”

 

 

 

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part two

In part one of this post we saw how an item by Trevor Barnes relating to the Balfour Declaration that was aired in the October 1st edition (from 18:14 here) of the BBC Radio 4 ethics and religion show ‘Sunday‘ promoted assorted historical inaccuracies.  

Trevor Barnes’ fourth interviewee likewise began by promoting an inaccurate claim, suggesting (from 21:10) that “Israel and Palestine” were British colonies.

“I think Britain doesn’t come out of any of the colonial history of Israel and Palestine in that good a light.”

Barnes: “Chris Rose – director of the Amos Trust; a Christian organisation working in the West Bank and Gaza.”

That description of the Amos Trust is grossly inadequate and fails to inform listeners of that NGO’s political agenda and anti-Israel activities as BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality require.

Rose: “Even Balfour himself a couple of years later on said that Zionism be right or wrong is more important than the wishes of the 700,000 Arabs. Our call is to the British Government now, if it is determined to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, to do so in the only real meaningful way by working tirelessly for full equal rights for everybody who calls it home.”

The statement by Lord Balfour shoddily paraphrased by Chris Rose (who has in the past attributed Palestinian terrorism to “high unemployment and poor amenities“) comes from a memorandum written by Balfour in 1919 and its context – the question of the selection of mandatories in various regions of the Middle East – is important. 

“Without further considering whether the political picture drawn by the Covenant [of the League of Nations] corresponds with anything to be found in the realms of fact, let us ask on what principle these mandatories are to be selected by the Allied and Associated Powers

On this point the Covenant speaks as follows:—

‘The wishes of these communities (i.e., the independent nations) must be a principal consideration in the selection of a mandatory.’

The sentiment is unimpeachable; but how is it to be carried into effect? To simplify the argument, let us assume that two of the ‘independent nations’ for which mandatories have to be provided are Syria and Palestine? Take Syria first. Do we mean, in the case of Syria, to consult principally the wishes of the inhabitants? We mean nothing of the kind. According to the universally accepted view there are only three possible mandatories—England, America, and France. Are we going ‘chiefly to consider the wishes of the inhabitants’ in deciding which of these is to be selected? We are going to do nothing of the kind. England has refused. America will refuse. So that, whatever the inhabitants may wish, it is France they will certainly have. They may freely choose; but it is Hobson’s choice after all.

The contradiction between the letter of the Covenant and the policy of the Allies is even more flagrant in the case of the ‘independent nation’ of Palestine than in that of the ‘independent nation’ of Syria. For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Referring to Chris Rose, Trevor Barnes continued – with noteworthy use of the word Jewish rather than Israeli:

Barnes: “His claim is that the second half of the declaration has still to be honoured. While the first half favoured a Jewish homeland, the second reassured explicitly – quote – ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’ which Chris Rose says hasn’t happened in practice, though for the Board of Deputies Richard Verber defends the Jewish record on religious freedom post-Balfour.”

Verber: “Well there are many cases in Israel proper where religions do indeed co-exist in harmony. Jerusalem has its flash-points but you go and you see Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bahai, Druze walking around. Many have their own areas and places of worship. Israel is of course the only place in the Middle East where Christians are free to worship without persecution.”

Rose: “If you live in Bethlehem you may well not be able to go up to Temple Mount to pray, to worship. If you want to go and worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you pretty won’t be able to do that and so while yes there’s religious freedom in that respect, there has to be recognised that there’s also major constrictions on freedom of movement which restricts people from having their religious freedom.”

Unsurprisingly Chris Rose did not bother to tell listeners that residents of Bethlehem and other areas that have been under Palestinian Authority control for over two decades can apply for permits to visit religious sites in Jerusalem (among other reasons) or that “constrictions on freedom of movement” are the unfortunate outcome of Palestinian terrorism. While Trevor Barnes did tick the impartiality box by paraphrasing the Israeli view, he too failed to make any reference to Palestinian terrorism. Listeners were then told that Jewish self-determination is a “hotly contested concept”.

Barnes: “Chris Rose of the Amos Trust. For its part the Israeli government has repeatedly said that such restrictions as there are are driven solely by security concerns and by the imperative legitimately to ensure the country’s survival. And in essence, says Richard Verber, the right of Israel to exist in the first place is at the heart of any religious definition of that hotly contested concept Zionism.”

Verber: “Zionism is a religious imperative. It’s a core belief in Judaism today. The word Zionism is clearly a newer invention – we’re talking here 19th century – but the idea of there being a desire among the Jewish people to have autonomy in their own homeland dates back 3,300 years when the Jewish people first entered what was then the land of Canaan – Cna’an. I think Jewish people have long understood the importance of living alongside their religious brethren; whether that be Christian or Muslim or indeed any other stripe or people of no faith at all.”

Barnes: From its inception Zionism itself did not have the backing of all Jews – especially religious Jews who argued that a return to the land of Israel was to be the work of the Messiah and couldn’t be engineered by any human agency. Events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, however, put paid to many reservations and the promise of the Balfour Declaration was made actual in 1948. Indeed Richard Verber for the Board of Deputies argues that the founders of the State of Israel referenced the Balfour Declaration, repeating and reinforcing a commitment to civil and religious freedom. The Amos Trust, however, isn’t convinced and they’ve launched a campaign ‘Change the Record’ calling for equal rights for all in the holy land.”

Listeners then heard a recording promoting that political campaign currently being run by the inadequately presented political NGO: a campaign which aims to persuade the British government that “the seeds of today’s injustice, inequality and violence were sown by the Balfour Declaration in 1917”. 

Barnes went on to say:

Barnes: “Those celebrating – rather than mourning – the Balfour Declaration dispute that reading of events. But either way Nicolas Pelham says it changed the religious make-up not just of Palestine but of much of the Middle East.”

Pelham: “Until the Balfour declaration, under the Ottoman Empire religious communities had lived essentially as that – as holy communities – and what the Balfour Declaration does is to transform religious communities into religious national movements so that instead of sharing space they have conflict over space. Instead of having holy communities in the region, we have holy lands and the battle between sects for control of the land.”

Listeners to this unbalanced item heard inaccurate and blatantly politicised ‘history’ and were steered towards the false impression that the Middle East was a region blessed with idyllic inter-religious harmony until the day Arthur Balfour put pen to paper. They were also informed that Jewish self-determination is a “contested concept” and exposed to an ongoing political campaign run by a partisan NGO that engages in delegitimisation of Israel.

How this item by Trevor Barnes can be said to meet BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality is unclear.  

Related Articles:

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Reviewing BBC portrayal of the Balfour Declaration

BBC’s ME Editor misrepresents the Hussein-McMahon correspondence

BBC’s Connolly contorts Israeli – and British – history to fit his political narrative

 

Politicising the Balfour Declaration on BBC Radio 4 – part one

Despite the fact that it claims to take “a look at the ethical and religious issues of the week”, the October 1st edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Sunday‘ included an item purporting to examine the “impact of the Balfour Declaration on religious communities in the Middle East”.

Presenter Emily Buchanan introduced the segment (from 18:14 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Buchanan: “This year marks the 100th anniversary of a letter that changed the face of Middle Eastern politics forever. The Balfour Declaration – written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917 at a critical period in the First World War – expressed for the first time Britain’s commitment to a national homeland for the Jews. It paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel 30 years later but what effect did the declaration have on the religious make-up of the region? Trevor Barnes reports.”

Interestingly, neither Buchanan nor any of the five other people from whom listeners subsequently heard talking about this topic bothered to mention the event that was arguably more significant in ‘paving the way’ towards the creation of Israel – the San Remo Conference – and the resulting Mandate for Palestine.

Trevor Barnes introduced his first contributor thus:

Barnes: “Whether you celebrate the Balfour Declaration, merely commemorate it or actively fulminate against it depends on the political and religious position you take. Eugene Rogan: professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Oxford.”

Rogan: “For anybody whose political aspirations are fulfilled by Zionism then obviously the Balfour Declaration was the essential first step in that direction. But for the Palestinian Arab people whose land was being promised away by the British government at the height of the First World War without their consent, without consultation, it’s been an unmitigated catastrophe from the outset.”

At the time that the Balfour Declaration was written the land concerned was of course under the control of the Ottoman Empire and had been for five hundred years. Subsequently that region came under British control during the First World War and later was declared mandate territory. Just last month the BBC acknowledged that the area was not ‘Palestinian land’ but nevertheless we see Eugene Rogan allowed to promote that myth again, even though Barnes went on to reference the Ottoman Empire in the very next sentence.

Barnes: “Precise figures are disputed but in 1917 in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the region is reckoned to have comprised some 85% Muslim, around 10% Christian and 5% Jewish populations. Nicolas Pelham: Middle East correspondent at the Economist.”

Pelham: “It was a region that was remarkably heterogeneous. It had a predominance of Muslims but there were also large Christian communities and Jewish communities – largely sharing the same cities and towns and public space. There was no real distinct sort of Christian Quarter and Jewish Quarter and Muslim Quarter before the Balfour Declaration.”

The staggering inaccuracy of that latter claim from Nicolas Pelham is of course evident in maps such as those appearing in Sir Martin Gilbert’s Jerusalem Historical Atlas.

Trevor Barnes continued, enlisting a British Jewish representative to paint an idyllic picture of Jewish-Muslim co-existence.

Barnes: “Relations, he says, if not always cordial were manageable in the main. Richard Verber: senior vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews.”

Verber: “Pockets of friendship and, unfortunately, pockets of violence. On the other hand, Jewish and Muslim friendships is not a new concept. There were times – across Spain, across North Africa, across parts of the Middle East – where Jews and Muslims lived for decades – and in some places centuries – harmoniously.”

Barnes then made the historically inaccurate claim that it was the Balfour Declaration that brought that supposed ‘harmony’ to an end.

Barnes: “The Balfour Declaration altered that balance, promising favoured status to the Jews at a critical stage in the First World War when Britain was looking for allies; especially those who could help secure post-war influence in this strategically vital part of the world. Nicolas Pelham:”

Pelham: “I think one of the reasons that Britain was so interested in Jews was because – unlike the French and the Russians – they really didn’t have an indigenous community for which they could take responsibility. The French had Catholics and Maronites in the Middle East. The Russians had the Orthodox Church and Britain was really scraping around for a community that it could sponsor and wield influence through.”

The Anglican Church had in fact first begun to establish a presence in the Middle East almost a hundred years before the Balfour Declaration was written, with churches consecrated in Jerusalem and Nazareth in the 19th century and St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem established as the centre of the diocese in 1898.

Barnes: “And Professor Rogan adds that the declaration came about not as a result of religious favouritism but solely in the context of the realities of war.”

Rogan: “I sympathise with the British government of the time in their willingness to promise anything to anyone who might be able to make a material difference in winning the war. The British government was neither pro-Arab nor pro-Zionist. It was pro-British Empire and its only objective in 1917 was to win the war.”

As will be seen in part two of this post, in the second part of this item the focus shifted from promotion of historical inaccuracy to blatant politicisation of its subject matter.  

Related Articles:

What does the BBC Academy teach the corporation’s journalists about Judaism?

 

 

BBC’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ does fashionable post-colonial guilt

With the BBC’s commemoration of the World War One centenary well underway, it was not surprising to see that the March 6th edition of ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ – broadcast both on BBC Radio 4 and on the BBC World Service – included an item described in the Radio 4 version’s programme synopsis as follows:

“James Rodgers visits a World War 1 cemetery near Jerusalem and ponders how events there 100 years ago influenced the region and still do.” 

The item – which can be listened to here or as a podcast here from about 18:00 – was also featured in the World Service edition of the same programme on March 11th and can be heard here from around 04:43. In that abridged version it was presented under the title “Bearing Witness on the Middle East” and the synopsis reads: FOOC WS 11 3

“Near Jerusalem, James Rodgers has been researching the area’s war graves. As the world gears up to commemorate World War One in Europe, he argues that perhaps we would do better to cast our minds eastwards, and consider how that conflict continues to shape the Middle East.”

The Radio 4 version is introduced by Kate Adie.

“The Great War of 1914-18 may have been largely concentrated in France and Belgium and that’s the focus of most of the commemorations this year. But the largest theatre of war in terms of territory was in fact in the Middle East. It pitted the British and Russians among others against the forces of the Ottoman Empire, supported by the Central Powers – in other words the likes of Germany and Austria. But it also involved all sorts of others, including Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians, Berbers, Arabs and Jews. James Rodgers, who’s been writing a book on the region, has been exploring some of the consequences of the fighting.”

The World Service version is introduced by Pascale Harter.

“Coming up: the graveyards in Jerusalem which bear witness to the way World War One shaped the Middle East.”

And:

“Across the Middle East, James Rodgers has been researching the First World War. It’s coming up to one hundred years since the outbreak of what was known then as the Great War. As people prepare for the centenary commemorations by focusing on the devastation it caused for Europe, James takes a walk through a part of the world where it’s still affecting events today.”

Listeners may therefore have quite reasonably concluded that the four minutes or so of former BBC journalist James Rodgers’ item would inform them about the British campaign in the Middle East nearly a hundred years ago. British cemetery Jerusalem

That, however, is not quite the case.

Yes – Rodgers begins with a description of the British war cemetery in Jerusalem and recounts his search for the graves of soldiers commemorated in his local church in London, but he soon goes off on a tangent and a sizeable proportion of his report is devoted to an event which took place twenty-eight years after the end of the First World War.

“I was pointed in the direction of the graves of some of the men from my local parish. They had been killed a few days before Christmas 1917 as British forces sought to consolidate their hold on Jerusalem. Their occupation of the Holy Land then was part of the process – the defeat and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire – which would see the Middle East divided by borders we largely recognize today.

British forces stayed in Jerusalem until 1948. Their commanders came to use the King David hotel – opened in the early 1930s – as their headquarters. This made the building a target for Jewish fighters seeking to drive them out of Palestine. In July 1946 bombers disguised as milkmen blew up the southern wing of the hotel, killing 91 people. Today the king David hosts presidents and prime ministers. Guests sitting in the lobby on my recent visit seemed casually dressed, but snatches of conversations and ubiquitous smartphones and tablet computers suggested they were doing big business.

I had come to learn more about the experience of my journalist counterparts in the late 1940s. Some of them had narrow escapes from the explosion. It was here, explained Maya Morav – the hotel’s PR manager – flicking on the lights to a basement room. Now it’s a hall for conferences and meetings. Then it had been a subterranean kitchen – the place where the bombers left the milk-churns they had packed with explosives. Less than two years later the British Mandate came to an end. British involvement in the Middle East, of course, did not.

When you are covering the Israel-Palestine conflict as a correspondent you need to have history at your fingertips – often more than one version of it. One of my earliest experiences in Gaza was being welcomed and then chastised by an elderly Palestinian refugee. Because I was British he saw me as bearing some of the blame for events of the previous century which had left his family in a shanty town in one of the most crowded parts of the world. Perhaps he had a point.

As events remembering the First World War gather pace in Europe, perhaps the real focus should be on the Middle East where decisions taken then helped to shape Jerusalem, Gaza, Israel, Syria and Iraq as they are today.”

What Rodgers hopes to achieve by urging BBC audiences to focus on geo-political events in the Middle East a century ago is not stated clearly in this report. What is apparent is some degree of fashionable ‘post-colonial guilt’ and an utter disregard for the all-important subject of context – as shown for example in Rodgers’ failure to note that his “elderly Palestinian refugee” actually came by that status as a result of the decision by Arab countries to invade the new Israeli state or his failure to mention the British policies which kept untold numbers of Jews from reaching safety in Palestine before, during and after the Second World War.

Some might consider that Rodgers’ suggestion that those commemorating World War One turn their attentions to the Middle East becomes a little less opaque when one notes that he is not averse to collaborating with the Hamas-supporting Palestine Solidarity Campaign and that the latter organization – in addition to producing its own highly inaccurate propaganda concerning Britain’s record in the region – also promotes and supports the ongoing campaign by the Hamas-linked ‘Palestinian Return Centre’ (and others) to get Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration.

A dollop of selective post-colonial guilt will surely oil the wheels of that politically motivated campaign.