Thursday, November 3, 2011

How a two-paragraph document written in 1917 shaped the modern world (Books - The Balfour Declaration by Jonathan Schneer)

The Middle East may at times seem a small and distant part of the world, but with a land area only slightly smaller than the U.S., a population of more than 200 million people, possessing 40% of the world's oil, and the birthplace of three of the world's major religions, its influence upon world politics is not to be underestimated. Yet, today's map of the Middle East did not come into being until recently. The contemporary borders and the names of the countries Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, and Israel were all created in the 20th Century. Imperialist England and France, as well as Russia were highly influential in drawing this map to suit their strategic needs. Jonathan Schneer's 2010 book The Balfour Declaration contends that this 1917 document, a promise to by the British Cabinet to establish a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, was really a means of manipulating Arab nationalists, the Ottoman Empire (which was allied to Germany), and the world's
Jewish population (which because of anti-Semetic stereotypes was seen as much more unified and powerful than it actual was) in order to maintain imperialist domination in the aftermath of World War I. As such, Schneer sees it as the origin of the contemporary Arab-Israeli dispute, and his detailed account provides a strong case for this argument.

The strength of The Balfour Declaration is the sheer volume as well as the richness of historical context that Schneer provides the reader. It begins with a brief history of the region pre-1900 and of the nineteenth century persecutions experienced by the Jewish people. The next 100 pages provides background on the key players in the Arab political scene of the early 1900s, whose territories were often a collection of individual types of rule that served local tribes. The Arabs negotiated with the English because they wanted help defeating the Ottoman Empire. In turn, they accepted a vague combination of self-rule and European oversight via the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916. This document written by Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP of Britain, Francois Georges-Picot, a French ambassador, and agreed to by Hussein, the grand Sharif of Mecca chopped up the Middle East in 1916 into regions controlled by France and England exclusively, those controlled by the Arabs but under British of French rule, and a territory approximating "Palestine," which they agreed would be under the charge of some sort of international condominium. The agreement is extraordinary considering the hubris of its power structure, a given in that most British imperialists' fantasies included the notion that people with dark skin were incapable of governing themselves, and how few specifics were worked out, particularly around the hotly desired territory that was Palestine.

The next 150 pages Schneer devotes to the story of British Jewry, who were (and in some ways ever are) divided between Zionists (seeing Judaism as a nationality and therefore a homeland as a sort of birthright, though not every Zionist of the time or this one requires that that homeland be in Palestine) and assimilationists (those who saw their Judaism as their religious or cultural identity but saw themselves as integrated and loyal citizens of their country of residence - England, France, Germany - and therefore as deserving of the protections of the laws of that land as any other group). Their primary representatives were, respectively, Chaim Weizmann and Lucien Wolf. Their advocacy on behalf of their positions, first to Prime Minister Asquith and then to his successor Lloyd George, and how they wished to ensure the protection of the law for their people results in rancorous debates within the Jewish community in the period of 1915-1917 on which this books focuses, but the story of the eventual outcome of The Balfour Declaration is an extraordinary lesson in diplomacy.

The Middle East in 1914, click on map for a larger format.

The remaining 200 pages reaps the reward of Schneer's careful sowing in that the fifty plus characters he introduced, their allegiances and enmities, the assurances they have given, and the secrets they have told come together in the creation of The Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration was the highly contingent product of a tortuous process characterized as much by deceit and chance as by vision and diplomacy.
That being said, one must invest a good deal of careful attention and either have a good memory or frequently consult the ten-page glossary of names to keep track of the leading players and to penetrate the web of their relationships and promises kept or broken. Reading Schneer's book is much like reading a Russian novel. I also found it much easier to remember European names which were familiar to me, than Arabic ones, which were not. After a while, I stopped trying to rush my reading and recognized this cultural blind spot as a playing-out of one of the racial relationships that contributed to this very history. Having done so, I absorbed a lot more of the context which allowed me to experience the tension inherent to the dealings in the swifter moving final chapters. I have to say, this is a dense book but I appreciate how well organized Schneer was in conveying his rich understanding of this critical two-year period of history, and I feel much better informed about how Middle Eastern and European opinions and actions laid the groundwork for today's embittered conflict.

1 comment:

Grover said...


If the French and British hadn't removed the Turkish yoke off the Arabs, would they be in a happier state now I wonder?

If the Turks remained in control, would there likely have been a demand for an independent Arab state of Palestine distinct from those areas that are known as Jordan and Syria today?

There was no administrative area called Palestine under the Ottomans, so I reckon it would have been unlikely?