Thinking about The Balfour Declaration, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

An essay by Jane M. McCabe

For the enormous influence it has had on the world, the Balfour Declaration is a remarkably short and concise document. As pointed out in a recent book by Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the Balfour Declaration was crafted by Arthur James Balfour, Foreign Secretary to the British government when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. It is dated November 2nd, 1917, and was a formal statement of policy by the British government stating that:

"His Majesty's government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." (underlining mine)

Schneer’s well researched book concerns the modern State of Israel and traces its historical and religious roots to the Biblical Land of Israel, known as Zion, a concept central to Judaism since ancient times. Political Zionism took shape in the late 19th century under Theodor Herzl, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 formalized British policy, preferring the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.

Following World War I, the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Mandate for Palestine, which included responsibility for securing "the establish-ment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," Schneer writes.

In November 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of the partition of Palestine, proposing the creation of a Jewish state, an Arab state, and an UN-administered Jerusalem. Partition was accepted by Zionist leaders, but rejected by Arab leaders, leading to civil war. Israel declared independence on May 14th, 1948, and neighboring Arab states attacked the next day.

Background information

Some might think that the Arab/Israeli conflict goes back to the initial formation of the state of Israel under King David in the 11th and 10th Centuries B.C., but I believe it can be traced to an even earlier time, to the time of Abraham, in 20th Century B.C., 4000 years ago.

As you will recall, in the Bible, when God told Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the grains of sand at the oceans, Abraham asked how could this be because his wife Sarah was barren and he had no offspring.

In those days, having no offspring was a terrible thing, so Sarah urged Abraham go into her handmaiden Hagar, which he did. Hagar conceived and gave birth to Ishmael. Now it was Hagar’s insolence that caused a problem between her and her mistress, causing Sarah to urge Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael to a country far from Palestine.

The Bible does not tell of Abraham taking Hagar and Ishmael all the way to what is now Saudi Arabia, and leaving them in what is now Mecca, but the Koran does.

Sometime after the birth of Ishmael, Sarah, even though she was now quite old, conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Therefore, Abraham is not only the biological father of the Jews, but also of the Arabs. 

It may be fanciful of me to think in this fashion, but I often think of the Jews and Arabs, the Semite peoples, as long-lost cousins. I have always hoped they would recognize themselves as such.

Isaac was the father of Jacob, and he had twelve sons, the next to youngest of which was Joseph. Because of their jealousy, his brothers stripped Joseph of his coat of many colors and sold him to a caravan of traders traveling into Egypt. Joseph found favor with the Pharaoh and became his vizier. The Jews toiled in Egypt under the yoke of the Egyptians for four hundred years before they were released from their bondage when Moses brought them out. We refer to this as the Exodus. One of the most important Jewish holidays is Passover, which celebrates their release from bondage.

For forty years, they wandered in the Sinai desert before they were allowed to take possession of “the land of milk and honey,” i.e., Palestine, or present-day Israel.

Twice they were driven from this land, in 586 bc during the Babylonian Exile, and in 70 ad after the Romans destroyed the second temple. For nearly 2000 years the Jews of the world have lived in other lands and dreamt of one day returning to Palestine.

The fact that this happened nearly 200o years later is one of the marvels of modern times, and attests to the marvelous power that governs the world. It reminds me of Constantine’s dream in 325 ad that led to his being able to conquer his foes and establish Christianity as the religion of the Byzantine Empire.

The seeds of dispossession and misery are sown

My dictionary defines chauvinism as “fanatical patriotism or prejudiced belief in the superiority of one’s own gender, group or kind.” During the Age of Imperialism, the British and French didn’t believe that people with darker skins than theirs were capable of self-government; hence, they assumed the right to carve up the Middle East according to their own self-interests following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire.

History is ever complex. The 20th century saw the fighting of two world wars. At the time of the first, the Muslim Ottoman Empire was old, and on the verge of collapse. It was referred to as “the sick man of Europe.” Its jurisdiction nevertheless extended to Saudi Arabia, and Syria, including Palestine. The Arabs resented being controlled by the Turks and were ripe for rebellion. At the same time, in Europe, Zionists were moving in political circles, advocating that as a by-product of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Jews should be given a homeland in Palestine.

All of this 20th Century maneuvering is well documented in Schneer’s book.

Fourteen months after the European powers declared war upon one another, in November, 1914, Enver Pasha brought Turkey in on Germany’s side, an incentive for Great Britain to do what she could to bring about the collapse of his empire. Britain began to work at cross purposes—she both encouraged the Arab revolt AND looked kindly on the possibility for a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

Considering the importance of what was at stake, it’s ironic, as Schneer points out, that some of what happened was the result of poor communications. Sir Henry McMahon carried on a delicate correspondence with Emir Hussein, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, concerning the division of the Middle East following the war. He wrote in English—he could neither speak nor write in Arabic—so his letter to Hussein had to be translated. The language he used was imprecise and poorly translated and thereby misconstrued. Hussein mistakenly thought he would be the ruler of an Arab nation extending over much of the Middle East, including Palestine.

“Conceivably the imbroglio that resulted from this most infamous letter can be traced to nothing more than an imprecise rendering of English into Arabic caused perhaps by ignorance or even haste,” Schneer writes.

Likewise, The Sykes-Picot Agreement has cast just as long a shadow into modern times as the Balfour Declaration. It gave France control of Syria and Lebanon, and Great Britain control of Jordan and Iraq, suggesting that Palestine be governed by an international condominium.

Schneer notes: “Early in 1916 Grand Sharif Hussein began laying the groundwork for rebellion in earnest. He knew little if anything of Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, and absolutely nothing of the agreement the two men had reached regarding Arabia and that the three Entente powers had subsequently ratified. Had he known of such matters, Middle Eastern history might have unwound very differently. Instead, with the careful but encouraging letters of Sir Henry McMahon fresh in his mind, the emir pushed his chess pieces into position.”

The same condescension that allowed Sykes to cavalierly redraw the borders of countries in the Middle East and the British government in India to look upon Mesopotamia as its own preserve is revealed in the letter McMahon wrote to Lord Hardinge that promises made to Arabs need not be binding upon the British government.

“The declarations of war in late July and early August 1914 burst upon an unprepared world like a volley of gunshots at a summer garden party” and set into motion the events that brought about the formation of the state of Israel.

Zionism was a world movement—Jews lived everywhere, fought everywhere and on every front, even against each other, for their respective countries of residence. Two branches of political British Jewry—the Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann and the assimilationists led by Lucien Wolf—were fated to engage in a fierce competition for the support of the British government.

“Like two ships headed for a collision in the dark of night—or rather, given that part of the world, like two desert caravans separated by trackless wastes but following intersecting routes—the Arab and Jewish nationalist movements pushed relentlessly forward, oblivious to each other, fated nonetheless to coincide eventually,” Schneer observes.

T.E. Lawrence played a key role in the Arab Revolt, successfully blowing up any number of bridges and train tracks instrumental in the Turks being able to govern Arabia. T.E. Lawrence had developed genuine sympathy for Arab nationalist aspirations.

Jews of the world now had financial clout that they used to persuade the British government to support their cause for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, by offering support for the Allied cause.

Palestine was like a woman promised to four suitors: she was promised to the Arabs, to the Zionists, to an international consortium and to the Turks.

“The Balfour Declaration was the highly contingent product of a tortuous process characterized by deceit and chance as by vision and diplomacy. It produced a murderous harvest, ”Schneer wisely notes.

At the end of the war, Britain ruled Palestine by virtue of a military occupation. The Paris Peace Conference, in 1919, and the San Remo Conference, in 1920, ratified her rule and extended it indefinitely with the mandate system established by the League of Nations. Zionism had achieved its objective, but Zionists’ doubts about Britain were reviving. Leon Uris’ Exodus chronicles the Jews’ successful struggle to wrest control of Palestine from the British and the Arabs, and in 1948, Israel became a nation.

The rest is history. The seeds of dissension were sewn. Palestinian Arabs still feel their homeland was taken from them, and the entire Arab world would like nothing better than to drive the Jews into the sea; but Israel has proved to be a formidable enemy. From a sleepy nothing of a country, the Jews built Israel into a modern nation.

Unfortunately, the problem defies solution BECAUSE this postage-stamp sized nation happens to be at the fulcrum of civilization, and houses the holiest of sites to Jews, Christians and Muslims, so drawing a line and saying Jews to the north and Arabs to the south, or vice versa, is not viable. It’s the Jews that made her what she is today. Learning the lesson of the Holocaust, she had proven herself adept at defending herself. Yet one’s heart also bleeds for the Arabs who lost their homes in the Arab Diaspora.

Schneer offers an interesting conclusion: “The most famous result was the declaration itself. Zionists and many others have viewed it ever since as a terrific achievement, a foundation stone along the way to the establishment of modern Israel. Many Arabs on the other hand have seen it as a terrible setback, the real starting point of their dispossession and misery.”

“An equally consequential result of the process was the development of profound mistrust, of all parties, by all the parties, and growing from the mistrust a bitterness that would lead to the spilling of much blood.”

It’s all very troubling and year after year passes without a satisfactory solution to the problem.

Jane M McCabe is a freelance writer and former teacher living in Amargosa Valley, NV.

Return to home page


The Immigration Debate: Where are the Eggheads?

An essay by Fred Beauford

What surprised me most when I decided to write this essay was after I queried publishers across the country if they had any recent books on the Immigration debate, most of them had little to offer. Apparently, as far as they were concerned, there was no real debate worth the resources necessary to publish a book on the subject.

Maybe this has something to do with location.  Most publishing is located in New York, or in large educational institutions. In New York City, for example, I rarely hear the subject of immigration discussed.  However, all I have to do is take a train or plane out west, where I have spent so much of my life, and immigration is a subject that quickly touches raw nerves, and drives people into a frenzy of deeply felt frustration, and often total despair, both pro and con.

I would like to raise some of the hidden issues I have discovered in this non-debate that drives so many of my friends in California -- and often, people I don’t even know, but who just want to give me their opinion -- into such agitated states.

Issue one: the demise of the nation-state as we know it.

This is clearly the big one, and, interestingly enough, the least written about. After sending out countless emails to my list of publishers, Harvard University Press finally sent me The Birthright Lottery: Citizenship and Global Inequality, by Ayelet Shachar, a book published in 2009, which at least addressed the subject.

Written in the dense language that many professors love to use, Professor Shachar is perfectly clear, however, when it comes to the major point in his book. He writes, “Membership boundaries that extend across generational lines can now be viewed in a more complex light: not only are these boundaries sustained for cultivating bonds of identity and belonging (as the conventional argument holds), they also serve a crucial role in preserving restricted access to the community’s prosperity and power. The latter is jealously guarded at the juncture of transfer of “ownership” from the present generation of citizens to its progeny. In other words, birthright citizen mechanisms provide cover through their presumed naturalness for what is essentially a major (and currently untaxed) transmission of wealth and enabling resources from one generation to another. Ours is a world of scarcity; when an affluent community systemically delimits access to membership and its derivative benefits on the basis of a strict heredity system that effectively resembles an entail structure of preserving privilege and advantage in the hands of the few, those who are excluded have reason to complain.”

This is geography as destiny. History abounds, however, with examples that “scarce resources “ are not necessarily the final determinate if a society languishes or thrives.

When I read Professor Shachar’s words, I immediately thought of Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and his example of the doomed medieval Viking settlement on Greenland; and thought, instead of geography as the major player, why not geography and culture?

The invading Vikings brought their livestock with them, but the land ultimately could not support such close grazing. Because of deep-rooted cultural reasons, they refused to proceed like the successful Inuits that shared Greenland with them, and mine the sea for food. So they slowly starved to death with food all around them.

The example of modern day Israel also came to mind. However, if we follow the logic of Professor Shachar’s idea that nation-states that prosper should really be ashamed of themselves, then a nation-state like a highly prosperous Israel, has no right to exist as a Jewish state, but should open its borders to its impoverished Muslim neighbors.   


There’s this joke: In 1704, two Africans were sitting on a high bluff overlooking the ocean when a huge ship appeared.

“Oh, look at the interesting color of their skin,” one said, pointing to a young, white, pimpled-faced crewmember.

“I have heard of strange looking people like that,” his friend answered, excitedly. “Let’s go down and see what they want. Maybe we can show them around.”


In the end, many societies may just be demonstrating the height of wisdom by not allowing a strange culture inside their boundaries, no matter how dire their condition, or how friendly they may seem. Just ask the Romans.

Issue two: Ethnic Cleansing.

    I have a personal connection to this issue. As I explained recently to a short, brown-skinned Mexican man serving me drinks behind a bar in Manhattan, “I may not be your brother, but I am certainly your second cousin.”

It wasn’t just the strong cocktails encouraging me to say this. My ex-wife is half Mexican and half Irish (the Mexican being the side that gave me the most grief, and which side contributed most to her gorgeous looks, I will never know).

My deceased father-in-law was a dark skinned man, while my mother-in-law, from old photos, was a flaming, fair-skinned redhead.

I learned from Pete, my children’s grandfather, and some of my other my in-laws, the truth of that t-shirt I once wrote about which had printed on it: No Hispanics, No Latinos, No Mexicans. We are indigenous people. 

Pete, and almost all of his twelve children, including my ex, became indignant if I called them white. This surprised me because most could have passed for anything they wanted, including, in some cases, being a fair skinned African American.


“Where do you think we came from before ‘you guys’ showed up?” my wife once asked, shaking her head in total disbelief at such a Dumbo.


So for the first time in my young life, I was one of “you guys.”


With that insight in mind, I couldn’t help but start noticing that most of the illegal immigrants I encountered were indeed not Spanish. Some didn’t even speak Spanish, but had retained the native language that they had had centuries before the Spanish arrived.

So far, the only intellectual response that I know of to this now obvious fact has come from the brainy essayist Richard Rodriguez, when he wrote, more than ten years ago,  “How interesting that indigenous people are now starting to re-colonize the west.”

There are other, darker voices, however, that have lately raised a disturbing question: Are the ancestors of the Europeans, the  “Grandees” that still run things in Mexico, engaging in one of the largest ethnic cleansing operations in modern history?

Here is what the Encyclopedia Britannica says about the racial make-up of the population: “About three-fifths of Mexico’s population is Mestizo (part indigenous, part European, with a touch of African), one-third American Indian and the rest are of European ancestry. The official language is Spanish. More than 50 Indian languages are spoken.”


Again, I looked to books for answers. However, as with the articles I read in magazines and newspapers about Illegal immigration from Mexico, almost nothing is written about why the powers that be in Mexico, including the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, are in effect, telling so many of their hard working brown-skinned citizens to scram.

Lynnaire M. Sheridan’s “I Know it’s Dangerous:” Why Mexicans Risk Their Lives to Cross the Border (The University of Arizona Press) gives a through account of what has led Mexico and America to such an impasse. In addition, she interviewed many of the immigrants about what motivated them to take what is now a highly dangerous journey.

She rightly cites the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed February 2, 1848, which ended the United States-Mexican War, from 1846 to 1848. “With U.S. forces occupying Mexico City,” Sheridan writes, “General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexico’s commanding officer, sold one-third of Mexican territory to the United States, thus establishing a new international boundary. Together with land sold under the Gadsden Purchase in 1854, Mexico ceded, in all, one-half of its territory to the United States. For their part, the Mexican people accepted neither the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo nor the “loss” of their national territory.”

In other words, like the families of my Mexican in-laws, who have been in Southern Texas for centuries, they have been moving back and forth over this land we now call Mexico and the United States for as long as anyone can remember; and certainly longer than “you guys.”

However, as with most books and articles on the subject, Sheridan says nothing about racial issues in Mexico, but only focuses on what she sees as racist attitudes in America toward immigrants; not even hinting that racist attitudes may have been what lead the immigrants to take what has now, as she so aptly points out in her book, an increasingly perilous journey to El Norte.

I would love to hear what La Raza has to say on the subject.

Return to home page