From Balfour to Suez: Britain's Zionist Misadventure: Robert Carr Traces Developments in British Policy between 1917 and 1956

By Carr, Robert | History Review, December 2004 | Go to article overview

From Balfour to Suez: Britain's Zionist Misadventure: Robert Carr Traces Developments in British Policy between 1917 and 1956


Carr, Robert, History Review


Despite coordinated Arab-British strategy and the heroics of T.E. Lawrence's Arab Revolt, 1918's defeat of the Ottomans did not bring political reward to the communities of the Middle East. Instead Britain and France had struck a secret deal in 1916 to carve up the region between them; and a year later Lloyd George's government had made further plans for a postwar Palestine. The Foreign Secretary of the day, Lord Balfour, conveyed these plans in a letter of 2nd November 1917 to Lord Rothschild:

   His Majesty's Government view
   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 ...

What lay behind this 'Balfour Declaration' and the government's push for a Jewish home in Palestine? Part of the answer lies in Anglicanism and its literal and sentimental approach to the Old Testament. Religious convictions lent sympathy to the 'chosen' Jewish nation. Another factor is the advent of Political Zionism (i.e. the hope to establish a Jewish homeland in Ancient Israel) which gained momentum largely as a result of the horrendous pogroms of 1881 and Tsar Alexander's endorsement of anti-Semitism. The active Zionism of high society figures such as Lord Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann further encouraged the British government.

The Interwar years

The League of Nations awarded Britain the Palestine Mandate in 1922; the mandate stipulated that Britain was 'responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home'. Immediately, however, Britain attempted to renege on its responsibility. The Colonial Secretary, Winston Churchill, all but renounced the Balfour Declaration and restricted

The Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Jewish immigration. Furthermore, his White Paper saw Palestine divided, and two-thirds of the territory formally became the Arab emirate of Transjordan.

While those hoping for the creation of a Jewish homeland were being squeezed by the British, Jews already living in Palestine were the victims of looting and murder as Palestinian Arabs revolted, initially in 1920 but followed up by further violence in 1921 and 1922. Zionists justifiably complained that the British failed to provide protection to Jewish settlers. The year 1929, however, saw the bloodiest massacres in Palestine: 133 Jews were killed. Somewhat insensitively, Colonial Secretary Passfield attributed such Arab violence to the provocation of Zionist land purchases and immigration! His 1929 White Paper introduced a severe limit on Jewish immigration (a reduction which became all the more important with the establishment of the anti-Semitic Nazi regime in Germany in 1933). While Iraq and Egypt achieved effective independence, in 1932 and 1936 respectively, neither the Jews nor Arabs of Palestine were any closer to self-determination.

In response to an Arab general strike and rioting in 1936, the British established an inquiry and, under Lord Peel, drew up a partition plan. The Palestinian Arabs flatly rejected the division of land. Britain had failed miserably to fulfil its mandate responsibilities: it was no closer to bringing either community to self-rule. Instead, British bungling had set Jews and Arabs against one another--with fatal consequences: 2,800 people were killed in massacres between 1936 and 1939. Remarkably, the (failed) Peel Plan had provided for Britain's indefinite rule over Jerusalem--more a sign of imperial arrogance than administrative competence.

In seeking wider Arab support in an impending war with Germany, Britain introduced yet another White Paper. The 1939 White Paper declared Britain's intention to withdraw ten years hence; in the meantime it limited Jewish immigration to 15,000 each year (up to 1944 and thereafter only with Arab consent) and land sales to Jews were either prohibited or restricted across Palestine. …

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