Sykes-Picot, Balfour, Imperialism & Zionism, 1916-36.
The row about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party rumbles on, with ‘Labour’ forums reduced to open censorship of criticism online in order to uphold its leaders’ line that this is mainly a problem of envy among long-established MPs and party members who do not like the amount of power and influence wielded by the ‘new’ members he has attracted to the party. Yet we know from the nature of the comments made that many of these new members are simply aping the discourse of anti-Zionists among the ‘Fabian Left’, dating back to Labour’s rise to power, which coincided with the emergence of serious tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. I have already written about this elsewhere, so I don’t want to risk repeating myself here.
However, given that this week sees the hundredth anniversary of that ‘infamous’ agreement between two civil servants, Mr Sykes of Britain and Mnsr. Picot of France, I thought I would add a ‘tailpiece’ about the role of imperialism in the middle east in this era, having previously focused on the development of Zionism in Europe. Much of this context is drawn from Bernard Porter’s seminal 1984 work on British Imperialism, 1850- 1983, The Lion’s Share. This work should be on a bibliography given to new Labour members who may not have had the opportunity, as I did, to study this historical context to contemporary controversial issues. Before I read this, I was as keen as them to take sides in the Arab-Israeli Conflict and in other post-imperial conflicts, such as the Irish Question. Having grown up in a home where casual anti-Semitism was not rare, stemming from my father’s belief in ‘replacement theology’ (the doctrine that the Jews had foregone the right to be ‘God’s chosen people’ by their rejection of Christ), I remember (now with some sense of shame) my act of vandalism in the sixth form when, during the 1974 War I changed the word order of a sticker which one of the Jewish students had stuck on the board. It said Stand by Israel, but a strategic cut soon changed it into Israel, Stand by. I was young, and many of my ideas were inherited from my father. So, however, was my name (or at least my initials), since he was named after Arthur James Balfour, in 1914. This had always intrigued me, until I came to realise that Balfour’s protestant ‘restoration’ theology which fuelled his pro-Zionist stance could, ironically, be distinctly anti-Semitic in its view of European Jewry. This only goes to show that anti-Semitism can take many different forms and heresies, often quite deliberately passed on from one generation to another through somewhat subliminal ‘troping’, applying varying stereotypes to ‘the Jew’. Young people rarely become anti-Semites through reading and discussion with diverse people and viewpoints. It isn’t a logical, educational process, though its antidote may be. It is a poison spread from one generation to the next through the dominant cultures and ideologies, whether on the Right or the Left. I will attempt to apply the antidote again here.
The Sykes-Picot Treaty is usually referred to simply as ‘an agreement’ because it was a secret arrangement, first drafted in April 1916 and signed in mid-May. It was supposed to determine how the Ottoman empire would be partitioned after the war. The French were to rule directly or indirectly the area of a line running from Acre to a point on the Tigris some seventy miles south of Mosul, while the British were to have the same rights in the area south of that line extending as far as Aqaba and along the Saudi Arabian border. Palestine, defined in the agreement as the area bordered by the Jordan river in the east, the sea in the west, and from Acre in the north to a line from El Arish to Be’ersheva in the south would be governed by an international regime. However, most of Palestine was effectively earmarked for British control, as part of a ‘sphere of influence’ stretching from Jordan to the Gulf. In this territory was land which the Arabs understood to have been pledged to them in October 1915 by the Egyptian High Commissioner, Sir Henry MacMahon when he promised, with reservations, that Britain would recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in order to get the Arab Revolt going, which it did in June 1916, helping to turn the military tide for Britain in the middle east.
On the face of it, Sykes-Picot was a blueprint for a cynical piece of imperial plunder, and Britain was embarrassed by the look of it both to the Arabs and to the Americans, who had to be told of it when they entered the war in April 1917. It was then revealed to the world by the new Bolshevik government in Moscow towards the end of 1917. The USA preferred to believe that it was fighting for democracy and self-determination, while the Arabs believed that they were fighting for their own liberation and independence. To reassure both, the British government stepped up its promises to the Arabs in a series of ‘declarations’, which, though increasingly ardent in tone were no more specific than MacMahon’s statement.
At the same time, it had committed itself just as firmly to the Zionists, who wanted to found a middle eastern nation based on the biblical lands of Israel, Samaria and Judea. The Balfour Declaration of November 1917 gave the British government’s blessing and support to the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Like the MacMahon promise to the Arabs, it was a promise which could only have been made in wartime, when political geography was so fluid that so artificial a creation could be considered; when the government was so pressed and distracted as to be able to ignore or neglect its obvious drawbacks and pitfalls. For British ministers there were a number of substantial arguments in favour of such a declaration, including a genuine Zionism on the part of some, and a devious but ingenious imperialism on the part of others. Leopold Amery, who claimed to have drafted the Declaration, acknowledged that his main motive was…
… largely strategical. I was keen on an advance into Palestine and Syria on military grounds, and the idea of consolidating that advance by establishing in Palestine a prosperous community bound to Britain by ties of gratitude and interest naturally appealed to me. I already had doubts as to the permanence of our protectorate in Egypt.
The chief reason was, however, probably less grandiose, and more immediate: the need to gain the support of American Jews for the war effort, and perhaps to turn the German Jews against their government, a move which sadly backfired on them in the 1920s. Balfour himself remarked that…
… the vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be in favour of Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.
Lloyd George also saw it as useful propaganda, and at that point in the war his coalition was desperate for some victories of any kind. Nevertheless, they knew that it was a big long-term risk to take for a short-term propaganda point. In the autumn of 1917, the young diplomat Harold Nicolson, later a Labour Party MP, was seconded to work with Sir Mark Sykes, the co-author of the infamous agreement, one of the two political secretaries to the Cabinet, the other being Leopold Amery. Sykes acted as the main channel of communication between the Cabinet and the Zionist movement. He had been negotiating with both Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, the two leading Zionists in Britain, since the beginning of the year, as they worked together to produce a pro-Zionist pledge. Sykes saw no contradiction between this and his staunchly pro-Arab outlook. Indeed, he told himself, one would complement the other. Both the Arab and the Zionist Palestinians, indebted to Britain, would serve British imperial interests. Later developments proved these presumptions wildly optimistic, but at this time most British policy-makers, not to mention both Arab and Zionist leaders, shared them. Harold Nicolson was among them, his pro-Zionism did not stem from anti-Semitism. He once said…
Although I loathe anti-Semitism, I do dislike Jews.
It’s interesting that Beatrice Webb made exactly the reverse of this remark, yet today the Labour Party seeks to draw a line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism that few would have understood a hundred years ago. Nicolson, unlike Sykes, had no great knowledge of recent Jewish history, nor was he on intimate terms with any Jews. He certainly disliked the Hungarian Jews accompanying Béla Kun’s short-lived delegation, as a Paris Peace Conference envoy to Budapest two years later, and wrote to that effect in his diary. Although he did not acknowledge his dislike as anti-Semitism, it certainly fuelled his support for Zionism, as it did with many others who thought of themselves as ‘Gentile Zionists’, including some later Nazi leaders like Adolf Eichmann, (as I have mentioned elsewhere):
Zionism, they claimed, would repair perceived defects in the Jewish character. It would restore to the Jews their dignity, that corporate national confidence and self-respect they so clearly lacked: it would, so to speak, stiffen the backbone of the Jewish people. Once given a national home, they would no longer misuse their considerable gifts for mischievous ends. It ‘would be a nice place,’ Harold reflected, ‘in which to collect all the Jews of the world, as Butlin’s collects the noisy holidaymakers’.
There were other aspects of Gentile Zionism, more historical and theological, that appealed to people like Nicholson. Balfour himself expressed these aspects clearly in a speech to the House of Lords in June 1922 on the position of the Jews:
Their position and their history, their connection with world religion and with world politics is absolutely unique. There is no parallel to it… in any other branch of world history… deported, then scattered, then driven out… altogether into every part of the world, and yet maintaining continuity of religion and racial tradition of which we have no parallel elsewhere… Consider how they have been subject to tyranny, consider whether… our whole religious organisation of Europe has not from time to time proved itself guilty of great crimes against this race… do not forget what part they have played in the intellectual, the artistic, the philosophic and scientific development of the world… Christendom is not oblivious to their faith, is not unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world.
Having supported Balfour, Sykes and Amery, Harold Nicholson was at pains to point out that the Balfour Declaration was not an ‘impulsive and ill-considered’ statement; nor could its authors be accused of ‘ignorance or cynicism’. It took months to negotiate, went through five drafts, and was debated at three sessions of the War Cabinet before it was finally approved on 31 October 1917. Writing in 1947, after almost thirty years of bitter experience, he admitted that it would now be drafted in different terms, but he continued to vehemently to defend Balfour against accusations of cynicism, of opportunism, of imperialism. In 1939, as a National Labour MP, Nicholson spoke out over the May White Paper affair. The government declaration of policy limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to a maximum of 75,000 over the next five years, afterwards any further immigration to be subject to Arab consent, or veto, as the Zionists saw it. Nicholson and other Zionist supporters naturally saw this as flatly contradicting the Balfour Declaration. Apart from his great admiration for Chaim Weizmann, he considered this to be the Chamberlain government’s reneging on its contractual obligations as part of its appeasement of the Nazi dictatorship. Having sacrificed the Czechs, it was now prepared to sacrifice the Jews by giving into Arab demands and leaving them to their fate in Europe. On the eve of the debate he and Leo Amery dined with Weizmann, who appeared ‘calm, dignified and wretched’ as, a master lobbyist, he put his case with his customary persuasive skill. Harold, however, felt ‘helpless and ashamed’, so much so that he did not speak in the two-day debate on the May White Paper, though he did call it a terrible act of treachery. In the Commons, the National Government suffered a massive cut in its majority, to just 89. It survived for another year until Chamberlain’s majority was cut again, this time to 81, forcing him to and his government to resign.
Returning to the end of the First World War, the middle east had become a tangle of promises which the British government had made to the Jews, the Arabs, the French and themselves. Despite Sykes’ early view, they were already becoming contradictory by the time of the Paris Peace Conference, though not perhaps irrevocably so. There was also a great deal of room for confusion in them, since words like ‘self-determination’ and ‘independence’ were capable of different degrees of interpretation. British diplomats, as we have noted, were able to believe that ‘independence’ for the Arabs was not inconsistent with them maintaining a ‘sphere of influence’ over them, and Curzon, Balfour’s successor as Foreign Secretary (1919-24) said, just after the war, that he was quite happy to accept the term ‘self-determination’ because he believed that most of the people would determine in our favour. In one of the ‘reservations’ in the MacMahon letter there was a genuine ambiguity in one of the arabic words used, which could be taken to mean either ‘district’ or a ‘province’, and on this interpretation depended whether the Arabs had been promised Palestine or not as part of their independent territory. The later declarations promised greater degrees of ‘independence’, still not defining these degrees either in terms of powers or territory. The most ambiguous statement of all was Balfour’s ‘national home in Palestine’, which he clearly meant to refer to a Jewish state of Palestine, but could be, and was, taken to mean that Jews would have to settle for federated territory within an Arab-controlled Palestine. As the differing interpretations of previous texts came under the pressures and frictions of settlement ‘on the ground’, they became widening contradictions, leading on to accusations of betrayal on both sides.
All the promises had the mark of expediency about them, being designed to reap some short-term advantage or respite, or to win favours from one side or the other. T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) claimed that it was obvious to him that Britain’s promises to the Arabs would become ‘dead paper’ after the war, and confessed that he had played a role in deliberately misleading them:
I risked the fraud, on my conviction that Arab help was necessary to our cheap and speedy victory in the East, and that better we win and break our word than lose.
To those higher up who made the promises, the ‘fraud’ or ‘conspiracy’ might not have been so clear, simply because little thought was given as to whether the cheques so freely given out could actually be redeemed by the recipients. Things changed very rapidly in time of war, so that October 1915 was a long way away from November 1917. For the British government, every present moment might determine whether there would be a future for the Empire, so that it became vital to put every effort into seizing and controlling that moment. It could not be surrendered on consideration of a hypothetical future. The contradictions which were already emerging during the war itself would have broken a peace-time coalition, but in wartime dissidents felt obliged to give way under more pressing necessities. No doubt, however, the result was that irresponsible, inconsistent declarations were made.
The result of the war for Britain was a considerable augmentation of her empire. The middle east was divided up literally along the lines of Sykes-Picot. The Arabs were given the Arabian desert. Britain took Palestine, Transjordan, the Persian Gulf States and Iraq, adding to her existing protectorates of Cyprus, Egypt and Aden. Of course, the newly acquired territories were not considered ‘annexations’ or ‘colonies’. They were ‘mandated’ territories, entrusted to Britain by the newly established League of Nations, to be administered in the interests of their inhabitants with a view to their eventual independence. The irritation felt at this by more traditional imperialists had already been inflamed by the first serious Arab-Zionist clash in Palestine in April 1919.
As we have seen, Zionism was always a popular cause among British imperialists, though it was not supported by all of them, especially, like Curzon, by those more associated with India. Nor was it only an imperialist cause. It had many virtues, but two which endeared it especially to imperialists. Firstly, it was seen as a means of safeguarding British imperial interests in the middle east, especially as Egypt had been granted what effectively amounted to ‘home rule’. Secondly, Zionism, taking away its religious aspect, seemed to be a typically imperialist way of running and developing ‘primitive’ countries: by a European settler population with the energy and expertise to make more of them than the indigenous peoples. In many ways, the history of Palestine in the inter-war period closely resembled that of Kenya, where Labour’s Lord Passfield (the Fabian, Sydney Webb) successfully resisted the claims of the European settlers: the differences being that settler minority was always much larger in Palestine, that it had greater support from outside, and that the relations between settlers’ claims and natives’ rights became confused with the rights of Jewish refugees. Despite the obvious sympathy which the Jews earned so tragically during the Nazi persecutions which preceded the holocaust, there was considerable resistance to their immigration from the Palestinian Arabs. In addition to this, the British had the subsidiary duty under the mandate to safeguard the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine. This presented an immediate handover to the settlers of the country, even had there been enough of them to hand it over to. So the first years of Britain’s mandatory rule in Palestine were devoted to trying to reconcile Zionist and Arab claims, with neither urgency nor success. In fact, this was partly because between 1921 and 1929 there was very little trouble there. In 1929 there was an Arab rising against Jewish immigration, which led the new Labour government to appear to repudiate the Balfour Declaration. Although this was largely an illusion, the Passfield White Paper (1930) did threaten to restrict Jewish immigration and the sale of Palestinian Arab lands to Jews. This was provocative enough and was greeted with a furore of protest from Zionists worldwide, and Conservative imperialists and pro-Zionists Labour in Britain. With MacDonald’s tacit approval, the MPs were able to sweep away Passfield’s anti-Zionist White Paper.
As the events of the 1930s unfurled, this proved to be a crucial decision because, although pro-Zionist feeling was never again so strong, matters were taken increasingly out of the British government’s hands. The Jewish population of Palestine, which had increased from 150,000 in 1926 to 172,000 in 1931, more than doubled by 1936, reaching 384,000. Most of these new immigrants were fleeing from Nazi persecution, and with their entry to countries like the USA and the UK being restricted, it seemed heartless to successive governments in Britain to deny them refuge in Palestine. Had they tried to do so, the international outcry would have been as deafening as it had been in 1930. The greater the number of refugees, the better they were able to assert their claims to settle the land, which they did, sometimes forcibly. Britain’s role was reduced to policing an already intractable situation, now with ever decreasing enthusiasm. Throughout the 1930s repeated attempts were made to find new ‘settlements’, but they failed. What determined the outcome in Palestine, the creation of the state of Israel on the left bank of the Jordan in 1948, and its subsequent expansion into Arab territory, was the balance of strength on the ground between the two populations, which had changed in favour of the Zionist settlers by 1936. Between the wars, however, Palestine had to remain a British mandated territory. The British were unable to delegate their responsibilities to the Zionist organisation, as many wanted them to do. It remained in the same state as the ‘dependent’ territories within the British empire, a colony ruled directly from London, like Kenya.
What emerges from these further portraits and documents concerning Zionism, imperialism and Palestine in the period 1916-36 is that there was no imperialist conspiracy to create the state of Israel as it existed after 1948. Certainly, there were good relations between leading Zionists and imperialist politicians in Britain, but it was the confusion of competing claims and rights in Palestine itself, together with the inability to control the flow of migrants and refugees under the terms of the British mandate which led to the development of the country through settlement into the self-governing state of Israel following the handover of the mandate to the United Nations in 1948. It is difficult to imagine how the outcome of these events could have been any different, especially given the refugee crisis created by the war. The idea that the state of Israel was an artificial creation, a ‘mistake’ as Ken Livingstone has called it in his recent interview on arabic TV, does not match the reality of the emerging patterns of population on the ground in inter-war Palestine. There was no rational alternative to the decisions that were made, and no other alternative humanitarian solution.
We need to accept the burden that history has given us to bear from the past hundred years. Either we support the creation of the state of Israel, whether we think it happened by accidental evolution or deliberate design, as Ernest Bevin and Clement Attlee finally did in 1949, or call for its dismantling and destruction, by one means or another, which is what the current leadership of the Labour Party, in the Fabian tradition of the Webbs, would like us to do. Of course, criticism of the government of Israel in its home and international relations is essential to it continuing to thrive as a modern democracy, but this should be given in the spirit of critical friendship. Otherwise, it can legitimately be taken as providing succour to Israel’s enemies, who would destroy it by violent means, given the chance, as they have tried to by warfare in 1948, 1967 and 1974 and, more recently by terrorist acts directed by Hezbollah and Hamas. The Labour leadership must make it clear that these organisations are not ‘our friends’ but our enemies who are sworn to commit acts of genocide against our true friends, the Semitic peoples of Israel, both Jew and Arab. To do otherwise would not eradicate the cancer of anti-Semitism which is multiplying in our midst every day.
Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico
Bernard Porter (1984), The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.