The Balfour Declaration and the “Jewish problem”

The anniversary of the Balfour Declaration falls on November 2 (it’s 102 years), and I mark it with an essay on a neglected question. The record shows that British issuance of the declaration originated in the necessities of war. After the war, what kept Britain from throwing the declaration in the trash bin? Especially since it had already become a burden, poisoning Britain’s relations with millions of Arabs?

It’s a question that weighed very much on the mind of Chaim Weizmann, the chief Zionist lobbyist for the declaration. Fearing that the end of the war would erode support for the declaration, he made a provocative rationale for Britain to honor it. If millions of desperate Jews weren’t given a place in Palestine, they would turn into a violent, wandering horde, which would prevent the world from ever knowing peace. To learn how this argument evolved, and ultimately collapsed, read my latest at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

Balfour and Weizmann on Balfour's visit to Palestine, 1925.

Balfour and Weizmann on Balfour’s 1925 visit to Palestine.

,

Seven black swans in the Middle East

New York Times covers 9/11The subject of strategic surprise is a large one, and it has inspired a fair amount of theoretical literature. The following catalogue isn’t intended as a contribution to theory. It is the evidence behind my personal observation that, for as long as I have studied the Middle East, all of the profoundly formative events have been “black swans,” imagined or predicted by almost no one. For an expert, that’s humbling (or should be).

But, first, what is a black swan? For centuries, it was assumed in Europe that all swans were white. The phrase “black swan” was used as we would use “flying pig”: a metaphor for something that couldn’t exist. But then a 17th-century Dutch explorer observed a black swan in Australia. That single sighting demolished an assumption that had stood since time immemorial.

The concept of a black-swan event was popularized a few years ago in a bestselling book with that title. Its flamboyant author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, argued that the most dramatic changes in politics, economics, and technology come out of the blue. A black-swan event, ran his definition, “lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility” (my emphases).

So a black-swan event is more extreme than a low-probability event. A black-swan event has no prior indication that it’s even possible. It’s unthinkable. And yet, Taleb concluded, while black swans themselves are rare, we live in a world largely fashioned by such once-unthinkable events. This wasn’t an entirely original argument, but his showmanship turned “black swan” into a common figure of speech.

Of course, what constitutes a black-swan event is a matter of perspective. Your assumptions may be upended by a surprise attack, but it’s no surprise to the attacker. For example, the June 1967 Six-Day War, preemptively initiated by Israel, was a black-swan event for Egypt, but obviously not for Israel.

In what follows, the perspective I assume is American. My seven black-swan events not only took Washington by surprise, but had far-reaching impacts on U.S. interests and policies. Also, while it’s tempting to go way back in time for more examples, I’ll limit myself to events within living memory, which (depending on your age) you probably remember, too.

Discover the black swans by reading the rest of this article at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.

The rise of Israel in three acts

On Israel’s 71st anniversary, I offer a reflection on the incredible (some might say, miraculous) appearance of the leaders who steered the Zionist project through three crucial turning points. Most national movements have one paramount hero. Zionism has at least three: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion.

Why so many? Given the anomalous situation of the Jews, dispersed for two millennia, creating a Jewish state from scratch couldn’t have happened without preliminary and intermediate stages that most national movements don’t require. At any transitional stage, things could have gone wrong (and almost did). That they went right is due to the perfectly timed interventions of these three men. Were these leaders flawed? In some ways, yes. Were they a team? In most ways, no. Yet their flaws seem smaller at a distance, and their actions seem part of one inspired plan.

Israel doesn’t have the equivalent of a Presidents’ Day. All the more reason to take a few moments this day to ponder the role of individual will in the rise of Israel. Do just that at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.

Three Zionist Leaders

, , , , ,

Sudden succession in the Middle East

Sudden SuccessionWhat’s the effect when Middle Eastern leaders make sudden and unexpected exits? Of course, there’s always a question of who will follow. But beyond succession mechanics, is a leader’s departure necessarily history-changing?

The answer: it depends. And my answer: it depends mostly on where the hand of fate interrupts the leader’s arc of life. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy is running a new series on hypothetical succession scenarios in the Middle East. My contribution, the opening salvo, is a historian’s take on sudden departures.

Illnesses and assassinations account for most of them. Some had profound consequences, but others didn’t, even if they unfolded in dramatic ways. I take a look at some famous cases, from Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. At eight pages, it’s obviously more a think piece than an all-encompassing theoretical statement. So read it, think a bit, and come up with your own modifications.

Read here.

If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

Martin Luther KingYou’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

, ,