The Balfour Declaration: what’s been forgotten

This year is the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the decision of the British government announced on November 2, 1917, in favor of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration is the beginning of the international legitimation of the Zionist project and, ultimately, the State of Israel. That’s why British prime minister Theresa May has invited Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to London in November to mark the centennial. That’s also why the declaration is the target of Israel’s opponents, who cast it as a self-dealing grab by a perfidious empire. To the Arabs, it occupies the same circle of hell as the Sykes-Picot agreement.

Is this an accurate representation of the Balfour Declaration? If you deemed it an exclusively British project, you might think so. But what if it wasn’t? What if it represented the considered consensus of all the Allied powers at the time? What if Britain had insisted that the Zionists secure the buy-in of France, Italy, the United States, and even the Vatican before it issued the declaration? What if the Balfour Declaration was in fact an Allied declaration, the equivalent to a U.N. Security Council resolution today?

In the June monthly essay in the on-line Mosaic Magazine, I consider just that possibility, by a shift of focus. This isn’t the well-known story of Chaim Weizmann’s charm offensive among British decision-makers. It’s a lesser-known story, revolving around a forgotten Zionist leader (hint: he’s in the postcard below), and exploring many other assurances made in Paris, Rome and Washington, without which Britain wouldn’t have issued any declaration at all.

“The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration,” in Mosaic Magazine, at this link. It’s the monthly essay, so it will be followed each week by a response from another authority on the subject, and then by my own final word.

Seated right to left, Nahum Sokolow, Lord Balfour, Chaim and Vera Weizmann, in Rishon LeZion, 1925.

British passport

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The Jewish ban (Arab version)

British passportAs I followed the fierce debate over President Trump’s executive order, denounced by its opponents as a “Muslim ban,” my thoughts turned the Jewish ban that changed the career of my mentor, Bernard Lewis.

Lewis, the great historian of the Middle East who last May turned 100, travelled extensively in Arab countries in the late 1930s and 1940s. Born in Britain to British-born parents, he traversed French-ruled Syria for his doctoral work, and then served in the British army in Arab lands during the Second World War. In 1949, at the age of 33, he was already a highly-regarded academic authority on medieval Islam and a full professor at the University of London. The university gave him a year of study leave to travel in the Middle East. But the Arab reaction to the creation of Israel derailed his research plans. Lewis explained what happened in an article published in 2006:

Virtually all the Arab governments announced that they would not give visas to Jews of any nationality. This was not furtive—it was public, proclaimed on the visa forms and in the tourist literature. They made it quite clear that people of the Jewish religion, no matter what their citizenship, would not be given visas or be permitted to enter any independent Arab country. Again, not a word of protest from anywhere. One can imagine the outrage if Israel had announced that it would not give visas to Muslims, still more if the United States were to do so. As directed against Jews, this ban was seen as perfectly natural and normal. In some countries it continues to this day, although in practice most Arab countries have given it up.

Neither the United Nations nor the public protested any of this in any way, so it is hardly surprising that Arab governments concluded that they had license for this sort of action and worse.

According to Lewis (in his memoirs), some Jews fudged their religious identification on visa applications. (“One ingenious lady from New York City even described herself as a ‘Seventh Avenue Adventist.'”) Others simply lied.

But most of us, even the nonreligious, found it morally impossible to make such compromises for no better reason than the pursuit of an academic career. This considerably reduced the number of places to which one could go and in which one could work…. At that time, for Jewish scholars interested in the Middle East, only three countries were open—Turkey, Iran and Israel…. It was in these three countries therefore that I arranged to spend the academic year 1949-50.

In retrospect, it is fortunate that Lewis had to make the adjustment: he became the first Western historian admitted to the Ottoman archives in Istanbul, and his pioneering work in this area opened up a vast field of study. Yet his exclusion as a Jew clearly rankled. It was something he hadn’t experienced in Britain, yet Western governments now failed to stand up for their Jewish citizens by insisting that they be accorded equal treatment. And in the 1950s, it got worse: not only did Arab states not admit Jews, they drove their own Jews into exile. This may have been the animating force behind Lewis’s 1986 book Semites and Anti-Semites, one of the first to analyze the continuing mutations of antisemitism in the Arab world.

Today, Arab states don’t ban Jews as such. They do ban Israelis. In fact, six of the seven states featured in Trump’s executive order ban entry of Israeli passport-holders: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. (So, too, do another ten Muslim-majority states.) Those same six states also won’t admit anyone whose non-Israeli passport includes an Israeli visa. I’m not aware that the international community regards this as a particularly egregious affront to international norms. The governments of these countries regard every Israeli, whether Jewish or Arab, or any past visitor to Israel of any nationality, as a potential security threat. That’s not irrational, since some of these governments have a record of threatening Israel through incitement, sponsorship of terrorism, and dubious weapons projects.

Trump’s limited executive order doesn’t resemble the sweeping Jewish ban that changed the career of Bernard Lewis. It’s more in line with the Israel bans implemented in the very same countries he’s named. Trump regards holders of certain nationalities as potential security threats, and has excluded them on that basis. There’s plenty of room to debate the wisdom, efficacy, and even morality of the executive order. While the United States may not be as great an exception to the rule as it sometimes claims to be, it still isn’t Sudan or Yemen. And one would hope that the United States, which has invested untold billions (or is it trillions?) in intelligence collection and vetting since 9/11, would be capable of telling friend from foe, and victim from victimizer, within nations.

But the governments of states like Iran have no cause to profess outrage. No one has practiced blanket exclusion on the basis of nationality as unremittingly, decade after decade, as they have, and they aren’t likely to give it up any time soon. It would be unfortunate if this became the norm in the world. But it wouldn’t mark much of a change in the Middle East.

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MLK and the Six-Day War

As veteran readers of this blog are aware, over the years, I’ve researched Martin Luther King, Jr. and Israel, and twice reported my findings. I traced King’s famous quote on anti-Zionism, and revealed why King canceled a planned visit to Israel. A chapter in my new book The War on Error now completes the trilogy, examining what King said in confidence about Israel’s Six-Day War victory.

Now, courtesy of my publisher Transaction, you can read this chapter online, just in time for Martin Luther King Day. Go here. “I think the Israelis will have to have access to the Gulf of Aqaba,” said King after Israel’s victory. “I mean the very survival of Israel may well depend on access to not only the Suez Canal, but the Gulf and the Strait of Tiran. These things are very important. But…” The rest of the quote at the link.


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A year of anniversaries

The War on ErrorAs 2016 winds down, I thought I’d share some end-of-year updates:

  • I’ve given an interview to the podcast program The Tel Aviv Review on my recent book The War on Error: Israel, Islam and the Middle East. I speak, inter alia, about Ari Shavit and Lydda, Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Six-Day War, and why surgeons don’t perform operations in sewers. Listen at this link, and order the book from Amazon here.
  • My article “Repairing Sykes-Picot” caps the just-published proceedings of a conference on the enduring legacies of the post-World War One settlement in the Middle East. The book is entitled The Lines That Bind: 100 Years of Sykes-Picot, and it’s published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The volume also includes fine articles by Andrew Tabler, Fabrice Balanche, Michael Knights, David Pollock, David Schenker, Sam Menassa, Soner Cagaptay, Ghaith Omari, David Makovsky, and Brigitte Curmi. It’s free to download at this link.
  • In October, I concluded seven years of service as head of Shalem College. (I was appointed president-designate in 2009, when the College was still in formation, and I became its first president in 2013.) My successor is Isaiah Gafni, distinguished professor emeritus of Jewish history at the Hebrew University. Read about him here. I’ve joined the faculty ranks, where I teach the modern history of the Middle East, as well as a course on the Middle East in the work of Bernard Lewis. I’ll bet it’s offered nowhere else.

2017 will be a year of many anniversaries: the Balfour Declaration (1917), UN Resolution 181 for the partition of Palestine (1947), and the Six-Day War (1967). The errors in “expert” commentary about each will abound. I’m looking forward to a busy and interesting New Year—and wish the same to you.

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The decline of Palestine studies

Middle East Studies AssociationThis weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)

One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)

Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)

Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)

This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)

So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.

Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.

This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.

I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.

The War on ErrorOrder your copy of my new book, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East from Amazon right here. Josef Joffe: “Martin Kramer exposes sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”

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