Archive for category Sandbox

The Allied Balfour Declaration

My “final word” on the Balfour Declaration is published at Mosaic Magazine, here. Excerpt:

Had Nahum Sokolow not secured the assent of other powers in 1917 for the hoped-for British declaration, it would not have come about. And had he not returned to regain their approval in 1918, it would not have become binding international law. It is always crucial to “work” the great capital—London in 1917, Washington today. But a diversified diplomacy also aggregates the power that resides in other centers around the globe. Such aggregation gave Zionism the Balfour Declaration, the UN partition plan, and Security Council resolution 242. Absent it, Israel or its actions may yet be robbed of their international legitimacy, especially if the “unshakable bond” with its great friend begins to unravel.

Along the way, I write about the (lack of a) role of Christian restorationism in the declaration’s gestation, Britain’s failure to fulfill its commitment, and Sokolow’s forgotten finesse. As another Zionist leader once put it,

he had an amazing capacity for adjusting to his partner. Talking to a hasidic rabbi he turned into a Hasid; dealing with a French statesman he became a charming bel esprit, and, as somebody once said half in jest and half in malice, conferring with the Pope he became a Catholic.

Read my final word at this link.

Photo below: Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu peruse the original Balfour Declaration at the British Library, September 2015 (Government Press Office).

The Netanyahus view the original Balfour Declaration.

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Balfour Declaration: the responses

Three weeks ago, Mosaic Magazine published my essay on “The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration,” here. I argued that Britain would have never issued the declaration (a century ago this November) had any of the principal Allies opposed it. And I demonstrated that prior to the declaration, Zionists cleared the way by securing Allied buy-in. (A little-remembered Zionist leader, Nahum Sokolow, spearheaded this effort.) The French provided the Zionists with a letter of their own, Woodrow Wilson signed off on Balfour’s text, and the Zionists even got a nod from the Vatican. These pre-approvals made the Balfour Declaration possible.

In the day before the League of Nations and the United Nations, the Balfour Declaration thus had five-star international legitimacy. By contrast, commitments to the Arabs in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence had none. And that’s why the Balfour Declaration finally entered the mandate for Palestine, as an international commitment under law.

There have been three responses:

• Nicholas Rostow, authority on international law: “How the Balfour Declaration Became Part of International Law,” here.

• Allan Arkush, professor of Judaic studies and history: “How Gentile Zionism Affected the Statesmen Behind the Balfour Declaration,” here.

• Colin Shindler, historian of Israel and Zionism: “Jabotinsky’s Role, and the Jewish Legion’s, in Securing the Balfour Declaration,” here.

I’ll have the final word in a few days’ time. Until then, enjoy this unusual photograph. It features, left to right, Nahum Sokolow (in the thinker’s pose), Menahem Ussishkin (in bed), and Chaim Weizmann (hand on head). All three were in Paris in February 1919 to address the peace conference, so I would guess this was taken then, in Ussishkin’s hotel room. Credit: World Zionist Organization, here.

Sokolow, Ussishkin, and Weizmann in Paris, 1919

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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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