The British Betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate

In my previous post I quoted extensively from two articles regarding the real facts about the Balfour Declaration. Both articles continued with details of how the British violated their promises and their subsequent Mandate.

Mosaic Magazine’s article ends with today’s events and the lessons to be learned:

The main commemoration will take place in Britain, and here it is imperative that Israel and its friends insist on a full accounting of Britain’s record. The past months’ attempt by the Palestinians to force Britain to “apologize” for the Balfour Declaration has already failed. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas demanded such an apology several times over the past year, most notably in a speech at the United Nations, where he cited “the catastrophes, misery, and injustice this declaration created.” In April, the British government informed the Palestinian Authority that it “does not intend to apologize”:

We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel. . . . Establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson

Proud Britain may be, but Israel cannot forget that in May 1939 the British unilaterally abrogated the Balfour Declaration, shutting down Jewish immigration to Palestine. This act had no legal foundation. The Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations concluded that the White Paper “was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the mandatory power and the Council, the commission had always placed upon the Palestine mandate.” Not only did Britain freely reinterpret the “national home” so as to preclude a state, but Britain even denied that it meant a haven. So Britain barred Europe’s Jews from entry to their legally recognized “national home,” and Jews perished in the millions.

Indeed, the article recounts:

For two decades, Weizmann led the Zionist struggle to hold Britain to its promises, to close what he recognized as “the gap between the promise of the [Balfour] declaration and the performance.” But by the late 1930s, Britain was in full retreat from the declaration; in the British White paper of 1939, Zionists saw its final abrogation. The White Paper, which informed British policy throughout World War II, blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine at precisely the moment when the Jews of Europe faced destruction. Britain attempted to set Palestine on a course to become an Arab state with a Jewish minority.

The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included Trans-Jordan. But the British Government decided to effect an immediate partition. Trans-Jordan was separated from the remaining Palestine. Jewish immigration, settlement and land acquisition were prohibited in Trans-Jordan

As the sun set on Britain’s support for Zionism, Weizmann argued that Britain hadn’t the right to discard or even interpret the Balfour Declaration on its own. Why? Not because its text had appeared in the preamble of the League of Nations mandate. By 1939, the League was in tatters. Instead, Weizmann cited the World War I commitments made to Zionism by the other Allies. Britain had the “moral right” to rule Palestine only because the “civilized nations of the world” had conferred it “for the explicit and direct purpose of helping to build up the Jewish National Home.” And these nations did so because of Zionist exertions.

Did not the British government of the time—1917-18—encourage us, the late lamented leader Sokolow, myself, and other friends who were working in the cause of Great Britain and Palestine, to go to France, Italy, America, and plead—I do not exaggerate this contribution—that the mandate should be given to Great Britain? We were encouraged to do it. We were encouraged to bring in our people. We were encouraged to pour out all that was best in us because we trusted in the word of Britain; that was for us the rock on which we were to build in Palestine.

Thus did Weizmann, at his lowest ebb, admit the true character of the Balfour Declaration. It had not legitimated Zionism. It was Zionism, through its diplomatic efforts among “civilized nations,” which had legitimated the Balfour Declaration. Not only had its issuance depended on the tacit or explicit agreement of the Allied powers, but that agreement had been secured by the Zionists themselves—by Weizmann, Brandeis, and, above all, by the lamented but forgotten Sokolow.

In the same vein, we have these grim historical events from Politically-Incorrect’s article on the Balfour Demystification:

But violating the Mandate provisions by omission only is hardly the entire story.  In reality, almost immediately upon being granted the Mandate, Her Majesty’s Government began to adopt policies in complete contradiction first with its spirit and ultimately with its letter, as well.  The more transparent portion of those policies was contained in the so-called White Papers – in effect a series of colonial decrees that (under Arab political pressure stiffened by periodic outbursts of mass violence) grew progressively harsher and departed more and more from the purpose and conditions of the Mandate.

The process culminated with the White Paper of 1939, which:

  •          Strictly limited Jewish immigration between 1939 and 1944 and prohibited it completely from 1945 onwards;
  •          Prohibited the sale of land to Jews (but not to non-Jews) in the vast majority of the Mandate.
  •          In effect, condemned the Jewish community in the Mandate to the status of an isolated ethno-religious and linguistic minority in an Arab Muslim state.

One cannot overstate the extent to which the 1939 White Paper violated the provisions and the very purpose of the Mandate.  But the consequences of that draconic decree should not be seen only in the cold light of the law.  Let us remember, instead, that this was May 1939: six months after Kristallnacht, four months before the Nazi invasion of Poland.  The vast majority of the Jewish immigrants that His Majesty’s Government was so determined to keep out of Palestine were in effect refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and who had nowhere else to go.  We will never know how many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust (including my maternal grandmother’s entire family) could have been saved – had the White Paper not been issued; but it is not unreasonable to assume that that number would have been in the hundreds of thousands.

Many things changed after the Holocaust, of course; but not the Mandatory attitude.  The Jewish community in ‘Palestine’ may have contributed to the Ally war effort – not in the least by enrolling in the Jewish Brigade; conversely, the Arab world – initially at least – sympathised with the Axis.  But there were many Arabs and much fewer Jews – and the British Government continued to prioritise perceived interests over commitments and humanity.

Europe was heaving with ‘displaced persons’ – a euphemism that, when it came to Jews, mostly meant concentration camp survivors.  Many were still kept in overcrowded camps, others were roaming like ghosts upon war-devastated lands.  There was overwhelming evidence that a huge majority of these wretched survivors wanted to join the Jewish National Home; they did not wish to stay in Germany or Poland; nor did they wish to return and live among former neighbours who had delivered them to be slaughtered.

A ‘protest meeting’ held by survivors at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in November 1945 sent the British Government the following desperate message:

We assembled Jews former inmates of Concentration Camps demand that the British Government do not prolong our bitter existence in Camps.
Give us the possibility to live free lives in our home in ERETZ ISRAEL (Palestine).
We shall not rest until the White Paper restrictions be removed.
We shall enter ERETZ ISRAEL by any means.
Enough Jewish blood has been shed.
You will bear the responsibility for those innocent victims who will fall as a result of your cruel decree if you do not open widely the gates of Palestine.
We wish to return to a peaceful creative life upon our own soil in ERETZ ISRAEL and this is our only possible way.

But the British government had no interest in the desires of Jewish survivors; its prominent ministers advocated the ‘resettlement’ of those ‘displaced persons’ in Europe – though not in Britain of course  – or even their transportation to South America…

… Many Jewish refugees were, however, reluctant to rely on the tender love and care of Mr. Morisson’s colleagues. They did not wait to be shipped off to South America, but instead tried to reach the Mandate of Palestine illegally. They were hunted down and, if caught, interned in detention camps. By May 1948, there were tens of thousands of Jews detained in British camps in Cyprus, Jews guilty of trying to illegally enter the Jewish National Home…

British detention camp in Cyprus. These were not concentration camps. Still, conditions were harsh.

By 1947, from the point of view of British interests, the Mandate of Palestine had outlived its purpose and His Majesty’s Government swiftly and unceremoniously dropped it in the lap of the newly-formed United Nations Organisation.

But in November 1947, when the UN voted on a solution to the conflict, the United Kingdom abstained.  The Partition Resolution was nonetheless adopted.  This was no mere Declaration: it sketched a practical implementation plan, including the formation of a UN Commission charged with organising and managing the transition between the Mandate and the two independent states.  To enable that, the UN Resolution required the Mandatory to cooperate with the UN Commission:

But the mandatory Power did nothing of the kind.  Far from cooperating with the Commission, it did not even allow it to enter the territory.

In January 1948, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, bluntly informed the UN Commission that

His Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom would not regard favourably any proposal by the Commission to proceed to Palestine earlier than two weeks before the date of the termination of the Mandate.

The Commission protested bitterly…

But the protests were met with contempt; faced with what was obviously an impossible task, the Commission adjourned sine-die and disappeared in the ample archive of failed UN projects.

We will never know whether full cooperation by the Mandatory administration with the UN Commission could have prevented the war and (at least some of) the human suffering that followed.  But one thing is clear: given the situation on the ground, the British administration’s sabotage of the Commission’s role rendered violence in Palestine unavoidable.

On the diplomatic front, the British government of the time attempted to surreptitiously overturn (or at least subvert or make ineffective) the Partition Resolution; among other things, by lobbying the US administration to withdraw its support from the Resolution.

Finally, it attempted (both by omission and commission) to influence the outcome of the military confrontation to the detriment of the Jewish community and the nascent Jewish state.

Thus, the British administration in Palestine did nothing (in either diplomatic or military terms) to prevent or stop the infiltration of ‘irregular’ Arab forces from Iraq, Syria and Egypt into Palestine.  That infiltration started as early as December 1947 and continued in 1948.  Although formally not part of the regular armies of the Arab states, these ‘volunteers’ were typically armed, trained and officered by those states.  The presence of the ‘irregulars’ – who did not just attack Jewish settlements and traffic themselves, but often bullied local Arab villages into joining such attacks – had a huge destabilising effect and exercised a major aggravating influence on the extent and intensity of violence.

The conduct of the British administration and army during the last months of the Mandate was far from neutral.  Officially, the overriding aim was to maintain ‘peace and order’ – at least to the extent necessary to maximise the safety of British withdrawal.  In practice, however, various officials and officers followed their own political preferences.  And, given the clash between the Jewish Yishuv and the British administration that characterised the previous months and years, those sympathies, more often than not, tended to favour the Arab side.  Numerous instances are documented in which British troops failed to intervene or were slow to intervene when Jews were attacked ‘under their noses’; strategic positions evacuated by the withdrawing British army were handed over to Arab irregulars.  There were even cases when Jewish guerrillas were captured by British soldiers, disarmed and handed over to Arab irregulars or villagers, who promptly lynched them.

But arguably the most blatant British intervention was related to the so-called Arab Legion. Established in the 1920s by British ‘advisors’ to the Hashemite court, the Legion became in 1946 Transjordan’s official, regular army. It was armed, trained and at least partially funded by Britain. The upper commanding echelon was staffed with British officers, including the Commander-in-Chief, General John Bagot Glubb. The latter nominally reported to Transjordan’s monarch, but in reality often got his marching orders from London. Although modest in numbers, the Legion was by far the most effective Arab force in terms of training, discipline, command-and-control and weaponry.

In conclusion: it is absurd to claim – as the Middle East Editor at the Guardian did – that the British Mandate led to the creation of Israel. In reality, the random twists and turns of history caused the winds of British imperialism to blow into the sails of Jewish nationalism – for just a short, fleeting moment. They soon veered however and turned into headwinds; far from contributing to the creation of Israel, the British governments in the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s did everything in their power to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state.

The article’s concluding words are really worth internalizing and then broadcasting widely:

States are not created by imperial Declarations; nor by League of Nations Mandates or by UN Resolutions.  Recognition by the ‘international community’ (whatever that oft-used cliché means) is usually post-factum; it acknowledges the reality, it does not create it.

The only thing that creates a state is the will of a nation.  What gives a state legitimacy (and enough social solidarity to make it stable and successful) is the national aspiration upon which it is built.

The Balfour Declaration was not a philanthropic gesture – nor was it motivated by noble ethics; it was an act of political expediency, which only coincidentally served a higher purpose.  The same can be said about the British Mandate for Palestine.  Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing particularly evil in either, in the context of the time.  In issuing the Declaration and engineering the Mandate, the British Government did what most governments did then (and still do most of the time these days): pursued their own country’s selfish interests, as perceived by them at a particular moment in history.

Neither the Declaration nor the Mandate created (or, in deceitful journalistic jargon, ‘led to the creation of’) the State of Israel.  What ‘created Israel’ was an age-old longing preserved through generations in the Jewish people’s faith, culture and identity.  That was the itch that ‘created’ the scratch.  Of course, like any other historical process, the re-emergence of Jewish statehood did not happen in a political vacuum; on the contrary, it happened in the midst of political tumult.  And, out of the thousands of historical acts and events that interacted with that process, some helped it along, others hindered it.  There is as little point in ‘celebrating’ the former as in ‘mourning’ the latter.  They are but collateral, incidental externalities.

The State of Israel exists in the Jewish ancestral homeland; it’s once again populated by Jews who speak Hebrew, pray to the One God and further develop their own culture, their particular flavour of humanity.  All that did not happen because of the Balfour Declaration, or because of the British mandate, or because of UN resolutions; but because of Jewish collective longing, because of treasured national memory, because of perennial desire for freedom and human dignity.  And that is what we should celebrate.

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