James Renton: Forgotten Lessons from Palestine and the British Empire

Roundup: Historians' Take

[James Renton teaches history at Edge Hill University.]

In a speech to the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on 21 May 2009, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, argued that the future of the west’s relations with Muslim-dominated countries lay in the building of broad coalitions based upon consent among citizens—not just ruling elites. Prior to making his case, he acknowledged the elephant in the room of Anglo-Muslim relations: Britain’s colonial record in the middle east and south Asia, and its legacies. As part of this rare confession of culpability, he noted ‘the failure – it has to be said not just ours - to establish two states in Palestine'.

This admission, as rare as it may be, gives only a very partial picture of what is a largely unacknowledged story. With a mandate from the league of nations, Britain governed the Holy Land from the end of the first world war until 1948. During this time, the political landscape of Palestine was completely transformed. Whilst Arabs and Jews played a fundamental role in the unfolding drama of mandate Palestine, the driving force was imperial Britain. The old myth that Britain was merely ‘holding the ring’ — trying to keep the peace between two irrational, warring parties — is a gross misunderstanding of history.

In November 1918, Palestine did not exist as a political entity. What became mandate Palestine was carved out of four districts of the Ottoman empire, which had ruled the roost since 1516. In the Jewish world, only a small, though growing, minority were members of the Zionist movement by the end of the Great War. Many Jews were virulently opposed to the idea, though most were indifferent to what was viewed as a utopian movement. In 1918, approximately 10% of the population of the Holy Land were Jewish, of whom many were not Zionist. Amongst the Arab population, there was a growing sense of Palestinian identity before 1914. But this was just one of many competing loyalties at the time. Just after the war, the predominant aim of Arab nationalists in Palestine was to establish independence for Greater Syria—incorporating today’s Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestinian territories, and Jordan.

But by the end of British rule in May 1948 there had emerged a powerful Zionist movement. It had succeeded in forging the institutions for statehood and independence. Palestinian nationalism had also become deep-rooted in Arab society. But the Arab population suffered from under-development, debt, widespread illiteracy, disillusionment, and the after effects of Britain’s decimation of the Palestinian Uprising of 1936 to 1939. These seeds of Zionist victory and Palestinian defeat were the direct outcome of Britain’s drafting, interpretation, and implementation of the league of nations mandate for Palestine.

On the rare occasions when Britain’s record in Palestine is discussed critically outside of academic circles, many emphasise the mistake of issuing the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. It often has been thought that this statement committed Britain to supporting Zionism, come what may. As a result, the British were forced to make the best of a bad job. They could not abandon Zionism, as it would undermine Britain’s honour and prestige—the perceived beating heart of imperial authority. But this version of events lets the British empire off the hook. It suggests that the Balfour Declaration, the act of a short-sighted government embroiled in the Great War, was the only problem. The Declaration, however, committed Britain to doing very little in Palestine.

The text of the Declaration stipulated that the British government viewed with favour, and would ‘facilitate’, the ‘establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. This statement was followed by the caveat, ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’. As I argue in a forthcoming book edited by Rory Miller, Palestine, Britain and Empire: The Mandate Years, there was no attempt by the government to define what was meant by these promises. There was no serious consideration by the cabinet or the foreign office as to what was meant by the term ‘national home’, or how exactly Britain would ‘facilitate’ its establishment. Also, no thought was given to how the rights of the so-called ‘non-Jewish communities’ might be affected by the ‘national home’, or how they would be protected.

The principal reason for this oversight is that the government was not focused on the future of Palestine when it issued the Declaration. Their primary objective was to rally world Jewry behind the Allied war effort, especially in Russia and the United States. This policy was pursued because of a mistaken belief in Jewish power and commitment to Zionism....

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