Broken promises, political ambiguity and illegality characterise the unfolding narrative of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and its incorporation into the British League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. J. M. N. Jeffries, a war, foreign and political correspondent based in the Middle East from 1914 until the 1930s, was prompted to write an assessment of the diplomatic manoeuvring culminating in the brief communication which he deems to have been “unlawful in issue, arbitrary in purpose and deceitful in wording.”
“Palestine, the Reality. The Inside Story of the Balfour Declaration” (Olive Branch Press, 2017) was first published in 1939. The new edition retains the original introduction by Jeffries, as well as a Foreword by Dr Ghada Karmi. Reflecting upon the centenary of the infamous declaration, Karmi writes: “If 2017 turns out to be the year when Britain did indeed decide to rescind the Balfour Declaration and remove it from the public record, it would have cleared its name of a hundred years of dishonour.”
In his introduction, Jeffries is unequivocal about the marginalisation of Palestinians since the initial Zionist plans for the colonisation of their land. One major drawback for the Palestinians was the absence of avenues, or belated inclusion in such circumstances or opportunities, including within the available media, to voice their dissenters, even though, as Jeffries remarks, “They had a great deal to say, because as time went on what is called the ‘Palestine Question’ became increasingly intricate.”
From the first chapters, the author makes it clear that there was a clear intent by the British to colonise Palestine: “They pursued a policy involving fraud and perfidy… They falsified the Mandate.” He provides a detailed explanation of how the issue of borders within the context of the First World War and its aftermath were left ambiguous, which played into the Zionists’ purported Biblical claims to the land of Palestine. Jeffries poses questions, among them a call for scrutiny of the supposed links between any claims of historical connection and the conferring of rights to a territory already inhabited.
For the Zionists, public ignorance would prove to be an asset, particularly as their colonial project was a European enterprise, rather than coming from within Palestine. Jeffries goes a step further to define this as “historical ignorance”; he states that most Jews “left Palestine, long before Roman days, because they wanted to go,” which in turn provokes questions about the Zionist narrative concerning the “return” of the “exiles”.
However, British acquiescence to Zionist demands — despite knowing very well that Palestine was not a barren land, as Zionist propaganda still claims — provided an ideal platform for the colonial project to take shape. Jeffries discusses Chaim Weizmann’s influence in Britain and Lord Arthur Balfour’s pledge to help Zionists in their ambition which incorporated, as Theodor Herzl envisaged, the eviction of Palestinians in order to accommodate settler-colonialism. By 1914, three years prior to the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, Jeffries states that a scheme involving an extremely intense process of colonisation was being studied.
The backdrop of political alliances and how they related to Zionist aims is also discussed in detail. “If Zionism were to attach itself to the allied cause,” explains the author, “the way to a Jewish Palestine might lie open at last.” Additionally, Zionists wanted a British protectorate over Palestine with the intention that the colonists ultimately take over, as explained by Weizmann in an excerpt referred to and quoted by Jeffries. Jeffries also quotes Balfour, who told Weizmann, “You know, Dr Weizmann, if the Allies win the war you may get your Jerusalem.”
One of the most telling revelations made by Jeffries revolves around the drafting of the Balfour Declaration itself, and Zionist insistence that Palestine was not to be internationalised, in order to achieve “full rights to the Jews to develop as a nation.” This intent, coupled with the propaganda spread by the World Zionist Organisation which claimed erroneously that there was a need for Palestine to be colonised, allowed the promotion of Zionism at the highest levels, so much so that Jeffries describes the political charade after Weizmann was asked to provide a draft declaration after a delegates meeting with Balfour: “As soon as he got it, Lord Balfour would put Dr Weizmann’s policy of His Majesty’s government before His Majesty’s Government for approval.” The US was also involved in preparing its own drafts of the declaration and final approval was given by the Zionists. The “verbal mosaic”, as the author describes the letter (for that is all it was), is not worded carelessly. Rather, the ambiguity is premeditated and planned, in order to allow space for manipulation and illegalities as the colonial project took shape.
The ambiguity also served as an opportunity for the British to disengage “if formidable opposition to Zionism arose.” In his analysis of the declaration, Jeffries points out the marginalisation of Palestinians which prevails to date. The “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” as the Palestinians are described in the document, gives the impression of a community that is barely surviving and also evades questions regarding demography and territory. It defines the indigenous Palestinians by what they are not, rather than what they are.
As a consequence, and one that was envisaged, Palestinians were left with few avenues for recourse after Britain, in line with Zionist demands, managed to “abstract from the people of Palestine the right to govern themselves.” Balfour’s approval was only the beginning of catastrophic repercussions for Palestinians, as the Zionists insisted, through an industrialisation framework which ran contrary to the agricultural identity of Palestine, the right to settle therein and “make Palestine a Jewish country.”
The occasional factual reports contradicting Zionist claims were futile and commissioned reports mostly fell short of arguing against the colonial enterprise. “So that the Zionists might master the country,” writes Jeffries, “an accomplice British government improperly set Palestine upon the track of industrialism.”
He also provides a comparison of the British Mandate drafts, showing that the Mandate was actually written by Zionists in collaboration with the British Government. All suggestions were taken into consideration when preparing the final draft which would place land and resources in Zionist control. Furthermore, the Preamble is only concerned with Jewish rights, prompting a comment by the author that “even the illusory guarantees to Arabs were suppressed.”
At 748 pages, the book may seem daunting to some. However, Jeffries’s writing is clear and precise. The timeline of events incorporated in the unfolding narrative, as well as the many references utilised by the author, helps to construct a coherent framework. References to happenings covered in previous chapters are indicated and summarised for recapitulation. For anyone with an interest in the dynamics which catapulted Israel into existence through the Balfour Declaration, this book is an impeccable reference and one which will call the reader back for additional perusal time and time again.