Tracing The Cause Of The Middle East Crisis: The Balfour Declaration
(Mint Press) – In recent weeks, protesters have called for the United Kingdom to formally recognize Palestine. The U.K. recently discouraged Palestine’s observer status in the United Nations despite the World Bank and the European Union attesting to the analysis that Palestine is ready to be a state.
The U.K. has found itself in the impossible position of defending its history. Ninety-five years ago from Nov. 2, Arthur James Balfour — former prime minister of the United Kingdom, the first Earl of Balfour and British Foreign Minister under King George V — penned a letter to the Baron Rothschild — the leader of the British Jewish community. This letter, now known as the Balfour Declaration, changed the world.
November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you. on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet:
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour”
Many have argued that this letter started the strife in the Middle East. In establishing a quasi-European state in Muslim-held lands, old scars from the Arab-Byzantine Wars and the Crusades were reopened, and old hate was reimagined. In recognizing how the turmoil in the Middle East started, solutions for stopping the trauma may be easier to see.
A very deep wound
The turmoil in the Middle East is as old as the Islamic religion. The first lines in the conflict was drawn in the seventh century, when Umayyad Caliphate Muslims attacked and seized the Byzantine eastern provinces, including Jerusalem.
The resulting war, the Arab-Byzantine Wars or the Muslim Wars, lasted more than four centuries and resulted in the sacking of Constantinople and the establishment of the Ottoman Empire.
The region now known as the Middle East was claimed for Islam under the prophet Muhammad between 622 and 632 AD (what is now Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) and under the Rashidun Caliphate between 632 and 661 AD (what is now Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Northern Egypt, Northern Libya and Eastern Turkey).
At various times throughout the Arab-Byzantine War, the Roman See of the Christian Church called on the faithful to push-back the Islamic threat and come to the aid of the Constantinople See. These calls for help, known as the Crusades, helped to solidify the mutual disdain the Christian Church had for Islam.
The First Crusade occurred in 1095 in response to Jerusalem, which was at the time controlled by the Seljuk Turks, being closed to Christian pilgrims seeking to pray at the city’s holy sites. At the bequest of Byzantine Emperor Alexus I and and by request of Pope Urban II, armies of the former Western Roman Empire marched on Jerusalem with the intent of waging “a holy war on infidels.” As the result of this Crusade, Western Europe claimed Israel for the first time in the name of Christianity.
The Second Crusade led to the Siege of Jerusalem by Saladin. The Third Crusade saw the recapture of Acre and Jaffa to the Christians and the restoration of free passage rights for pilgrims. The Fourth Crusade went completely off the rails and saw the sake of Constantinople, a Christian city, by emissaries of the Roman Catholic Church.
Subsequent crusades, such as the Children’s Crusade, the Fifth Crusade, the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Crusades and the Teutonic Expeditions were unqualified failures, massive disasters, short-lived victories or relatively meaningless events. However, with every Christian incursion, the Islamic resentment grew.
In 2005, the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri caused a wave of bombings in Christian areas throughout the country. In 2010, 52 people were killed in a Catholic church in Baghdad. A Sunni militant group claimed responsibility. In Saudi Arabia, non-Muslim religious expression — particularly Christian — is banned.
In 1972, radical Palestinians held hostage and assassinated Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympics Games. This action — and the hostage-takers’ successful flee from justice — became a model for other extremist groups, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the Islamic Resistance Movement (HAMAS) and the Abu Nidal Organization (ANO).
These organizations have launched terrorist attacks in more than 20 countries and killed or injured nearly 1,000 persons. Throughout Arab League nations, the success of these groups have been imitated — from the rash of hijacking from Libya in the 80s, to the rash of PLO-affiliated attacks in the Gaza Strip in the 90s, to the rash of secular violence plaguing Arab Spring nations today — particularly in Syria and Libya, by groups such as al-Qaida, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-i-Taiba.
To understand all of this, an examination of the cause is needed.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, Zionism is defined as the “Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel – the historical birthplace of the Jewish people. The yearning to return to Zion, the biblical term for both the Land of Israel and Jerusalem, has been the cornerstone of Jewish religious life since the Jewish exile from the land two thousand years ago, and is embedded in Jewish prayer, ritual, literature and culture.”
Modern Zionism came to be in the late 19th century, when waves of anti-Semitism hit Western Europe, and Jewish persecutions beset Eastern Europe. In response to all of this, Zionists sought to create a nation of their own, preferably in an area in which the historical and biblical ties to the land can be felt.
In saying that, it must be mentioned that most European Jews at the time could not personally claim a link to historical Israel. Most European Jews were descended from Christian converts or were members of long-rooted European Jewish communities — many dating as far back as the Western Roman Empire. Many of the “lost Jews” were and are, in fact, Palestinians who were descended from converts to Islam under the caliphates’ rule.
During World War I, America, under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson, took a neutral posture early on. England, who was desperate for American intervention, felt that ingratiating itself to Wilson’s sensibilities was the quickest way to get America into the war.
Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter were close and trusted advisers to the president; they were both also well-known Zionists. During a meeting held Oct. 31, 1917, Lord Balfour suggested that a declaration favorable to Zionism would allow England “to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.”
At around the same time, Balfour requested a second meeting with Chaim Weizmann, a chemist who had found a way to synthesize acetone, a production component of cordite, which was needed for the war effort.
With Germany cornering the market on calcium acetate — the primary source of cordite — Balfour was desperate. Weizmann was a Zionist and a proponent of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. After great debate and negotiation within Parliament and the Foreign Office, a declaration was authored that offered support to the establishment of a Jewish home. However, the letter made clear that the sovereignty of Palestine should not be compromised in any way.
Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with this.
Throughout history, racism played a subtle but significant hand in drafting policy. The idea of a permanent European nation in the Islamic Middle East, especially in light of the drawback of Europeans from lands ceded from the defunct Ottoman Empire in response to the disastrous Ottoman-German Alliance, was attractive to many Western nations, including the United States. Many saw this as a “civilizing,” “calming” addition to what many considered a potential volcano.
Palestinian dignitaries and political representatives formally responded to the declaration, “ … we always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries … but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation … ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.”
The volcano started to smoke under the Treaty of Sèvres, which was implemented Aug. 10, 1920. Under this treaty, mandates for Iraq and Palestine were given to the U.K., while France received Lebanon and Syria.
The treaty directly echoed the call for a Jewish home in Palestine, without voiding Palestinian authority.
Under the concept of the Gathering of Israel — a promise given by Moses that the children of Israel will return home after being exiled — many European Jews and other Diaspora-displaced Jews started to immigrate to Palestine. Starting in 1492, Jewish communities started to sprout up throughout Palestine, with the first wave of modern Jewish migration happening in 1881.
In 1897, the first World Zionist Congress formed. During the Second Aliyah (1904-1914), nearly 40,000 Jews entered Palestine. Under the Third (1919-1923) and Fourth Aliyahs (1924-1929), 100,000 Jews entered Palestine. Finally, Nazism caused the Fifth Aliyah and an additional 250,000 Jewish immigrants. This triggered the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939.
At the end of World War II, the Jewish community started to oppose the British government, who was restricting entry of Holocaust survivors and refugees. In 1947, Britain withdrew from Palestine, stating it could do nothing to resolve the in-fighting. The same year, the United Nations issued a plan that divided Palestine into an independent Jewish state, an independent Islamic state and a U.N.-entrusted city-state of Jerusalem.
The Jewish authority accepted this, but the Arab League (or the League of Arab States, which encompasses most of the Islamic world) rejected it. This led to civil war and the expulsion of nearly 250,000 Palestinian-Arabs.
The declaration of independence by the Jewish authority triggered the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, in which the newly-formed Israel was attacked by Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Since this time and continuing to this day, armed conflicts have emerged in the long shadow of this strife.
So, who’s to blame?
It’s tempting to blame Britain for the mess in the Middle East; after all, the nation could have done more to ensure that Palestinian authority was protected and ensured. This, more than anything else, would had ensured the stability and peace of the Arab League — making the Middle East significantly quieter.
But, this wouldn’t have stopped the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This wouldn’t have stopped the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent hostage crisis of 1979. Israeli relations mattered little with the Iraqi-American situation that we are currently seeing the end-game of now, and while it could be argued that the Israeli presence laid the groundwork, the Arab Spring happened because of internal pressures within the Arab League states.
As it is unfair to blame the U.S. for the mess in the Middle East (America inherited the mess, more or less, after everyone else left the table and left the check). It is also unfair to blame Britain — Britain’s intentions were good, if a little short-sighted and naive. The issues with the Middle East are as old as time immortal.
The only way the Middle East can find peace is to get past the pain that is ingrained in the ethnic history of the people itself. The only way forward for the Middle East is boldly and diligently, in the name of forgiveness, seeking to heal itself and forget the past.
If that is possible.
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