The Balfour Declaration, signed a century ago this week, is one of the most infamous documents in political history. One nation (Britain) offered another people’s land (Palestine) to a third group of people, the Zionist Federation – against the wishes of British Jews, who argued that ‘Judaism was a religion not a nation’.
These were the words of the Cabinet minister Sir Edwin Montagu, a prominent member of Britain’s Jewish community, who addressed the Lloyd George government about his fears that a Jewish state in Palestine would undermine equal rights for diaspora Jews in their adopted home by making them feel like second class citizens.
But the views of Britain’s Jewish community, even when represented at a Cabinet level, were ignored by the British government in favour of their own national and colonial interests. The declaration was not intended as an act of goodwill to the Jewish people. Arthur Balfour, as Prime Minister, helped pass the Alien Act of 1905, which was in part intended to restrict migration by Jewish refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe.
The letter he wrote on 2 November 1917 was just one of many actions carried out by both Britain and France with the aim of destroying the Ottoman Khilafah, controlling the Middle East and winning World War One.
Three years into the war, it was far from certain that the Entente Power would win. Lloyd George calculated it was in the UK’s best interests to offer Palestine to ‘Jewish Zionists’ in the hope of winning support from their lobbies in America and Russia, in order to influence the former into entering the war and the latter into staying in it. However, at the same time as making this pledge, the British were also negotiating a possible peace with the Ottomans in case their lobbying efforts failed (as it happens, the US and Russian decisions were probably not greatly influenced by the Balfour Declaration); and had even promised Palestine as part of an independent Arab state to Sharif Hussein, after they had encouraged him to rebel against the Ottomans. (The independent Arab state was eventually handed to Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, not Sharif Hussein, and did not include Palestine.)
But duplicity wasn’t the only quality needed to work in ‘His Majesty’s Government’ at that time. Racism and Imperialism were in abundance as well.
Addressing the Peel Commission in 1937 Winston Churchill, who was in Lloyd George’s war cabinet in 1917, dismissed the idea that Zionists were colonial settlers saying, “I do not admit that the dog in the manger (a reference to the Palestinian people) has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, ‘The American Continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these European settlers coming in here’. They had not the right, nor had they the power.”
With this colonialist and racist mindset, so much deceit and corruption – such policies couldn’t fail to lead to the subsequent seventy years of bloodshed and instability in the wider Middle East, not just Palestine.
The historic injustices are all too well known: From the black and white archive footage of thousands of refugees leaving their homes, to the blood-drenched images that circulate on social media today – the elderly women weeping for their sons, the fathers shielding their children from bullets – we have grown up knowing nothing but injustice for the Palestinian people.
Jerusalem, Gaza, Jenin, Hebron – these were once places of spiritual significance or to be visited. But they now sit alongside Sabra and Shatilla as the sites of murder, massacre and humiliation.
What must be understood is that the Balfour Declaration, along with Sykes Picot and the various treaties and institutions established after World War One and World War Two- not least of all the establishment of the United Nations who handed Palestine from the British occupation, to the Zionist occupation do not exist in isolation of one another. All of these were to establish a different world order from that which existed before 1914. The blood spilled and the instability created across the whole world in order to to achieve this change was bad enough. But worse than this is the indifference with which this new world order presided over these continuous injustices.
For seven decades this world order – made up of the so-called ‘international community’, the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the United States, United Kingdom and European Union, the Arab and Muslims regimes in the region – has been actively complicit in the killing or, at best, done nothing to redress the oppression of the Palestinian people.
It beggars belief that we still see well meaning people today appealing to all these bodies for help – and expecting them to do now what they have not done till today. Even more so because, when one understands the background of this world order, one can understand it is appealing to those who deliberately created the chaos, and who have benefitted from it, to resolve the problem.
The secular and nationalist order has failed spectacularly. Faced with this, it is time Muslims woke up to the fact that there needs to be a new order in the Middle East and Muslim world – one that can halt the oppression and the killing; one that will resolve the historic injustices; one that can liberate the land from occupation; one that establishes a society where people of differing backgrounds can live together and protects their lives, property and beliefs. Such an order existed under Islam – and the beliefs and principles of the people in the region are embedded in Islam. From the expulsion of the Crusaders until a century ago Islam ruled the region in relative peace – and such a situation can only be established gain under a new Islamic order.
Dr. Abdul Wahid
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