In 1919, following the First World War, the victorious Allied Powers met in Paris to remake the world. The prime ministers of Italy, France, and Britain as well as US President Woodrow Wilson, collectively known as “The Big Four,” were the decisive diplomatic players at the meeting.
Under their leadership, the lands of the defeated Central Powers were picked apart. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved into smaller central European nations. Germany lost territory and was served with an extremely punitive and expensive peace treaty. In several cases, the triumphant Big Four parcelled out bits of land to themselves.
It was in this context of post-war imperial conquest that the fate of the Arab lands of the defeated Ottoman Empire was decided.
During the Second World War, the Allies had overcome the Ottomans with the important assistance of local Arabs who had rebelled against Turkish rule. Among these formerly Ottoman subjects was Emir Faisal, the son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Faisal arrived in Paris seeking assurance that the British would honour the commitment they had made to his father: Post-war independence for all the Arab lands that had been liberated from Turkish control.
The conference also heard from Chaim Weizmann, a leader of the British Zionist movement. Weizmann argued for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Arab territory known as Palestine. During his presentation, Weizmann cited in its entirety the Balfour Declaration – the 1917 promise made to the Zionist movement by British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, stating that the British government favoured the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.
It was exactly this conflicting maze of treaties and agreements that led to the outbreak of the World War. And it was with the very aim of preventing another such calamity that in 1919 Woodrow Wilson proposed the foundation of a League of Nations.
So when the Ottoman question arose, Wilson made a proposal in keeping with his ideal of self-determination: Ask the people who live there what they want. This was an idea completely alien to the imperial ambitions of France and Britain and certainly out of place at the Paris conference.
With that, Wilson commissioned the first survey of Arab opinion. In June of 1919, an American commission, led by Dr Henry King and Charles Crane, arrived in the Mediterranean coastal city of Jaffa to begin the first-ever Arab public opinion survey. The commission travelled throughout what was then known as Greater Syria, including modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine.
The results were particularly adamant on certain issues. Among them: “The non-Jewish population of Palestine were emphatically against the entire Zionist programme. This feeling was also shared by the broader population of the entire Arab East: “Only two requests – those for a united Syria and for independence – had a larger support,” continued the King-Crane report.
With regard to the fate of Palestine, King and Crane suggested that the Zionist project should be dramatically scaled back. Like Wilson, King and Crane fully accepted that imposing policy against the will of the population would generate massive resistance. However, the British and French were undeterred.
Lord Balfour sharply rejected the Wilsonian approach, declaring, “In Palestine, we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American commission has. Zionism is of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
In the end, Lord Balfour had his way. Instead of independence, boundaries were drawn, dismembering the Arab East and creating British and French spheres of influence over the newly created states of Lebanon and Syria (France) and trans-Jordan and Iraq (Britain) as well as Palestine (also to the British, with the understanding that it would become the “Jewish Homeland”).
These deplorable actions by the imperial powers set the stage for the multiple conflicts that have plagued the region ever since.
And so, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is not cause for celebration. Rather it should prompt us to recall the grave injustice that imperial acquisitiveness and racist insensitivity have done to an innocent Arab nation. Their rights and opinions were ignored and as a result the last 100 years have been marked by unceasing conflict and suffering. This is the shame of Balfour.