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Wednesday, November 09, 2005


A fascinating glimpse into history via the very different Guardian of 1917. Of course, the biases of its time are very evident: the views of the non-Jewish population of Palestine seem to concern the author not at all, reflecting the unspoken assumption that the Arabs were a degenerate subject nation who could simply be transferred from one empire to another – a misconception with whose consequences we are still living, I guess. But I don't think it's any worse than the relentless anti-Israel spin of today's paper.

'...the declaration of policy by the British Government to-day is the security for a new, perhaps a very wonderful, future for Zionism and for the Jewish race.'

Tragic irony! How many lives might have been saved if Britain had followed through consistently, and a state able and willing to offer sanctuary to Europe's Jews had come into being before Auschwitz, not after?


Pastorius said...

Good find, Cyrus.

That's amazing, isn't it?

Neal said...


I do not think the Leader article overlooked the Arab side. I think you are reading the European revisionist version of history (which is an abstract and politicized history that entirely ignore the politics of that time) to include a discreet Palestinian people and politics which, at the time, did not exist and would have been meaningless, at the time, to pretty much all of the people involved, including the ancestors of today's Palestinian Arabs.

Instead, the Leader article employs the actual assumptions through which, at the time, Arabs (including those in historic Palestine) and Jews - not just Europeans - would mostly have understood the matter. Which is to say, Arabs were part of the Ottoman Empire and the looming break up of that empire and the genocide against the Armenians were the context of history for both Jews and Arab and Europeans. It was that reality which all saw as background as they planned for the future. And, as the article also correctly sees, the issue marked a presage of an Arab Empire and potential calamity for the Jewish population of the region.

Why mention the Armenians? Because at the time, the Ottoman Empire was a collapsing Empire which had, for reasons religious and in order to re-form itself as an Asia Minor and, still potentially Arab empire (but no longer an empire in Europe), decided on a policy of extirmation and Muslim Turkish supremacy and a policy to conquer and merge with the Muslim Turkish lands between which the Armenians mostly resided and thus were an inconvenience to the plans of the Ottoman Turks).

Why no mention or consideration of Palestinian Arabs? There were not very many people in historic Palestine at the time and, more importantly, because at the time, the politics of the Muslim ruling class in the Ottoman Empire was not really national in character and the politics of Arabs - including those in historic Palestine - was not nationalist, for the most part, either. And, Europeans had never heard of a people called Palestinians (or even a discreet people now called Palestinians) and, in fact, neither had the Turks or the Arabs.

These facts, not the trivial number of Jews and Arabs in what Europe called Palestine but which, in the Ottoman Empire, was not even a discreet region anyway, was central, even to Arabs from Palestine as they were, at the time, subjects of the Empire. And that Empire was massacring people on a scale not seen since the time of Genghis Khan while Arabs were considering the idea that they might become part of a potential new Arab empire to replace the Ottoman Turks.

So, in my view, the Leader is about as well considered an article - in fact, one of the few well considered articles - I have read in The Guardian.

Cyrus said...


You make interesting points as ever, but I fear you are still trying to resolve the conflict of nationalisms by a total delegitimization of Palestinian national consciousness, and that is simply fighting an unwinnable battle – certainly where the kind of mainstream European liberal opinion that I want to engage with is concerned. The case for Israel may pass by default among large sections of American opinion, but those of us arguing the case in Europe have to argue smarter than that.

There are two irreducible facts about 1917 which supporters of Israel have to deal with: first, there was an Arab population in Palestine, which, whilst it may have been in your eyes ‘not very many’, still heavily outnumbered the Jews; and second, that the British did not consider it necessary to give this population any say in the plans for the future of their land. It is doubtless true that they were never consulted much by the Ottomans, but it is irrelevant – for one thing the Ottomans were fellow-Muslims, and for another they never planned to settle another people in the land. It is also doubtless true that there was as yet no specifically Palestinian nationalism, and that this only emerged as a reaction to the Zionist project – but that does not invalidate it. It would hardly be the first time that a national consciousness developed in response to a perceived threat to a group’s shared interests. Americans decided they were a nation when they tired of paying tax to an overbearing government on the other side of the Atlantic, did they not?

So is it in fact Israel’s existence as a nation which is invalidated? No! The article gives a remarkable hint of the reasons why not in its reference to the Armenians. To connect the need of the Jews for statehood with the recent occurrence of the twentieth century’s first mass genocide shows quite extraordinary prescience. Of course all crystal balls have cloudy patches: for all that Britain and Germany were locked in bloody conflict and the British public were being bombarded with propaganda depicting the Germans as barbarians, the author would probably have been astounded to be told that the mortal threat to the Jews would arise in the land of Goethe, Kant and Beethoven.

But that is a side issue. My basic case is this: yes, an injustice was done to the Palestinians, and its fallout needs to be addressed. It was, however, the kind of injustice that is the normal stuff of history. We humans are both a territorial species and a migratory one, and when populations seek pastures new they tend not to wait for an invitation. The origins of most of today’s nation states don’t bear too much moral scrutiny.

The Holocaust, however, stands as a singularity. Where that is denied, as it frequently is in support of the Palestinian cause, anti-Semitism is never far behind. A defining moment for me was watching an anti-Israel march in London in the summer of 2002. Many of the mainly Muslim demonstrators were carrying placards with a Star of David, a swastika, and a “=” between them. That was wrong, and obscenely wrong. The singularity of the Holocaust is not to be compromised for instrumental reasons - because it is unpalatable to a group which has suffered a lesser degree of injustice as an indirect consequence of it. While the nation state remains a standard form of social organization, the Jews’ claim to one of their own is irrefutable.

Neal said...


I was making a point about that time, not the present. And I do not deny Palestinians anything.

At the time in question - 1917 -, Palestinians had no expectation of or interest in a state. More than that, the very notion of a separate Palestinian state would have been offensive to most of them. Consider - as this is rather critical to understanding the period (and, to some extent, our period) - Islam viewed nationalism as offensive and a crime against Islam.

So, it is not just that Palestinians did not form nationalism at the time. It is that such could not have been part of their reality. Their reality, wrapped as it was and, to some extent, still is, in Islam, called for a people - ummah -, not states. Europeans imposed states on the Arabs (who, thought of continuing the Muslim empire or an alternative Arab empire which, in due course, would be a Muslim empire) after the break-up of the Ottoman Muslim Empire, in which the Sultan had also also Khalif (i.e. God's vicar on Earth).

It was only with the creation of Israel that the notion of a separate Palestinian state really came into being. And, even then, it was half-hearted even at the time of the PLO charter which refers to Palestinian Arabs being a part of the great Arab people and great Arab nation. And it is still the case with the religious Muslims among Palestinian Arabs. Read the Hamas covenant. It refers to the land being a Muslim trust. Such a trust means that the land, in their view, belongs to all Muslims.

Now, I have nothing against creating a Palestinian state, if it ends the dispute with both sides having rights.

Cyrus said...


Great comment, I don't think I disagree with anything you've said.

Melanie said...

I had a link once to a whole lot of newspaper articles from Palestine and other Arab countries that gives alot of weight to Neals point, but I can't find the link. However if you're interested to find out the real thinking of the time, newspaper articles are very telling. I'll try to do some googling to find some links to articles.

Cyrus said...

Please do, Melanie (the Melanie??)