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Lord Balfour's Blooper

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Sunday 20th Nov 2011
Lord Balfour’s Blooper
From O Little Town of Bethlehem


Yesterday I went down to the Alternative Information Centre in Beit Sahour for their Saturday lecture and get-together. The AIC is a campaigning organisation and gathering place for mostly-foreign volunteers and activists who come to Bethlehem area to do their bit. I met a Dane who was teaching computer animation techniques to kids, and an English lady here with her husband, who visits regularly as an activist. She said he was a sucker for getting tear-gassed in demos against the Israeli army. Another is a young Basque woman who writes columns for a Basque newspaper, and another was an Irishman who works with disabled kids.

First, I had a little lesson in the magic process of setting an intent and then letting things unfold. During the last week it has been really cold – such things as good heating don’t exist here because houses are built to deal with the heat of summer, not the cold of winter. So I needed to buy an extra sweater. On the way to Beit Sahour I asked Ismael where to get one. Palestine has real shops in it, run by real shopkeepers – no supermarket chains as we have in Europe – so you need to know where to go to get what you want. Ismael said that, come Monday, he would accompany me to find one. He’s a good man to know! He also gave me my latest Arabic lesson on the way: he had asked me Keif halak?, or ‘How are you?’ and I didn’t have a good answer, so he taught me Hamdulillah, which means ‘Thanks be to God’ or, ‘Mercifully, I’m okay’.

He dropped me off in Beit Sahour and I waved him goodbye. Turning round, I noticed a shop called Just 4 You, with male mannikins in the window wearing woollen sweaters. Problem solved: within ten minutes and the obligatory five friendly conversations with different people in the shop, I emerged with a new sweater! I had found what I was seeking without looking for it, and Ismael had helped me without knowing it, by dropping me where he did! Magic.

The lecture concerned the Balfour Declaration, written in 1917 during the First World War, on the eve of the British takeover of Palestine. My maternal grandfather was part of General Allenby’s invading British army (and my paternal grandfather was in the Battle of the Somme).

Dr Adnan Musallam of Bethlehem University, a professor of physics, was a longtime activist and the founder of several Palestinian organisations. He outlined the context of the beginning of the Palestine problem a century ago – mainly concerning the geostrategic interest of the British and French in taking over the Middle East on the downfall of the Ottoman empire.

The British then had two priorities: safeguarding the Suez Canal (linking Britain with India and other Asian domains) and gaining control of the oil deposits discovered in Iraq, the Gulf and Iran – motor cars, tanks and airplanes were the new technologies of the time. Palestine wasn’t of great interest except inasmuch as its control stopped anyone else getting in. And British Christian Zionists of course wanted to stick their oar in.

The Middle East had been united under the Ottomans for centuries, divided into provinces. When the British and French sectioned it up (France gained Lebanon and Syria and Britain got the rest) they intentionally split the region into small nation-states, identifying minorities in each country who would then be promoted to rule the rest. In Lebanon it was Maronite Christians, in Syria it was Alawites (today’s Assad regime are Alawites), in Jordan it was the Bedouin and in Palestine… well, the Jews looked convenient, and over time decisions were made to commandeer some of them from Europe, since increasingly they wanted to get out. Zionist interests in Europe, including Lord Rothschild, promoted this idea too – and, as it happened, since Rothschild was lending large sums of money to the UK government to help finance WW1, the Brits needed to keep him happy.

There was a further issue back in Europe: Jews weren’t popular. Many European politicians knew that they should do something to ease this brewing problem. Some Jewish thinkers (the Zionists) believed that Jews needed an identity and nation of their own. Some British agreed, though they thought Uganda, Argentina or Mauritius would do. But the Zionists wanted their historic home, Palestine.

This was doable, conceivably, but enormous mistakes were made. Look at the proviso in the Balfour Declaration which said “…Nothing will be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…”. The British meanwhile worked on a ‘divide and rule’ principle. What was needed instead of divide and rule was moderate and gradual Jewish immigration, with an integrated approach to building a new nation of Palestine, such that both communities could coexist as happily and productively as possible. This didn’t happen.

Dr Musallam pointed out a problem in Europe. There was the option to resolve the Jewish problem in Europe, or to export it elsewhere. It was exported. Europeans needed to address their own tendency to override minorities and deny their rights – a problem that arose around the time of the Crusades, 900 years ago, and continues today with our neuroses over immigration and Muslims in Europe. The problem was exported and dumped on the people of Palestine – and this went out of control when the Russian pogroms and the German ‘final solution’ came along in the late 1930s, making Jews desperate to get out and find a safe haven. Zionist leaders, promoting the idea of a Jewish national home, spoke of ‘a land without people waiting for a people without a land’ – a serious misconception which continues today in Israeli attitudes toward Palestinians.

Yet Palestine and the lands around it are multi-ethnic, multicultural places. They have been so for millennia and they always shall be, located as they are at a nexus-point of the whole of Eurasia. For this reason, Musallam and many others believe that the much-vaunted ‘two-state solution’ cannot work, because the different peoples of the Middle East simply must live together. Ethnically-defined mini-states aren’t a solution. He added that, if a ‘one-state solution’ were employed, the Israelis, being richer, more organised and distinctly capitalist, would probably dominate the Palestinians at first, and the outcome of that is unpredictable.

But in time the numerical advantage Palestinians possess would probably win through, and the Israelis would need to integrate with the Arab world – meaning that a true balancing of Jewish and Arab interests could unfold over the generations. In addition, some form of Arab Union is becoming likely, which would give Palestine advantage, whether or not it is a member. Israelis would be obliged to drop their sense of superiority and control – unlikely at present, though time and circumstance have remarkable ways of changing things.

In passing, he mentioned the paradox that, genetically, a proportion of the Palestinian and Bedouin populations is genetically descended from Jews – the ones who stayed behind during the Jewish diaspora 2,000 years ago, later to merge with the surrounding population. Also the dominant Ashkenazi element in the population of modern Israel, originating from Europe, is not solely descended from the Jews who were exiled from ancient Israel. He underlined that worrying about genetics is futile, since we all are mongrels, and what concerns us is the present and the future, not ancient history and the supposed rights it confers.

One thought passed my mind: why did the British not favour Christians instead of Jews, as a client overclass in Palestine? We shall never know, but here are two clues. The first is Rothschild and his role in the British elite at the time – the British government was beholden to Jewish financiers. The second concerns Chaim Weizmann, a leading Zionist and professor of chemistry at Manchester University – Balfour was MP for the area where he lived, and they knew each other. Weizmann invented a chemical, synthetic acetone, used for making cordite in explosives and, this being WW1, it was very valuable to the British. So Balfour asked what he could do in return for Weizmann’s contribution. “Give us Jews a state”, was the answer.

There’s a third factor here too, which I raised at the end of the lecture. Palestinians tend to believe that the British were pro-Jewish in their Palestine policies. This isn’t entirely true. For more than a century, the British foreign office has been plagued, and still is, by an ongoing rivalry between Arabists, pro-Jewish interests and business interests, none of whom has ever won. Lawrence of Arabia and Glubb Pasha were typical Arabists, who understood the Arab cause, advocating the founding of a united Arab nation, before being overruled by high-ups back home who took a ‘divide and rule’ approach – pressured by the Jewish lobby and fuelled by business interests who wanted control of the oilfields.

This is why Balfour wrote an ambiguous declaration, promising a Jewish homeland while also seeking to guarantee the rights of Palestinian Arabs. In the 1920s-30s the Brits made promises to Arabs and separate promises to Jews that were entirely irreconcilable. When the Arabs started revolting against Jewish settlement and British rule in the 1920s-30s, the Brits arrested, exiled and killed the Palestinian leadership, suppressing ordinary people’s protests and making good use of the immigrating Jews to reinforce this.

So the British made a big mistake by never resolving their own internal conflicts of interest. This resulted in increasing polarisation of Arabs and Jews. It led eventually to a proposed UN partition of Palestine in 1947 which, to foreign diplomats, seemed fair and sensible, but it was a recipe for disaster – the Palestinians could not accept partition and loss of half of their land. Meanwhile, the Jews wanted the whole lot from the sea to the Jordan River or even further, and in 1948 they took far more than they were given. The UN in effect gave Jews inadvertent permission to ethnically cleanse their new land of Israel.

My own work in Palestine seeks to redress some of this enormous historic mistake my own nation made back then, not long before I was born. I believe in multi-ethnic, multicultural societies, in justice between people, and in the primacy of the human race as a whole. My work doesn’t make an enormous difference to the political landscape, but it still pushes toward healing, understanding, justice, equity and cooperation for all peoples. I might work with and for Palestinians, but that doesn’t make me anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic.

Many Brits believe the British empire was largely A Good Thing. Well, we were beneficiaries, not victims of the empire, so we would believe that. Trouble is, we made enormous errors, costing the lives and lands of millions of people, ruining whole cultures and driving forward the exploitation of our planet, all for British profit. We shouldn’t stand around feeling guilty for that today, and we have indeed brought benefits to other peoples too. But we should work to right many of the wrongs we wrought – this includes wrongs in our own society, with its inequalities, lies, illusions, materialism and, frankly, social and spiritual poverty. It is in our own best ultimate interests to do so.

Musallam mentioned one other thing. Settler societies are resolute (Americans and Australians are good examples), and you can’t just expect settlers to go home or let up. Settlers have made a big choice to leave their homelands and improve their lives by emigrating to other lands. They hang together, work hard, suffer together and never give up, whatever happens. Thus he gave an insight into Israeli settlers, whom many people find to be incomprehensible in their sheer assertiveness, sense of superiority and their impositions on Palestinians. They cannot be denied or shoved aside. This presents a problem, and it isn’t going to go away – Palestinians as much as Israelis are going to need to change, to encompass the others in their midst.

Peace negotiations won’t solve the Palestine problem – this is an illusion clung onto by foreign politicians, diplomats and journalists. It’s good cover for the Israelis, who use a decades-long appearance of a ‘peace process’ as a way of quietly undermining any prospects of peace by establishing ‘facts on the ground’ – a comprehensive takeover of Palestinian land. What will solve the problem is a generational shift of values, priorities and perspective.

The big problem we face in today’s world is global in scale. In the end, the perceived rights and priorities of individual nations are secondary to the survival of the human race. If sea levels rise, both Gaza and Tel Aviv are affected. If a massive earthquake happens in Palestine (likely sometime), it will affect Israelis and Palestinians alike. If there is a collapse of oil supplies, Palestinians and Israelis will be affected alike – and paradoxically we’re likely to see, in such a scenario, Palestinians rescuing Israelis from their plight, simply because Palestinians are far more adept and experienced at dealing with crises and hardships.

Peace will come about because the old agenda of conflict will be superseded by much greater issues. It’s tragic that it has to be this way, but this is the gift of the future. Fasten your safety-belts: we’re in for one helluva ride. Military actions to protect the interest of the people on top will become obsolete, with costs vastly overriding benefits. Welcome to the New World. 2012 could be the year that we all properly step into it.

© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book O Little Town of Bethlehem by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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