I have been reading with fascination the memoirs of Sir Ronald Storrs, the British military (and later civilian) governor of Jerusalem (1918-1926), and chronicler of some of the earliest manifestations of the implementation in Palestine of that fraught and fateful document, the Balfour Declaration of November 2 1917. Hindsight, of course, reveals that, in issuing the Balfour Declaration, which promised the Zionist movement "a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people," Imperial Britain was creating an imperial cockup of the first order.
Back in 1918, however, with Palestine barely out of Turkish hands, it appears from Storrs' telling that virtually no one, save those at the highest level, had the foggiest notion of its existence, let alone how ill-conceived its promise was going to prove, although, judging by his opening sentence, composed around 20 years down the track, Storrs was beginning to grasp, it seems, something of the problems ahead: "Europe had learned before, during and particularly after the War, the full significance of Irredentism (invented but unfortunately not copyrighted by Italy): practical Zionism, or Irredentism to the nth, was new to most and stood alone. I happened to have learned something of it from the chance of my few weeks in the War Cabinet Secretariat, but with 95% of my friends in Egypt and Palestine (as in England) the Balfour Declaration, though announcing the only Victory gained by a single people on the World Front, passed without notice; whilst the few who marked it imagined that the extent and method of its application would be laid down when the ultimate fate of Palestine (assuming the conquest of its northern half and final Allied victory) had been decided." (Orientations, 1939, p 352)
Storrs' account of the imposition of martial law in Jerusalem in 1918 reveals what was no doubt the British government's first practical step in implementing the Balfour Declaration on the ground in Palestine: "The Administration of Occupied Enemy Territory was of course a temporary measure, and General Allenby's first proclamation, drafted by Mark Sykes and translated into French, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew, had announced that Jerusalem was under Martial Law, and would remain so as long as military considerations made it necessary. Martial Law would be strictly in accord with the Law and Usages of War as laid down in the Manual of Military Law. The ultimate fate of Palestine none then knew, though the Balfour Declaration made its incorporation into a presumably French Syria less and less probable, even if Jerusalem were internationalized: Jewish policy dreading the position of a tolerated minority in a great Arab majority... The now famous doctrine of the Status Quo was the bedrock of the General's policy (as it must be of any honest military occupation) in secular as well as in religious matters and, though frequently difficult to interpret and bitterly assailed (as well as invoked) by one or both parties in every subsequent controversy, this same Status Quo proved a strong defence against the encroachments from all quarters to which O.E.T.A. [Occupied Enemy Territory Administration] was continually subjected." (p 307)
Unfortunately, however, the top-hatted fools at the top of the imperial tree had ensured that there would be one almighty exception to this eminently sensible doctrine of adherence to the status quo: "The Military Administration notably contravened the Status Quo, in the matter of Zionism. Palestine had been (and in 1918 half Palestine still was) a province of the Moslem Ottoman Empire, and the vast majority of its inhabitants were Arabs. Under the Status Quo we were entitled (and instructed) to impress upon those desiring immediate reforms that we were here merely as a Military Government and not as Civil Reorganizers. Our logical procedure would therefore have been to administer the territory as if it had been Egypt or any other country with important minorities; making English the official language, and providing Arabic translations and interpreters, and treating the resident Jews, Europeans, Armenians and others as they would have been treated in Egypt. Far different from this conception was the attitude of O.E.T.A. General Allenby's very first proclamation and all that issued from me were in Hebrew, as well as in English and Arabic. Departmental and public notices were in Hebrew and, as soon as possible, official and Municipal receipts also. We had Jewish officers on our staffs, Jewish clerks and interpreters in our offices. For these deliberate and vital infractions of military practice O.E.T.A. was criticized both within and without Palestine. They were surely justified by the announcement by Great Britain and the almost universal endorsement of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1917, which gave any occupying Power the right to assume, though the League of Nations was then unborn and Mandates hardly conceived, that the ultimate Government would have to reckon with Zion." (p 312)
Yes indeed! Never backwards in coming forward, their 'title' deed to Palestine in hand, the Zionists were coming, whether Storrs was ready or not: "When... early in March Clayton showed me the telegram informing us of the impending arrival of a Zionist Commission, composed of eminent Jews, to act as a liaison between the Jews and the Military Administration, and to control the Jewish population, we could hardly believe our eyes, and even wondered whether it might not be possible for the mission to be postponed until the status of the Administration should be more cleanly defined. However, orders were orders; and O.E.T.A. prepared to receive the visitors. Confidential enquiries revealed Arab incredulity of any practical threat. Zionism had frequently been discussed in Syria. Long before the War it had been violently repudiated by the Arab journal al-Carmel as well as officially rejected by the Sultan Abd al-Hamid in deference to strong Moslem feeling; to which it was presumed that a Christian Conqueror who was also the greatest Moslem Power would prove equally sensitive. The religious Jews of Jerusalem and Hebron and the Sephardim were strongly opposed to political Zionism, holding that God would bring Israel back to Zion in His own good time, and that it was impious to anticipate His decree. The Zionist Commission travelled by train from Egypt, and after some contretemps whereby they were marooned awhile on the platform of Lydda Station, arrived by car in Jerusalem. I received in the Governorate Major Ormsby-Gore, and Major James de Rothschild, Political Officers, Lieut. Edwin Samuel, attached, Mr Israel Sieff, Mr Leon Simon, Dr Eder, Mr Joseph Cowan and Dr Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization. Monsieur Sylvain Levy, an anti-Zionist, was attached to the Commission as representative of the French Government. The party being under the official aegis of the British Government, I assembled in my office the Mayor of Jerusalem and the Heads of Communities in order that they and the visitors should meet, for the first time anyhow, in surroundings at once official and friendly. The Jerusalem faces were unassuring. I find among my letters home the plan of the dinner party with which I followed up this first meeting...: Mr Abu Suan of Latin Patriarchate, Musa Kazem Pasha al- Husseini, Mayor of Jerusalem, Mr Sylvain Levy, French Orientalist, The Mufti of Jerusalem, Sa Grandeur Thorgom Kushagian, Armenian Bishop of Cairo (acting Armenian Patriarch), Arif Pasha Daudi, ex-Ottoman Official of good family, Lt.-Col. Lord Wm. Percy, Ismail Bey al- Husseini, Director of Education, Dr Weizmann, Military Governor, His Eminence Porphyrios, Archbishop of Mount Sinai, Locum Tenens Orthodox Patriarchate, Major J. de Rothschild, Mr D. Salameh, Vice -Mayor of Jerusalem (Christian Orthodox), Major Ormsby-Gore." (p 353)
That the Jerusalem faces were unassuring speaks volumes. What follows is the stuff of drama: Zionist Deception meets Arab Civility: "After proposing 'The King' I explained that I had seized the occasion of so many representatives of communities being gathered in Jerusalem to clear away certain misunderstandings aroused by the visit of the Zionist Commission. Dr Weizmann then pronounced an eloquent exposition of the Zionist creed: Jews had never renounced their rights to Palestine; they were brother Semites, not so much 'coming' as 'returning' to the country; there was room for both to work side by side; let his hearers beware of treacherous insinuations that Zionists were seeking political power - rather let both progress together until they were ready for a joint autonomy. Zionists were following with the deepest sympathy the struggles of Arabs and Armenians for that freedom which all three could mutually assist each other to regain. He concluded: 'The hand of God now lies heavy upon the peoples of Europe: let us unite in prayer that it may lighten'. To my Arabic rendering of this speech the Mufti replied civilly, thanking Dr Weizmann for allaying apprehensions which, but for his exposition, might have been aroused. He prayed for unity of aim, which alone could bring prosperity to Palestine, and he quoted, generalizing, a Hadith, a tradition of the Prophet, 'Our rights are your rights and your duties our duties'." (p 354)
What a pity that Jerusalem's representative to the first Ottoman Parliament of 1877 and Mayor of Jerusalem in 1899, Yusuf Diya-uddin Pasha al-Khalidi (1829-1907), wasn't there to repeat his famous plea (in letter to Zadok Khan, France's Chief Rabbi*): "In the name of God, let Palestine be left alone."
[*Kahn showed it to Theodor Herzl who replied to al-Khalidi assuring him that, if the Zionists were not wanted in Palestine, "We will search and, believe me, we will find elsewhere what we need." Oh yeah.]
Storrs goes on (perhaps to exorcise any misgivings he still had) to labour the imperial delusion to which he continued to cling, at least until the publication of his memoirs: "It had been from a sense of previousness, of inopportunity, that Clayton and I had regretted the immediate arrival of the Zionist Commission; certainly not from anti-Zionism, still less from anti-Semitism. We believed (and I still believe) that there was in the world no aspiration more nobly idealistic than the return of the Jews to the Land immortalized by the spirit of Israel. Which nation had not wrought them infinite harm? Which had not profited by their genius? Which of all was more steeped in the Book of Books or had pondered more deeply upon the prophecies thereof than England? The return stood indeed for something more than a tradition, an ideal or a hope. It was The Hope - Miqveh Yisroal, the Hope of Israel, which had never deserted the Jews in their darkest hour - when indeed the Shechinah had shone all the brighter, 'a jewel hung in ghastly night'. In the triumph of the Peace the wrongs of all the world would be righted; why not also the ancient of wrongs?" (p 354)
Very much a man of his times, I'm afraid.