Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Trouble With Niall Ferguson

Anyone thinking about the world today couldn't help but conclude that much of the world's news is generated in and around the land of Palestine. And anyone with any knowledge of modern Palestinian history would know that the present state of Israel (1948-?) is but the latest phase of a colonial era through which Palestine is currently passing, an era which began with Britain's conquest of the former Ottoman Turkish territory in World War I and the British mandate (1923-48), imposed on Palestine's majority  indigenous Arab population without so much as a by your leave. They would also know that Britain's mandate over Palestine incorporated, and acted as a Trojan Horse for, the infamous Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which the British had promised to 'facilitate' in Palestine the creation of 'a national home for the Jewish people'.

So when someone comes along and writes a book called Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), a book which, according to its cover, is not only an "international bestseller," but has been authored by "[t]he most brilliant British historian of his generation," (albeit a quotation from The Times), you might be inclined, as I was, to sit up and pay attention.

So down I sat and opened the volume, by Niall Ferguson (Professor of International History at Harvard University), to see what it had to say about the colonial clusterfuck (euphemistically known as the Middle East or Arab-Israeli conflict) which emerged from the aforementioned Balfour Declaration and British mandate, probably the British Empire's most enduring colonial running sore. Surely, so my thinking tended, no worthwhile history of the impact of the British Empire on today's world could afford to give that short shrift. And so I began at the beginning with the Balfour Declaration. The index sent me to p 357, and this is what I found:

"In Palestine too the British cut and ran, in 1949, bequeathing to the world the unresolved question of the new state of Israel's relations with the 'stateless' Palestinians and the neighbouring Arab states."

But that, folks, was it!

And even that solitary reference contains 2 significant errors: the British withdrew from Palestine in 1948, not 1949; and I can only assume that the placing of inverted commas around the word stateless indicates that, for Ferguson, the Palestinian people, or at least the majority of them, were not rendered stateless by their expulsion from the land in which they had lived as far back as the Bronze Age. How else Ferguson would describe their post-1948 predicament, if not in terms of statelessness, we can only guess.

There is, however, a footnote to the above:

"Both the Jewish state and Arab nationalism were in some measure creations of British policy during the First World War; but the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration had turned out to contain a hopeless contradiction: 'His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine...'"

As you can see, the bulk of the footnote consists of the text of the Balfour Declaration. While that doesn't leave much of Ferguson, even that little is profoundly misleading. For one, the British did not in some measurcreate Jewish nationalism (aka political Zionism). Political Zionism preceded Lloyd George and Lord Balfour. And rather than create it, they were in fact played like a fiddle by its devotees. (For those interested, simply click on the Balfour Declaration label below and read the posts, in particular the The Balfour Deception series (1-7). That series should also give the lie to Ferguson's thoroughly naive suggestion (implied in the words "the terms of the 1917 Balfour Declaration had turned out to contain a hopeless contradiction") that the document was somehow drafted by sweet innocents harbouring only the best of intentions for all concerned.)

As for Arab nationalism, I need only quote the opening sentence/paragraph of George Antonius' 1938 classic The Arab Awakening: "The story of the Arab national movement opens in Syria in 1847, with the foundation in Beirut of a modest literary society under American patronage" - to expose the utter  superficiality of Ferguson's assertion that it was, in part, a British creation.

Google 'Niall Ferguson' & 'Israel' and you'll find the following 'analysis' by Britain's "most brilliant historian":

"The single biggest danger in the Middle East today is not the risk of a six-day Israeli war against Iran. It is the risk that Western wishful nonthinking allows the mullahs of Tehran to get their hands on nuclear weapons. Because I am in no doubt that they would take full advantage of such a lethal lever. We would have acquiesced in the creation of an empire of extortion. War is an evil. But sometimes a preventive war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don't yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all. It feels like the eve of some creative destruction." (Israel & Iran on the eve of destruction in a new Six-Day War,, 6/2/12)

Sorry, but after my little foray into Ferguson's Empire here, I'm far more concerned about the impact of his Empire (of distortion) on impressionable minds. Certainly, anyone who can characterise an Israeli wilding as creative destruction doesn't deserve to be trusted with history.


Syd Walker said...

To describe an academic as a 'Rothschild Court Historian' would normally be hyperbole of the type one sees occasionally on 'conspiracy' websites.

However, in the case of Niall Ferguson, it's a simple statement of fact.

The antidote to Ferguson's conformist propganda about monetary history, IMO, is Stephen Zarlenga's 'Lost Science of Money'. Two refs for anyone interested:

Anonymous said...

What book would recommend to read on World War I?

MERC said...

From which angle?

Anonymous said...

Well, I've started digging deeper and facts like Balfour Declaration paint totally different picture in comparison to the popular opinion on how World War I unfolded and for what reasons. Therefore, I'm looking forward to read a book which discusses lesser know facts and taking alternative view.

Common recommendations are 'A World Undone' and 'The Guns of August' but I'm afraid these books will only tell the story from single perspective.

MERC said...

Try Margaret MacMillan's 'Paris 1919' (2001) and George Antonius' 'The Arab Awakening' (1938). The latter's been republished since '38.

Anonymous said...

I went through 'A World Undone' to get familiar with the basic events during World War I and now halfway through 'Paris 1919' - what a fascinating read! Unfortunately 'The Arab Awakening' is only available in print, thus harder to acquire.

However, any other recommendations? I'll continue into World War II and was wondering if there're any other books worth reading about the subject itself and the years which led to it. To my mind, 'Paris 1919' serves perfectly bridging the gap.


MERC said...

Alison Weir's 2014 book, Against Our Better Judgment: How the US Was Used to Create Israel, is excellent. On World War 2 generally, Mark Mazower's Hitler's Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe (2008) is very good. If Antonius is out of print, you should be able to get a second hand copy online. From the angle of the Middle East, see if you can get Lenni Brenner's Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983) and The Iron Wall: Zionist Revisionism from Jabotinsky to Shamir (1984) - also second hand online.