The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

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9780385662581: The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

A revelatory history of a document that laid the foundation stone of the state of Israel, the reverberations of which continue to be felt to this day.

Born in the furnace of shifting great-power alliances, the Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, was a defining moment in world history. In paving the way for the establishment of the State of Israel, it fundamentally reshaped the Middle East and yielded repurcussions that we are still feeling, powerfully, today. Jonathan Scheer has written a sweeping, deeply researched, and provocative history of this crucial document and the politics, double-dealing, backstabbing, and geopolitical crises that led to it. The result shows us the evolution of a fraught region in a wholly original and unbiased light.

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About the Author:

JONATHAN SCHNEER, a specialist in modern British history, is a professor at Georgia Tech's School of History, Technology, and Society. He is the author of five additional books, as well as numerous articles and reviews. A fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies in 1985-86, he has also held research fellowships at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in the UK, as well as at the Erich Remarque Center of New York University. He was a founding editor of Radical History Review and is a member of the editorial board of 20th Century British History and the London Journal.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part I, Sirocco

Chapter One


Palestine Before World War I

the land called palestine gave no indication, early in the twentieth century, that it would become the world’s cockpit. Rather, if anything, the reverse. A century ago it was merely a strip of territory running along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The remote, sleepy, backward, sparsely populated southwestern bit of Syria was still home to foxes, jackals, hyenas, wildcats, wolves, even cheetahs and leopards in its most unsettled parts. Loosely governed from Jerusalem in the south and from Beirut in the north by agents of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine’s borders were vague. To the east it merged with the Jordanian plateau, to the south with the Arabian deserts, and to the north with the gray mountain masses of Lebanon. And it was small: Fewer than two hundred miles long and fifty miles wide, it was not much bigger than present-day Massachusetts (to put it in an American context) and about the size of Wales (to put it in the British).

The strip of land, resting mainly upon limestone, was devoid of coal, iron, copper, silver, or gold deposits and lacked oil, but it was happily porous (“calcareous,” the geologists said), meaning that it was capable of absorbing moisture whenever the heavens should open, which they might do, especially when the wind came from the north. When it came from the east, however, as it frequently did in May and October, the wind was a malign enervating force. It was a furnace-blast sirocco in hot weather and a numbing chill in cold. The two mountain ranges that ran in rough parallel the length of the country from north to south could not block it. The western range, which includes “the Mount of the Amorites” of the Book of Deuteronomy, runs between the Jordan Valley (to its east) and the maritime plain (to its west). The eastern edge of this range is an escarpment that drops (precipitously in places) to the fabled Jordan River below. The second or eastern range of hills, which include the mountains of Moab, Judea, and Galilee, is a continuation of a chain that begins in Lebanon and reaches southward into Jordan. To its west lies the river valley; to its east is a desert plateau. In the north of the country the mountains are quite tall: Mount Hermon rises more than 9,200 feet above sea level. (People ski there in winter now.) To the south the mountains are typically half as high, and the surrounding landscape is bleak, empty, and inhospitable.

For such a tiny land, Palestine contains extraordinary topographical contrasts. The Jordan River runs southward along a descending valley floor, passing some seventy miles from the clear waters of the Sea of Galilee, where the surrounding hills and fields are relatively green, welcoming, and fruitful. It empties into the brackish bitter Dead Sea, thirteen hundred feet below sea level, where the landscape is barren, freezing during winter, broiling in summer. In the Dead Sea area the Jordan Valley has never been cultivated, although at the turn of the twentieth century the wandering Bedouins might camp there. Even they, however, would move on during the hottest months, when temperatures scale 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and the land opens in cracks and fissures.

Elsewhere in Palestine, however, life flourished. “It drinketh of the rain of heaven,” Moses is supposed to have said of his “Promised Land,” and although it did not drink deep (rainfall averaged 28 to 32 inches annually, except in the south, where 6 inches marked a good year), and it rarely drank at all from March until November, nevertheless it drank sufficiently. Parts of the country were nearly luxuriant. In 1869 even that American innocent abroad, Samuel Clemens, whose wonderfully dyspeptic view of Palestine is legendary, could refer without irony to groves of lemon trees, “cool, shady, hung with fruit,” by the village of Shunem near “Little Hermon,” and to “breezy glades of thorn and oak,” south of the Sea of Galilee near Mount Tabor. A horseman riding the Hauran plateau, east of the eastern mountain range, could view unbroken wheat fields extending to the horizon on every side. A British visitor to the Circassian village of Gerasa was reminded “of a Scotch glen, though the hills are not so high nor the land so barren.” Local markets sold a diverse range of fruits and vegetables, some of remarkable size. “We have cauliflowers that measure at least a foot across, and water-melons hardly to be spanned by a grown person’s arms . . . grapes in clusters from three to four feet in length . . . We have in their season [also] . . . apricots, nectarines, plums, damsons, quince, mulberries, figs, lemons, oranges, prickly pear, pomegranates and many kinds of nuts.” In spring the countryside (some of it) ran riot with wildflowers: “anemones . . . hyacinths, ranunculus, narcissus, honeysuckle, daisies, buttercups, cistus.” The writer lists a dozen additional varieties and claims to have seen “many more whose names elude me now.” Such reports may have been exaggerated—other European visitors insisted the land was no cornucopia. But one hundred years ago the countryside was far from being wasteland.

As many as 700,000 people lived there then, although figures vary and are imprecise. Many were descended from the Canaanites or Philistines (who gave the land its name) or from the Arabs, even from the ancient Hebrews. They spoke Arabic, and most of them may be termed Arabs, although commonly only nomadic Bedouins were referred to as “pure” Arabs. The majority were Sunni Muslims, who accepted the caliphs as Muhammad’s legitimate successors, but some were Shiite Muslims, who believed that Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad, originated the true line of succession. There were as well Druze and other Christians, some of them European or of European descent, and Jews, some of whom were also European transplants or of European origin. Flocks of Christian tourists, thousands every year, came to visit the holy land, and even greater numbers of Muslim pilgrims passed through on their annual trek to Mecca.

Of the total permanent population, only a tiny fraction were rich. This fortunate minority derived their wealth in one way or another from ownership of land, but they resided in the largest towns; their well-appointed large brick houses were whitewashed with lime and built around courtyards. The middle class, composed of well-to-do bankers, merchants, and clerics, as well as a handful of professionals and local traders, lived more modestly in the towns and villages, in stone houses well adapted for keeping out the heat of the sun. The vast majority of the inhabitants, however, were poor. Many lived in tiny isolated villages, set on hilltops within high walls, a reminder of the times, not long past, when safety demanded such protection from Bedouin marauders. In northern and central Palestine the typical village home was a square mud-plastered, whitewashed hut one story high with a straw roof. In the south it was a rough straw shelter or, for the semi-nomads based there part of the year, merely a tent. Inside these dwellings one might see only a few mats, baskets, a sheepskin, and some earthenware and wooden vessels.

Most villagers were fellahin, peasants. Within the village walls they sometimes worked in gardens or orchards or vineyards, for themselves or for their more wealthy neighbors; more commonly, they worked in the surrounding fields and pastures as sharecroppers for one of the great landowning families; or for the imperial Turkish state, which owned or controlled much Palestinian land; or for the villages themselves, since some villages owned land and periodically allocated it to residents for cultivation under a system called musha. Outsiders were impressed by the fellah’s industry. “He abominates absence from his fields,” observed one. And the fellah had a reputation for generosity, “such as his poverty allows.”

Outside the towns and villages Bedouin nomads roamed ceaselessly, oblivious to boundaries and borders that, anyway, were vague to all. These “dwellers in the open land,” or “people of the tent” as they called themselves, were the “pure Arabs” romanticized by certain Europeans for their swashbuckling behavior, independence, and egalitarianism. Divided among clans and tribes who occasionally made ritualistic and not very bloody war upon one another, the Bedouins might prey upon caravans and travelers, whom they viewed as fair game unless protected by previous agreement with a local sheikh, in which case the traveler’s safety was inviolate. But robbery was only an interlude; mainly the Bedouin tribes wandered the countryside with their camels, sheep, goats, and donkeys in more or less regular patterns and rhythms according to the weather and needs of their livestock. Their material possessions were few. Their tents were little more than a few coverings of coarse goat or camel hair dyed black and spread over two or more small poles; on striking camp, they could quickly load their few possessions onto their beasts. When on the move, Bedouin tribes tended to skirt villages and to give towns an even wider berth. But this was a recent development: Within living memory Bedouins had raided them periodically.

Among the large towns of Palestine, Jerusalem was biggest and most important, containing sites holy to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. In 1911 its 60,000 inhabitants included 7,000 Muslims, 9,000 Christians, and 40,000 Jews. The city stood on a rocky plateau, 2,500 feet above sea level, overlooking hills and valleys except to the east, where the Mount of Olives looms 200 feet higher still. Peering down from that perch to the city below, one would have seen timber and red tiles among the vaulted white stone roofs of the more ancient structures: These hotels, hospices, hospitals, and schools were mainly the work of Ch...

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Descripción Bond Street Books, Toronto, 2010. Estado de conservación: Very Good. Estado de la sobrecubierta: Very Good. 8vo pp. xxix, (4), 432, b/w photographs, Born in the furnace of shifting great-power alliances, the Balfour Declaration, issued in 1917, was a defining moment in world history. In paving the way for the establishment of the State of Israel, it fundamentally reshaped the Middle East and yielded repurcussions that we are still feeling, powerfully, today. book. Nº de ref. de la librería 195507

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