In November 1914, four days after England had declared War on the Ottomans, Prime Minister Asquith announced at the Guildhall in London that it was Britain’s intention to dismantle the Ottoman Empire, not only in Europe but in Asia. This was a fundamental departure in British Policy and it interested The Jewish Chronicle. It noted in its editorial of 13 November that the Gladstonian “bag and baggage” policy had been extended into Asia Minor to the benefit of Zionism.
Baron Rotschild, the leader of English Jewry, had collaborated in Balfour’s Alien’s Act by joining the Parliamentary Commission set up to organise the control of Jewish emigration to England. He did this to counter Theodor Herzl’s Zionism, which he took to be working hand in glove with Anti-Semitism against the Jewish community’s interests. However, Britain’s War on the Ottomans and Asquith’s Declaration of Intent against the Ottomans changed everything and Rothschild found himself the focus of the thing he had previously seen as a great threat to his community.
In November 1914 Albert Hyamson, a Jewish Civil Servant, penned an important article for The New Statesman entitled The Future of Palestine. It noted that Palestine was now in the melting pot as a result of Britain’s intention to liquidate the Ottoman Empire. He reasoned that the Jews were one of “the small nationalities” for which the War was being fought. However, any project of building a Jewish entity in Palestine required a protecting Power while it grew into a nation. The Jews under the Ottomans were a secure and stable community, but if England was going to undermine this security and stability it was its duty to use its great power to organise the effective transition to a Jewish nation built in Palestine. He also observed: “Christendom owes a debt to Jewry for the persecutions of the past nine hundred years. It would seem that she now has the opportunity of commencing to pay for it.” (21.11.14)
Hyamson neglected to mention the inhabitants of Palestine, who were overwhelmingly Arab rather than Jew. It was supposed they did not matter in the Anglo-Zionist power alliance that would do what it wished to the world. But what if Britain were to incite the Arabs on the same basis as the Jews, in waging its War on the Ottomans? What then?
In fact, that was just what Britain was about to do.
At the beginning of the Great War on the Ottomans Britain had no time for notions of self-determination being applied to the Arab world. In 1911, through Captain Shakespeare, Britain had tentavely sought to raise a revolt against the Ottomans using the Wahhabis in Arabia. There was some local discontent amongst Arabs at the centralizing of the Young Turk government in the region. However, the Arabs had never been real nationalists prior to British attempts to make them rebel against the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the only Arab that can be accurately described as a nationalist, Said Talib of Basra, who offered his services to England, was immediately deported by Britain to India as a troublemaker by Sir Percy Cox upon the British invasion of Mesopotamia.
At this point the British viewed alliances with nationalist groups as unnecessary and a complicating factor in any conquests that were going to be made in the region. From October 1914 to July 1915 there were no significant moves on Britain’s part to create an alliance with anyone. England hoped that the Gallipoli expedition would drive on to Constantinople, Mesopotamia would be taken by the British Indian Army, and that would be that. But by mid 1915 the Gallipoli force had been confined to the beachhead and Britain began to seek out the Arabs.
Sir Henry McMahon, Britain’s High Commissioner in Egypt later stated that the Arab Revolt was originally intended to draw Arab support away from the Ottoman Empire in order to create a new destructive nationalism in the region. Far from utilizing a nationalism that existed in any substantial form against a supposed oppressor the Arab Revolt was worked up to divert the active support that ordinary Arabs were providing the Ottoman State in resisting Imperialist aggression
Some British imperialists began to entertain and encourage the ridiculous idea of making the Sherif of Mecca, Hussein, a new Caliph in order to control the Moslem world. Hussein, in return for his services, asked the British for an Arab State which would be independent and would comprise all the Arab-speaking areas south-west of Asia, except Aden. He was initially fended off but by October 1915, when it had become clear that the Gallipoli expedition had failed McMahon contacted the Sharif to give him the news that his demands for an independent Arab State had been accepted, save for Syria, West of Damascus. This encouraged the Arabs into the belief that when the Ottoman Empire was destroyed, through the joint efforts of England and an Arab revolt, Britain would recognise the Middle East as a great Arab State. Hussein was flattered by the British and in 1915 the Arab Revolt began when he was promised an independent Arab state right up to and including Syria in return for his help in destabilizing the Ottoman Empire.
So what was promised to the Jews in 1917 had been already promised to the Arabs two years earlier in return for an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Jews, however, did not have to go into insurrection against the Ottomans – and did not – to get what they got. Aaron Aaronsohn and a small group of Zionists assisted British Intelligence from Palestine and there was the Zionist Mule Corp. But the Arabs did the fighting for the British, not the Zionists.
The Ottoman Empire had been very good to the Jews and very good for the Jews. The 5th Herbert Samuel Lecture noted how “the expelled Sephardim of Spain… went to the hospitable, tolerant Turkish empire, that land of promise as it seemed in the sixteenth century, it is odd how few of them went to Palestine, which was after all an easily accessible and under-populated part of that empire.”
The Jews, fleeing Christian intolerance and taken in by the great Islamic empire and its peoples went to Istanbul, Baghdad or Salonika instead. They chose not to settle in “the silent wilderness of Palestine” – their historic homeland. They had centuries of free movement to do so. Only around 1900 when Zionism threatened a Jewish colony that would disturb the peace did the Ottomans restrict Jewish migration to the territory.
The Jews of the Ottoman Empire sent out declarations to the persecuted Jews of Europe praising the Islamic Ottomans for what they had provided to them – a state in which they practiced their religion unmolested and thrived and prospered socially and commercially among Moslems and Christian minorities. When Salonika fell to the Christians during the Balkan Wars it was seen as a great disaster for the Jews and many evacuated the great Jewish city. Around 100,000 left with the Moslems as the Christian armies advanced in the Balkans. There were 80,000 Jews living in Baghdad in 1917 at the time of the Balfour Declaration and they reacted with incredulity at the announcement that Jews were going to colonise Palestine, a poor place without opportunity.
Palestine had lived for centuries in relative peace and stability under the Ottomans before Britain decided to put the region into the melting pot to win its Great War and expand the Empire.
The Ottomans had been very good for the Jews. The Turks had resisted the Zionist pressures that threatened a destabilisation of the territory through a colonising project that would produce an ethnic cleansing. The Ottomans kept the balance in population that matched Arab numbers with Jewish assertiveness. They had ruled a vast area of mixed nationalities and ethnicities for over 4 centuries and knew that any alteration in the balance spelt big trouble in the region.
In making war on the Ottoman Empire, and in pursuing the Zionist objective, the British Empire not only destroyed the prosperous and content Jewish communities across the Ottoman possessions but also sowed the seeds for generations of conflict with the local inhabitants of Palestine who would find themselves the chief victims of the great act of conquest and ethnic cleansing that came from the Balfour Declaration.
The Arabs found themselves the victims of a great British triple-cross. They were encouraged to rise against the Turks, by Colonel Lawrence, with the promise of a great independent Arab state after the War. And then they found this state had been secretly divided between the British and French, and Palestine declared to be a Jewish homeland, irrespective of the wishes of the actual inhabitants, in the War fought on the principle of “self-determination”.