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Balfour Set a Pattern for the West’s Ignorant Interventions in the Middle East

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'Western Asia — in the 4th-2nd centuries BCE' from George Adam Smith's Atlas of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1915)
'Western Asia — in the 4th-2nd centuries BCE' from George Adam Smith's Atlas of the Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1915)Credit: Wikimedia

What did a scholar with deep knowledge of the Holy Land and its peoples make of the Balfour Declaration at the time?  

George Adam Smith (1846–1942), my grandfather, was a Scottish Presbyterian biblical scholar. He made many visits to Egypt and Palestine. He is most famed for his magnum opus on The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, published in 1894 and running into 26 editions. It was put to practical use by General Edmund Allenby in his Palestine campaign against the Ottoman Turkish forces in 1917.

Smith had a lively and tragic awareness of diplomacy and also war.

In 1878 he went to the Congress of Berlin – the one on Balkan frontiers – as a correspondent for Vanity Fair, picking up tit-bits by purporting to be a member of staff at the hotel where Disraeli, Lord Salisbury and other British statesmen were staying.

In 1915 and 1917 his two elder sons (my mother’s elder brothers) were killed in the war, one serving in France, the other in East Africa.

In early 1918, commissioned by the British Foreign Office and the American National Committee on the Moral Aims of the Allies, he addressed 127 meetings in the U.S. in support of the Allied cause in the war.

George Adam Smith in 1892Credit: Adam Roberts

I was provoked to seek out his view on the Balfour Declaration when I came across a book by Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place among the Nations: Israel and the World. It was published in 1993, the year he became the leader of Likud. In the course of a detailed exposition of Jewish historical rights to Israel, Netanyahu wrote:

"These obvious facts moved Sir George Adam Smith, author of The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, to write in 1891, “Nor is there any indigenous civilization in Palestine that could take the place of the Turkish except that of the Jews who have given to Palestine anything it ever had of value to the world."

Some have believed the attribution to Smith of these words. They struck me as unlike Smith, but how can one prove a negative – that Smith never, in 1891 or at any other time in his long and active career, uttered these words?

There was a clue in Netanyahu’s careless footnoting: he did not quote directly from Smith, but rather from a polemical book, by Samuel Katz, Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, published in New York in 1973.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, right, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Downing Street, London, Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. Credit: Peter Nicholls/AP

 This in turn cited another book by Herbert Sidebotham, England and Palestine: Essays Towards the Restoration of the Jewish State, published in 1918, which did have the offending words about the lack of "any indigenous civilization in Palestine" but did not attribute them to Smith.

In fact what George Adam Smith wrote on this topic in his 1894 The Historical Geography was this grandiose concluding sentence of a chapter on "The Form of the Land":

"Palestine, formed as it is, and surrounded as it is, is emphatically a land of tribes. The idea that it can ever belong to one nation, even though this were the Jews, is contrary both to Nature and to Scripture."

The conclusions from all this are that Netanyahu should have checked his sources, and also that fake news is not exactly a new problem.

The question that arises is: what did Smith himself think of the Balfour Declaration?

British military in the courtyard of the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem, 1920.Credit: Universal History Archive / UIG

Smith and Balfour, both Scots, both interested in reconciling science and religion, both Fellows of the British Academy, knew each other. However, I know of no evidence that Smith was consulted in the preparation of the Balfour Declaration. There is no mention of him in several key works on it.

Smith did comment on the Declaration in his short book, entitled Syria and the Holy Land, completed within less than two months of the Declaration and published in 1918.

Smith saw it as "the most momentous factor in the Zionist movement", and he warmly praised the way the movement had progressed. He welcomed the settlement of Jews in increased numbers in Palestine, but he warned:

"Beyond this and the firm conditions happily laid down by the British Government, nothing is yet definite. However deserving of our sympathy, the Jewish claims have not been so thought out in face of the present facts of Palestine as to command our unqualified support."

George Adam Smith Street sign, Jerusalem, IsraelCredit: Adam Roberts

He noted the many different viewpoints in the Zionist movement, and among Jews more generally, about what system of government might have a chance of working in Palestine.

He wrote, perhaps a little optimistically: "Were Jewish influence, social and political, to become predominant in Palestine - if only through sheer force of numbers – I do not think it would prove intolerant to other creeds."

But he warned that the particular question of the holy places is more dangerous, and he asked pertinently whether, when Jewish writers claim the whole country, they had "realised the economic and social disturbances which the execution of this claim would involve." He asked: "While Jewish hopes are high and legitimately high, it is right to point our what difficulties lie in the way of their equitable fulfilment."

One of the key difficulties concerned the borders – Smith pointing out that since Roman times the term "Palestine" had never had exact borders. Responding to certain extreme maximalist Zionist claims, Smith wrote"

"It is not true that 'Palestine is the national home of the Jewish people and of no other people'...It is not correct to call its non-Jewish inhabitants 'Arabs', or to say that left no image or their spirit and made no history–except in the Great Mosque [the Al Aqsa compound]."

Smith was not infallible. Perhaps, even by the standards of his time, he too easily accepted British colonial thinking about Palestine’s non-Jewish inhabitants. And he was sometimes over-optimistic about the British role.

George Adam Smith's gravesite, Currie CemeteryCredit: Wkimedia/Stephencdickson

On the British liberation of Jerusalem in December 1917, using the millenarian language of Christian redemption, he expressed the hope that "this wonderful beginning" would be “the earnest of the creation, for the first time on earth, of a government devoted wholly to Peace, with no temptation to war in itself and no provocation to other States, because founded by the agreement and solid guarantees of all peoples to whom the land is dear and holy."

That was not to be.

Still, I regret that the scholar in Britain who was most knowledgeable about the lands and peoples of Palestine was not consulted by the government in drawing up plans for the area. Most of those involved did not have direct knowledge of the area.

The lack of respect for regional expertise and languages is a problem with which we have become familiar since the Western military interventions in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. In this matter, as in others, the Balfour Declaration was a harbinger of things to come.

Adam Roberts is Senior Research Fellow in International Relations, Oxford University. He was President of the British Academy, 2009–13. He is the author and editor of numerous articles and books. His latest book (jointly edited) is Civil Resistance in the Arab Spring: Triumphs and Disasters (Oxford University Press, 2016)