Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
As the world was heading in to its first world war, the Middle East was turning into a lost child with no direction or complete identity except that of individual tribes that were pulled together hundreds of years earlier to create the once might Ottoman Empire. European involvement was much greater than it had been throughout any time in history. As those in the Middle East looked for guidance from Britain to create nations that would survive after the fall of the Ottomans, Britain began establishing their official policy in the Middle East in particular Palestine.
Three documents are important in watching this process of informal discussions with leaders through the official formation of many of the present day Middle East states. The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement are original source documents that follow this path quite clearly. The discussion of the Jewish nation is an underlying part of it all though not always stated directly.
The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence is a collection of letters between Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, and Sharif Hussein of Mecca. Within these letters, Hussein pushes for Britain to “acknowledge the independence of the Arab countries,” to aid the Arabs if attacked, “acknowledge the abolition of foreign privileges,” and recognize the agreement for fifteen years. These requests are stated to be “proposals of the people, who, in short, believe that they are necessary for economic life.” Britain did not see these requests as urgent as the Arabs did but a began a more urgent move toward Arab independence once the situation was made plain to all parties.
Within these letters, Hussein promises that the Christian Arabs will be treated as the Muslim laws dictate by treating Christian and Muslim the same as they are both from Abraham. The result would be Christians possessing “their civic rights as much as it accords with the general interests of the whole nation.” While the treatment of the Christians is discussed, nothing is mentioned of the third religion descended from Abraham, Judaism.
From the 1915 through 1916 correspondence, the mention of the treatment of Palestine is absent. It rises up in the Balfour Declaration in late 1917 in which Britain goes beyond the agreement made with Hussein by making an official stance in regard the treatment of Jews. This official document stressed the stance of Britain as favorable to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” While Hussein and other ignored the Jews, Britain began formulating at least on paper and in rhetoric the problem that would arise over the years and especially during and after World War II of a place for the Jews to call a home.
Where the McMahon-Hussein correspondence opened the door to a carved up Ottoman Empire, the Balfour agreement took it further and addressed the needs of a minority that was ignored by the Arabs. This declaration paved the way for the events of the next few decades and also opened up conflict regarding the treatment of the Palestinian land and the people who lived there.
During the time between these two official documents, the Sykes-Picot Agreement was put into effect between the nations of France and Great Britain. In this agreement, the two major European players agreed to “recognize and protect an independent Arab states.” Once again, Palestine is not addressed. This agreement focuses on the rights of the European nations within the Arab states. There are no details as to specifics such as the handling of individual groups of people and administration of public laws. This left groups such as the Jews hanging and at the mercy of any nation that would turn against them.
The first order of business as the Ottoman Empire fell apart was to get the most dangerous players to agree to the Arab demands of independence and limited involvement. While hindsight might show this could have been conducted differently to ensure less European involvement, at the time this was the most important step for the new nations to achieve. Individual groups were discussed mainly as afterthoughts. The tension and conflict that was to arise with not only groups of Jews but other ethnic groups was not seen at that time either because of ignorance or the desire to turn a blind eye. It was only after the Sykes-Picot Agreement is the Palestinian issue brought up and then not as an official act or treaty. It is simply a declaration of the official stance of the British Empire. Nothing solid is laid out or agreed upon.
Through the use of the documents, an historian can see how the progress developed from European nonchalance to focus on money to glad-handing. The McMahon-Hussein letters were not meant for public readings and were therefore open and honest in feelings and negotiations. This lends credibility as nothing was written with the intent to win over the public or to make a name for oneself in history. The Sykes-Pico agreement is a public document that can be said to be completely biased toward France and Great Britain. From a historian’s point of view, it is a valuable document as it is official and directed the decisions and actions of the involved parties for years to come. The Balfour Declaration is not so much an official act as it was an official opinion that did little at the time but laid the groundwork for what was to come. In that regard, it is a valuable document for any historian researching the Middle East.
The policies of Britain gradually became harder yet focused more on the financial benefits the nation would receive. The issue of Palestine was avoided by all until negotiations were final and Britain could issue a statement without ammunition or foundation that would cover their rears from all angles yet not cause a break in the treaties. These documents are perfects examples of the development of the Palestinian issue from a British point of view.
“McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, 1915-1916.” MidEast Web, Accessed March 26, 2012, http://www.mideastweb.org/mcmahon.htm.
“The Balfour Declaration: March 2, 1917.” MidEast Web, Accessed March 26, 2012, http://www.mideastweb.org/mebalfour.htm.
“The Sykes-Picot Agreement, 1917.” MidEast Web, Accessed March 26, 2012, http://www.mideastweb.org/mesykespicot.htm.