By Tahir Ali
February 17, 2016
In my last article, ‘Blessings of Saudi Arabia’ (February 16, 2016), I discussed Arabia and it’s then king, Sharif of Mecca, Sharif Hussain, going against the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In this regard, now I will discuss the role of Arabia and Sharif in creation of the Jewish state of Israel in Palestine during World War I.
The idea of creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was being discussed in British parliament right after the fourth day of Britain’s declaration of war against the Ottomans and subsequent destiny of the region, including Palestine. Before World War I, the Jews wanted to establish their new home in Uganda, commonly known as the Uganda Scheme, but in the start of the 20th century focus was shifted from Uganda to Palestine as a new home for the Jews. However, this notion remained weak until World War I when the Ottoman’s jumped into the war and the Jews saw it as an opportunity to materialise their dream of a homeland in Palestine if central powers lost the war. By 1915, a strong Jewish lobby in British parliament had already started a full-fledged political movement for the creation of a Jewish state. That was the reason behind why Palestine was not mentioned in letters and correspondence by McMahon to Sharif in 1915.
The idea of the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine was formalised through the Balfour Declaration. The declaration was a letter from the then British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to the leader of the British Jewish community, Walter Rothschild, in November 1917 and read as follows: “His Majesty’s government views 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, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The Sharifs welcomed this plan and called on the Arab population in Palestine to welcome the Jews as brethren and cooperate with them for the common welfare. In June 1918, Sharif’s son Faisal and Jewish leader Chaim Weizmann signed an agreement famously known as the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement according to which Faisal would support the settlement of Jews in Palestine and the Zionist movement would support the development of a vast Arab nation under Sharif’s leadership in their new kingdom as Britain had promised the Sharifs. The main points of the agreement were as follows: the agreement committed both parties to conducting all relations between groups by the most cordial goodwill and understanding, to work together to encourage the immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale while protecting the rights of the Arab peasants and tenant farmers, and to safeguard the free practice of religious observances. The Zionist movement undertook to assist the Arab residents of Palestine and the future Arab state to develop their natural resources, and establish a growing economy. The parties committed to carrying into effect the Balfour Declaration of 1917, calling for a Jewish national home in Palestine. Weizmann signed the agreement on behalf of the Zionist Organisation, while Faisal signed on behalf of the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Hejaz. On March 23, 1918, Al Qibla, the daily newspaper of Mecca, on behalf of Sharif commented that Palestine was “a sacred and beloved homeland of its original sons, the Jews”.
In March 1919, Faisal wrote to Felix Frankfurt, president of the Zionist Organisation of the US that “we feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together. The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through. We will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.”
However, this agreement was short lived as it was linked with Britain’s fulfilment of their promise of whole Arab freedom and its recognition under Shairf’s rule, which did not happen so Sharif withdrew from the agreement. At the end of the war, Sharif was unhappy with Britain so he rejected all options from Britain to accept the creation of Israel in Palestine. However, in 1920, Sharif signed the Balfour Declaration with other signatories in the Treaty of Severs, which mapped out the partition plan of the Ottoman Empire. In view of their deteriorating relationships, Sharif was now being considered untrustworthy by Britain and Britain then launched the Al-Sauds, King of Nejd and Sharif’s long-time rivals. In 1924, with the help of Britain, the Al-Sauds overthrew Sharif. Sharif’s sons, Faisal and Abdullah, kings of Iraq and Transjordan were also restrained by Britain from helping their father.
As a matter of fact, Sharif was not really concerned about the Palestinians since Palestine was already identified for internationalisation in the Sharif-McMahon letters and Sharif knew Palestine was not going to come into his promised vast Arab kingdom, which was why initially Sharif had accepted the idea of the Jewish homeland in Palestine and was advocating this idea among his people but later, when Britain refused to fulfil his promises, Sharif rejected accepting the creation as well but it was too late since Britain had already discovered another “yes-man” in the form of Al-Saud and planned to install Al-Saud as the new king who would not create any hindrance in the creation of a new Jewish homeland.
Sharif and his son Faisal facilitated the creation of Israel in two ways, directly and indirectly. First, the Arab revolt Sharif initiated against the Ottomans became one of the main reasons behind the fall of the Empire, which ultimately led to the smooth creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Secondly, the Sharifs, especially Faisal, ran massive campaigns to persuade the general masses and spread the message in Arabia to accept the establishment of a Jewish land in Palestine.
At the end of World War I, Britain was granted control of Palestine during which the huge transformation of Palestine into Israel was carried out. All the other conquered Arab states eventually acquired their independence in the 1920s and 1930s. The Turks also achieved their independence only a few years after their defeat but innocent Palestinians are still paying the price of a crime they never committed. After Britain, the Sharifs where probably the second greatest help to Jews in facilitating the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine. Faisal’s expectations regarding fair play, mutual understanding and a harmonised Jew-Muslim society in Palestine was bitterly shattered just like their dreams of an independent and recognised whole Arab state under their rule as promised by Britain.
Tahir Ali is a research fellow at Charles Darwin University, Australia. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org