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The colonialist skeletons in Israel’s closet

Modern believers in the meaning, importance and necessity of Israel as a safe home for Jews had best come to terms with its less-than-organic birth — it did not magically appear on the sands of an empty landscape.

By David Sarna Galdi

‘Balfour at Jewish colonies’, 1925. (Photo by American Colony, Jerusalem)

‘Balfour at Jewish colonies’, 1925. (Photo by American Colony, Jerusalem)

A day before the Paris peace summit last month, director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Dore Gold, tried to delegitimize the French plan by comparing it to the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. “One hundred years ago, two officials by the name of Mark Sykes and Francois-Georges Picot tried to dictate a new order in the Middle East,” Gold said at a specially called press conference. “It was at the apex of the era of colonialism in our area. It utterly failed then and will completely fail today.”

Later that week, in a Haaretz oped, former Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens all but grabbed the baton from Gold: “One hundred years after Francois Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes decided how the two imperial powers would divide the Middle East after World War I, Francois Hollande assembled two dozen foreign ministers in an attempt to dictate to Israel the steps it should take so that a Palestinian state could be imposed on the region.”

The right wing in Israel likes to recklessly hijack history for its faulty arguments. A few months ago Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed that it was Haj Amin Al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and not Hitler, who came up with the idea for the Nazi annihilation of the Jews — a disgusting distortion of the truth he later retracted.

Gold, Arens, and anyone else attempting to use the Sykes-Picot Agreement as an example of illegitimate, imperialist European interference or colonialism in order to stymie European peace efforts should be careful. If Sykes-Picot is illegitimate, then so is Israel’s existence; the “era of colonialism” or imperialism that produced Sykes-Picot is the same the era that allowed for the rise of Zionism.

Sykes-Picot, a secret agreement negotiated during the First World War between the French and the British, carved up the Middle East in anticipation of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. It aimed to create two French and British controlled zones, as well as a third area, constituting most of Palestine, which was to be under international administration, with its final status to be decided later.

Ever since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, the Zionists had been settling Jews in Palestine and seeking British political support for their project. So they were shocked to learn about Sykes-Picot, which had been negotiated behind their backs. It divided the existing Jewish settlements in Palestine in two and completely ignored Zionist goals.

Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916.

Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916.

Middle East scholar Martin Kramer explains, “From April 1917 [Chaim] Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British Protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.”

Weizmann got what he wanted. After more secret negotiations, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour declared in a letter dated November 2, 1917 that Britain would use its “best endeavours” toward “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” What became known as the Balfour Declaration had ripped up the Sykes-Picot map.

Zionist success in securing the Balfour Declaration effectively meant the gears of a future Jewish state were already turning. The concept and its colonial machinery could, for the first time, claim international legitimacy and support.

For the indigenous Arab majority in Palestine, however, the Balfour Declaration spelled disaster: it was a complete betrayal of promises that the British had made to their wartime Arab allies who had their own nationalist aspirations. Balfour himself declared, “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

If anyone should lament Sykes-Picot it is the Palestinians.

Any Zionist foolish enough to criticize Sykes-Picot as a blunder of orientalist European arrogance that ignored the complexities of Middle Eastern tribal society, ethnicity and religious sensitivities must admit the same of the Balfour Declaration. Both initiatives were issued by the same authority, written by the same hands, and established the same disruptive principle, that Palestine should be divided up artificially (and not left whole) and be placed in the control of white men, without considering the indigenous people who shared religion, language, ancestry and generations of life under Muslim rule.

In fact, Zionists and Israelis should celebrate Sykes-Picot for paving the road for the future Jewish state by setting the borders of Mandatory Palestine that would eventually become those of 1948 Israel, 25 years later. Sykes-Picot was no less than the first partition plan for Palestine, created by an imperial power that had colonialist Zionist interests in mind ab initio.

Believers in the meaning, importance and necessity of Israel as a safe home for Jews had best come to terms with its less-than-organic birth — it did not magically appear on the sands of an empty landscape. Israel exists largely because of the international support and license it received, which came from the same imperious, Eurocentric, imperialist worldview that produced Sykes-Picot. One hundred years later, Israel today is strong enough to honestly confront its founding narratives and survive the rectification of historical transgressions like Sykes-Picot, a process happening all around it in very scary ways.

David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper and an activist. He currently works for an Israeli nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.

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    1. Mark

      This is foolish nonsense. Sykes-Picot agreement is exactly the sort of post-war planning that was lacking with respect to the Iraq war.

      There is a world war going on between empires and one of the war aims is the termination of the Ottoman empire. It would have been foolhardy to send in the troops without an exit strategy, wouldn’t it?

      Reply to Comment
    2. Eldad Keynan

      I wonder: how can such an intelligent writer, seemingly the “know all” type, forget simple facts? The Arabs rejected the UN partition plan\proposal in 1947. This plan favored the Arabs in terms of ground. The Jews accepted it as is – and the writer knows that. Somehow he “forgot” it.
      Quote: “created by an imperial power that had colonialist Zionist interests in mind ab initio.” Is that so? “colonialist Zionist”? This terminology turns this writer’s political position and intentions. How can coming back home be “colonialism”? The writer would better read some good history studies; he will learn that the Muslims completed the conquest of this Land in 645 CE by the power of the sword. At that time, this Land was not “sands of an empty landscape”: Jews and Christians lived here LONG before Islam was invented.
      BTW: as the Palestinians define themselves “Arabs”, they so declare their own origin: Arabia.
      The writer “He currently works for an Israeli nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.” May we guess the name of this organization and its goals, other than political ones?

      Reply to Comment
      • rose

        Eldad, perhaps the “intelligent writer” is aware that history is a bit more complicated. First, the war started at the beginning of the XX century with the ‘avodah ivrit’ logic, that tried to exclude the local majority. Second, as Uri Avnery noted, in 1948 “No one asked the Arab Palestinians whether to accept or reject anything. If they had been asked, they would probably have rejected partition, since – in their view – it gave a large part of their historical homeland to foreigners. The more so, since the Jews, who at the time constituted a third of the population, were allotted 55% of the territory – and even there the Arabs constituted 40% of the population”.
        Let’s add to this that before the 1948 war broke out, Jordan made a secret deal with Israel. They wanted the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Jews weren’t promised this land in the UN partition, so they agreed to let Jordan take it. Jordan actually attacked Palestinian Arabs to get that land.

        Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      Israel was originally set up in antiquity – when according to Biblical legend Moses led his people from Egyptian slavery into Eretz Israel. Nothing to do with 19th C French & British imperialists.
      Please get your history right!

      Reply to Comment
      • Mar

        Rather more to the point, while the details of its origins might be lost in antiquity, Judea has proven existence at the time of the Roman empire as a political entity, and it is mentioned in much literature.

        I understand there was at one time discussion about a state called Judea in Eretz Yisrael, but as so many ideas were floating around at the time, the idea was dropped for risk of ridicule should the Judean People’s Front, and the People’s Front of Judea ever come about. Consequently the name Medinat Yisrael was agreed upon despite the rather unfortunate precursor state of antiquity of the same name which gets a lot of bad press.

        Reply to Comment
      • rose

        The article is factually correct. The idea of establishing a “national home” in a place in which the 9/10th of the local population was composed (just 1 century ago) by Arab-Palestinians is very much the result of the Sykes-Picot Zeitgeist. As for the facile argument connected to ancient Israelites, let’s quote Israel Bartal, dean of humanities at the Hebrew University: “No ‘nationalist’ Jewish historian has ever tried to conceal the well-known fact that conversions to Judaism had a major impact on Jewish history in the ancient period and in the early Middle Ages. Although the myth of an exile from the Jewish homeland (Palestine) does exist in popular Israeli culture, it is negligible in serious Jewish historical discussions. Important groups in the Jewish national movement expressed reservations regarding this myth or denied it completely.”

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Rose, if the state was set up by the machinations of French or English Imperialists, then Israel would have been located in Uganda. But we did not wait 1900 years to return to Uganda. That is the point!!

          Reply to Comment
    4. Soli Foger

      Every historical fact, in this case the ‘Sykes Picot’ agreement, can be viewed from various aspects. No doubt that the Balfour Declaration was an important step in the aspirations of the Jewish people for their land. If the declaration was actually honored, it’d have been a better outcome to Jews, many of whom were slaughtered by the Nazi regime. But the declaration, which represented one of several views in British politics, was ignored if not entirely overturned. The Brits became violent oppressors of Jews in Palestine and collaborated with the local Palestinian population against the slowly growing Jewish minority in the land. As matter of fact, without the British brutal attitude, there may not have been a political right wing in Israel all together.
      As to comparing the two populations, it is Incongruous to place ‘Sykes Picot’ or the Balfour Declaration with any moral equivalent.
      Palestinians were not a nation under persecution in the world at large in search for a homeland. They were opportunistic tribal factional Inhabitants, not different than others in the neighboring Levant.
      Jerusalem played little place in the Arab world, and attracted no Arab presence under any ideological precept.
      Jews – on the other side, were the exact opposite, and they were forced to remain separated and oppressed, often killed, over millennium of political upheaval. If they couldn’t settle in Israel, which was their ideological home, they’d end up killed, as the holocaust has proven all too well.
      In conclusion, we should be careful in comparing historical event in any symmetry or moral equivalence – no matter how similar some aspects may be.
      otherwise – the article is interesting and educational.
      Thank you David.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man


      Reply to Comment