One hundred years ago, on Nov. 2, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, Lord Balfour, issued a letter on behalf of his government that favored the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.
Perceived as a fair resolution to Jewish persecution in Europe, the letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, ignored the impact of such a decision on the welfare and rights of the indigenous population of Palestine.
Plus, it broke British promises of independence previously made to Arab leaders.
The declaration paved the way for the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians by Jewish armed groups and the establishment of the State of Israel – what Israeli historian Ilan Pappe calls the ethnic cleansing of Palestine.
Three weeks later, on Nov. 23, 1917, the Soviet Bolsheviks exposed a secret agreement between Britain, France and the ousted Russian Empire.
The agreement was negotiated between Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and FranÃ§ois Georges-Picot of France and was later known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
The agreement placed Lebanon and Syria under French mandate, and placed Southern Iraq plus the ports of Haifa and Acre under British mandate.
Palestine was to be administered by an international regime because of its significance for the Abrahamic religions.
Mandates were ostensibly a form of political supervision exercised by European powers to lead other nations to independence. In reality, however, mandates were colonialism in disguise.
The Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement are widely considered the root cause of division in the Middle East. European imperialism, not the interests or desires of Arab inhabitants, was the chief architect behind the modern map of the Middle East.
The mandate period lasted for about 20 years following the post-WWI Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
The period witnessed a lot of resistance and bloodshed, which ultimately led to the independence of Arab states with the notable exception of Palestine.
One of the outcomes of the Paris Peace Conference was to send an international commission of inquiry to the dissolved Ottoman Empire to gather information about the conditions and desires of people there.
However, only President Woodrow Wilson sent a delegation. He appointed Henry King – theologian, educator and president of Oberlin College – and Charles Crane – wealthy businessman and “Arabist” – to lead the commission.
The King-Crane Commission traveled wide and interviewed hundreds of individuals representing various groups. At the end of the commission, they submitted a list of recommendations that would basically grant Arabs a monarchy over Greater Syria, freedom from any mandate and a severe cut to the Zionist program.
The King-Crane Commission gave Arabs a voice, but the world did not listen. The report was ignored and then officially suppressed by the U.S. State Department for political reasons.
Britain and France, having emerged from WWI as the victors, considered themselves entitled to the territory of their enemy (that is, the Ottoman Empire), and they relegated Arabs’ aspirations to secondary importance.
A few years later, the report was made public, but it was born dead.
Could the Middle East have experienced more peace if the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission were implemented successfully?
While we cannot affirm that with certainty, at least one person was sure that implementing the recommendations would lead to a disaster. That person was no stranger to the commission, but in fact a member of it.
George Montgomery, an ordained minister, was one of seven that formed the commission. He wrote a memorandum that explains why he disagreed with the commission’s recommendations.
He believed that it was unwise to try to unite a predominantly Christian territory and a predominantly Muslim territory under a single government because religious hatred runs deep in Syria and would disrupt any stability. In his opinion, Islam was the problem.
He wrote, “Islam contains no nucleus of unselfishness which may hold out a hope of a Mohommedan reformation. … There is in it no heart to meet the needs of modern society. … I anticipate that most of the efforts of the Moslem Arabs will be spent in a fight against Christians and Christianity.”
Basically, Montgomery believed that Islam is violent, backward and more significantly beyond reform. Therefore, Muslims in Syria could not form a modern and tolerant government where Christians would be treated as equal citizens.
I find it interesting that, after 100 years, the world is still struggling with the same questions concerning Christians and Muslims in the Middle East.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here.
Elias Ghazal is executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Association for Theological Education (MENATE).