You cannot ignore the sacred trust of civilisation or disdain the scholarship of Avi Shlaim: a review of Lord Leslie Turnberg’s Beyond the Balfour Declaration

In Beyond the Balfour Declaration: The 100-Year Quest for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, (Biteback Publishing, 2017)turnberg-cover Leslie Turnberg has tried to grapple with the difficult problem of achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Turnberg is a Labour life peer. He is a distinguished medical doctor who has received many honours for his work. He is also a former president of the Royal College of Physicians. The son of Polish and Rumanian immigrants, he is a figure of whom the Jewish community has every right to be extremely proud. On reading his book, there were many moments when I found myself noting his compassion and humanity, as well as his search for a balanced approach. There is no doubt about his sincerity. I am certain that he wishes to do whatever he can to help achieve peace, and that this was his motive


Lord Leslie Turnberg

in putting pen to paper. He even seems to suggest “the Holy Mount” at one point (p.171), as an alternative to the politically charged “Temple Mount” and “Al-Haram Al-Sharif”.  As he writes in the introduction, “it is painful now to note the misunderstandings, misconceptions and missed opportunities [for peace] that abound.” He also has his occasional little nuggets of wisdom. As he states on p. 99, “It is one of the many tragedies in the Middle East that when one side loses a hawkish leader, the other side gains one”. Or, as he puts it on p. 264, “particularly depressing is the failure of both [Israeli and Palestinian] governments to educate their children about the other side.” Amen to that. He is an advocate of the two state solution, which I agree is  the most likely and most workable solution to the conflict.


John McHugo

Unfortunately, however, for reasons that will become painfully apparent below, I feel absolutely unable to recommend this book as the primer to understanding the conflict and the way out of the present impasse which he obviously intended it to be. I also consider that the fulsome endorsements on the back cover of the book by former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks and the eminent historian Andrew Roberts will do their reputations no good.   Why is this? I basically have three problems with Turnberg’s methodology. The first concerns his treatment of historical fact. The second is his failure to provide clarity about what he believes to be the rights of each side. The third is his descent into essentialism.

Let us look at historical accuracy first. In the introduction he writes disarmingly that:

“I have pitched my own views between those who feel that Israel can do little wrong [he cites Dershowitz and Glick] on the one hand and those of the many revisionist historians on the other.”

The examples of “revisionist historians” he gives are Avi Shlaim and Benny Morris. He seems blissfully unaware that these two highly respected Israeli historians (who now hold very different political views) represent the mainstream of scholarship on the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute today. In particular, for Turnberg to disparage the work of Avi Shlaim in this way fatally undermines his objectivity. Shlaim’s academic career culminated in his election to the British Academy and represents a lifetime’s work grappling with the conundrums that Turnberg is now investigating as an amateur in retirement. To insinuate that balance is to be found in some fondly imagined golden mean half-way between Shlaim and Dershowitz (another amateur in this field – and a propagandist, to boot) is ridiculous. It displays a lack of judgement as well as a disturbing degree of ignorance.

The book is stuffed full of major and incontrovertible errors of historical fact which are sometimes used to support tendentious statements. They are far too numerous to list here, but they mean that the book is thoroughly unreliable and dangerous as an introduction to the conflict. No, the 1956 Suez crisis did not damage “Nasser’s reputation as an invincible, all-powerful leader of Arab nationalism” (quite the reverse, in fact). And no, in June 1967 Nasser had not built up an army in the Sinai peninsula aimed at invading Israel (although his rhetoric made the Israeli public believe that he had). Nor had he withdrawn his army from Yemen.  Turnberg considers that Nasser always viewed peace with Israel as “anathema”, but the reality was that he was a pragmatist. He might have reached peace if he had been presented with the right opportunity at the right time (which, of course, never came). Turnberg should find out more about him and the Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad (to whom he allocates the blame for failing to make peace with Israel) by looking up what Shlaim writes about them in The Iron Wall. It is included in his bibliography.

Once or twice I found myself forced to ask whether an error or omission by Turnberg was deliberate, although I ended up giving him the benefit of the doubt. The first occasion was on p.7 and concerned his treatment of the Hussein-MacMahon correspondence. The Hussein-MacMahon correspondence was an exchange of letters early in the First World War between a British official in Cairo and the Sharif Hussein of Mecca, whom Britain hoped to persuade to launch a rebellion against the Ottoman Turks. His reward would be that Britain would allow him to establish an Arab kingdom. Turnberg correctly states that the correspondence did not mention Palestine by name, but then goes on to say that:

“an area ‘including the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo’ was to be excluded from the purported new Arab kingdom”.

In actual fact, the official English text of the British letter to which he refers says something very different. The relevant passage (written in October 1915 – two full years before the Balfour declaration) reads as follows:

“…portions of Syria lying to the west of [my italics]the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab and should be excluded from the limits demanded.”

The wording does not exclude what became mandatory Palestine from the proposed new Arab kingdom which Britain was dangling before the Sharif (although Britain would subsequently try to argue that it did). The reasons for the exclusion of areas lying to the west of Damascus and the other cities to its north chiefly concerned the Maronites of Lebanon and an awareness of French ambitions. In any event, the wording in question was not accepted by the Arab side.

I cannot get away from the fact that Turnberg’s error here seems to have influenced his judgement. On the following page he goes on to state in a dismissive fashion (which is sadly not altogether untypical of him when writing about “the Arabs”):

“in any event it was not until 1917 that a particular fondness for Palestine was planted in the Arab soul.”

Turnberg gives no source for this assertion. If the Sharif Hussein had been willing to renounce the districts of Damascus and the other three major cities, as Turnberg mistakenly believes,  it might not have been altogether surprising if he and other Arabs had no “particular fondness for Palestine” and confined their ambitions to the deserts of Arabia (where, for the record,  only a minuscule percentage of Arabs live). Turnberg has misled himself. He is aware that there was no province or territorial unit called Palestine in the Ottoman Empire, but Arab nationalists wanted independence for the entire Arab homeland. This most certainly included Palestine which was then split between different Ottoman provinces and was generally seen as part of a wider Greater Syria in their eyes (as Turnberg also knows full well).

Statements by the Amir Faisal (the Sharif Hussein’s son) and other Arab figures that sometimes appeared to support, or at least accept, Jewish immigration into Palestine should not be read as a lack of feeling for Palestine as an Arab country. This, however, is how Turnberg would like us to read them. Rather, they should be seen as a willingness by fair-minded Arab leaders to compromise and even welcome Jewish immigration. This came to an end as these leaders realised that the true goal of the Zionist leadership was to establish an ethnically Jewish state in Palestine, and that they were willing to dispossess Arab Palestinians in order to do this. In fact, some dispossession of Arab tenant farmers on land bought by Zionist organisations had already taken place before the First World War.

An even more egregious error occurs on p. 37 when he makes a passing reference to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations. Article 22 is a very significant document because it provides the legal basis for the mandates, including the British mandate over Palestine. Turnberg’s sole reference to it is as follows:

“The countries covered by the mandates did not get much comfort from Appendix C of Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations which stated that advanced nations should administer ‘peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world ‘ “.

Article 22 contains no Appendix C so I do not know what Turnberg is referring to there, except that it is clear he is confused. What is glaring is his omission of what is actually the key wording from the opening sentence of the Article from which he has quoted. I show the text of the whole sentence below, with the words Turnberg has chosen to extract from it in italics. What I refer to as the key wording is emphasised in bold type:

“To those colonies and territories which as a consequence of the late war [i.e. the 1914-18 war] have ceased to be under the sovereignty of States which governed them and which are inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world, there should be applied the principle that the well-being and development of such peoples form a sacred trust of civilisation [my emphasis] and that securities for the performance of this trust should be embodied in this Covenant [i.e. the Covenant of the League of Nations].”

At no point does Turnberg discuss “the sacred trust of civilisation” that Britain took on towards the (indigenous) Palestinian people when it accepted the mandate. As with his howler about the territories lying to the west and north-west of Damascus, his omission has the effect of downplaying the rights of the Palestinians and their significance as a people. The most charitable explanation for why Turnberg has written what he has written is that he has not actually read Article 22. The whole point of the Article was that “the well-being and development” of the indigenous peoples of the mandated territories – in other words, their progress towards sovereign independence – was deemed to be a sacred trust of civilisation which Britain, as the mandatory power, was bound to implement.  By omitting any reference to it, he manages to avoid the knotty question of how the sacred trust should have been used to construe the text of the Palestine mandate and the promises contained in the Balfour Declaration itself. Surely the promise to establish a Jewish national home should not have been allowed to detract from that sacred trust?

This brings us to my second methodological problem with Turnberg’s book. As noted above, I believe he is a man of humanity and compassion. He does understand that Palestinian suffering flowed ineluctably from the way in which Britain enforced the Balfour Declaration and allowed Ben Gurion and the Jewish Agency to implement the promise to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine. He has sympathy for that suffering and understands how it generated resentment. He is sometimes frank about its causes. He has no hesitation, for instance, in repeatedly referring to the fact that the Zionist militias which became the Israeli army expelled Palestinian Arabs in 1948-9. At the same time, his writing also provides a window into the traumas suffered by Israelis and the fear they have come to have of “the Arabs”, two factors that have certainly made peace more difficult.

Yet despite all this, he leaves me with an uneasy feeling. I am far from certain that his methodology for examining the conflict includes full acceptance of the rights of indigenous Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians,  which should have been guaranteed by the sacred trust of civilisation discussed above. Those rights were at least morally equal to those of the Jews who settled in mandatory Palestine. I sensed a reluctance on Turnberg’s part to face up to the question of what the rights of the Palestinians were both then, and what they are today. This may explain the strangeness and incoherence of his reference to Article 22.

With regard to more recent history, in Turnberg’s view it seems only to have been United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016 that raised the question of the legality of Israeli civilian settlements on occupied territory. He even equivocates about this – see his careful wording on p. 198 and p. 247. Yet the construction of such settlements was already illegal well before the 1967 war (in fact, since the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 at the latest). The most Turnberg seems to be able to bring himself to say is that “Israel’s settlement policy is counter-productive and needs to be resolved” (p. 248). In order to be taken seriously, he has to make it clear what he believes the rights of Palestinians really are, and that infringing the rights of Palestinian Arabs (including infringing their right to self-determination e.g. by constructing settlements) is every bit as wrong as infringing the rights of Israeli Jews. He signally fails to do this.  On a separate but possibly related note, he also tries to play down the significance of the Palestine problem as one of the major underlying sources of long term instability in the Middle East. Whenever I observed this in his book, I sensed an agenda – as I also did at one point when he latched onto the Sunni-Shi’i divide.

In striking contrast, he can show sympathy for positions which are widely supported among the right-wing half of the Israeli public – and are sometimes echoed by some of those diaspora Jews who take it upon themselves to argue publicly for the Israeli government’s untenable policies concerning the Occupied Palestinian Territory. In doing so, he is trying to make us understand and sympathise with those views. Thus, he describes the withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Yamit in occupied Sinai under Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt as “painful”.  Seeking to understand is always good. But shouldn’t he be trying to persuade his readers why it was wrong for those settlers ever to have been allowed to build homes there in the first place? As a highly respected member of the Jewish community, his voice would be a powerful one if he could only bring himself to do this.

A similar example to his attitude to Yamit concerns the book’s maps. These are listed in date order and are supplied courtesy of an organisation called “Stand with Us”. They include one entitled

1917. Palestine as envisaged by Balfour as a home for the Jews”.

It shows an area of Palestine which comprises the whole area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean  (i.e. today’s Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory), the whole of modern Jordan and the Syrian Golan Heights.  It is then followed by another map showing the same area entitled

1922. Creation of Transjordan and reduction of Palestine by 70%. Accepted by Weizmann.”

Turnberg’s objective in showing these two maps together can only be to insinuate that Weizmann was showing some kind of moderation and spirit of compromise by agreeing between 1917 and 1922 to the reduction of the proposed area by 70%. Most of that 70% (i.e. Transjordan – now Jordan) is uncultivable desert. To have included a rainfall map would have been helpful (and honest). But the main point is that Turnberg is unaware of (or deliberately ignores?) the sacred trust which Britain undertook towards the indigenous Arabic speaking people who lived on both sides of the Jordan.

I found at least five occasions in the book on which he reminds us of the feeling among many Israelis that the potential area open for Jewish settlement was cut back in 1922, and that this caused resentment and distrust. I suspect this is what they are taught at school. Thus, on p. 36 he refers to “the erosion of the Jewish homeland”. But let me ask once again: does he or does he not acknowledge that the indigenous people of Palestine (however Palestine is defined geographically) had the right to progress to independence, and that the British mandate had a duty to ensure this, despite whatever Britain may have promised in the Balfour Declaration? Nowhere does he make a clear statement of what he believes the actual rights of the Palestinians to be. This is a nettle he has to grasp, just as advocates of Palestinian rights have to acknowledge the rights of Israel and Israelis.

Towards the end of the book he repeatedly urges Mahmud Abbas and Palestinian leaders to negotiate with Israel. So far, so good – but you cannot agree where your boundary fence should be unless you and your neighbour have first established what land you each own and what your respective rights are. The only basis for negotiations has to be international law, because only international law can provide an objective standard applicable to all sides. As Turnberg points out himself, the Arab League accepted Israel’s rights as a basis for negotiation as long ago as the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. He is a fan of that initiative, and sees it as a possible way forward (I agree). Nevertheless, he still shies away from defining Palestinian rights today in international law. A man of his intelligence must surely know that negotiations that are not based on the entitlements of each side in international law would only lead to a arm twisting in order to extract concessions from the weaker party. Unfortunately, that is the way to incubate terrorism –  not to reach peace. I also raised an eyebrow when I read that one of Turnberg’s causes for optimism in the future seems to be the way in which Saudi Arabia and other “Sunni” Arab powers are quietly drawing closer to Israel as part of their struggle with Iran for regional hegemony. He hopes this will persuade Abbas to be open to compromise rather than insist on Palestinian (and Israeli) rights as the basis for negotiation. This sounds all too much like yet more tactics based on the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, rather than a strategic attempt to achieve an enduring peace based on justice.

I have a third methodological problem with the book. He writes repeatedly about “the Jews”, “the Arabs, “the Muslims” etc. even though he must be aware that reducing all Jews, Arabs or Muslims to single categories in this way is likely (a) to encourage prejudice, (b) is inimical to serious analysis, (c) can mislead and (d) is intellectually lazy and unworthy of a person of his academic attainments. It is called essentialism. There should be no need to point out its dangers.

Not all Jews are Zionists, or Zionists Jews. Muslims and Arabs overlap but most Muslims are non-Arab and some Arabs (including Arab Jews) are not Muslim. I wonder if Turnberg is aware that there had been one or two cases of Jewish nationalists in Arab countries before the Zionist project gathered steam. One of the first Egyptian nationalists, James Sanua (Ya’qub Sanu’), was Jewish while Sulaiman Anbar, a Jew from Baghdad, was one of the delegates to an Arab nationalist conference in Paris in 1913. In November 1918 the Amir Faisal said in a speech in Aleppo, which then had a large Jewish population, that the Arabs were Arabs before Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, and that anyone who tried to sow discord between Muslim, Christian and Jew should not be considered an Arab. History might have been very different. Turnberg’s essentialising “Jews”, “Arabs” etc. is profoundly unhelpful to all who are working for peace.

The book appeared in April. There is a postscript to its publication. On 5 July, Turnberg made a speech in a House of Lords debate on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. What he said then gives us a snapshot of the mindset that is behind the defects in the book that I have highlighted above. We find him still talking about “the Arabs” and “the Jews”. He states that they have:

“still not settled their differences over what [Balfour] described as ‘a small notch of land’ that the Arabs could not possibly begrudge, given their vast Arabian Middle East”.

The innuendo here is that it was wrong and ungenerous for the people of Palestine to refuse to give up their land for the European Jews who wished to colonise it. It seems he still hasn’t read Article 22 properly or learned about the sacred trust of civilisation. He also made a statement that can certainly be construed as meaning that, in his view, the rights of Palestinian Arabs come second to Jews:

“The Zionists see Palestine as the Biblical homeland of the Jews, who had been repeatedly driven out, always returning and always yearning for it in their prayers while the Palestinians see what they believed was [emphasis added] their land  being given away by a western power whose land it was not theirs to give to someone else…”

He goes on to quote from the proviso to the Balfour Declaration that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights” of the indigenous population, but then adds:

“It was a hopelessly optimistic idea and, at the time, little thought was given to how one group, the Jews, were to protect the right of another group, the Arabs, who were immediately trying to kill them off.”

This last sentence shows the perils of essentialism. Turnberg should also know that his assertion about “the Arabs” immediately trying to “kill off” the Jews is unsustainable as a statement of historic fact. He has descended into demonisation. I found myself pondering one of the little nuggets of wisdom in his book: “so much of the hatred has been driven by ignorance and fear”. Yes, indeed.

Beyond the Balfour Declaration by Leslie Turnberg is published by Biteback (£20) 

John McHugo is the author of A Concise History of the Arabs and Syria: A Recent History. His  latest book, A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is, was published in September 2017.

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