by Hugh Fitzgerald
An Israeli MK, Dov Lipman, recently examined those parts of Barack Obama’s just-released A Promised Land that treat of Israel and its conflict with the Arabs. Lipman is appalled by what he found, and he holds up for examination and criticism Obama’s dreamy misinformation about that history and his almost comical self-assurance about matters he knows so little about. You can find Lipman’s scathing review here.
I have never criticized former U.S. President Barack Obama publicly—neither during my time in the Knesset nor anywhere else—despite my having disagreed with many of his policies. I am of the strong opinion that Israelis should not engage in or interfere with American politics, and I regularly offer a blanket thank you to all American presidents, including Obama, for their economic and military support for Israel.
However, his memoir, A Promised Land, is filled with historical inaccuracies that I feel the need to address. His telling of Israel’s story (at the beginning of Chapter 25) not only exhibits a flawed understanding of the region—which clearly impacted his policies as president—but misleads readers in a way that will forever shape their negative perspective of the Jewish state.
Obama relates, for example, how the British were “occupying Palestine” when they issued the Balfour Declaration calling for a Jewish state. But labeling Great Britain as an “occupier” clearly casts doubt on its legitimacy to determine anything about the future of the Holy Land—and that wasn’t the situation
While it is true that England had no legal rights in Palestine when the Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917, that changed just five years later. The League of Nations, precursor to the United Nations, gave the British legal rights over Palestine in its 1922 “Mandate for Palestine,” which specifically mentions “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The League also said that “recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.”
The former president’s noted omission of the internationally agreed-upon mandate for the British to establish a home for the Jews in Palestine misinforms the reader, who will conclude that the movement for a Jewish state in Palestine had no legitimacy or international consent.
Obama refers to the British as “occupying” Palestine when the Balfour Declaration was written in 1917; it would be truer to history to describe the British in that year as still fighting with the Ottoman Turks; the British liberated Palestine from the Ottoman yoke only in 1918.
As Lipman notes, Obama misses entirely the most important development in the history of modern Israel: the Mandate for Palestine. He never mentions it. It was the League of Nations that created the system of mandates, by which certain former Ottoman territories were entrusted to European states – the holders of the Mandates, the Mandatories –who were to create the conditions for the independence of those territories. There were several mandates pertaining to the Arabs – in Syria/Lebanon and in Iraq. There was one mandate for the Jewish people – the Mandate for Palestine – which was entrusted to Great Britain in 1922. The territory included in that Mandate, which would eventually constitute the Jewish National Home, was all the land from the Golan Heights in the north, to the Red Sea in the south, and from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean in the west. In fact, before the Mandate was formally announced, it was originally to have included all the territory east of the Jordan River “out to the desert,” but in the end, the British separated eastern Palestine from Palestine west of the Jordan River, and turned what then constituted 78% of the proposed Mandate for Palestine into the Emirate of Transjordan, as a kind of consolation prize for the Hashemite Emir Abdullah, whose younger brother Feisal had been previously put on the throne of Iraq by the British.
Obama seems to think the British were there in Palestine as an “occupying power” and then, without so much as a by-your-leave, simply decided to stick around for three decades while preparing to hand over the territory, for some unknown reason, to the Jews. Obama does not mention the League of Nations, nor the Mandate for Palestine; he never describes Great Britain as having been entrusted, as Mandatory, with “Palestine” for the sole purpose of turning it into the Jewish National Home. Obama very likely has never read the Mandate for Palestine, and in particular, does not know Articles 4 and 6:
The Zionist organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognised as such agency. It shall take steps in consultation with His Britannic Majesty’s Government to secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home.
The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.
In his book, Obama fails to mention any of this, which requires of the Mandatory that it “facilitate Jewish immigration” and “close settlement of Jews on the land.”
What land? All the land included in the Mandate maps, showing the territory from – let’s repeat it – from the Golan to the Red Sea, and from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. But Obama doesn’t know about those Mandate maps, just as he doesn’t know about the Mandate. He doesn’t understand that the Mandates system became part of international law. He’s never heard of the U.N. Charter’s Article 80 (“the Jewish people’s article”), which commits the U.N. to continue the system of Mandates it inherited from the League of Nations. The British weren’t in Palestine for the next thirty years by accident. Great Britain was the Mandatory, entrusted by the League of Nations in 1922 with the task of turning Mandatory Palestine into the Jewish National Home — which would then naturally turn into the Jewish state of Israel. But in Obama’s understanding, which leaves out that internationally-recognized role for Great Britain as Mandatory, the British are in “Palestine” illegally.
Over the next 20 years, Zionist leaders mobilized a surge of Jewish migration to Palestine,” Obama writes, creating the image that once the British illegally began the process of forming a Jewish state in Palestine, Jews suddenly started flocking there.
The truth is that Jews, who maintained a continual presence throughout the 2,000 years that most were exiled from the land, had already been moving to Palestine in large numbers way before then; considerably more than 100,000 immigrants arrived in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Then, in the 1920s, high numbers fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe could only find safe haven in Palestine, due to the United States having instituted quotas in 1924 on the number of Jews who could enter America….
Obama seems not to realize that Jewish immigration – the return to Zion – began several decades before the Mandate for Palestine began. Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe were starting to move to Palestine in the late 19th century, even before Theodor Herzl organized the First Zionist Congress, held in Basel in 1897. As Lipman notes, more than 100,000 Jews arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Palestine, on their own, needing no encouragement from the future Mandatory .
Obama gives no hint of understanding how difficult life was for Jews once they were in Palestine. He fails to mention that the British not only never did “facilitate Jewish immigration” or “encourage close settlement by Jews on the land” as they were supposed to, under Article 6 of the Mandate, but worse still, made it positively difficult for the Jews to live in Palestine. When the Arabs started to attack Jews during the Jerusalem Riots in 1920, and the Zionist leader Zev Jabotinsky tried to arm the Jews for self-defense, he was arrested by the British and given a 15-year sentence for possession of weapons. A worldwide outcry led to his being freed, but the incident was revealing: the British were not terribly interested in helping the Jews to defend themselves. In the 1930s, one British officer, Orde Wingate, was deeply sympathetic to the Jews and helped them organize “Special Night Squads” to carry the fight to the marauding Arab enemy. Instead of being praised by his superiors for this undertaking, Wingate was sent out of Palestine, never to return. He had been marked as too friendly to the Jews.
Nor does Obama discuss how hard it was for Jews, at the moment of their greatest need, just before and during World War II, to find refuge in Palestine. According to the White Paper of 1939, issued by the British government, Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine would be limited to 15,000 a year for five years, after which all such immigration would be subject to an Arab veto – which effectively meant an end to Jewish immigration. So much for the British duty, as Mandatory, to “facilitate Jewish immigration” into Palestine, without limit. The British prevented ships with Jewish refugees from landing in Palestine, sending them back to Europe. Many hundreds of thousands of Jews might have been saved from the Nazis, had the British helped, rather than hindered at every step, Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.
Obama, whose want of sympathy for the Zionists is palpable, depicts the Jews as arriving en masse in Palestine, without the least difficulty either in entering the land or, once there, in establishing themselves. Obama does not mention how the British imprisoned Jabotinsky for daring to arm defenseless Jews, nor does he explain the expulsion of Capt. Orde Wingate for the crime of having helped train Jews in self-defense; he doesn’t mention the White Paper that so severely limited Jewish immigration into Palestine from 1939 on, nor describe the desperation of the Jews who tried to flee Europe and make it safely to Palestine. In Obama’s telling, there seemed to be no obstacles to the Jews entering and settling peacefully in Palestine – no British blockade of ships laden with Jewish refugees, and once in Palestine, no attacks by marauding Arabs.
First published in Jihad Watch.
Nobel Prize winner Noble Prize loser.