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yesh omrim

a blog that reclines to the left


Self-determination, where “self” means “other”

6 March 2009

I have read Rashid Khalidi’s book The Iron Cage: The Story of the Palestinian Struggle for Statehood, and I can thank John McCain for bringing his work to my attention.

You see, back in the fall, the McCain crew tried to make hay out of Obama’s alleged association with Khalidi, a former colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago. This led none other than Marty Peretz to protest: “I assume that my Zionist credentials are not in dispute. And I have written more appreciative words about Khalidi than Obama ever uttered.”

Then, after Operation Cast Lead began, I decided I really needed to bone up on Middle Eastern history, and I remembered Khalidi’s name. I don’t expect CAMERA to quote The Iron Cage with authority, but Khalidi doesn’t romanticize the Palestinian side, either. I don’t want to summarize or review the book here but I do want to riff, as it were, from one of the points the book makes.

Khalidi writes about how, during the mandatory period, leaders of Palestinian communities appealed to the British, over and over, for representation in the Mandate’s political institutions. After all, President Woodrow Wilson had championed the “autonomous development” of ethnic groups previously ruled by the Ottoman Empire, and the Mandate was ostensibly for the purpose of fostering that development. The British response, over and over was: so sorry, chaps, but the Balfour Declaration says Palestine is supposed to be a Jewish national home, so if you want to be part of our administrative structures you need to accept the terms of the Declaration. This response left the Palestinians dissatisfied, to say the least.

Reading this, I was reminded of two things.

First, I was reminded of David Fromkin’s fantastic book A Peace To End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East. Fromkin makes clear that while the British were very good at talking about self-determination of national groups—to curry favor with Wilson, to stir up Arabs against Ottoman rule, and to block French claims to Syria—they avoided doing it in the Middle Eastern territories they controlled, for a number of reasons:

  1. Once the Ottoman Empire entered World War I, Britain was concerned about protecting its access to India. They could not countenance a rival power taking control of any country between Egypt and Persia, which meant that they did not want any state in that region to have enough autonomy to invite such a power in.
  2. Against Wilson’s principle of “autonomous development”, the British believed in the old-fashioned principle “to the victor go the spoils”, especially considering the vast blood and treasure they spent on overthrowing the Ottomans.
  3. They took for granted that the Arabs were incapable of self-government, and thought even less of the Palestinians than they did of other Arabs.

Second, I was reminded of a very common trope in European Jewish history: A king invites Jews to settle in his land, and allows some of them to interact with his subjects in necessary but distasteful jobs, e.g., moneylending and tax collection. When the subjects feel oppressed by their political or economic condition, animus against the actual ruling class can be redirected to a pogrom against the Jews.

So from the perspective of a British colonialist in 1925-ish, the setup in Palestine must have looked perfect. Here was a land sitting in the middle of a crucial trade route, where the job of civil administration could be delegated to people who were almost white Christians. By holding up the land as a “Jewish national home”, Britain could keep those silly idealists in the Wilson Administration from asking why the majority ethnic group in the territory wasn’t being put in control. What could possibly go wrong?