Reputedly where the sun would never set, the British Empire bequeathed one of the bloodiest legacies across a wider geographical compass than any other empires, bequeathing a sad inheritance: the growth of reprehensible and bloody repercussions even as we approach the first centennial of its ending (in 1947). What dramatises that conclusion is another centennial falling in 2017: the November 02, 1917 House of Lords address by Arthur Balfour, Foreign Secretary to wartime prime minister, David Lloyd George. Ostensibly to atone the 'tyranny and persecution' Jews had faced in countries of the west, such as his own, he proposed 'a national home for the Jewish people' so long as this did not 'prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine . . .' However interpreted, that declaration stands upturned, exposing the chicanery of expedient war-time policy-makers and the duplicity British policy-makers were well known for.
Seen from the local level, that is, from the Palestine perspective, since the adversary was Ottoman Turkey, what was proposed to Lord (Lionel Walter) Rothschild, the Jewish banking magnate, had also been proposed, more forthrightly, to the Sharif of Mecca, Emir Hussein, in October 1915, by a man with a dubious South Asian ring: Sir Henry McMahon, who drew the line between northeast India and Tibet, where, to this day, national armies of China and India confront each other. Deflecting the McMahon discussion to a subsequent paragraph, the 'Independence of Arabs' promise carried, in his words, the 'advise and guidance of Great Britain . . . .' in exchange for evicting the Turks.
In keeping with tradition, Palestine, the 'promised land' of 'milk and honey', was promised twice in just two years by Great Britain during World War I. More people notice the expediency more than the pattern it belonged to: World War I was stalemated, reduced to a trench-warfare that only a robust Russian presence or a rapid US intervention could tilt in favour of Great Britain (and France), and so, who better to appeal to than the Jews in both countries to make the case to their governments, thus highlighting the Balfour Declaration. One might recall that, since the failure of the 1905 Russian revolution, thousands of Russian socialist Jews took Theodore Herzl upon his word, spoken in 1896 through his Der Judenstaat book, to form a Jewish state, and began migrating to Palestine. From the Second Aliyah (ascent) in 1905 to the Balfour Declaration twelve years later, 50,000 Jews had already migrated to Palestine even before the war ended, established townships, and by the time of the initial riots between these migrants and locals in 1921, skirmishes were already brewing. As for the United States, it was not so much the number of Jewish migrants to Palestine but their influence in Washington to win President Woodrow Wilson's ear, particularly those of Justice Louis Dembitz Brandeis. His 'self-determination' component of the 14-Points in January 2018 did not let them down, yet it thickened several Middle-East plots.
At the local level then, twice-promised Palestine became the permanent home of conflict and suspicion, with one big difference between 1917 and 2017. That is the 1948 creation of Israel, in spite of the British attempt, through the 1937 Peel Report, to seek a 'two-state' formula. Here was the first occasion in which that formula appeared. If the creation of Israel displaced Palestinians, the 1967 Six-Day War did so more dramatically and expansively, so much so today that the 'two-state' theory has become a cruel joke upon the Palestinians, who get treated no better than dirt by Israelis. What is ironic is that Jewish influx continues, still largely from East Europe and Russia today, at the expense of the Palestinians, even in their assigned locations, while the 'promised land' continues to be any land confiscated from any Palestinian, as if they represent a modern, not biblical, Heathen (the latter applies to those non-believers in God, the former to any irregular or deformed person).
Britain's place behind the steering wheel has changed, now that the United States is more actively behind Israel. Yet, on a broader level, Britain's legacy not only remains robustly, but also riddled with blood.
Between the October 1915 promise to Emir Hussein and the 1917 to Lord Rothschild, Britain, this time in conjunction with France, concluded another agreement, this time clandestinely, through Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, to divide Turk territory from Syria all the way south to Arabia, with Iraq on the east and the Mediterranean on the west, as other frontiers. What the May 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement did was to carve two spheres of influence, which, as part of Wilson's self-determination and post-World War I arrangements, produced Syria, defined Iraq, and split the Kurds into many more states. It is not by chance that when Saddam Hussein was removed by the United States in 2003 that those very regions where 'self-determination' could not be consummated, particularly the Kurds, would clamour again for their dues. Even before they could, the very haphazard handling of sensitive boundaries by particularly Great Britain, provided an opportunity Islamic extremists did not hesitate to exploit.
It is, therefore, not by chance that Islamic State (of Iraq and/or Lebanon) could happen precisely where the Sykes-Picot Agreement denied self-determination, and that the 2017 Kurd referendum seeking independence was quietly snuffed out by another country, Iran (also a country where Kurds remain suppressed). Or that, while Turkey is projecting itself very much as it did over a century ago, as a custodian Islamic state, rather than the secular form Kemal Ataturk had left behind, the Kurd reaction still undermines the country for which we blame or credit all the host countries rather than the original plotters: Britain and France.
As if these were not enough of a shameful British credential, we must return to McMahon and South Asia. Because, in part, of two world wars and a bulging independence demand, Britain again did in the subcontinent what it did so shamelessly in Palestine: another divide-and-rule formula to carve India into two states, then to leave not just these two states simmering over border disputes in Kashmir, where another disputed British leftover, the Radcliffe Line, has fuelled war, but also between China and India by the actual line that McMahon established.
It is too early to say if these British boundary blunders in Palestine and Syria, as well as Kashmir and Tibet, will ever be resolved in the 21st Century, but the Balfour Declaration centennial is another occasion to remember the culprit before time, tide, more details, and a disappearing memory make that impossible. Ultimately, the locals must not be seen as, or punished for being, unreformed troublemakers. Unfortunately, homeless peoples, refugees, and war-zone residents have too much to worry about increasingly to pore through, or be reminded of, historical developments.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.