Book Review: The long overdue return of an incredible insider’s view of the Balfour Declaration

“Palestine: The Reality” contains invaluable historical information about the genesis and significance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and some startling revelations about the actions of UK officials at the time, yet it was very difficult to find a copy for many years.
First published in 1939 by Longman Green and Company, most copies were destroyed when the publisher’s offices in London were bombed by the Germans in the Blitz in 1941. It was republished in the 1970s but even secondhand copies remained almost impossible to find. The new edition, released in 2017, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, was therefore long overdue.

The author, Joseph Mary Nagle Jeffries, was a war, foreign and political correspondent for the Daily Mail, then Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper. He covered the First World War and then became the newspaper’s reporter in the Middle East.

Encouraged by his editor, Thomas Marlow, “to go fully into the question,” Jeffries witnessed history in the making during the turbulent 1920s, and filed regular stories on the Palestine Question. Along the way, he acquired deep understanding, knowledge and feeling for the political situation in the Middle East.

If the mainstream press largely ignored the book upon its publication, Ghada Karmi reminds us in a new introduction that Sir Arnold Wilson MP thought highly of the book, describing it in 1939 as “the most important study of Palestine yet published. As such it deserves to be in the hands of every man who cares for justice and peace.” In the same year, Jemal Husseini, president of the Palestine Arab Delegation, called on everyone in England to read this book.

It certainly contains a wealth of information. One of the most startling revelations is that the Civil Government of Palestine, set up in 1920, was an unlawful government.“It is impossible to find that the supposititious Mandatory Administration for the three years between August 1920 and September 1923 had any mandatory status or any legal status whatsoever. It was called a Government, but it had none of the title-deeds or rights of a government. It was not a government,” Jeffries wrote.

He also tells how the text of the Balfour Declaration was approved on November 2, 1917, then sent in the form of a letter from the foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, a leading figure in the British Jewish community.

The final line of the letter read: “I should be grateful if you would bring this Declaration to the knowledge of the Z ionist Federation.”Jeffries writes: “Nothing more cynically humorous than the final couple of lines of this letter has ever been penned.”

This is a reference to the fact that British government officials were not the authors of the Balfour Declaration. A committee of about 20 Zionist leaders, working on both sides of the Atlantic, composed the text under the strong influence of Chaim Weitzman, the president of the British Zionist Federation, who would become the first president of Israel in 1949. It was then forwarded to the British officials.

As far as the public was aware this text, on which Zionists of many nationalities had collaborated, was entirely a British government creation. It was also presented to the Arabs as the voice of Britain.

Jeffries described the declaration as “unlawful in issue, arbitrary in purpose, and deceitful in wording. The Balfour Declaration is the most discreditable document to which a British Government has set its hand within memory”.

Palestinians were the first direct victims of the Balfour Declaration, which triggered an inexorable process leading to their eviction, dispossession and lifelong exile. Most of Palestine’s expelled Arabs were sent to refugee camps, which exist to this day – such as the Ain Al-Hilweh camp in southern Lebanon, which has grown into a town of 120,000 refugees.
The Balfour Declaration consists of 67 words. Jeffries takes 750 pages to tell the inside story of those words which, a century later, continue to have a profound effect on the Middle East.
In his original introduction, Jeffries explains that his book is so long because the true history of Palestine has been h idden from the world for decades.“Half the facts I have to give have never been mentioned at all, many of the documents have never been quoted,” he wrote.
He also sheds some light on why it took so long for the book to be published.“It is because of the primary handicap upon the Arabs and their defenders,” he said, referring to the fact that unlike the Zionists and their British allies, who held prominent positions in Parliament, the Press and high  society, Arabs had no voice and were largely invisible to the British public.
“From the Arab the British Public has heard little, despite all the endeavors the Arabs themselves have made to present their cause,” Jeffries wrote. “How could it be otherwise? The lonely groups of men, whom their countrymen have sent so often to our shores to plead for them, have never obtained in the newspapers or upon the platform one thousandth part of the space or of the time which they needed to say all that they had to say.”
In her introduction, Karmi recounts how in 1950s Britain it was almost impossible to plead the Palestinian cause. When she told people she came from Palestine, most thought she was referring to Pakistan.

“As a child, I found it the most frightening deletion of my identity, history and memory imaginable, further compounded by so profound a British dismissal  of our side of the story as to make me doubt the reality of my own living experience,” she wrote. The new edition of this book, while long overdue, is a timely reminder of the true story and the disreputable role played by Great Britain and its allies.