A Balfour curse

Demonstration in Damascus, Syria against Balfour's visit to the region in 1925.

Demonstration in Damascus, Syria against Balfour’s visit to the region in 1925.

Balfour. The name is synonymous with the declaration that helped create the state of Israel and with it the untold agony and suffering of a people who to this day – more than 50 years on – have yet to recover from one of history’s worst political and moral injustices. On a journey by ship and train in 1925 to Egypt, Palestine and Syria, Balfour was met by protests and demonstrations which shook streets and capitals. From the pages of the Egyptian periodical Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* takes an in-depth look at the man and a trip that made headlines.

A Balfour curse

balfour-britain-and-israelIt is well-known that Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Office secretary during World War I, issued the notorious declaration on 2 November 1917 in which the British government pledged to assist in the establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine. Lesser known, however, is the story of this man before his name became associated with the document that marked the creation of the state of Israel and the subsequent disasters this wreaked upon the Arabs.

Arthur James Balfour, born in 1848, was almost 70 when he issued the declaration bearing his name. Of Scottish aristocratic origin, he entered the House of Commons in 1885, becoming minister for Scottish affairs the following year and minister for Irish affairs a year later. It was in the latter position that he acquired the nickname that would haunt him for some time, “Bloody Balfour,” for his overly zealous enforcement of the Irish Crimes Act issued by the British government to suppress the resistance movement in Ireland.

In 1892, Balfour became head of the opposition to the Liberal government and did not return to the cabinet until 1915, when he became minister of the Navy under the national unity government of Herbert Asquith formed in May that year following a series of setbacks suffered by British forces at the outset of World War I. The following year, when a new cabinet was formed under Lloyd George, Balfour became one of the elder statesmen invited to join the ministry and remained in this position until his resignation in 1922 at the age of 74.

Undoubtedly the elder statesman’s contemporaries had imagined that he would live out his remaining years after retirement in the manner of men of his rank and class, pottering around on his country estate and writing his memoirs. Not so Lord Balfour, who could not bring himself to relinquish public life. Still, it is remarkable that three years later, he decided to accept an invitation to attend the opening of the Hebrew University in March 1925, accepting the possible risk to his person now that the victims of his declaration realised the magnitude of his injustice towards them. The invitation was extended to Balfour by one of the founders of the Zionist state, Chaim Weizmann, who hoped to take advantage of the occasion to promote the Jewish national homeland and who had invited for the same purpose a large number of prominent political figures.

Lord Balfour in Egypt

Balfour’s journey took him first to Egypt where he arrived on the afternoon of Monday 23 March 1925. On hand in the port of Alexandria was Al-Ahram’s special correspondent to relay to the newspaper’s readers the details of the retired British official’s arrival. He reports, “Many Jewish notables in the city along with a Zionist committee and a contingent of students from Jewish schools went to the port to greet Lord Balfour. At 4.00pm the Esperia docked in the western harbour. The Zionist committee, headed by a rabbi, boarded and after a short while disembarked. The Railways Authority had prepared a special saloon carriage which Lord Balfour and his entourage took to Cairo.”

Allenby entered Jerusalem on December 9, 1917 and declared, "Today the Crusades have come to an end."

Allenby had entered Jerusalem on December 9, 1917 and declared, “Today the Crusades have come to an end.”

In Cairo, Balfour was the guest of Lord and Lady Allenby. Aside from the diplomatic motives behind the British high commissioner’s hospitality, the two men figured prominently in the events of World War I that would shape the future of the region. Allenby had led the military campaign that drove the Turkish armies out of the Levant in 1917 and Balfour issued his disaster-laden pledge that same year.

In Alexandria, where Balfour spent just over two hours, the only welcome he received was from the representatives of the Alexandria Jewish community. At 6.00pm on the following day, Tuesday 25 March, Balfour’s delegation, which now included a number of Jewish leaders who had met him in Alexandria, boarded the train bound for Suez and from there to Palestine. To see him off at the station were both Zionists and Palestinians, “the former taking off their hats to him, the latter invoking imprecations against his notorious pledge,” as Al-Ahram reported.

Many Egyptians had joined the Palestinians in supporting Arab Palestine. But their joint demonstration was met with unusual brutality by police. Mohamed Ali Taher, owner of Al-Shura newspaper, was among the protesters and gave a first-hand account of the events:

“The Azbakiya police chief ordered his policemen to drag me through the streets to the police station rather than be transported in a guarded police wagon. I was taken to the station in this degrading manner, with people tagging along around me. They treated my colleague, Amin Effendi Abdel-Latif El-Husseini, the brother of the Mufti of Jerusalem, in exactly the same manner. In the police station, the commissioner refused to simply write up a report and let us off, even with the payment of a bond. Rather, he confiscated our personal papers and our cigarettes and detained us in the holding cell until the following day.”

Black flags, demonstrations and strikes greeted Balfour wherever he set foot

Black flags, demonstrations and strikes greeted Balfour wherever he set foot

Lord Balfour in Palestine

On this discordant note, Balfour’s train set off for Palestine. The journey has been treated in some detail in various historical studies, foremost among which is The Palestinian National Movement: 1917-1936 by Adel Ghoneim. However, the full account as recorded by Al-Ahram merits closer inspection.

As the train carrying Balfour made its way towards Palestine, protest letters and telegrams poured into Al-Ahram offices. One sent in the name of the Syrian expatriate community in Egypt and addressed to Balfour announced, “We condemn your iniquitous declaration. We will never relinquish our usurped rights and will pursue our struggle to the end in the hopes of realising our national aspirations.” The telegram was signed by more than 20 people, among whom was Shukri Al-Quwatli, who would eventually become president of the Republic of Syria. A second telegram, sent by the Jordanian community in Egypt, reminded Balfour that he was on his way to the country whose “freedom and liberty you have destroyed with your reprehensible declaration,” adding that Balfour’s arrival “will only augment the Palestinians’ devotion to their country.”

Balfour greeted in Tel Aviv.

Balfour, second from left, being welcomed in Tel Aviv by Zionists.

No amount of protest, however, was about to dissuade Balfour from his chosen path. Al-Ahram had dispatched another reporter to Jerusalem to cover the British lord’s movements from the time his train pulled into the Holy City. Balfour’s first official visit was to the Zionist settlement of Qara, where he was accorded “an enthusiastic welcome.” Following a luncheon there, Balfour and his entourage went to Tel Aviv, “the modern Jewish city that was constructed near Jaffa.” Upon his arrival, the visiting dignitary found “all the houses and institutes bedecked with British and Zionist flags and hordes of people – men, women and students – rushing out to greet him carrying banners bearing his picture around their necks.” The Al-Ahram correspondent continues, “A force of 150 Jewish youths had volunteered to assist the army and police in maintaining order.”

Meanwhile, schools in Gaza and Tulkarm, the Teachers College in Jerusalem and other Palestinian institutes went on strike to protest against Balfour’s visit “as people are doing throughout the country.” Undoubtedly, the British mandate government in Palestine was prepared for possible unrest, for Al-Ahram reports that the British minister of war had announced to the House of Commons that an armoured cavalry regiment had been sent from Egypt to Palestine to quell any disturbances.

Streets empty as merchants strike in Palestine against Balfour.

Streets empty as merchants strike in Palestine against Balfour.

British police harass Palestinians.

British police harass Palestinians.

Shortly thereafter, Al-Ahram reported that the Egyptian government intended to send Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayyid, director of the Egyptian National University, to Palestine to attend the inaugural ceremony of the Hebrew University. To the surprise of many and despite the outcry of Palestinians in Egypt, the professor agreed to go. In a letter to Al-Ahram, the Arab Youth of Palestine protested that El-Sayyid’s acceptance of the invitation was a stab in the back of Arab Palestine and appealed to the Egyptian government to reverse its decision. Similarly, Palestinian students at Al-Azhar University expressed sorrow at the university’s decision to send a delegate to the inauguration because “it will enable Zionists to exploit the name of Egypt on their behalf.” Again, Palestinian protests fell on deaf ears as the Egyptian university official set off to Palestine to attend the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, something he regretted later.

Oblivious to Palestinians, Balfour visits Jewish colonial settlements in Palestine during his 1925 trip.

Oblivious to Palestinians, Balfour visits Jewish colonial settlements in Palestine during his 1925 trip.

Back in Palestine, Balfour made his way to another Jewish settlement, as obstinately deaf as ever to Arab and Palestinian grievances and apparently determined to be as provocative as possible. On one occasion he declared he was a close friend of Baron Rothschild and that “if he was not as old a Zionist as the Baron he was, nevertheless, one of the first Zionists.” Elsewhere he remarked that his pledge to create a homeland for the Jews in Palestine was “not the plan of a specific person or nation, but rather an embodiment of the view of the greater body of nations that signed the Versailles Treaty and could, therefore, never by nullified.”

Balfour spent two weeks in Palestine amidst general strikes and protests by Palestinians and jubilation by Zionists who renamed the street his car passed through in Tel Aviv after him. His last stop before leaving on 7 April was Haifa where “the entire city went on strike.” Still, he was intent on visiting the Zionist quarter of the city and various Zionist institutions and dining with the governor of the city.

Lord Balfour in Syria

British colonialist troops march into Damascus, October 2, 1918

British colonialist troops march into Damascus, October 2, 1918

The next leg of Balfour’s tour took him to Syria where he would encounter an entirely different situation. Syria was not subject to British mandate rule, which was ever ready to suppress Palestinian demonstrations. Fired up by its well-known Arab nationalist fervour, Syria was gearing itself for the Great Syrian Revolution that began later that year. And there would be no Zionists in Syria to welcome Balfour.

On the morning of 8 April, the private train carrying Balfour and his entourage set off from Haifa to Damascus amid tight security. “Government officials escorted Balfour to the train, which he boarded along with several British agents who were sent to ensure his safety. Although the British government had positioned police at the stations, this did not prevent villagers from shouting out protests and waving black banners as the train passed through.”

British authorities in Palestine also secured an agreement from the French protectorate government in Syria to protect Balfour during his visit. Accordingly, French authorities in Hauran and Der’a secured the train stations in these regions and the French police commandant in Damascus went to the border to greet the train. Al-Ahram goes on to report, “When the train arrived in Der’a French officials were on hand to receive Balfour and invited him and his entourage to a meal in the station restaurant, which the police commandant had cordoned off, after which Balfour reboarded the train on his way to Damascus.”

Busy city square of Damascus, 1918

Busy city square of Damascus, 1918

Having sensed the unrest in the Syrian capital because of the impending visit of the author of the notorious declaration, French officials arranged for Balfour to get off the train at a station on the outskirts of the capital rather than in Damascus itself. On hand to greet him was the British consul and other consular officials who had arranged for a sufficient number of cars to transport the visitors. “The cars raced to the Victoria Hotel where private quarters had been set aside for Balfour’s visit. They were heavily guarded by police and secret service agents. As no one had been informed of these plans, Balfour arrived without incident.”

However, even as the British statesman was settling down in his room,

“a crowd of men of all ages bearing black banners thronged to the Damascus train station. The police forces that had been stationed there prevented people from entering, while another contingent of police guards had been stationed on the platform. Just before the train was due to pull in it was learned that Balfour had gotten off the train in Al-Qadam station. The crowds subsequently rushed off to Victoria Hotel where guards prevented anyone from entering. Secret service agents had infiltrated the crowds, who chanted cries against the Balfour Declaration and the man’s visit to the Ummayad capital and cheered for the long life of Palestine. The demonstration lasted for an hour, after which protesters made off to Hamidiya Market.”

In the famous Damascus marketplace, hordes of people began to emerge from the streets and alleyways and began to converge on the Square of Martyrs.

“At this point, the police began to intervene, blocking passage over the Barada Bridge in the face of angry, noisy crowds. Violent clashes broke out between the people and police, who took those whom they captured to the police station.”

Al-Ahram’s correspondent then relates that at about 11.00 that evening, after the crowds dispersed, Lord Balfour decided he would take a walk in the city but was dissuaded by the urgent appeals of the French police authorities. “He thus returned to his room as police and security forces patrolled the city and the site around the hotel throughout the night.”

The following day saw further unrest. After noon prayers, Al-Ahram’s correspondent reports, crowds rushed towards Victoria Hotel, “crashed the police barricades and almost reached the doors of the hotel.” The reporter continues, “The gendarmes tried to block them and were finally forced to fire shots in the air. At 2.00pm, eight armoured vehicles were sent to restore order.”

Syrian nationalists, 1919

Syrian nationalists, 1919

According to several news agencies, approximately 50 protesters were wounded, three in critical condition. Fifteen ended up in hospital. Two policemen were also injured while many suffered bruises and contusions. That no one was killed was undoubtedly due to the discipline and self-restraint of the French police who fired in the air despite the serious situation.

The following day, Al-Ahram’s correspondent reports, aircraft flew over the city at an altitude of 150 metres while dozens of armoured vehicles and tanks were brought in. This time, protesters came up against French and Moroccan infantry and cavalry armed with swords. In the battle that ensued, most of the injuries among the demonstrators were sword wounds, while the injuries sustained by the French were inflicted by stones hurled by the protesters. During this fighting, Balfour made no attempt to leave his room. In his company were the correspondents from The London Times and The Daily Telegraph who dispatched to their newspapers detailed accounts of the clash that was taking place within earshot of the hotel.

Eventually, French forces moved into and occupied Al-Marja Al-Khadra and Martyrs’ Square but French authorities knew this would be insufficient to restore calm to the Syrian capital. Thus, in a meeting with Lord Balfour and the British consul in Damascus, the French commanding general persuaded him to leave the city at once, having spent less than 24 hours in the historic Arab capital during which “he never once left his room.”

In order to spirit the visiting British dignitary out of the city with the least disturbance possible, the French general devised a clever ploy. He stationed himself on a bridge near the hotel while airplanes swooped overhead, “thus distracting the people’s attention.” It was then that Balfour managed to leave the hotel without drawing attention, remarkable in view of the fact that his cortege was guarded by some 60 police and security officers. Simultaneously, government authorities in Damascus ordered sentinels to call all local elders to an assembly to instruct them to inform their various quarters in the city that Balfour had left.

Lord Balfour in Lebanon

Evidently, the former British minister had not learned his lesson, for he then set his sights on Beirut. However, when he arrived, under heavy guard, in Sofar, he was told that the Lebanese capital would not be preparing a red carpet welcome. According to a Beirut newspaper, a group of students were organising a protest demonstration and a general strike the day of Balfour’s arrival “in support of the sufferings of our brother Palestinians.”

As a result, security officials accompanying Balfour decided to change course. Instead of approaching Beirut from Damascus, the cortege veered northwards, circumventing the city in order to go directly to the port where Balfour was escorted from the wharf to the French steamer, Le Sphinx, under the protection of government forces.

By now Balfour had gleaned something of the effect of his declaration. When his ship anchored in Alexandria he refused to disembark with the rest of the passengers. Later that day, however, at the behest of the British community, he was persuaded to attend a banquet held in his honour in the Claridge Hotel, after which he returned as fast as he could to the ship.

In its analysis of Balfour’s tour, Al-Ahram commented that “it aroused the anger of the Levantine people everywhere the author of the sinister declaration set foot. This undoubtedly left an indelible impression in Lord Balfour’s mind.”

Balfour died in 1930 at the age of 82.

* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (361)


Al-Ahram Weekly On-line, 26 Oct. – 1 Nov. 2000, Issue No. 505

Related articles: A special issue commemorating the anniversary of the Balfour declaration


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