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Wartime promises.

Many experts say the ongoing Arab-Israeli clash over territory in the Middle East has roots in conflicting promises made during World War I. At that time, Arabs wished to break free of the Ottoman Empire and establish an independent Arab state. In a series of letters between British diplomat Henry McMahon and Arab leader Hussein bin Ali, Britain promised to make that happen if Arabs would assist Britain in the war. At the same time, Jews had launched the Zionist movement to create a Jewish homeland in the area of Jerusalem. In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote to Zionist leader Lord Rothschild pledging Britain's support. Both of those sources are excerpted below. Read them along with the Upfront article, then answer the questions at the bottom of the page.

McMahon-Hussein Letter, 1915

I regret that you should have received from my last letter the impression that I regarded the question of the limits and boundaries with coldness and hesitation; such was not the case.... I have realised, however, from your last letter that you regard this question as one of vital and urgent importance. I have, therefore, lost no time in informing the Government of Great Britain of the contents of your letter, and it is with great pleasure that I communicate to you on their behalf the following statement, which I am confident you will receive with satisfaction.

The two districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Horns, Hama and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab, and should be excluded from the limits demanded.... As for those regions lying within those frontiers wherein Great Britain is free to act without detriment to the interest of her ally, France, I am empowered in the name of the Government of Great Britain to give the following assurances ...

1. Subject to the above modifications, Great Britain is prepared to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca.*

2. Great Britain will guarantee the Holy Places against all external aggression and will recognise their inviolability.

3. When the situation admits, Great Britain will give to the Arabs her advice and will assist them to establish what may appear to be the most suitable forms of government in those various territories....

I am convinced that this declaration will assure you beyond all possible doubt of the sympathy of Great Britain towards the aspirations of her friends the Arabs and will result in a firm and lasting alliance, the immediate results of which will be the expulsion of the Turks from the Arab countries....

Baliour Declaration, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet:

"His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this Declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely, Arthur James Balfour

*"Sherif of Mecca" refers to the Arab leader.

NOTE: These letters use British spellings.


1. How would you describe the audience, purpose, and tone of each document?

2. Besides promising to recognize a free Arab state, how does Britain suggest it can help the Arabs?

3. What limitations or exceptions does each letter note?

4. What do you think a pledge of support from Britain meant to the Arabs and to the Jews of the Zionist movement? Explain.

5. Based on the article and letters, describe the role you think these pledges may have played in the ongoing conflicts between Arabs and Israelis.
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Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 24, 2017
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