1900-1919 | Palestine

FO Memo – Don’t consult Arabs – Zionism is ‘of far profounder import’

Lord Balfour ( Library of Congress via Wikimedia ) and Lord Curzon ( Library of Congress via Wikipedia )

11 August 1919

Today in 1919, Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour addressed a secret memo to Lord Curzon, Leader of the House of Lords, for circulation among cabinet ministers. It explained that ‘in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. The four powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong is… of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.’1

At the time Palestine’s population was still 90% Arab and the British government had promised to allow Arabs in Palestine not just a degree of self-government, but complete autonomy. In October 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, on behalf of the British government, had written a letter to Sherif Hussein of Mecca, assuring him that, if the Arabs took part in a revolt against the Ottoman Turks, who were then at war with Britain, a vast area which included what is now Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan and much of Syria would be given its independence. Although many historians have argued subsequently that the implied inclusion of Palestine in the area assigned to Arab self-determination might have been unintentional, causing an accidental misunderstanding, the subsequent acknowledgement by Lord Curzon, chairing the Eastern Committee, that ‘Palestine was included in the areas as to which Great Britain pledged itself that they should be Arab and independent in the future,’ strongly suggests that any ‘misunderstanding’ had been invited as part of a deliberate policy of deception.2

Arab eyes were opened on 9 November 1917, when Lord Balfour issued a public declaration under which the British government now undertook to back the establishment of a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ on land which was predominantly occupied by Arabs and already pledged to them, even if Balfour also promised that ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities’ in Palestine.  At a stroke of the pen, the Arab population, who had been promised self determination, became merely ‘non Jewish communities’ who’s rights would be respected, but Balfour’s August 2019 memo showed that even this pledge to respect Arab rights in Palestine meant absolutely nothing to the British government.

Sir Henry McMahon ( National Army Museum via Wikimedia ) and Sherif Hussein of Mecca (via Wikimedia )


  1. Myra Immell, Perspectives on Modern World History: The Creation of the State of Israel, Greenhaven Press, Missouri, 2010, p. 130.
  2. Lord Curzon cited in Michael Brecher, Dynamics of the Arab-Israel Conflict: Past and Present: Intellectual Odyssey II, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 p. 11 and in Roger Spooner, ‘The McMahon Promise to Hussein,’ The Balfour Project, 26 January 2015 accessed online at url http://www.balfourproject.org/the-mcmahon-promise/.

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