Friedman: Twice-Promised Land?

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5 responses

  1. Michael Mills says:

    Professor Isaiah Friedman may have claimed back in 2000 to have discovered the Arabic-language original of the 1915 letter from High Commissioner McMahon to Sharif Hussein of Mecca, but the fact is that that original has been known to historians for a very long time.

    Historians have known for a long time that the Arabic word used in the letter was “wilaya”, which simply means “district”. In his letter to Sharif Hussein, McMahon promised independence for all the Arab lands, except the territory lying to the west of a line drawn from the “Wilaya of Aleppo” through the “Wilaya of Homs” to the “Wilaya of Damascus”. That territory was to be excluded from the promised independent Arab state because of the French interest in that area.

    It is clear that the term “wilaya” meant the districts surrounding the cities of Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Accordingly, the region to be excluded from the promised Arab state did not include any land lying to the south of the immediate surrounds of Damascus. It comprised only the present Lebanon and the coastal region of the present Syria. The excluded territory defined in the McMahon letter cannot have included Palestine, ie the territory lying west of the Jordan River, since that territory lies well to the south of Damascus and its immediate environs.

    After the First World War and the establishment of the British Mandate over Palestine, the British Government needed to justify its promise to the Zionists to allow the establishment of a “National Home for the Jewish People” in Palestine, which precluded its being included in the independent Arab state promised in the McMahon letter. In order to do that, the British Government claimed that Palestine was part of the territory lying west of the line from the “Wilaya of Aleppo” to the “Wilaya of Damascus”.

    I support of that interpretation, the British Government claimed that the Arabic word “wilaya” used by McMahon in the Arabic-language version of his letter corresponded to the Turkish word “vilayet”, which was the official designation of a province of the Ottoman Empire. The British Government claimed that the term “Wilaya of Damascus” as used by McMahon actually meant the Vilayet of Damascus, which was a province of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Vilayet of Damascus had included the territory lying to the east of the Jordan River, the British Government argued that McMahon had intended to exclude the territory west of the Jordan River, ie Palestine, from the territory promised to the future independent Arab state.

    The problem with that argument is that McMahon had referred to the “Wilaya of Homs” as well as to the “Wilaya of Aleppo” and the “Wilaya of Damascus”. Although there was a Vilayet of Aleppo and a Vilayet of Damascus, there was no Vilayet of Homs. The logical conclusion is that when McMahon used the Arabic word “wilaya”, he did not mean the official Ottoman designation for a province, “Vilayet”, but just the general term “district”.

    It follows that McMahon only intended to exclude from the Arab state territory lying to the immediate west of Damascus, ie the present Lebanon, and did not intend to exclude Palestine, the territory west of the Jordan River.

    It is obvious that Professor Friedman’s book is sim ply typical Zionist propaganda, designed to refute Palestinian claims to a state on territory west of the Jordan River.

    PS: I do not know whether Professor Friedman is still living. Since he was born in 1921, it seems unlikely.

    • Sheri Oz says:

      You are correct in making the distinction between the Ottoman and Arabic meanings for the term “vilayet”. But you are mistaken in claiming that the exclusion of what became Israel in the promise to the Arabs came after WWI. Friedman used personal correspondences and letters (some confidential) to and from many interested parties from 1915-16 to explain his understanding of the situation. For example, McMahon claimed, in a letter to Sir Edward Gray, that he was deliberately vague regarding “the extent of French claims in Syria [and] how far His Majesty’s Government have agreed to recognize them.” al-Faruqi told Sykes in Cairo in November 1915 that “Arabs would agree to convention with France, granting her monopoly of all concessionary enterprise in Syria and Palestine.” The border al-Faruqi suggested for Palestine was up to the Hedjaz Railway.

      Your comment and mine here are just examples of the controversy that arose over the letter that was not meant to be official or binding as the negotiations over territories and boundaries was set to be conducted after the war. What is fundamental to Friedman’s conclusions is what was communicated in 1915-16. (I have no way to refute his claim that the Arabic version of the letter and the retranslation back into English at a later date were truly unavailable until he found them in the archives.)

      Given that many Israeli Jewish scholars write against Israeli interests, I do not think anything is obvious as you put it.

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