It is almost a cliché to note that today too many historians and laypeople erroneously look at history through modern lenses that distort the picture and prevent an honest understanding of historical events.
But many others still want to read about history through the lens of as it was, not as today’s talking heads would have it. For those folks, Abraham Sion’s “To Whom Was The Promised Land Promised?” is a breath of fresh air.
Sion’s book is over 400 pages of thorough but eminently readable legal and historical analysis of the key moments and documents that led to the creation of a Jewish State in the land in which it was reestablished.
From the late 19th-century origins of modern Zionism to the British White Papers of the 1930s, the book provides a wealth of fascinating details on the legal and political understandings of the times that underpinned documents from the Balfour Declaration to the Hussein-McMahon letters.
The importance of these details to today’s debates is correctly identified by Sion, who notes in the context of the constant attacks on Israel’s legitimacy by institutions like the United Nations:
“Only by ignoring or overlooking these original treaties and resolutions could the international community arrive at the decisions adopted incessantly by the United Nations and other international organizations. These fundamental truths are ignored by the international community, and they are treated as if they never existed.”
“To Whom Was The Promised Land Promised” is at its best when it is examining the terminology found in agreements and declarations. Sion not only provides contemporary documentary sources to clarify the original meanings, but he also includes the words of key personalities of the times. The views of important figures – such as Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, Lord George Nathaniel Curzon, Emir Feisal, Woodrow Wilson, and many others – are illustrated throughout in relation to the conferences, correspondences, and agreements in which they partook.
The book contains fascinating and thorough examinations of the debates and negotiations inside the British Cabinet, the San Remo Conference, the drafting of the Treaties of Sevres and Lausanne, the De Bunsen Committee, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Importantly, it does not treat these conversations and events as isolated from each other or unrelated, but rather as inter-connected and reinforcing.
Through this form of analysis, Sion adeptly examines the evolution of the language of what would become the Balfour Declaration, as well as how the British would later distort and betray its plain meaning as they discharged their responsibility as the colonial power over Mandate Palestine.
Using this type of analysis for the Balfour Declaration, the book stays true to history as it was, not as some would prefer it to have been. Sion elucidates the complex interplay between the British (and subsequently, the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine) promise on the one hand to “use their best endeavours to facilitate” the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” and, on the other hand, the understanding “that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Importantly, Sion does not skip over those arguments that attempted to counter the Jewish claim to the Land of Israel. He takes head on the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the Hogarth message, the Declaration of the Seven, and even the concept of self-determination under international law. In doing so, he faithfully addresses the significance and political context of these documents and concepts alongside those of the likes of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate for Palestine.
Sion’s analysis concludes, on the basis of a true examination of these historical events and commitments, that “under international law, the Jewish people have a solid claim to the whole of Palestine.”
For those interested in the legal history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, “To Whom Was The Promised Land Promised” is a must-read. The book is also an important read for anyone truly interested in understanding the conflict, including how the commitment to create a Jewish state came about, how the anticipated borders of such a prospective state evolved over the years, and what the respective rights were for Mandate Palestine’s Jews and Arabs under international law.