“The controversy over this question is half a century old.” [1]  The “controversy” Isaiah Friedman is talking about the Hussein McMahon correspondence, and the rightful ownership and national connection to the land west of the Jordan River; on the western most edge of the Asian continent, once called Palestine, now called Israel. One land claimed by two peoples Israel-Palestine remains the unanswered question of the twentieth century.  So contentious is this dispute that even the scholarly community is hugely affected by the major events of the past one hundred years.

Who did the British promise Palestine to, the Arabs or the Jews? The Jews claim the Balfour Declaration of 1917 clearly promises some sort of autonomous Jewish homeland within Palestine as long as it didn’t infringe on the rights of non-Jewish people who happen to be living within those designated boundaries. But, the Arabs claim the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, a series of letters in 1915 and 1916 exchanged between Henry McMahon, the Viceroy of Egypt at the time, and Sharif Hussein, the guardian of Mecca, outlines a promise by England to the Arabs to sponsor an Arab kingdom that would cover most of the Arab world with Hussein as king. There is no dispute that the British made these promises to both groups. The controversy however, is the argument whether the McMahon-Hussein correspondence included in its promise to the Arabs, Palestine.

There is an obvious confusion surrounding this debate. The question of Palestine and British policy was never clearly defined during the years of World War I. Depending on the document and its subsequent historical interpretations one could conclude that Palestine was meant for the Jews, or the Arabs, or to be kept by the British themselves. Why would the British be so confusingly vague in determining policy concerning Palestine? Was it intentional? Was it a case of not paying attention because of more pressing problems in Europe? Or was it incompetence on the part of McMahon and others as some historians have argued?

Actually it was a combination of all these points, with some elements emphasized more than others. That accounts for some of the confusion over the issue.  Arguably, three major reasons covering all the aspects concerning the Middle East at that time can be articulated. Conflicting forces in the Middle East, a different view on the meaning of independence between the British and the Arabs, and the necessity to include their allies France and Russia, all under the political umbrella of a devastating war in Europe, created the uncertain policy that the McMahon-Hussein correspondence encouraged. Consequently, for the Arabs and the British, the ultimate question of who Palestine belonged to could not be answered solely through the exchange that took place between Sharif Hussein and Henry McMahon, compounding the confusion over the issue even more.[2]  The Arabs, or anti-Zionist proponents argue that the letters confirm British intentions to include in its promise to the Sharif Hussein, Palestine along with large portions of the Levant and most of Arabia. Furthermore, the historiography on the subject, not unlike the wider conflict in general, reflects an historical debate delineating two separate camps like the politicians, soldiers and the nations involved in this conflict, one pro-Zionist and one anti-Zionist.

After all, if the Arabs were correct, that would mean British policy indicated Palestine was indeed promised to both Jews and Arabs and would, to the delight of anti-Zionists, call into question the existence of the modern state of Israel. Since the McMahon-Hussein correspondence took place two years before the Balfour Declaration, international law would support the promise that came first, even if it is only a matter of two years or less.[3] How could the Balfour Declaration maintain any validity if earlier policy decisions already promised Palestine to another people? Therefore, anti-Zionists argued vociferously to convince the world to recognize their version of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.

Although the complete correspondence is important, the debate over the rightful possession of Palestine comes down to one particular letter, which was dated, October 24, 1915. In it McMahon roughly outlined the western boundaries of an Arab state that Great Britain would find acceptable. McMahon’s wording here is critical,  “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation”[4] The exact meaning of the word “districts,” the designation of these four areas all somewhat north of historical Palestine, and the subsequent memoranda published by the Foreign Office and the Arab Bureau are all issues argued in this debate. The historiography outlining these issues and the definition of their significance mirror the very conflict they represent. Historians represented in this piece appear hardened in their positions, coloring the debate as one of the most contentious of all twentieth century historiographies.

Historiography influenced by certain factors can change the historical approach of any scholarly work. Current events, spatial differences in time, and political actions can alter historical treatments. Therefore, histories on the same subjects can change focus and intent from century to century, decade to decade, or even from year to year. For example, histories about World War II had profoundly different effects written in the 1960s as compared with the 1990s because of the Viet Nam War. In a subject so controversial as the Arab-Israeli conflict history writing is greatly influenced by these kinds of factors.  It is not an accident that the historiography of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence and the significance of the October 24th letter follows a particular pattern of reaching a high point of discussion during times of particular political or military importance, especially those that can be counted as Zionist victories or advances. Consider the analysis of the works used in this piece.

The Arab Awakening by George Antonius is regarded as one of the best arguments favoring the Arab position. First published in 1938 with a second printing in 1939, Antonius’s work was released during the British Mandate’s first attempt at a partition of Palestine. In 1938 the Peel Commission advised London that splitting the country into two states, one Arab, and one Jewish would be the best solution since the Mandate had failed to reconcile Jews and Arabs inside Palestine. The book’s release was not a coincidence that it coincided with the Peel commission. Antonius, deeply involved in anti-Zionism at the time, published his work to strengthen the Arab argument against the proposed Jewish sovereignty. His work, the first in English and the first to publish, in its entirety, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, has been released several more times since 1938, by varying publishers, 1946, 1955, and 1965, to reiterate the Arab position.  A look into the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict reveals that these releases correspond to the buildup of three of the four major wars between Israel and the Arab states. The Arab Awakening  republication seems to be tied to the bravado, political positioning, strategic maneuvering, and border skirmishes, which preceded all of these wars. The magnified notoriety that accompanied the pre war positioning proved to be the best time to republish Antonius’s work.

The anti-Zionist argument dominated the scholarly writing on the McMahon-Hussein correspondence until the late 1960s. Until that time Zionist historians felt they only needed the positive reinforcement of the Balfour Declaration since 1917 to legitimize British and the western world’s support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In the aftermath of the June war of 1967, world opinion began to question its previously un-challenged support for the State of Israel and its existence in the Muslim world. The change in world opinion due to the complete, one sided, total, Israeli domination after the Six Day War, initiated a new campaign for the legitimization of Zionism on the part of Zionist inspired historians.

With the reassessment of some western governments’ support for Israel, the appearance of a Zionist perspective on the McMahon-Hussein correspondence made its way into the scholarly community regardless of the convincing argument the Balfour Declaration made toward an international legally recognized Israel. Two works favoring the Zionist position were published during the 1970s, Isaiah Friedman’s study, comprised first in a Journal “The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the Question of Palestine,” and then three years later in a book covering the issue more in depth, The question of Palestine, 1914-1918; British-Jewish-Arab relations and Elie Kadourie’s, In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth. It was in the atmosphere of western reassessment that Friedman and Kadourie published their arguments.

Friedman argues a two-pronged approach to undercut the anti-Zionist position claiming the Arabs were promised Palestine before the Jews and therefore have a legal right to all of historic Palestine. First, he defines what the British meant by “independence.” His argument shows that even without the infamous October 24th letter, the British could not, on account of their allies, grant the kind of independent kingdom Sharif Hussein demanded, and would not because to do so would interfere with British interests in the region. Second, he goes into the October 24th letter, and argues against the old arguments posited by Antonius in The Arab Awakening and defends the Zionist position that the letter confirms rather than denies British policy declared in the Balfour Declaration.

Friedman has much to draw on for his interpretations. His 1970 piece was the first major work showing the Zionist side to the argument concerning the October 24th letter. He argues two British policies, one before the October 24th letter and then a change in the political climate, which anticipated the letter, and after.

His argument for the use of the word “independence” clearly indicates through further correspondence from Secretary Grey that the Arabs and the British did not share the same meaning of “independence.” For Sharif Hussein, “independence” meant support from the British for a sovereign kingdom that would stretch from the Southern Arabian Desert to the northern most border of Syria with himself as king. An entirely different approach to the word posited by Friedman shows that according to the correspondence of British officials “independence” meant simply freedom from Ottoman rule.

This is not to say the British were totally opposed to something more than just some kind of an autonomous homeland like British policy with the Jews, they just did not want to be the grantors of such a move. Grey indicated that London would not be opposed to an “independent Arab state” if the Sharif was able to establish it on his own.[5] What Friedman fails to point out is that McMahon’s first correspondence clearly indicates that “Great Britain would welcome the reversion of the caliphate to a true Arab born (sic) the blessed stock of the Prophet.”[6] Herein lies one of the principle misunderstandings between the British and the Arabs. With Grey’s admission that there are limitations to British help to achieve Arab independence, either out of ignorance or arrogance, McMahon’s use of the “Caliphate” can only be taken as a leadership title, with no sovereign implications. Arab understanding of the “Caliphate” is the complete resurrection of the “Ulema,” the entire Muslim community reuniting under one leadership historically contained during the first several centuries of Islam. Therefore, Friedman is arguing the British understanding of the “promise.” [7]

Least of all did the sponsors of the Arab movement themselves take the word ‘independence’ at its face value. What McMahon had in mind was, as he told Grey, recognition of the ‘principle of Arab independence’, but no more… we may well deduce that the term was merely a convenient substitute for autonomy. [8]


The British idea of independence was not what the Arabs had demanded. Therefore, as Friedman alludes, The British were not willing to support the Sherif Hussein in his desires to rule over an unchallenged Arab kingdom.   If Friedman’s first interpretation of McMahon’s use of “independence” is correct that would invalidate the Arab assertion that the October 24th letter was significant of British support for an Arab State including Palestine.

“What made McMahon change his mind two months later and yield so generously to Hussein’s demands, as is apparent from his letter of 24 October 1915?”[9] Up to about the end of August McMahon’s demeanor in the letters shows reluctance to accede to any part of the Sharif’s demands. However, Friedman argues that the reason for the shift in policy was a shady historical figure named Mohammad Sherif al-Furuqi. Although Furuqi’s association with the British government turned out to be a deception, it served its purpose and the British changed their attitude towards helping the Arabs. Acting on Furuqi’s advice that time was of the essence to win over the influential “Young Arab Committee,” McMahon conferring with Grey and Kitchener all agreed after a series of dispatches that they would move “without delay” on securing Arab loyalty. And thus, the October 24th letter was written and dispatched.

The Arabs interpreted McMahon’s October 24th letter as a promise of a state. However, Furuqi did not include Palestine in the Arab demand. So, Friedman contends that if Furuqi was the one responsible for convincing the British to yield to Arab perceptions of “independence” and did not include Palestine in the demand, then Palestine would not be included. [10] However, to the British the letter looked as if they had promised the Arabs a real independence, which they regarded as a mistake. But, mistake or not, as Friedman argues, it was an independence without the inclusion of Palestine. The Arab success created repercussions throughout the empire where Muslims were under British control. McMahon, to his credit, Friedman observes, took full responsibility for the error. And, he spent a good deal of time in the ensuing years trying diplomatically to back away from the commitment in the guise of clarifying Britain’s position.

I have endeavored in my statement to Sherif Hussein [of 24 October, 1915] to make any such future Arab state (within the British sphere) subject to our creation, direction and control. The term “independent Sovereign State”’, Grey had been told six months earlier, ‘has been interpreted in a generic sense because idea of an Arabia under one ruler, recognized as supreme by other Arab chiefs, is as yet inconceivable to Arab mind.[11]


The whole point of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence regardless of the October 24th letter, was not to establish “an independent state or confederation of states,”[12] Rather, Friedman asserts that “independence” meant only liberation from their adversaries,” Germany and Turkey.[13] Evidenced by the British diplomatic scramble to clarify the October 24th letter as something other than an Arab state is indicative of a nation not wanting to lend support for sovereign independence let alone including land they had no desire to include in the first place. Friedman cites David G. Hogarth, the former head of the Arab Bureau in Cairo with first hand knowledge of British Arab relations, “Neither Sharif Hussein nor to any other Arab leader did the British ‘ever explicitly guarantee or even promise anything beyond liberation from the Turk’”[14] In the barrage of scholarly attacks against the legitimacy of the Jewish State, Friedman concludes that the October 24th letter was a mistake on the part of Henry McMahon, and even if it wasn’t it did not include Palestine as part of the land promised.

Arnold Toynbee, disagreed with Friedman’s assertions based on the evidence given in his article, “The Question of Palestine,” answered Friedman two issues later in the Journal of Contemporary History. Toynbee centered his arguments on Friedman’s interpretation of McMahon’s October 24th letter. Whereas Friedman argues the October 24th letter shows no intention on the part of the British to include Palestine in an Arab kingdom and is only of “academic interest” in 1970, Toynbee argues that the letter is not a “dead letter” and that its relevance is as important in 1970 as it was fifty years earlier. [15]

Toynbee’s argument takes the sentence in question and zeros in on one word that describes McMahon’s commitment to western boundaries of the proposed Arab state. The word “wilayahs” defining the areas, Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo are the main issues of contention. Does the word in English mean “vilayets” or “environs”? Understood that “environs” are large surrounding areas of the cities and presumably would extend all the way to the coast. If that was the case the Arab claim to Palestine would be valid. The “vilayets,” sometimes translated as “provinces,” on the other hand constitute a much smaller area around the city and with that interpretation the “vilayets” of Damascus Homs, Hama and Aleppo would stop before reaching the coast leaving a stretch of land which more or less delineates the borders of modern Lebanon and Israel. Furthermore, according to Toynbee interpreting the “wilayas” as “environs” and not “vilayets” or “provinces” argues that his Majesty’s Government was indeed committed to an Arab kingdom that included Palestine.[16]

Where McMahon wrote “wilayahs,” Toynbee argues that the correct translation is “environs.” Toynbee adds that he was one of three sources to interpret McMahon’s use of the word “wilayas” as “environs,” the other two were, the author of the Arab Bureau’s History of the Hedjaz Rising and the Arab delegation to London in 1922. All three interpreted the English translation of  “wilayahs” as “environs” at different times and with apparently no contact with one another, eliminating the possibility of some kind of subterfuge. [17] However, Toynbee freely admits that the Arab Delegation’s interpretation was driven by “political motive.”[18]

Concerning The Arab Delegation’s political motive Toynbee hits on a major point of this entire debate without really knowing it. At least, he makes no mention of it subsequently. Of course the Arabs are going to interpret the word to mean something in English that would indicate Palestine was included in McMahon’s proposal. They feared losing Palestine to the “infidel.” For most Arabs at the time, the thought of losing any part of historical Muslim land to European Jews brings back the searing memory of the Crusader occupation.[19]   Toynbee no less committed to seeing the destruction of the Zionist state as the Arabs, would also lean his arguments in that direction. Certainly by 1973, after a life long commitment to anti-Zionism, being frustrated like all anti-Zionists after more than fifty years of continuing Jewish victories, Toynbee like his Arab allies cannot concede defeat to the Jews.

Friedman in rebuttal argues that the shadowy figure who authored the History of the Hedjaz Rising was Olmsby-Gore.[20] And besides using the same translation of the word  “wilayahs” as Toynbee and the Arab Delegation of 1922 Olmsby-Gore also said, “we for our part have not agreed to recognize Arab independence in Syria west of the line [(sic)] of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus, or in any portion of the Arab area in which we are not free to act without detriment to our ally France…”[21] This points to the fact that Olmsby-Gore ignored the implication of using the word “environs.” He obviously did not check the best diplomatic translation of the word “wilayahs.”

As Olmsby-Gore’s words indicated,1915-1917 Middle East policy was not guided by Zionist sympathies. Rather it was consideration for Britain’s war partners that drove their Middle East policy. Both France and Russia’s interests were a strong consideration during World War I in formulating a conclusive policy. Remembering the Balfour declaration of November 1917, all this comes at a time when Zionist interests are only being discussed with no commitment to the Zionist enterprise from His Majesty’s Government.

Toynbee, probably knew more about the area as part of the Arab Bureau than McMahon. He explains the differences in the Ottoman designations of provincial areas, such as vilayets, kazas, wilayahs and Sanjaks. Regardless if McMahon got the exact wording wrong, his intention although vague at the time, clarified the issue of Palestine later through subsequent correspondence as Friedman has pointed out. McMahon admitted himself years later that Palestine was never included in the proposed Arab kingdom. Other evidence includes a series of negotiations between Feisal and Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization that resulted in a working agreement on how to settle the Middle East.[22] An article said to have been inspired by Sharif Hussein was published in the Arabic daily al-Qibla urging the Arab world to accept the emergence of a sovereign Jewish entity in Palestine.

The resources of the country are still virgin soil’ which could not provide a livelihood for the Palestinian native. But the Jewish immigrants would develop the country. ‘Experience has proved their capacity to succeed in their energies and their labours… the return of these exiles to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually an experimental school for their [Arab] brethren…in the fields, factories and trades’[23]


Toynbee does not address any of these very relevant points to this story.

Charles D. Smith argues against Friedman in his article, “The Invention of a Tradition: The Question of Arab Acceptance of the Zionist right to Palestine during World War I.”[24] Smith’s argument, somewhat like Toynbee’s, is a response to Friedman’s assertions, not a presentation of new evidence which might add to the anti-Zionist argument that Palestine was promised to the Arabs first and therefore disqualifies the Balfour Declaration as internationally illegal. Instead Smith reworks Antonius’s and Toynbee’s debate points in a 1990s format. Although Smith makes a convincing argument for his position, he diminishes his scholarly standing with students of the history by attacking Friedman’s integrity in the use of sources. “Friedman’s treatment of the Husayn-McMahon correspondence is deeply flawed.”[25] Unfortunately he surpasses Toynbee in his criticism of Friedman, bordering on ad-hominem attacks on Friedman’s credibility as a scholar.

He (Friedman) has manipulated sources, omitting material from some and misrepresenting others, in order to reach his conclusion. As a result, this book, when dealing with Arab issues, does not meet even the most basic professional standards expected of scholarly inquiry.[26]


In his rebuttal to both Friedman and Kedourie, Smith argues vigorously against both historians’ conclusions. However, in doing so he makes several assertions about the Zionist movement, which are common misconceptions for most anti-Zionists.

Chaim Weizmann told the Amir Faysal in June 1918, that the Zionists had no wish to create a Jewish government in Palestine and promised financial assistance as had Hogarth to Hussein. He did so in order to gain Arab acceptance of the Balfour Declaration and in order to prevent the Arabs from resisting British occupation to the region now that the declaration had been publicized. [27]

The implication here that there was some kind of deception engaged by Weizmann during his exchange with Faisal, indicating that what the Jews were really after was not a Jewish State at all but only a homeland for the “wandering Jew.” Anti-Zionist philosophy is predicated on assuming that Zionism is an expansionist, maximalist, ideology. However, only a small minority of Zionists in 1918 advocated the kind of Jewish State Smith alludes to. There is no evidence from the Jewish newspapers of the time, the minutes of the World Zionist Organization meetings or the memoirs of Zionist leaders urging a free independent state, with a sovereign Jewish government at that time in history with the exception of Vladimir Jabotinsky who influenced a rather small group of revisionist Zionists.[28] However, Smith, like Toynbee and Antonius maintains this long held tradition of not trusting Zionist motives.

“There is no doubt that Faysal, at the peace conference in 1919, excluded Palestine from the area to fall within the independent Arab state envisioned for Syria.”[29] Smith is correct in asserting that this statement does not imply that the Arabs necessarily favored Zionism. Those Arabs in Southern Syria had their own ideas about national independence and made their feelings known. There is some evidence pointing to growing tension between Faisal and the infant Palestinian national movement led by Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the future Mufti of Jerusalem.[30]

Smith’s commitment to anti-Zionism does not coincide with the relatively moderate conclusion he asserts about the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Falling somewhere in the middle ground on one of the more fundamental arguments the correspondence fostered, Smith assigns blame to both the British government as it is perceived to be the mouthpiece of the Zionist movement, and Arab naiveté in failing to recognize British motives.

It seems clear that both sides (Jews and Arabs) were maneuvering to gain great power acceptance of their objectives  somewhere in the middle ground. Palestine, therefore, was neither specifically promised to Sharif Husayn nor specifically excluded by Henry McMahon. [31]

Smith definitely holds the anti-Zionist position in regard to Palestine. While admitting Faisal’s recognition of “the moral claim of the Zionists” Smith posits that Faisal understood that it was probably safe to do so because of the large majority of Arabs in Palestine at the time practically eliminating the possibility of any Zionist victory.

Smith’s anti-Zionism and Friedman’s Zionism provide the perfect juxtaposition for understanding the two sides of this conflict. Reflected in the microcosm of the issue of Arab claims to Palestine as it applies to the McMahon-Hussein correspondence, both historians are galvanized in their opinions, clear in their positions and certain of their evidence. Historians pair off on one side or the other, not unlike politicians, soldiers or even the common citizen in the street adding to the seemingly unanswerable solution to the overall conflict.

In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth, Elie Kadourie does not directly defend Zionist interests. His assessment of British diplomacy posits an unclear, uncertain, often confusing and contradictory policy to affect a post war plan for Middle East domination of the European powers of which England planned to play a major part. In such a scenario the Jews would have to be the big winners, making the Arabs the losers, because a policy that is anything other than pro Arab must be, according to anti-Zionist thinking, pro Jewish.

The McMahon-Husayn correspondence and its subsequent interpretations in the foreign office raise many grave issues about the conduct of foreign affairs by a country with world-wide interests, about the control exerted by foreign secretaries over their officials, and about the proper use of their archives by the foreign office.[32]


This is not to confuse the success of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Kadourie accepts and applauds Toynbee’s claim that the exchange had been “a minor victory for the Arab cause.”[33] But what Toynbee does not recognize and Kadourie emphasizes is that the McMahon-Hussein correspondence was unfortunately, for the Arabs, part of an overall Middle East policy which was not favorable to the Arabs because of its confusion and lack of clarity. Perhaps if the British had been able to put forth a genuine Middle East policy concerning their interests in Palestine, both the Arabs and the Jews might have come closer to what they both needed, eliminating the need for the historic violence which has become so much a part of the region.[34]

Kadourie’s damning description of British Middle East diplomacy argues that purposeful British vagueness and McMahon’s inept diplomacy validated the Zionist claim that the letters did not define an Arab kingdom in historic Palestine. Adding vagueness to an already vague proposal further invalidated Arab claims while strengthening Zionist claims most appropriately contained in the simple, direct, and unambiguous text of the Balfour declaration.

It is difficult to see how this memorandum can be reconciled with McMahon’s emphatic assertions in the covering despatch (sic) to the effect that definite commitments had been avoided, and no embarrassing guarantees given and one wonders if McMahon read or understood the paper he was commending to the foreign office.[35]

“The task, difficult as it may have been, was not well discharged” [36] Kadourie thoroughly excoriates McMahon for writing a memorandum sent to the foreign office which “did not support (the) assertions” first proposed in the letter of October 24th. Kadourie points out that the dispatch outlines the exchange between McMahon and Hussein as making “no guarantees which could give rise to embarrassments in the future between ourselves and the Allies or ourselves and the Arabs”[37] Remembering that this was April 1916 with the end of the war far from over, there could have been no commitments on the part of the British without knowing how the end of the war would turn out.

Although the October 24th letter stands on its own in the middle of this raucousness, the emphasis on this one letter and its interpretations supports the argument that if it did not exist, or if it was more explicit to begin with, there would be no debate. However, most observers agree that the question of the legality of the Jewish State of Israel will always remain a hotly debated, contentious issue until both sides find some way to resolve the problem of two peoples claiming one homeland. Observers also agree that the tense nature of the entire Arab-Israeli conflict would generate some other matter, another letter, speech or historic promise, which would hold the distinction that currently, belongs to the October 24th letter.

The McMahon-Hussein correspondence meant something totally different to the British than it did to the Arabs. It was the Arabs, not the British that had defined for themselves their own idea of independence, and therefore detracted from their argument claiming British commitment to their national ideals. Through the mandate years Arab nationalism concentrated on the idea of “Ulema” or national community, which was quite different from the concept of European nationalism. As Ben Gurion had noted in a negotiation with George Antonius in 1937, the Jews were interested in only Palestine as a country, whereas the Arabs were interested in Palestine as a small part of a greater national whole. Even though this argument invalidated the idea of Arab national aspirations in Palestine, Antonius did not disagree. He only reiterated that the Arabs could not under any circumstances accept a Jewish State in Palestine. [38]

There are however, some important points that both Zionists and anti-Zionists can agree on. McMahon, as a representative of His Majesty’s Government, did promise an Arab Kingdom to the Sharif Hussein in exchange for his loyalty in fighting the Ottomans. When it came to Palestine, policy became more vague and needed further interpretation. The disagreement is whether the interpretation included Palestine as part of the Arab kingdom or whether it was set aside by McMahon for the Jews, the British, the French or some other consideration.

The McMahon-Hussein correspondence, while an interesting set of letters and subsequent memoranda, did not conclusively entitle the Arab nation to Palestine. It is apparent from the evidence that London had two schools of thought on including Palestine to Sharif Hussein’s demand which both sides of the argument capitalized on as evident in the historiography. Furthermore, there appears to have been desperation on the part of the anti-Zionists from the standpoint the letters in question did not in any way equate the same commitment on the part of the British toward an Arab State in Palestine as they did toward the Jews through the Balfour Declaration. The conclusive commitment of the Balfour Declaration and the inconclusive nature of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence moved the anti-Zionist camp both in the Arab Bureau and among Arab nationalists, to bend, twist, and stretch the question of Palestine as inescapable from Arab national aspirations. The failure to be successful has precipitated a conflict that has continually failed to realize those aspirations even to this day.

This particular set of historians, Friedman, Toynbee, Kadourie, Antonius, and Smith, provide an excellent example of the contentious debate and how the agenda’s of Zionist and anti-Zionist forces spill over into historiographical academia. Although the debate within the scholarly world maintains some sense of respect and professionalism, the tense Zionist, anti-Zionist feeling often breaks down into ad-hominem attacks.

Toynbee’s book, Acquaintances, published in 1967 as an argument in favor of the Arab side after the devastating defeat for the Arab states during the Six Day War, argued that the October 24th letter and the commitments were unconditionally favoring an Arab kingdom with Hussein as king. Kadourie reproducing the actual quote in Inside the Arab-Anglo Labyrinth parenthetically remarked that “Toynbee baldly asserted” underscoring his contempt for Toynbee’s arguments [39].

Toynbee continually refers to Friedman as “Mr” Friedman, although Isaiah Friedman is a professor emeritus at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. Friedman, to his credit, referred to Toynbee as Dr. Toynbee when addressing his arguments in his paper and rebuttal. Maybe the worst example of personal attacks rather than attacking the historian’s arguments comes from Charles D. Smith. Smith calls into question, Friedman’s integrity concerning his use of sources. He comes close to calling Friedman a liar by saying he “misrepresented” some of the sources he used.[40] Historians are not expected to be perfect but they are expected to stick to the issues and leave personal feelings for some other forum. These historians did not do that.

McMahon’s exchange with the Sharif Hussein did not really reflect the British position during or after World War I. The British for whatever reason made a serious diplomatic mistake. They spent many years and countless memorandums between officials trying to clarify exactly what their position was. No matter which historian you read, whether Zionist or anti-Zionist, the British flurry of diplomatic activity concerning McMahon’s treatment of the issue, the Arab interpretation of what it meant and London trying to elucidate its position is extremely evident. Therefore, one could conclude on that basis that no matter how much the Arabs and their supporters argued for it, British policy never intended for Palestine to become part of any Arab kingdom.



[1] Isaiah Freidman, “The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence and the Question of Palestine” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 5, No. 2. (1970), p. 83. This paper was written first and later became part of a book published by Isaiah Friedman in 1973 on the overall relations between the Arabs, the Jews and the British during World War I, The Question of Palestine: British-Jewish-Arab Relations, 1914-1918.

[2] The other interested parties in the deliverance of Palestine, the Jews, were until the 1960s less concerned with the McMahon-Hussein correspondence than they were with the Balfour Declaration. Constantly challenged to prove that the State of Israel had a legitimate right to exist, leading Zionists used the Balfour Declaration as a basis for the international legitimacy of the State of Israel. Zionist politicians looked on at the debate between the Arabs and the English as a spectator with no motive to participate until the aftermath of the Six Day War.

[3] In the event that such a reversal were ever possible, it is highly unlikely that the world community would do anything to try to dismantle the Jewish State. The problems created with such a move would be far greater than some sort of equitable solution between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews. Even the worst violence in history during the previous the years’ (2000-2004)  is preferable to forcing a modern military state to dismantle. Therefore, an argument can be made that the McMahon-Hussein correspondence became a mute point after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

[4] Antonius, George, The Arab Awakening: The Story of the Arab National Movement, Capricorn Books: New York, 1965, P. 419

[5] Friedman, “Question of Palestine,” p. 84.

[6] Antonius, Arab Awakening p. 416. For what ever reason the British never made the letters public, therefore, Antonius’s book marked the first time they were released in English  It should be noted here that this is Antonius’s own publication of the letters. There is no indication in the book whether Antonius is using the direct English transcription or whether he is translating from a previous Arab publication of the letters in which his interpretation might be open to biases since he was a partisan in the debate.

[7]Friedman, “Question” p. 86. Friedman argues that McMahon himself told Grey what he had in mind was “recognition of the ‘principle of Arab independence’ but no more. Later in the paragraph Friedman calls it a “convenient substitute for autonomy.” Therefore, as Friedman concludes even the idea of an independent state was dubious at best. With or without the inclusion of Palestine the British had engaged the Arabs to succeed with their war aims against the Turks. This is in direct opposition to the British policy concerning Zionism, which looked to the future development of British interests after the war had ended.

[8] Friedman, “Question” p. 86-87. Friedman goes on to quote General Gilbert Clayton, Director of Military Intelligence that what the British hoped to do with this information was to maintain a “friendship” with the Arabs so that the various tribal chieftans would continue to work towards eliminating Turkish control of the Levant. Within those parameters the British and the Arabs had the same objectives, which rings true considering the policy of nineteenth century liberal minded nations at that time. However, Friedman concludes that the cooperation stopped there precisely because of the differences between Arab and British perceptions of “Independence.”

[9] Friedman, “Question,” p. 89.

[10] Given Britan’s imperial nature it is highly unlikely that the British would have voluntarily include a piece of land, Palestine or any other part of the Earth if it was not necessary to do so. Since Furuqi had not included it in the demand there was no reason to include it.

[11] Friedman, “Question” p. 86-87. McMahon and the others involved in the correspondence with the Sharif Hussein, had the naïve idea that Muslims were of one mind and with only some minor differences. This was not so and the letter created problems in India for example where the British ruled over a large non Arab Muslim population. When the Viceroy heard about the letter of October 24th he protested vigorously and demanded to know why he was not consulted first. Muslim relations were strained in India with the Colonial government. As the guardian of Mecca Sherif Hussein was not well like by many people because of his “heavy handed” tactics with pilgrims making the Haj.

[12] Friedman, “Question,” p. 85.

[13] Friedman, “Question,’ p. 86

[14] Friedman, “Question,” p. 86.

[15] Toynbee, Arnold, “The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence: Comments and a Reply.” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 5, No. 4 (1970), p.187.

[16] Toynbee, “Comments and Reply,” p. 187. There are contradictions here developing within the anti-Zionist argument. Antonius in his 1946 edition of The Arab Awakening interpreted the word in question in the October 24th letter as “districts.” Since the British government had not yet released the letters to the English speaking world, it is safe to assume that Antonius translated the letters in his book from the previously released collection in Arabic. If so, then why would professor Toynbee argue so enthusiastically that the correct translation was not in fact “districts” but “environs?” to describe the western boundaries marked out as Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo? Confirming my suspicions according to three dictionaries I consulted, all of them define “district” as a division or “part of” a larger whole, like a country, state or city. Since the “districts” at issue in the October 24th letter are all cities the word must therefore be considered less inclusive than even “vilayet,” let alone “environ,” which Toynbee argues is Friedman’s contention that designates the British intentional reservation of Palestine as a Jewish national home.

There is a second contradiction between Antonius and Toynbee. Antonius describes, “the cities of Damascus, Homs and Hama lay in the Vilayet of Syria, of which Damascus was the capital. Aleppo was the capital of the vilayet of that name.” P.419n. Toynbee defines Damascus as a vilayet by itself and clearly distinguishes Homs and Hama as not being part of a vilayet of Syria, Damascus or for that matter Aleppo. Rather he separates Homs and Hama into a Sanjak of Hama and then breaks down that Sanjak into smaller entitities called kazas. It is interesting that Toynbee posited that one of the possible reasons why McMahon’s wording was so ambiguous was because of his ignorance of the Arabic and Ottoman language and culture as it applies to the civil administration. It appears that McMahon might not have been the only British historical figure to have been confused on the language and culture of the Middle East.

[17] Toynbee, “Comments and Reply,” p. 187. Toynbee states that to this day (1970) he still doesn’t know the author of the History of the Hedjaz Rising.

[18] “Of course, by 1922, the Arab Delegation had an obvious political motive for interpreting McMahon’s ‘wilayahs’ as meaning ‘environs,’ not ‘provinces’” or districts.  (P. 187).  As in the previous note there are some problems with this passage as well, which Friedman does not cover later in his response. Because Toynbee is one of the three sources he cites himself, and therefore part of the history he is defending, he constitutes a biased observation. Hence, his credibility on this whole issue can be called into question. Therefore, an argument can be made that Toynbee’s contention is weak at best.  (P.187).

[19] Arabs to this day use as one of their talking points against the State of Israel that as the “Crusading infidel” was defeated and sent from their land eight centuries earlier after two hundred years of occupation, so will the Zionists someday be expelled from “Palestine”. The Arabs are prepared to wait as long as it will take.

[20] Friedman, “Comments and Reply,” p. 194. “Since writing my article I have ascertained that the author of this work was Ormsby-Gore, then on the staff of the Arab bureau.” Since the author of the report  is Olmsby-Gore, a rather well known official of the Arab Bureau during that time,  certain questions must be asked. Did Toynbee know Olmsby-Gore? And, if not personally, it is entirely possible that Toynbee could have communicated with Olmsby-Gore on any number of occasions either about this issue or other Foreign Office matters concerning the Middle East. Could Toynbee at least have had an occasion to read Olmsby-Gore’s memoranda and vise-versa? If yes, then it is quite conceivable that they could have communicated on the issue of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence that Toynbee was writing on in 1918.  This appears to have been Friedman’s motive for mentioning it in his response.

[21] Friedman, “Comments and Reply,” p. 195.

[22] David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Making of the Modern Middle East, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989,  p.324-325

[23] Friedman, Question, p. 117. see also Antonius Awakening, p. 269

[24] This article uses the same 1970 article only taken from Isaiah Friedman’s 1973 book,  The Question of Palestine: British-Jewish-Arab Relations, 1914-1918.

[25] Charles D. Smith, “The Invention of a Tradition: The Question of Arab Acceptance of the Zionist Right to Palestine During World War I,” Journal of Palestine Studies,Vol. 22, No.2, Winter, 1993, p. 52. This is another example of the historiography influencing the history. Smith’s article was released right after the signing of the “Declaration of Principles” on the White House lawn and what many hoped would be the beginning of the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

[26] Smith, “The Invention of a Tradition,” p. 51. This clearly shows Smiths partisanship. As pointed out in note sixteen, Toynbee is possibly guilty of the same offense however, Smith makes no mention of it. .

[27]  Smith, “The Invention of a Tradition,” p. 56.

[28] Most anti-Zionists point to the writings of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, as an argument for Zionist desire of sovereign independence. Anti-Zionists believed that no matter what the Jews said in 1917, they wanted to eventually have their own independent state.  That however is a misconception. Jabotinsky’s group were called “revisionists” precisely because they sought to rewrite the Zionist program and actively promoted an independent Jewish state rather than an autonomous homeland  dependent on some larger power which is what most Zionists thought practically possible and therefore favored in 1918. Jabotinsky’s idea for a state did not come into common utterance until the 1930s. After years of trying and failing  to reconcile with the Arab Palestinians the Yishuv took the bold step to advocate an independent Jewish state somewhat validating Jabotinski’s platform. But even then it was met with a ferocious opposition among many Zionist groups in Palestine.

[29] Smith, The Invention of a Tradition,” p. 56.

[30] Phillip Matar, The Mufti of Jerusalem: Al-Hajj Amin al-Husseini and the Palestinian National Movement, New York: Columbia University Press,1988, pp. 12-17, passim. Sharif Hussein was reluctant to try to draw in the Palestinian Arabs because of the Haj Amin’s anti-British leadership in the “Arab Club.” The Amir Hussein was a practical man and did not want to expend a lot of energy subduing a rebellious population in one corner of his empire. He would rather let it go and revel in the loyalty of the huge realm that the British were willing to give him.

[31] Smith, “Invention of a Tradition” p. 56

[32]Elie Kadourie, In the Anglo Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and its Interpretations 1914-1939, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,  p. 309.

[33] Kadourie, Labyrinth, p. 311. The quote that Kadourie uses here from Toynbee’s 1938 volume Survey of International Affairs, implies sarcasm about Toynbee’s assessment. The McMahon-Hussein correspondence was indeed a minor victory for the Arab cause, albeit a small victory. It was the only victory for the Arabs in what they have perceived during the Mandate years as continual British policy working against Arab interests and a slide toward Jewish domination backed up by the British, or more importantly perceived by the Arabs as Jewish domination backed up by the West. Of course, the Zionists would perceive exactly the opposite, which encapsulates part of the huge historical problem between Arabs and  Jews in Palestine.

[34] There are two schools of thought on this assessment. Yes, a counter factual different British policy could have resulted in a different history, with the Jews and Arabs, although not totally free of disagreement, might have been able to work out these problems in a more “civilized” manner. After all, this is a belief that leans on the prospect of “who can know how things would turn out if they had been different.” The other school, more cynical than the first, believes no counterfactual is possible. In other words, no matter what the British would have done, Arabs and Jews were destined to fight for the land. No country, no power, no outside influence could have changed what happened in the years leading up to Israel’s birth in 1948.

[35] Elie Kadourie, Labyrinth, p.204.

[36] Elie Kadourie, Labyrinth, p. 98.

[37] Kadourie, Labyrinth, p. 203.

[38] Michael J. Cohen, “Secret Diplomacy and the Rebellion in Palestine,” 1936-1939, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 8, No. 3. (Jul., 1977), pp. 380-381.

[39] Kadourie, Labyrinth ,  p. 315.

[40] Smith, “Invention of a Tradition,” p. 52.

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