Balfour in the Dock is a contemporary work looking at a 750-page magnum opus on Palestine by outstanding British journalist J M N Jeffries (1880-1960). His book Palestine: The Reality is a masterpiece with the depth and breadth to have become the canonical work on the history of Palestine if not for the bombing of a publishing house in London during the 1940 Blitz. The fire that ensued destroyed most of the copies of the book, of which only 20 original copies are known to exist. It has now been re-published by Skyscraper.
Palestine: The Reality was Jeffries’ third significant book and was the culmination of 12 years’ work as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail. It is believed that he tried unsuccessfully to republish the book himself. Fortunately for us, the new edition was issued to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in November 2017. Furthermore, the main themes of the masterpiece have been made accessible in a shorter volume by Colin Andersen, Balfour in the Dock.
Andersen introduces readers to Jeffries, describing him as “one of the most brilliant investigative journalists in the interwar period.” His historical significance is reclaimed by Andersen, who lets us know that the famed foreign correspondent was the first person to translate into Arabic the text of the supressed British pledge to the Arabs, whose independence was promised in the form of letters exchanged between Hussein Bin Ali, Sharif of Makkah, and British High Commissioner Sir Henry McMahon.
His scoop on the broken promise to the Arabs was just one of many exposés of British policy in Palestine that became “vital ammunition” for groups of concerned politicians to mount their challenge to Britain’s support for the creation of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
Jeffries’ views as published in British newspapers and recorded in Palestine: The Reality made him a thorn in the side of the British establishment and a powerful voice against the colonisation of Palestine. Always willing to speak his mind, he described British policy in Palestine as one characterised by “fraud and perfidy”, dismissing any notion that the cabinet of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George was merely advancing an erroneous policy through its pursuit of a Jewish homeland by denying self-governance and independence to the overwhelming majority of Palestinian inhabitants of the land.
Balfour in the Dock has three main aims: to pay tribute to Jeffries and rescue him from his disappearance from the historical narrative; to take readers back to pre-Nakba Palestine and expose what the author says is the “deep settler-colonial root of the Palestine problem”; and to “arm readers against the tsunami of propaganda” which the author believed would accompany the centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in Britain and Israel.
Throughout the book, Andersen pays homage to Jeffries and his use of primary source material and historical documents, debates and dispatches which together amount to a weighty critique of the Balfour Declaration and its legacy. Andersen quotes Jeffries at length; taking relevant passages from Palestine: The Reality he provides an eye-opening account of how and why Britain was willing to place itself in an “international tangle”; why Zionism “went viral” within the British political landscape; and the evolution of the Balfour Declaration.
Jeffries is presented to readers as an incisive writer whose grasp of the region is unmatched. They are moved back and forth between Britain, where the Balfour Declaration was issued, and Palestine, where its negative impact was felt. “The British government,” wrote Jeffries, “had no business to issue a declaration enacting, let alone crystallising the situation of the Zionists in Palestine.” Exposing the colonial intent of the declaration, Jeffries quoted British officials in length to show that they had no moral and ethical inhibitions in denying the rights of an entire nation in pursuit of their support for Zionism. Andersen’s book offers a detailed discussion about why the British-backed Chaim Weizmann — the then President of the World Zionist Organisation — and the Zionist cause to the hilt despite powerful protestations from members of the British political establishment.
Placing the Balfour declaration under a microscope, Jeffries concluded that it was “extracted under a false pretence” and the “national home transaction” between the British and the Zionists offered Britain precious little. Jeffries maintained that Britain’s insertion of the Balfour Declaration into the League of Nations Mandate over Palestine completely undermined the intention of the mandate given to the British government, which was to allow the indigenous people to head towards self-governance in their own country.
Balfour in the Dock is at its most riveting in its moral and legal challenge to British policy and Zionist aspirations in the region. Describing the manner in which democracy was denied to the inhabitants of Palestine, Andersen concludes that the Paris Peace Conference, which set the terms of the mandate after the end of the First World War was actually worse for the Palestinians than it was for the Germans, who historians conclude were forced to accept a “Carthaginian Peace”; in other words, a brutal peace.
The fact that Jeffries attempted to republish his book on several occasions without any success points to his marginalisation in Britain. The republication of his magnum opus as well as Andersen’s Balfour in the Dock will go a long way towards setting the historical record straight, offering new insights into the ongoing colonisation and occupation of Palestine.