Cyrus of Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balfour Declaration

Cyrus of Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Balfour Declaration April 5, 2018


In Wadi Rum, Jordan
A mountain in Jordan’s Wadi Rum, where the recent film “The Martian” was filmed, along with the movie “Lawrence of Arabia.” (Much of the actual story of T. E. Lawrence — which revolves around British assistance for the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire — occurred here.) Despite its spelling “Rum” here is actually pronounced “ramm,” and it probably derives from an Aramaic word meaning “elevated.” (Compare the Book of Mormon term “Rameumptom.”)
(Wikimedia Commons)


Nearing the conclusion of chapter six:


Despite numerous dissenting voices, the political Zionist move­ment began to gain momentum during the First World War, in which Great Britain defeated the Ottoman Empire and freed much of the Arab world, including Palestine, from Turkish domination. Latter-day Saints, too, tended to look upon the fall of Jerusalem into the hands of the British as “one of the steps in the foretold gathering of the Jews in the latter days, and as the begin­ning of the fulfillment of ancient and modern prophecy.”[1] They were undoubtedly correct to do so. In 1917, the British government issued the so-called “Balfour Declaration,” which pledged support for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. And when, in 1920, the British began to carry out the League of Nations mandate that gave them authority to administer Palestine, they acted on the basis of that Balfour Declaration. This came in direct fulfillment of a prophecy given by Orson Hyde in 1842:

It was by political power and influence that the Jewish nation was broken down, and her subjects dispersed abroad; and I will here hazard the opinion, that by political power and influence they will be gathered and built up; and further, that England is destined in the wisdom and economy of heaven to stretch forth the arm of political power, and advance in the front ranks of this glorious enterprize.[2]

In many respects, the Balfour Declaration can be compared with the decree issued by the great Persian ruler Cyrus, in 536 B.C., which permitted a remnant of the Jews to return from Babylon and to rebuild Jerusalem. Nevertheless, however much it may have been part of the divine plan, British intervention on behalf of the Jews brought an angry and often violent response from the Arab resi­dents in Palestine. And, in many ways, it must be admitted that the Arab response was thoroughly understandable. For the situation of Palestine in the twentieth century after Christ was not comparable in all respects with the situation in the sixth century before his birth. Some differences can be briefly alluded to here:

The Babylonian captivity, for all its trauma, lasted only half a century or thereabouts. There were undoubtedly people living in Palestine who still remembered the Jews before them being carried off into captivity, just as there were almost certainly exiles living in Babylon at the time of Cyrus’s decree who still recalled their homes in Judea. The modern diaspora, on the other hand, was nearly two thousand years old. Other people had settled in Palestine and had sent down deep roots in that land. It was, they felt, their land. They could certainly argue—and did—that whatever legal claim the Jews might once have had on the land had long since lapsed. Further­more, the land of Palestine had never really been entirely swept clean. There were people there whose families almost certainly go back to the time before the dispersion of the Jews, whose roots were deeper still. It is highly probable that some among these actually were Jews, even if they had long forgotten the fact. How could the land not belong to those who had possessed it for two millennia?[3] Those in Palestine who still professed to be Jews were distinctly in the minority well into the twentieth century.

Cyrus was exercising his right, as ruler of the Persian Empire, to transfer people to any part of the empire that he chose or to allow them to move themselves. Palestine was an undisputed part of his empire. In the twentieth century, however, Palestine was not part of the British Empire. It had, it is true, been part of the Ottoman Empire. But the Arabs had fought alongside the British, against the Ottoman Turks, to win independence for themselves and their lands. Their sense of nationalism was riding high. They did not understand it to be the right of the British or of anybody else to grant their land to anyone, however altruistic the act might be. (It is easy, as we all know, to be generous with somebody else’s money.)

And as people of the twentieth century, they were less inclined, per­haps, than ancient people were to admit that a ruler, any ruler, has a right to transfer populations around and to grant and bestow whole countries without the consent of their inhabitants.


[1] See “Editor’s Table: The Fall of Jerusalem” in Improvement Era 21, 259-61. The quota­tion occurs on p. 261, where the editor says that “the Saints are glad to behold the signs of the coming day.”

[2] Orson Hyde, in The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star (11 March 1842), 168-69.

[3] Many Americans today probably feel much the same way about Indian and Mexican claims to parts of the United States. Even if these claims have some validity—as in many instances they undoubtedly do—it is widely felt that simply too much water has gone under the bridge. Too much time has elapsed. To give Los Angeles back to Mexico, or to give Arizona back to the Indians, evicting the non-Mexican or non-Indian populations of these places, would be to perpetrate yet another huge injustice. After a certain lapse of time, old injustices must often be allowed to continue. Or, frankly, they must be for­gotten. To choose an example from the very period in which the Jewish dispersion began, we would consider it odd if the French or the English began to file damage claims against Italy based on injuries suffered under Roman occupation.



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