By: Prof. Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
The Campbell-Bannerman document has been used as reference by dozens of researchers in the Arab world, since the mid-twentieth century. They consider it a starting point for understanding the background of the emergence of the Jewish Zionist project in Palestine as pursued by the Western imperialist powers. However, the document has “mysterious” origins, and its authenticity has not been verified academically and reliably.
In the past months, I followed, on many levels, the debate surrounding the document. A video spread widely, in Arabic, on social media warning about the content of the document and its dangerous implications.
The “alleged” document states—according to the first part of the Malaf Watha’iq Felastin (Palestine Documents Dossier) published by the Ministry of Culture and National Guidance in Egypt in 1969 (under Gamal Abdel Nasser), p.121—that a secret “colonial conference” was held in London in 1905–1907, at the initiative of the British Conservative Party. It was attended by prominent historians, sociologists, geographers, agricultural scientists, petroleum experts, and economists. The supposed conference allegedly made a series of recommendations in 1907 to then British Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman, emphasizing the following:
“Establishing a strong alien human barrier in the land bridge linking Europe to the old world, and both to the Mediterranean, to form—in the region near the Suez Canal—a force hostile to the peoples of the region and friendly to European countries and their interests, is the practical and immediate implementation of the proposed methods and approaches.”
According to the alleged document, this means that “Western experts” see the establishment of an alien entity, namely the subsequent Israel, in the Eastern Mediterranean (especially in Palestine) a way to create a forward base to protect Western interests, weaken the region, and prevent its reunification. Several researchers argued that whether or not the document is fake, this is what has happened in reality.
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The author, like other researchers, have encountered this document in otherwise respectable Arab sources and references, used by renowned writers known for their accuracy, and in the Palestine Documents Dossier published by an official Egyptian body supposed to pursue a high level of academic scrutiny. As a result, the author has used this document in his writings and lectures, before becoming aware of the problems it raises.
Around 14 years ago, I met with Munir Shafiq, who urged me to verify the document from original British sources, especially after he learned of my specialization focusing on such documents, with my PhD dissertation relying primarily on unpublished British documents kept in the British National Archives, previously the Public Record Office, which I continued to consult from time to time for my academic work.
Dr. Anis Sayegh, one of the leading researchers in modern Palestinian history, and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Research Center between 1966 and 1976, also drew my attention to the document. He told me of his own experience researching the document and his doubts about its authenticity.
In short, I became curious about the issue. In one visit to Britain, I therefore set out to investigate, it but found no trace or source of it!!
What raised doubts further is that the Palestine Documents Dossier—and other sources—did not provide citations for the document, which has no entry in the British archives, with a date, serial number, and classification under the Foreign Office, Colonial Office, War Office, or the Prime Minister’s Office files (PREM), etc.
Dr. Anis Sayegh’s story with this document is both interesting and bitter. He summarized it in his Arabic memoirs Anis Sayegh on Anis Sayegh, pages 279–281. In his account, he mentions when he served as chairman of the PLO think tank, that he was keen to reach the “important document,” but could not find a single established source for it in dozens of references and books citing it, including works by reliable writers such as Buhran al-Dajani, Munthir Antabawi, Khairi Hamad, and Shafiq Irshidat. Each of them referenced another in a sort of a circular way.
For this reason, Dr. Anis Sayegh decided to dedicate time to research the document in Britain, spending a whole month in the British National Archives, the British Museum library, and Cambridge University where Campbell-Bannerman had studied and deposited his entire private documents collection. Dr. Sayegh also examined the archives of The Times newspaper covering the period 1904–1907, and found thousands of references to the imperialist colonial conference, but found nothing about the document itself.
After returning empty handed to Beirut, he had the chance to learn that the first Arab to reference the Campbell-Bannerman document in a published work was Antoun Canaan. He went to Egypt where Antoun was living, and met him after some time searching and seeking him out. He was surprised to hear from him that when he travelled from Palestine to London to study law in the mid-1940s, he met in the plane an Indian man sitting next him. The man told him he remembers reading about a colonial conference held in London attended by delegates from several colonial powers to discuss the partition of the Arab nations, prevent their reunification, and the establishment of a Jewish state, but the Indian man did not give Canaan any documented academic material regarding the document.
Thus, Dr. Sayegh returned frustrated. Neither the Indian man nor Canaan had examined the original document, and had any academic citation for it. Dr. Sayegh thus decided to bar anymore referencing or quoting of it in studies published by the Palestinian Research Center. As for me, I also decided to do the same, after not having found any evidence authenticating it.
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After this overview, we may highlight some remarks and points as follows:
1. The convening of imperialist colonial conferences in that period was a fact. British documents include hundreds of dossiers and entries about them. However, the text of the so-called Campbell-Bannerman document does not exist in those documents.
2. Our failure to secure the document does not prove its non-existence in the same or different form. However, at the same time we cannot claim something exists, when this is far from being conclusively established.
3. The fact that we don’t have the document in our hands denies us the ability—academically speaking—to use it as a reference, especially given its sensitivity and serious implications. Furthermore, the results Dr. Sayegh reached after his extensive research cast serious doubt on its authenticity.
4. According to the research of the author of this article in the British archives for many years, and based on his inquiries to the archivists there, British documents are usually divided into categories:
• Archives to be published: Most of these documents are published after thirty years, with some may be delayed to fifty, seventy five, or even one hundred years.
• Archives preserved without being published.
• Archives that are destroyed.
This means that there is a careful process of prior scrutiny of documents in the archives in which the higher interests of the state and its sensitive secrets are taken into account, as well as the implications of publishing such documents on states, institutions, and individuals, and on enemies and allies. This could allow us to reach the conclusion that some documents may be destroyed if they are seen as prejudicing state high interests or providing damning evidence against it.
5. The British colonialism and colonial powers are generally intelligent, experienced, and careful enough to keep such documents, should they exist, away from researchers because of the damning evidence they contain against their “plotting” as colonial powers. In some cases, instructions regarding this issue may remain verbal and not written in documented texts, or are barred from publication and circulation, a procedure many governments in the present day observe.
6. The course of events on the ground may corroborate the substance of the Campbell-Bannerman document, though it is insufficient to establish its authenticity from an academic point of view. The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917 after all, and Britain insisted to directly sponsor the growth of the Zionist project in Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state there. Thus repressing the will of the Palestinian people and their uprisings for 30 years (1917–1948) until the military, political, economic, social and administrative infrastructure of a “Jewish state” was complete.
In 1948, Israel was established in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world. The survival and prosperity of this state, at least from a practical point of view, is linked to the weakness, division, and backwardness of its surroundings. Indeed, projects for genuine unification and revival expressing the will of the peoples of the region and the entire nation are inherently hostile and an existential threat to Israel, which—in the point of view of the people of the area—usurped the “heart” of the Arab and Muslim nation (Palestine) and dispossessed its people.
7. There are documents and writings whose substance corroborate that of the alleged Campbell-Bannerman document. When the founder of the Zionist movement Theodore Herzl met with then British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain in 1902, Herzl told him the Zionist base in Palestine would be a buffer state, securing British interests. In other words, the Zionist movement understood well that its project could never be successful without the sponsorship and protection of a major power, and had to act in the context of the interests of such a major power.
In the First World War, writings emerged by non-Jewish British figures such as Charles Prestwich Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, and Herbert Sidebotham, a prolific writer, calling for the creation of a buffer state in Palestine and claiming the only group suitable for the purpose were the Jewish people.
Generally speaking, the strategic factor was a major cause in the minds of those behind the Balfour Declaration (the Jewish state as a buffer state, forward base, and a communication and transit point…). We may find such strategic references in remarks by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Lord Curzon, who succeeded Balfour in his post, and others.
Furthermore, Herbert Samuel, the Zionist Jewish minister in the British government headed by Herbert Asquith submitted a secret memo to the cabinet in January 1915, calling for the occupation of Palestine and opening the door to Jewish migration and settlement so that Jews may become a majority there, highlighting the strategic advantages of seizing Palestine.
8. Finally, the Campbell-Bannerman document cannot be cited academically nor journalistically until firm evidence is found of its authenticity, given the implications for credibility and objectivity for using it. Indeed, this would allow those who are against the Palestinian cause to discredit, undermine, mock, and damage the other strong evidence and arguments of pro-Palestine researchers, in a way that far outweighs any benefits from citing the document with good intentions. Particularly so, when there is a large corpus of genuine documents and actual colonial practices on the ground, that expose the extent of colonial support for the Zionist project, and colonial attempts to head off unification and revival projects in the region.
Thus, the Campbell-Bannerman document is added to the so-called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zions” and the so-called “promise of Napoléon” in 1798, which were also never authenticated, yet are still being cited in some Arab and Islamic literature without evidence. The criteria for credibility and objectivity, verification, authentication, and the balances of skepticism and adjustment, for which the Muslims were famous in their history, remain the best “capital” in dealing with such information or documents.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, 28/9/2017