In a momentous moment that irretrievably reshaped the Middle East, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration 93 years ago this week.
A source of joy to Zionists but an act of deceit and betrayal to Arabs, it was addressed to Walter Rothschild – the unofficial leader of Britain’s Jewish community and the scion of an illustrious Jewish family – on Nov. 2, 1917, when Britain was bogged down in a protracted war in Europe and Asia.
The declaration read: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The historic declaration, the outcome of tortuous negotiations, was delivered to Rothschild’s home in London several days after the British army, commanded by Gen. Edmund Allenby, launched an offensive to capture Palestine, a neglected Turkish Ottoman province since 1516.
The modern Zionist movement, created almost single-handedly by an assimilated Austrian Jewish journalist named Theodor Herzl, was satisfied with Britain’s endorsement of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, though its long-range objective was still a Jewish state. When Britain threw its prestige and power behind the concept of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, 85,000 Jews, representing one-ninth of its population, lived in Palestine.
Britain’s pro-Zionist policy, the result of both canny and misconceived notions, was fundamentally a function of the Ottoman Empire’s decision to join Germany in an alliance and declare war on Britain and its allies, Jonathan Schneer suggests in his book, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (Doubleday Canada). As he writes, “When the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, they called into question the future of their own empire, which meant the future of Palestine as well.”
Prior to the war, the geopolitical situation did not favour the Zionists.
In 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, Nahum Sokolow, a top official of the World Zionist Organization, requested a meeting with the permanent under secretary of Britain’s Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicolson, to discuss Zionist aspirations in Palestine. Eager not to offend the Ottomans, who opposed Zionism, Nicolson rebuffed Sokolow. He did, however, permit his private secretary, the Earl of Onslow, to meet Sokolow. Afterward, Nicolson told Onslow, “We had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement.”
With the eruption of the war, Britain’s attitude to Zionism changed completely, making it possible for Zionists such as Chaim Weizmann to engage Britain in constructive talks to further the Zionist agenda in Palestine. Weizmann, a scientist who developed acetone, a flammable liquid used in the production of explosives, was held in high esteem by the British. Nonetheless, as Schneer observes in this first-rate account of tangled wartime diplomacy, British interests in the region were also closely attuned to the Arabs.
In 1915 and 1916, in a secret exchange of letters between British diplomat Sir Henry McMahon and the Ottoman-appointed ruler of Mecca, Ibn Ali Hussein, Britain promised to recognize the formation and independence of a large Arab state in return for Hussein’s pledge to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. Britain hoped that the rebellion would divert Ottoman resources from the war, blunt Ottoman calls for jihad and convert Arabs to the Alllied cause. The revolt erupted in June 1916 as Hussein’s armies conquered several cities in the Arabian peninsula – Mecca, Jeddah, Taif and Aqaba – and besieged Medina. T.E. Lawrence, popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia, participated in this campaign.
With the ink barely dry on the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, Britain and its ally, France, signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, dividing Ottoman lands to be conquered among themselves. Since Britain and France both coveted Palestine, they decided it would be administered by an international condominium.
Neither Arabs nor Zionists were informed of the agreement, which, in any case, was never implemented.
As these developments unfolded, Zionist officials continued to press Britain for a statement of support that would, as Schneer notes, “constitute a binding form of official recognition. He adds, “Shrewdly, delicately, implacably, they pressed forward, unaware that Palestine already was spoken for in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and perhaps in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.”
The Zionists had friends in Britain’s government, notably Herbert Samuel, a Jewish cabinet member who would be appointed the first British high commissioner in Mandate Palestine.
Shortly after the war erupted, he met with Britain’s foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, saying an opportunity might arise for the Jewish people to fulfil their “ancient aspiration” for a Jewish state in Palestine. Later, in a memorandum, he advocated a British protectorate in Palestine that would enable Jews to build a homeland there.
Samuel, the first self-professing British Jew to sit in the cabinet, was supported by two key allies, David Lloyd George – who would replace Herbert Henry Asquith as prime minister in 1916 – and his foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour. Mark Sykes, the British diplomat who co-signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was also on side, as was C.P. Scott, the editor and publisher of the influential Manchester Guardian.
Sharing the common prejudices of the day, virtually all of them harboured anti-Semitic sentiments of one sort or the other.
As they attempted to court prominent Jews and British officials, the Zionists met fierce resistance from Jewish assimilationists such as Edwin Montagu, a member of the cabinet who happened to be Samuel’s cousin. Montagu and like-minded Jews argued that Palestine was of little strategic importance to Britain and that Zionism would undermine the status of Jews in British society.
Zionist hopes were threatened not only by Jewish assimilationists and Arabists, but by rumours that the Ottoman Empire might squirm out of its alliance with Germany and sue for peace. Had this occurred, Schneer writes, Britain would probably have accepted Ottoman claims to Palestine.
On the eve of throwing its support behind a Jewish homeland, the British cabinet, in a fit of indecision, consulted the United States. Weizmann, in response, mobilized American Zionists to extract a promise of support from President Woodrow Wilson.
In hindsight, Schneer believes, Britain’s pro-Zionist policy was guided by misconceptions. British politicians, their vision clouded by anti-Semitic myths, believed that “world Jewry” might help fund the cost of the war and convince Russia to remain in it. They also feared that Germany, in a bid to rally Jewish opinion behind the Central Powers, would play the Zionist card and force the Ottoman Empire to grant autonomy to the Jews of Palestine. “In this sense, the Balfour Declaration sprang from fundamental miscalculations about the power of Germany and about the power and unity of Jews,” he says.
Ultimately, the interests of Britain and the Zionist movement converged, since both parties wanted the Ottomans out of Palestine. The war did indeed push the Ottomans out of Palestine, thereby laying the foundation for the State of Israel.