The centenary of the Balfour Declaration: myths and facts

Today, 2nd November 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the famous Balfour Declaration.

Before I begin let us just recall what was said in the declaration itself:

The Balfour Declaration

Those mere 67 fateful words set history on a new course:

Foreign Office
November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

“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.”

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

However, contrary to common perception and received wisdom, the Balfour Declaration did not lay the groundwork for a Jewish state. That had already been done by the Jews living in then-Palestine. They had set up kibbutzim, trade unions, hospitals, schools and a fledgling government. The Declaration merely confirmed the support of the British government for something that already existed, and in effect assured the Jewish People that the British government, who held the Mandate for Palestine, would not forbid the establishment of the fledgling state.

Of course, as we all know, the British honoured the Balfour Declaration in the breach – they transgressed their own words almost as soon as the ink on the paper was dry.  For some more background on the Declaration, read Brian Goldfarb’s guest post from May.

On a similar theme, several articles have been published about what the Balfour Declaration is not. Here are two such items, the first one sent to me by Rob Harris of the pro-Israel Irish blog Eirael:

From the aptly-named Politically Incorrect Politics blog: Demystifying the Balfour declaration:

Let’s start with what it wasn’t: it was not an international instrument, an agreement between states. Or any kind of agreement, for that matter: signed by then Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and addressed to Jewish magnate Lionel Walter Rothschild, this was a unilateral statement. Of course, unilateral undertakings can sometimes constitute unbreakable commitments. Except this one wasn’t unbreakable – in fact it wasn’t even a commitment. It’s worth reading again the text of the ‘Declaration’:

Note the ‘woolly’ quality of the terms: “view with favour”, rather than ‘supports’; “will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”, rather than ‘will secure this objective’.  And what the heck is “a national home” (except, that is, an ill-defined euphemism never used before or since, except in a Jewish context)?

The wording (carefully chiselled over a few months) is designed to obfuscate.  This becomes even more obvious if one examines the evolution of the document through a number of drafts: the clear commitment initially proposed by the Zionists is gradually diluted with each subsequent version – until it morphs into the final ‘woolly’ product.  To give just one example, the term ‘state’ employed in the early drafts becomes ‘homeland’  and finally turns into ‘national home’.

Let’s also point out that the Declaration was bereft of any practical details: it said nothing about how“this object” was to be achieved, or when.  No plan of action reinforced the vague, feeble statement of intention.

In its final, official form, the Declaration was very far from an enforceable commitment; it wasn’t even a clear-cut promise.  In fact, His Majesty’s Government was in no position to promise anything – even if they genuinely wanted to: progressing north from Egypt through the Sinai Peninsula, the British forces had barely reached a front line stretching from the small coastal town of Gaza to the even smaller oasis settlement of Beer Sheba in the Negev Desert.  The bulk of ‘Palestine’ (the populated and fertile landmass, including the major towns) was still under Ottoman control and there was no certainty that it could be taken by the British Army.  But even if that happened, it still was no foregone conclusion that His Majesty’s Government could dispose as they pleased of that (ill-defined) piece of territory.  Like the entire Levant, ‘Palestine’ was subject to some half-baked understandings with the French, as well as – arguably – with the British Empire’s newly-found ally, Hussein the Sharif (Lord) of Mecca.

One question which often arises is what was the motivation of Lord Balfour and the British to make this Declaration?

Well, it’s 31 October 1917; the world is convulsed by the greatest, bloodiest military confrontation ever known – World War I.  It is a war of empires: the British, French and Russian Empires (the so-called Entente Cordiale) have taken on the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires (a.k.a. the Central Powers).  It’s not just about who fights better, but also about which of the blocs can attract strong allies to fight on their side.  In April 1917, USA formally enters the war.  But it does so gingerly and half-heartedly.  It declares war on Germany, but not on Germany’s allies.  Many American politicians are reluctant to send ‘American boys’ to die in what they see as ‘somebody else’s war’.  In the East, another mighty ally – Russia – is in the throes of revolution; for the new powers that be in Petrograd – and especially for the Bolsheviks – this is also ‘somebody else’s war’.  Britain needs one ally – USA – to fully join the battle; it needs the other ally – Russia – to battle on.

And in the rather antisemitic minds of ‘Christian Zionists’ Lloyd George and Balfour, Jews hold enormous power in both America and Russia.  Enough power to push the former full speed into the war and prevent the latter from bailing out.

If only, of course, one could dangle a suitable bait in front of those Jewish noses…

How ‘momentous’ was the Declaration?

If we are to believe Ian Black, Middle East Editor at The Guardian the Balfour Declaration “led to the British mandate [of Palestine].

Did it, really, Mr. Black?  True, the Declaration was referenced in the text of the Mandate – which would seem to vindicate Mr. Black’s contention.  But only if one ignores the much more ‘momentous’ Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was already being negotiated 2 years prior to the Declaration, under Lloyd George’s and Balfour’s predecessors.  Finally signed in May 1916, the Sykes-Picot Agreement included much of the future Mandate of Palestine in the ‘British Sphere [of influence]’, with the rest an ill-defined ‘International Sphere’ (which, in diplomatic terms of the time, probably meant ‘we’ll see about that later’).

The Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the Levant into ‘spheres of influence’.

In reality, European/Christian powers (Britain, France, Italy, as well as Germany and Russia) have long coveted ‘Palestine’ – not for its potential as ‘Jewish national home’, but because of the putative prestige imparted by control of the Christian holy sites.

But by 1917 religion was becoming less important in European politics; and prestige has always been a rather intangible asset.  Britain had a more pragmatic reason: in the minds of early 20th century politicians, who thought in terms of land and sea (rather than aerial) journeys, ‘Palestine’ sat across the route linking the British Isles with the all-important jewel of the imperial crown – India.  So did ‘Mesopotamia’ (future Iraq) – which is why that territory was also included in the ‘British Sphere’.  In fact, when the British diplomats eventually drafted the mandates, they included ‘Palestine’ and ‘Mesopotamia’ in one document; both were, after all, supposed to serve the same imperial interest.

The Balfour Declaration did not lead to the British Mandate; what led to the mandate was imperial interests and the age-old custom of dividing the ‘spoils of war’ among the victors.  A custom for which the League of Nations mandates provided just a modern veneer.

But what about  [The Guardian’s Middle East editor] Mr. Black’s next assumption, that the Balfour Declaration “led to […] mass Jewish immigration”?  Unsurprisingly, that statement is also demonstrably false.  What Europeans called ‘Palestine’ the Jews have called, for thousands of years ‘Land of Israel’.  It was frequently mentioned in the Judaic scriptures, traditions and daily prayers.  As individuals and small groups, Jews have always tried to reach ‘Palestine’ and settle there.  But what about ‘mass immigration’?  Historically, there have been 5 waves of Jewish ‘mass immigration’ (i.e. thousands and tens of thousands of people) before the establishment of the State of Israel.  The first such wave (known as the First Aliyah in Zionist chronology) took place between 1882 and 1903 and saw the arrival in ‘Palestine’ of around 30,000 Jews – mainly from Eastern Europe and Yemen.  The Second Aliyah lasted between 1904 and 1914, bringing to ‘Palestine circa 35,000 Jews, mostly from the Russian Empire and Yemen.

The Ottomans, by the way, did not lift a finger to stop that immigration.  They could not be suspected of ‘Christian Zionism’; they simply did not share the European obsession with Jews – one way or another.  There was plenty of nationalism which threatened to break up their multi-ethnic, multi-faith empire: Greek, Armenian, Slavic, Egyptian, Levantine and Bedouin-Arab…  The Jewish flavour of it – Zionism – was at the bottom of the Sultan’s long list of worries.

The article is quite long but extremely well worth the read for an in-depth explanation of how the British violated the terms of the Mandate which was conferred upon it two years later at the San Remo Conference. Just a small excerpt:

In 10 years of Mandatory regime, the British authorities have

  •          ‘confirmed’ two transactions already made with the Ottomans;
  •          allowed the establishment of a beach facility;
  •          leased a swamp under draconic conditions; and
  •          leased a totally unusable plot of land to a group of British soldiers.

Over the 1921-1930 decade, that’s the entire extent of the Mandatory compliance with the Mandate requirement to “encourage […] close settlement by Jews on the land”.

Read the whole article. You will be enlightened and probably surprised as well.

Chaim Weizmann

Martin Kramer in Mosaic Magazine has a fascinating article about The forgotten truth about the Balfour declaration:

It is interesting, then, that the late Abba Eban, even though he played a major role in securing the 1947 resolution, thought otherwise. The events of 1947 and 1948, he wrote, “seemed to overshadow the Balfour Declaration” and “to have more revolutionary consequences.” But in fact, by 1947 the Zionists could not be stopped: the Yishuv was “too large to be dominated by Arabs, too self-reliant to be confined by tutelage, and too ferociously resistant to be thwarted in its main ambition” of statehood. In 1917, by contrast, proposing the recognition of the right of the Jews to a “national home” in Palestine “was to rebel against the inertia of established facts” and against “mountainous obstacles of rationality.” In Eban’s view, the Balfour Declaration thus stands alone as “the decisive diplomatic victory of the Jewish people in modern history.”

The article discusses the various motivations of Britain and the Allied powers in supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the main one being that they believed in “Jewish power” to persuade their governments to stay in the war until total victory.

To us today, this seems like a vast exaggeration of the power of Jews at the time. But British policymakers believed in what the British Zionist Harry Sacher once called “the great Jewish legend”:

That legend finds its crudest and its stupidest expression in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion [wrote Sacher], but many even of those who reject a forgery and a lie have a residual belief in the power and the unity of Jewry. We suffer for it, but it is not wholly without its compensations. It is one of the imponderabilia of politics, and it plays, consciously or unconsciously, its part in the calculations and the decisions of statesmen.

The second explanation is that the British rushed to embrace Zionism as a means of justifying their own claim to Palestine in the anticipated postwar carve-up of the Middle East. The British, as patrons of the Jews, could exclude their French ally from Palestine while claiming to champion the “self-determination” of a small people. While this explanation differs from the first, it shares with it a straightforward assumption: needing Zionism for their own ends, the British required very little prodding to produce the Balfour Declaration.

But in the collective memory of Zionists and Israelis, there is another factor: the persuasive genius of one man, Chaim Weizmann. That telling goes like this: Weizmann, famed biochemist and later head of the English Zionist Federation, managed single-handedly to win over Britain’s leading politicians and opinion-makers to the Zionist idea. The Weizmann saga unfolds behind the scenes in London drawing rooms, where this Russian Jewish immigrant, having arrived in England only in 1904, succeeds in persuading—some might say, seducing—the likes of Balfour, Mark Sykes, Alfred Milner, and David Lloyd George, who would soon hold the fate of the Middle East in their hands. The Balfour Declaration is the triumph of one man’s indefatigable will, and his personal effect upon a handful of British statesmen.

The article then goes on to discuss in great detail the role played by Nahum Sokolow in gaining the support not only of Britain, but also of all the other Allied powers. Sokolow was a Russian-born Hebrew language journalist who “fell under the spell of Herzl”:

Sokolow is the entry point into the fuller story of the Balfour Declaration. Indeed, at the time of the declaration, many Jews around the world gave him more credit for it than they gave to Weizmann. This was partly because Sokolow the Hebrew journalist was better known than Weizmann the biochemist. As Herzl’s contemporary, he was also senior to Weizmann in age and in his standing in world Zionism.

Nachum Sokolow

But Sokolow was also given credit because he accomplished what many thought impossible: during the spring of 1917, he secured the explicit or tacit assent of the French and Italian governments, and even of the Catholic pope, to a Jewish “national home” under British auspices. How did he surprise everyone, including Weizmann, by his achievement? Why has it been forgotten? And how might its recovery benefit the centennial retrospective on the Balfour Declaration?

Some attributed Sokolow’s success to his manner and bearing:

Sokolow was the diplomatist of the Zionist movement, the diplomatist of the school of the Quai d’Orsay [the French foreign ministry]. His handsome appearance, his air of fine breeding, his distinguished manner, his gentle speech, his calculated expression, his cautious action, his well-cut clothes, his monocle, were faithful to a tradition which perhaps is not so highly honored as before the war. . . . Diplomats and ministers felt that he belonged to their club, spoke their language, and was one of themselves. He practiced their art and was entitled to their privileges.

Sokolow made the impression of a statesman, albeit one without a state, and this went beyond his prodigious mastery of European languages. One admirer attributed his diplomatic finesse to his being “a European through and through, internally as well as externally, in his Weltanschauung and manners. . . . He shined in the presence of Woodrow Wilson, Paul Painlevé, George Clemenceau, and Arthur James Balfour.”

And while Sokolow represented no state, Europe’s leaders saw in “this little bent Jew,” still bearing Russian nationality, an authentic spokesman of the Jewish masses of Russia and Poland, who could move them in the desired direction by the power of his words. He seemed to personify what Sacher called “the great Jewish legend,” as a cosmopolitan leader of the “great Jewry” to which Sykes and others attributed a vast, subterranean influence.

And when the war was nearing its end, Sokolow brought all the endorsements he had manage to wangle out of the Allies, and which he had cleverly published so that no one could deny them afterwards, in order to gain endorsement for the Jewish homeland:

n his preface, Sokolow spoke of the Balfour Declaration as though it had been made by all of the Allies:

In the midst of this terrible war, you, as representatives of the Great Powers of Western Europe and America, have issued a declaration which contained the promise to help us, with your goodwill and support, to establish this national center, for whose realization generations have lived and suffered.

In Sokolow’s carefully chosen words, the Balfour Declaration had morphed into the Allied declaration. A monumental effort in many capitals had permitted him to utter that sentence without fear of contradiction.

The San Remo conference in April 1920 was an extension of the peace conference. One of its tasks was to parcel out former Ottoman territories into mandates, which the powers would administer as trusts on behalf of the League of Nations. There the powers agreed that Britain would receive the League of Nations mandate for Palestine.

As to why Nachum Sokolow has been widely forgotten? That is mostly to do with petty personal politics sadly. But it is now high time to restore Sokolow’s honour and recall the crucial part he played.

There is much more in the article, too much to quote here. Just go and read it all. I guarantee you will learn something new and fascinating.

As for the British betrayal of the Balfour Declaration and its Mandate, that is for another post.

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4 Responses to The centenary of the Balfour Declaration: myths and facts

  1. Pingback: The centenary of the Balfour Declaration: myths and facts – 24/6 Magazine

  2. Henry Klausner says:

    Very well written!!

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Pingback: November to remember the Balfour Declaration – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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