The Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, 1917, and took the curious form of a letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild. The text is as follows:
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.
Arthur James Balfour
Thus the actual Declaration consists of one single flabby sentence—the ambiguous product of three months’ drafting and counter-drafting. Yet, unlike most famous political declarations, which merely ratify a decision already taken, these sixty-seven words changed the course of history. Once they had been published, Britain, then at the height of her imperial power, became involved in a Middle Eastern policy which committed her inexorably to plotting for and obtaining mandatory control of Palestine under the League of Nations, and thereby making herself responsible to the Jews of the world for the establishment of the National Home and to the Arabs for strangling it before it threatened their existence. If the Balfour Declaration had not been issued in the first week of November 1917, there would have been no Mandate and no National Home. Israel would have remained unborn and Arab nationalism might not have been transformed into an anti-Western movement.
Here, then, is one of those seminal episodes in human history, the study of whose details enables us to comprehend better the whole succeeding epoch. Unfortunately, however, the historical truth about the Balfour Declaration is a rock overlaid by successive deposits of myth and counter-myth. There is the human interest story, to which Lloyd George gave some authenticity in his memoirs, that the British War Premier presented Palestine as a gift to Chaim Weizmann in return for services rendered when he was Minister of Munitions. The unknown Russian chemist, according to this version, had, singlehanded, saved the British Navy by developing a new process for the production of acetone, an essential ingredient in the making of TNT. “I am Weizmann’s proselyte,” Lloyd George told a Jewish audience in 1925. “Acetone converted me to Zionism.”
It is a nice story, but no one believes it. Moreover, Jew and Arab alike have felt the need for a profounder explanation of this extraordinary British decision. The Arab version, of course, starts from the agreements with which the British tempted their leaders to revolt and then shows that, at the self-same moment these agreements were being negotiated, the British government was making a compact with the Jewish financiers of America, whose dollars were desperately needed. The Jewish version, on the other hand, prefers to see the episode as the masterpiece of Weizmann’s diplomatic skill, a rare example of a change in the course of history wrought by the efforts of a single man.
Until now, in the absence of an authoritative study, one could take one’s choice according to one’s prejudice, but now no longer. The Balfour Declaration, by Leonard Stein,1 is a 660-page study, at once monumental in scale, scholarly in its standard of research, and perceptive in its analysis of human weakness. Unfortunately it is composed with a style so dry and an exactitude so pedantic that it is likely to put off all but the academic reader. Because I am pretty sure that it is the kind of book which will be read in review and not in the original, I have decided to make what should have been a critique of Mr. Stein into a summary of the astonishing story he has to tell.
Mr. Stein starts by reminding us what an insignificant little thing Zionism was in 1914. At that time there were only 8,000 members of the Zionist Federation in Great Britain, and the situation in the United States was even worse. Out of three million Jews, some 12,000 were Zionists. Nor did there seem any prospect of their ideals being realized. Palestine was a backward, insignificant province of the Ottoman Empire, and the Zionist Executive, with its headquarters in Berlin, was strictly neutral in Great Power politics and vociferously asserted that “the Turks possess in the whole world no more generous and self-sacrificing friends than the Zionists.” The Zionist aim, in fact, was to add a few more hundreds to the 35,000 Jews who then formed a tiny minority among the two million Arabs in Palestine. But the rise of the Young Turks, and of the new, fiercer nationalism in which they believed, made such hopes remote indeed. As Stein drily comments, “These protestations fell upon deaf ears. The Turks were unimpressed, and did all they could to keep the Jews out of Palestine.”
Suddenly the situation was transformed by the outbreak of World War I, and, on November 5, 1914, by the British declaration of war against Turkey. In his speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet four nights later, Mr. Asquith, then Prime Minister, made it clear that, in the new situation, Britain had abandoned her traditional policy of “propping up the Sick Man of Europe” and now included among her war aims the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. In the Cabinet next day, Lloyd George referred to the ultimate destiny of Palestine, and that very evening the president of the Local Government Board—now the nonogenarian philosopher-king, Lord Samuel—had a talk with Lloyd George on the subject and urged on him the need to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. That afternoon he went to see the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, to whom he suggested that “British influence ought to play a considerable part in the formation of a Jewish State, since the geographical situation of Palestine, and especially its proximity to Egypt, would render its good will a matter of importance to the British Empire.”
The fact that members of the British Cabinet were talking in this way was completely unknown to the official Zionist organization. After all, the headquarters were still in Berlin, and the leaders can hardly be blamed for announcing a policy of neutrality and giving their full support to the Germans. In the eyes of every Jew, Czarist Russia was the chief enemy; and, since Russia was the enemy of the Germans and the ally of the British, it was natural for European Jewry, including the Zionists, to feel more sympathy with the former than with the latter.
One Zionist alone saw instantaneously and incisively the new opportunity created by Turkey’s entry into the war. Even before that, Weizmann had written to Zang-will (in October 1914): “My plans are based naturally on one cardinal assumption, viz. that the Allies will win. . . . I have no doubt in my mind that Palestine will fall into the sphere of England. It will be the Asiatic Belgium, especially if it is developed by the Jews. We could easily move a million Jews into Palestine within the next fifty to sixty years, and England would have an effective barrier [against Russia] and we would have a country.” On December 10, 1914, Weizmann met Samuel for the first time, and was amazed to discover that this buttoned-up, assimilated, ambitious Anglo-Jew had discovered a Zionist policy of his own, though he continued to refuse any contact with the Zionists. With Weizmann’s encouragement, he circulated a memorandum to the Cabinet, of which the revised and final text was that of January 1915. By now the crude notion of British annexation and of a Jewish State had both been dropped. Instead, the hope was now expressed that “under British rule Jewish immigration, carefully regulated, would be given preference, so that in the course of time the Jewish inhabitants, grown into a majority and settled in the land, may be conceded such degree of self-government as the conditions of that day might justify.” All we know for sure about this memorandum is that it evoked the Premier’s scorn. “I confess I am not attracted by the proposed addition to our responsibilities,” remarked Asquith, “but it is a curious illustration of Disraeli’s favourite maxim that ‘race is everything’ to find this almost lyrical outburst proceeding from the well-ordered and methodical brain of H.S.”
Nevertheless the collaboration of Weizmann and Samuel had its effect inside the British Establishment. In no social oligarchy are ideas as much a matter of fashion as in the British. For years a policy remains the monopoly of some eccentric outsider. Then, quite suddenly, it becomes accepted in the Establishment as a whole, enthused over by the Times and the Guardian and approved over the luncheon table at the Athenaeum, the Reform, and the Travellers’ Club. Something of this sort happened to Zionism in the first two years of World War I. Weizmann, never unsusceptible to female charm, was lionized by the hostesses, and his home in Addison Gardens was frequented by the great. On March 20, 1916, Mrs. Weizmann could write in her diary: “Mrs. James de Rothschild has been to dinner at Lady Crewe’s, and overheard the conversation between Lord Robert Cecil and Lady Crewe. She asked Cecil what he thought of Zionism, declared that ‘we all in this house are Weizmannites’ and asked whether the time was ripe to start a campaign.”
It must be understood that this Succès fou had nothing to do with the official Zionist organization. The Cabinet were Weizmannites, not Zionists. Nevertheless, it upset the anti-Zionist forces that still securely controlled British Jewry. These forces were led by Lucien Wolf. Wolf was one of those assimilated Jews who regarded Weizmann’s concept of Jewish homelessness as rank anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, he realized that, in the United States as well as in Britain, Zionism was gaining ground among the Eastern Jews, and he decided to out-trump the Zionists by submitting a moderate declaration in favor of Jewish colonization in Palestine to Sir Edward Grey at the Foreign Office. Although Asquith still regarded Zionism as crazy nonsense, he encouraged Grey to accept Wolf’s draft and telegraph it to the British ambassadors in Paris and Petrograd, with the following significant addition, which shows how far Weizmann’s ideas had begun to influence the British Cabinet :
This formula seems to us unobjectionable. But we consider that the scheme might be made far more attractive to the majority of Jews if it held out to them the prospect that when in course of time the Jewish colonists in Palestine have grown strong enough to cope with the Arab population, they may be allowed to take the management of the internal affairs of Palestine (with the exception of Jerusalem and the Holy Places) into their own hands. . . . Our sole object is to find an arrangement which would be so attractive to the majority of Jews as to enable us to strike a bargain for Jewish support.
This completely cynical proposal lapsed, because the French government was not interested and the Czarist government was, not unnaturally, strenuously opposed to any declaration of this kind.
Weizmann was probably unaware that this telegram had been dispatched. If he had known of it, he would have been appalled at the irresponsibility which inspired it. The truth is that, in March 1916, the moment for such an appeal had not come. On the one hand, world Jewry was still profoundly suspicious of Britain as the ally of Russia and unwilling to give its support to any proposal which might seem to be inspired by British plans for annexing Palestine. On the other hand, the penetration of the British ruling class that Weizmann had achieved was still superficial. Much more hard work would have to be done before he was prepared to urge a British initiative.
So, in the intervals of his chemical work at the Ministry of Munitions, Weizmann settled down to prepare the ground. In the first place, he made his credentials both as a British citizen and as a supporter of the Western cause impeccable by cutting off all contact with the official Zionist headquarters in Berlin. He had come to the conclusion that, whatever the professional Zionists might believe, the Jewish State could only be achieved under British patronage, and he had equally convinced himself that Britain could only consolidate her Middle Eastern position after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire by establishing the Jews north of the Suez Canal. He had, in fact, evolved the concept of the identity of interest between the British and the Jewish peoples which was to inspire his greatest successes—and in the end to break him, when it became clear that the identity of interest had been repudiated by Ernest Bevin.
In the second place, Weizmann had begun to concern himself actively with the position of American Jewry. Here, fortunately, Mr. Justice Brandeis was as convinced as he of the need for an Allied victory in order to achieve a Zionist return to Israel. Nevertheless, Brandeis was forced to warn Weizmann that the vast majority of American Jewry, though increasingly sympathetic to Zionist ideas, were still either suspicious of Britain or, in the case of the German Jews, actively hostile.
Here it may be well to pause in our narrative and ask what it was that made so many British politicians in World War I susceptible to Jewish pressure. One can, I think, trace three motives, represented by three of the most prominent Gentile Zionists of the period—Lloyd George, A. J. Balfour, and Winston Churchill. What inspired Lloyd George was, first and foremost, the belief of a Welsh Nonconformist, brought up on the Bible, that Britain was the right country to liberate Palestine from the Turks and that, under British protection, the Jews of the Bible were the right people to inhabit it. Lloyd George was not a philosophical Zionist but, thanks to his Bible reading, he knew more about Palestine than about any country save his own, and his sense that it was Britain’s destiny to plant the Jews there grew with his premiership.
A rather different type of Gentile Zionism was represented by Winston Churchill. I doubt whether he was ever deeply influenced by the Bible or by any romantic desire to help small nations. For Churchill, the key question was imperial convenience, and he saw in the support of Jewish claims in Palestine an effective method of limiting French expansion in the Middle East and simultaneously safeguarding the Canal. For Churchill, the essential point was the security of Suez; and the support of Zionism was a convenient moral justification for this imperial requirement to obtain control of Palestine.
A third and very different kind of Gentile Zionism was represented by A. J. Balfour. Mr. Stein appears surprised that Balfour, like so many other staunch supporters of the National Home, revealed strong anti-Semitic tendencies. He seems to have forgotten Weizmann’s doctrine that anti-Semitism is endemic in the Gentile world and that the justification of Zionism lies precisely in this fact. It is because the Jews of the Diaspora must always, by definition, remain in danger of homelessness that a Jewish State is a necessity of Jewish survival.
From this central doctrine Weizmann drew one important practical consequence. Instead of being shocked by the fact that many of the Gentiles he dealt with felt strong anti-Semitic prejudices, he assumed that the most reliable support for his cause would be drawn from those Gentiles who were ashamed of their hostility to the Jews and from those Jews who were ashamed of their fear of the goy. As far as we know, neither Lloyd George nor Churchill ever worried about anti-Semitism, but Balfour certainly did, and Mr. Stein, in one fascinating passage of his book, reminds us that the famous first meeting between Balfour and Weizmann, during the general election of 1906, originated from the fact that, whereas Churchill’s conscience about the Jews was clear, Balfour’s was not.
A few years before the election a Conservative government, under Balfour’s premiership, had introduced an odious immigration bill, chiefly designed to make difficulties for Jews entering Britain from Eastern Europe. The bill had been opposed by the Liberal opposition, not least by Churchill himself. When the government went to the country, Churchill and Balfour were both fighting seats in Manchester, and Churchill, who had a large Jewish vote in his constituency, was advised to ask Dr. Weizmann to intervene on his behalf. Anxious not to involve himself in British politics, Weizmann refused. Then Balfour’s political managers got cold feet and suggested that it might be useful for their candidate to see the Zionist leader in order to reduce Jewish hostility. Because Balfour was Prime Minister, Weizmann agreed, and the famous conversation took place in which, by playing on Balfour’s uneasy conscience, Weizmann converted him to a Zionism more altruistic than that of Churchill or Lloyd George. Feeling within himself the emotions from which the pogrom rises, Balfour dedicated himself to removing the cause of anti-Semitism by creating a Jewish State. Whereas his colleagues had to be persuaded that the British Empire would gain from Zionism, Balfour treated the creation of the Jewish State as an end in itself and, indeed, by 1921 was pressing that America, not Britain, should have the mandate.
Weizmann showed himself a maestro in the art of playing on these three species of British Gentile Zionism. Precisely because he was not an assimilated British Jew but an East European who combined his foreignness with a deep sense of loyalty to the country whose passport he had obtained; precisely because he was proud and not subservient; precisely because he wanted to lead the Jews out of the ghetto of finance and back to the wholesome life of the farm, Weizmann appeared to the British ruling class not as the kind of “Yid” they disliked but as a representative of the Jew they had learned to admire in their reading of the Bible. There is not another Jewish leader with whom Weizmann can be compared. Only Thomas Masaryk, the founder of Czechoslovakia, revealed the same powers and exerted the same magical attraction upon hard-headed Anglo-Saxon politicians.
In December 1916 the intrigues of Lord Beaverbrook were successful. Asquith was overthrown and a new war coalition was established, with Lloyd George as Premier and a small War Cabinet, soon to be dominated by four leading Gentile Zionists—the Prime Minister himself, Balfour, Milner, and Jan Smuts. Now Weizmann’s patience was rewarded: events began to press toward a declaration of British policy in regard to Palestine. The famous top-secret Sykes-Picot agreement for partitioning the Ottoman Empire had now been negotiated, first with the French and then with the Russians, and as soon as the signatures had been set to it the British Foreign Office began to seek methods of invalidating it—in particular, by keeping the French out of Palestine. What more useful excuse for Britain to go back on her secret agreement with France than the insistence of world Jewry that Britain and Britain alone could look after their interests in the Holy Land? In the second place, as a result of the collapse of the Czarist regime, the War Cabinet was obsessed by the need for keeping Russia in the war. To this end it seemed essential to counteract the ascendancy that the Russian left—Social Democrats, Mensheviks, and Bolsheviks—had achieved over the masses and, in particular, over the Jews. Could not a promised return to Zion under British patronage turn Russian Jewry into opponents of Menshevism and Bolshevism? That, at least, was the belief of the Times’ Foreign Editor, Wickham Steed. Though Kerensky had to complain of the Times’ anti-Semitic outbursts, Wickham Steed was soon giving his full support to Zionism, on the ground that “Herzl’s ideas might exert a regenerating influence upon the Jewish intellectuals and serve as a counterpoise to the revolutionary elements in Jewry.”
The final factor that transformed the situation was the American declaration of war. In April 1917 Balfour, as Foreign Secretary, visited Washington and had long talks with Brandeis, whom he regarded as the most notable American and the most wholesome influence on the President. Now that America was an ally and Czarism had collapsed, suspicions of Britain had markedly declined. But, despite Brandeis’s influence, it was still not possible to win American Jewry to the idea of a British protectorate in Palestine. And these hesitations were greatly strengthened by the fact that, though the United States was at war with Germany, Wilson had maintained its neutrality toward Turkey and therefore could not be concerned in any plans for dividing up the Ottoman Empire.
But it was in Britain that Weizmann found his toughest opposition. Despite the recent incursion of Eastern Jews, British Jewry was still a small community, dominated by a rich oligarchy of distinguished and implacable anti-Zionists. On May 24, 1917, the anti-Zionists decided to take the initiative and declared war on Zionism in the columns of the Times. Despite all Weizmann’s work, the battle was closely contested and the Board of Deputies only disowned the anti-Zionists by 56 votes to 51. Moreover, this victory was rapidly followed by a reverse, when a leading assimilated Jew, Edwin Montagu, whose slogan it was that he had been striving all his life to escape from the ghetto, joined Lloyd George’s Cabinet.
Nevertheless, the decision could no longer be delayed. By now Weizmann had won the support of three brilliant young men with key positions in the Cabinet offices—Sir Mark Sykes, negotiator of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Harold Nicolson, and L. S. Amery. After consultation with them, it was decided to submit a draft declaration to the Cabinet on September 3.
And now there occurred one of those curious contretemps that so often disturb democratic proceedings. Neither Lloyd George nor Balfour could attend the meeting and, as a result, Edwin Montagu was able to deliver a passionate indictment of Zionism as a surrender to anti-Semitism and a successful plea that nothing more should be heard of the proposal until President Wilson’s advice had been asked.
It was a typical delaying tactic, and it succeeded. On September 11, Colonel House replied in a curt telegram, stating that “Wilson had been approached as requested and had expressed the opinion that the time was not opportune for any definite statement further perhaps than one of sympathy, provided it could be made without conveying any real commitment.” Apparently the President had acted without consulting Brandeis. At once Weizmann set all the wheels in motion and by September 23 Brandeis could wire Weizmann: “From talks I have had with the President and from expressions of opinion given to closest advisers I feel that I can answer that he is in entire sympathy with declaration quoted in yours of 19th.” Mr. Truman was not the first occupant of the White House to find himself confused by contradictory advice on the Jewish question! In 1917 the State Department was already resolutely anti-Zionist and it was only Brandeis’s influence inside the White House that saved the day.
Even so, the draft declaration had fallen out of the Cabinet agenda and could not be put back except by the Premier’s express decision. On September 28, C. P. Scott, Editor of the Manchester Guardian, and Weizmann had breakfast with Lloyd George and achieved their purpose. By this time Edwin Montagu was on his way to India, but he had succeeded in his main purpose. The straightforward acceptance of the principle of a National Home in Palestine, which was the essence of the first draft, was now hedged round by the limitations which caused all the trouble about the Mandate. The first draft had run: “His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that every opportunity should be afforded for the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” The draft of October 4 merely states that H.M.G. “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home,” and then goes on to add, “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 who are fully contented with their existing nationality.” This new draft, it was now agreed, should be submitted to eight leading British Jews, including the Chief Rabbi, and resubmitted to President Wilson. This was duly done and on October 30 came the final Cabinet meeting.
As so often happens, the great occasion was a sad anti-climax. No one bothered to discuss the larger aspects of the Zionist question or the long-term advantages of a British association with the National Home. Balfour, who introduced the topic, concentrated entirely on the propaganda advantages of issuing the Declaration at once, arguing that it would win support among the Jews in America, as well as rallying the Jews in Russia against the Bolsheviks. Apart from the discussion of some minor amendments, there was no debate, and it was decided, for no clear reason, to issue the Declaration in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, although he held no office in the Zionist Federation.
So, on November 9, the Declaration was finally given to the press. It received little notice because the main news of the day was the entry of the British Army into Gaza and the beginning of the Bolshevik coup d’état in Russia. Indeed, the ironic feature of the Balfour Declaration is that, from the very moment of its adoption by the British government, it ceased to be of any service to British imperial interests. The seizure of power by the Bolsheviks finally destroyed the fantastic illusion that the Russian Jews could be persuaded to keep their country at war in defiance of the Revolution. Moreover, the beginning of the British occupation of Palestine meant that it was unnecessary any longer to use Zionism in order to keep the French out of the Middle East. Even the argument that the Declaration was necessary to prevent the German government from issuing its own pro-Zionist policy was found to have little validity. Though there were a few people in the German Foreign Office who would have liked a policy of this kind, the need to prop up an unstable Turkish regime made it completely impracticable. For the time being the Declaration seemed to have been stillborn and its opponents in the United States were successful in preventing President Wilson from giving it any support.
Mr. Stein’s investigations have conclusively shown that, if the Declaration had not been passed on October 30, the British Cabinet would never have adopted it, since the reasons of state and the propaganda advantages which the British expected to derive from it had all been invalidated within three weeks of its proclamation. Throughout, indeed, one is struck by the regularity with which the British Foreign Office gave the wrong advice, advocated the Declaration for the wrong reasons of imperial utility, and never once warned the government that the Arabs might prove an obstacle to its achievement. One is also impressed by the minor role that public opinion was allowed to play in Britain as well as in America. Britain was still an oligarchy and in World War I power was concentrated in very few hands. It was the supreme achievement of Weizmann to avoid wasting time on influencing a public opinion that was completely ineffective. He concentrated his attention on the few score personalities who really mattered, showed patience when the time was not ripe, and exerted extreme and ultimately successful pressure when he felt that the opportunity was slipping away. The Jewish tradition that the Balfour Declaration was the product of a single man’s diplomatic skill is no exaggeration.
But, almost as soon as it had been made, the Declaration became an embarrassment to the British, who began the attempt to wriggle out of it. Within a matter of weeks Balfour was arguing that Britain should persuade the United States to take over the Mandate—a view in which he persisted to the end, while General Allenby in Palestine was suppressing the text, in the interests of placating the Arabs, and seeking to get the policy reversed. Only Lloyd George and, to a lesser extent, Winston Churchill persisted in the belief that British imperial interests would be sustained by the establishment of a Jewish nation to the north of the Suez Canal. And even they, in 1922, were compelled by the rising tide of Arab nationalism to whittle the commitment down. By the middle of the 1930’s, when the victims of Hitler’s persecution were pouring into Palestine, and the Arabs were in armed revolt, it had become clear that the Balfour Declaration could only be fulfilled at the cost of jeopardizing Britain’s Middle Eastern empire and imperiling the huge new oil interests along the Persian Gulf that had only emerged after Britain’s acceptance of the Palestine Mandate. Alas for Chaim Weizmann! The identity of interest between the British Empire and the Jewish State, on which he had pinned his faith, had broken down. The State of Israel would have to be created not under the protection of Britain but in a war of independence against her.
1 Simon and Schuster, 681 pp., $7.50.