Balfour at 100

Balfour at 100
By Michael Makovsky, PhD – The Weekly Standard

A century has passed since Britain became the first nation to recognize a Jewish homeland.

November 2 marks the centennial of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, the first international recognition of a Jewish homeland. The Declaration was enshrined in the Covenant of the League of Nations in 1922, and effectively reaffirmed by a United Nations vote in 1947. The Declaration was impelled during WWI as much by wartime aims, some based on anti-Semitic delusions, as noble aims. This lack of deep, pervasive Zionist sentiment contributed to many postwar British governments, with notable exception of Winston Churchill’s, to weaken its commitment to a Jewish homeland and eventually renege upon it. Indeed, the Balfour Declaration largely marked the zenith of British Zionism for much of the following 100 years.

Although on the intellectual and geographic periphery of world Jewish life, England, which had been one of the first countries to expel Jews in 1290, had been receptive, since at least the sixteenth century, to the prospect of Jewish restoration to the Holy Land and their conversion to Christianity as part of a millennial vision. By the late 19th century, some prominent figures, such as the Jewish-born prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and novelist George Eliot, proposed Jewish restoration for humanistic and strategic benefits. However, most considered the idea absurd, if they thought about it at all.

The rise of vicious anti-Semitism and attacks in Tsarist Russia and across Europe compelled some Jews to no longer wait for the Messiah and initiate Jewish restoration and no longer wait for the Messiah. Some East European Jews in the 1880s began to move to the Holy Land, whose Jewish population had been decimated by the Crusades one millennium earlier and the Romans one millennium before that.

Theodor Herzl, an assimilated Central European Jewish journalist, was shocked by the vicious anti-Semitism of the Dreyfus Affair in allegedly liberal France, and determined Jewish survival depended upon their establishing their own state in the Holy Land. He sought Great Power endorsement to confer enough legitimacy to ensure continued Jewish emigration so that Jews could again become a majority. (He also thought the Zionists needed their own army.) Toward that end, and to rouse the Jewish people, he wrote in 1896, The Jewish State, appealing not to Gentile self-interest and not Gentile hearts.

He wielded anti-Semitic canards as clubs against anti-Semites on behalf of Zionism. He argued in his writings and diplomacy with world leaders that a Jewish state would reduce domestic instability, increase domestic employment and, more nobly, “form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization.” Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism, died in 1904 at the age of 44, but his ideas, organization and arguments laid the groundwork for what emerged a decade later.

Zionist efforts stalled until the First World War broke out in August 1914, and Britain declared war on the German-allied Ottoman Empire. Britain intended to dissolve the Ottoman Empire, and began to consider what should replace it.

A Jewish member of government, Herbert Samuel, in early 1915 introduced the idea of a Jewish “centre” under British protectorate that would evolve, over a century, into a state. He maintained that a Jewish center would transform the Jewish character and house “a brilliant civilisation,” “enable England to fulfill in yet another sphere her historic part of the civiliser of the backward countries,” add “lustre” to Britain given the “widespread and deep-rooted” Protestant sympathy for Jewish restoration to the Holy Land, offer imperial benefits, and engender the gratitude of Jews throughout the world for Britain, especially in the United States. These ideas influenced the subsequent debate and were echoed by other British officials, including Churchill. The Cabinet was mixed. In private and Cabinet meetings in the spring of 1915-around the time of the British attack on Gallipoli intended to knock out the Ottomans from the war-the anti-Semitic Prime Minister H.H. Asquith expressed opposition, as did a Jew (and Samuel’s cousin), Edwin Montagu, who feared it would undermine his position in English society. Secretary of State for War Herbert Kitchener opposed as well. David Lloyd George, who had been involved in Zionism a decade earlier, was sympathetic, but argued in the Cabinet that Britain should grab Palestine for the “prestige” that would accrue. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who also espoused pro-Zionist views a decade before, didn’t want to focus on postwar matters yet and didn’t promote Zionist aspirations.

Ultimately, as Herzl predicted, self-interest was the dominant impetus and driver, and not respect, admiration and recognition of Jews and their right to a state.

Britain and France agreed to divide the Ottoman area, as worked out in the famous 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, but that arrangement, counter to common understanding, soon after began to unravel. Prime Minister Lloyd George, and some other officials, thought it ceded too much of Palestine and the region to France, especially after Britain launched a military campaign in the spring of 1917 to liberate the Holy Land from the Muslim Ottomans. Promising Palestine to the Jews served as a way to reduce French influence. It also offered some reward to Palestinian Jews who supported the British military in WWI.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on November 2, 2017.