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.
More broadly, Britain sought Jewish help in Palestine and elsewhere, in a stalled, stalemated, blood-soaked world war. The British, now with Lloyd George as prime minister, sought to liberate Palestine from the Ottomans. On April 2, 1917, the War Cabinet met and its minutes reported, apparently reflecting views of Lloyd George: “In the course of the discussion great stress was laid on the moral and political advantages to be expected from an advance in Palestine, and particularly from the occupation of Jerusalem, which, it was pointed out, would be hailed with the utmost satisfaction in all parts of the country.” This was needed to “counteract the depressing influences of a difficult economic situation.” The Jews assisted. A Jewish legion was formed and participated in the battle for Palestine, and a network of Palestinian Jewish spies provided intelligence about the Ottomans that also proved important.
Many British officials shared age-old anti-Semitic stereotypes that exaggerated Jewish power, including that Jews were key sources of instability and forces behind left-wing revolutionary movements. They believed Jews held important sway in Russia, especially with the Bolsheviks and that promising them a Jewish homeland would help undercut the Bolsheviks’ ascent, keeping the pro-Entente Kerensky government in power and Russia in the war. Even the philo-Semitic Churchill believed amid the post-war, post-Bolshevik Revolution red scare that most Bolshevik leaders in Russia and elsewhere were Jews. For instance, he wrote Foreign Minister Curzon in 1921 about “the tyrannic Government of these Jew Commissars.” Of course, centuries of anti-Semitism in Russia and elsewhere spurred many Jews to seek salvation, anonymity, and assimilation in a communist movement promising equality, justice, and a complete break from the past. But the British exaggerated Jewish presence among and influence with the Bolsheviks. Of course, Zionists since Herzl, with few other tools at their disposal, promoted the idea of exaggerated Jewish power and influence in Russia and elsewhere to abet their cause, and also convinced government officials that Jews widely supported Zionism, which wasn’t the case.
Further, British officials thought Jews in America were very influential, and hoped the promise of a Jewish homeland would energize them to press President Woodrow Wilson, who supported a Zionist declaration, to intensify the U.S. war effort. British officials, who considered many Jews to be of German extraction, also feared that Germany was planning to make its own pro-Zionist declaration, and intended to beat it to the punch.
All this is captured by one senior Foreign Office official’s memo on October 24, 1917, expressing concern over alienating Zionists in America and Germany, and pushing Zionists toward Germany. “Information from every quarter shows the very important role the Jews are now playing in the Russian political situation…almost every Jew in Russia is a Zionist, and if they can be made to realise that the success of Zionist aspirations depends on the support of the Allies and expulsion of the Turks from Palestine, we shall enlist a most powerful element in our favour.”
On October 31, 1917, during the British-Ottoman battle for Beersheva in Palestine, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour told the Cabinet, according to the minutes, it was “desirable that some declaration favourable to the aspirations of the Jewish nationalists should now be made.” Most Jews in the United States and Russia supported Zionism, and a declaration supporting Zionism “should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.”
On November 2, 1917, Balfour sent a letter to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, head of Britain’s Zionist Federation, which conveyed the British government’s “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” and viewed “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 non-Jewish communities or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The definition of “national home” was left intentionally ambiguous. Balfour told the War Cabinet on October 31 that “national home” meant an entity under British or American protectorate which permitted the Jews to “build up . . . a real centre of national culture and focus of national life.” But he privately confided in 1918, “My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish State.” The Zionists had given conflicting statements about their intentions, and since in 1917 Jews comprised only about 10 percent of Palestine’s population, even Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann considered development of a state would be slow. The British press mostly understood the Declaration as promising a Jewish state.
Despite efforts by Zionist leaders, the Declaration made no impact on Russian policies. News of the Declaration did not reach Russia until November 29, by which time Lenin had entered Petrograd and the new Bolshevik regime announced its exit from the war. Still, the British were soon in a position to make good on their promise to the Jews. On December 11, 1917, British General Edmund Allenby liberated Jerusalem after a nine-month campaign marking a significant wartime achievement for Britain and Christians elsewhere—the bells of London’s Roman Catholic Cathedral rang out, as did church bells in Rome.
Churchill, Colonial Secretary in 1921-22, implemented the Declaration despite challenges in Britain and Palestine, as well as his own personal misgivings. Domestically, his mentor, the pro-Zionist Liberal Lloyd George was keen on it, but the governing coalition was dominated by the ascending Conservatives, who were increasingly anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and anti-Mandates. Complicating matters, Churchill was beginning to eye a switch back to the Conservatives, after leaving them for the Liberals in 1904.
Meanwhile, most Palestinian Arabs, and particularly the majority Muslims, who were part of the Ottoman governing structure before WWI, didn’t accept being treated the same as the Jews, who were deemed inferior, let alone being governed by them. These attitudes, plus the belief that pushing back could sway British policy, contributed to rising Arab-on-Jew violence in Palestine.
Despite these obstacles, Churchill mostly advanced the Balfour Declaration and Zionist aspirations. He ensured that Jews retained the right to immigrate to Palestine, which was essential to ensuring they would again comprise a majority of the population, privately agreed to illegal Palestinian Jewish gunrunning, allowed the Zionists to establish durable national institutions, and importantly insisted to the Palestinian Arabs that they accept Zionism and the unalterability of British policy. Churchill came to consider Palestinian Arabs backward and no friend of Britain, while concluding that the Palestinian Jews were partners with Britain in the advance of civilization, his preeminent concern. The 1922 Churchill White Paper declared the Jews were in Palestine “as of right and not by sufferance,” based on their “ancient historic connection,” yet maintained that immigration would be limited to some vague “economic capacity” of the land. Churchill ended his tenure as colonial secretary in October 1922 with, in the striking words of the Palestine High Commissioner: “The country is quiet.” It remarkable for a land so filled with strife before, during, and after.
After Churchill’s tenure, Palestinian Arab-on-Jew violence rose and British will to enforce the Declaration waned. First in 1929, when Socialist Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald’s government initially suspended Jewish immigration in response to Arab violence, before backing off due to widespread criticism. Yet, the events radicalized both sides. Then in 1936-1939, Palestinian Arab revolt against British rule, amid surging Jewish immigration caused by Nazi persecution, led the Peel Commission to make the radical recommendation of a two-state solution, with Britain controlling Jerusalem. For the first time a British body explicitly called for a Jewish state in Palestine—albeit a truncated one that comprised only 5 percent of Mandated Palestine—but also introduced the idea of a Palestinian Arab state. Mainstream Zionists supported the recommendation, but Palestinian Arabs rejected it.
Still, in 1937, prominent historian Benzion Netanyahu, father of the current Israeli prime minister, wrote that “without the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate, which expressed legal and well-founded claims and which were upheld by international powers, the aspirations of the Jews in the Land of Israel would have soon come to an end; the Jews who had settled there would have become a hated minority and fearful of its future—like Jewish minorities throughout the world.” It was a vindication of Herzl.
Neville Chamberlain became prime minister in mid-1937, and the anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist Conservative Party leader increasingly felt less obligation to the Balfour Declaration. By late 1938, amid rising Nazi aggression and violence in Palestine, his government relaxed pressure on the Palestinian Arabs and curtailed Jewish immigration. He established the Woodhead Commission that found the Peel plan unfeasible, recommending a Jewish state comprising only 1 percent of Mandated Palestine.
Chamberlain also viewed Palestine in a wider global context. With war looming, Chamberlain took the same approach to Palestine as he did to Europe; he sought to strengthen Britain’s strategic position appeasing the Arabs. He issued a seminal White Paper on Palestine in May 1939, which amounted to a complete negation of the Balfour Declaration and the purpose of the Mandate. By limiting and eventually eliminating Jewish immigration over five years, prohibiting the sale of Arab land to Jews, and envisioning an independent Arab, but not Jewish, state, Chamberlain’s White Paper sought to preclude a Jewish majority from materializing in Palestine and thwarted efforts to establish a safe haven for Jews fleeing Europe.
Churchill furiously but unsuccessfully led the charge against the White Paper in the Commons. He denounced it as another aspect of the government’s appeasement policy that proclaimed British betrayal and weakness and would embolden Britain’s enemies in Europe and the Middle East. He asked incredulously, “Is our condition so parlous and our state so poor that we must, in our weakness, make this sacrifice of our declared purpose?” He believed British enemies would see it as “another Munich.” He feared this display of weakness would also alienate potential and existing friends, implicitly referring to Soviet Russia and the United States, which he intended to bring together in a “grand alliance” against Germany. He was especially concerned the White Paper would undermine Britain’s position with the United States, where he long believed Jews were influential. President Franklin Roosevelt did indeed take note.
Churchill reminded how the Palestinian Jews helped Britain during WWI, and maintained—counter to the establishment view—that they were stronger than the Palestinians Arabs, who were pro-Ottoman in WWI and now pro-Fascist, suggesting they could prove helpful help in the looming conflict with Germany too. He could not understand how Chamberlain chose Britain’s enemies over allies. Left unsaid in this speech, but clear for a decade, Churchill felt a strong bond with the Zionists; their enemies were his enemies, their friends were his friends, ideologically, strategically, and politically.
Churchill also opposed the White Paper based on a sense of honor and humanitarian necessity, pointing out what many had forgotten, especially as Nazi persecution was intensifying: “This pledge of a home of refuge, of an asylum, was not made to the Jews in Palestine but to the Jews outside Palestine, to that vast, unhappy mass of scattered, persecuted, wandering Jews whose intense, unchanging, unconquerable desire has been for a National Home.” Of course, the many anti-Semites on the political left and right weren’t too concerned with this plea.
Churchill further emphasized, as he had since 1921, the civilizational value of Zionism, during a dark time in the world when barbaric, totalitarian ideologies were ascendant and menacing. He applauded the Zionists for making “the desert bloom,” starting “a score of thriving industries,” and founding “a great city on the barren shore.” “It is stranger still that we should turn away when the great experiment and bright dream, and the historic dream, has proved its power to succeed.”
After Churchill became prime minister in 1940, he worked hard to construct a post-war settlement for the Middle East that included a Jewish state. He managed to achieve initial Cabinet support in principle for a postwar Jewish state, despite many anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist ministers. But his efforts failed due to some extremist Zionist activity and an inability to achieve Saudi support, which was deemed then vital. Without U.S. support—FDR made clear to Ibn Saud he would do nothing on Palestine against Saudi wishes—Churchill didn’t have the clout. He was voted out of office after the war, and thus unable to pursue Zionist diplomacy without the constraint of his fixation to win a world war.
Labour head Clement Attlee became prime minister in July 1945, and his government reverted to the Chamberlain policy of reneging on the Balfour Declaration and seeking to prevent the emergence of a Jewish state. Attlee was anti-Zionist and believed Britain to be weak and that it needed to cling to the Arabs, or at least avoid their antagonism. Further, his foreign minister Ernest Bevin was outright anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. Even as they sought to withdraw from many British imperial possessions, including India and Egypt, they intended to cling to Palestine for what were deemed strategic reasons. Churchill had the reverse view, declaring, “‘Scuttle,’ everywhere is the order of the day—Egypt, India, Burma. One thing at all costs we must preserve: the right to get ourselves world-mocked and world-hated over Palestine, at a cost of £82 million.” Still, the Attlee policy garnered overwhelming domestic political support. Unlike the United States and Soviet Union, the Attlee government abstained in 1947 when the UN voted in favor of partitioning Palestine between a Jewish and Arab state (the Arabs opposed), and didn’t recognize the State of Israel after it was declared upon the departure of British authority.
In January 1949, Israel a concluded stunning victory over the many Arab armies that attacked the prior May seeking to push the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea, an effort that Attlee and Bevin effectively supported. Conservative leader Churchill overcame his own postwar detachment from the Zionists and blasted the government’s policy that isolated it from its American allies and undercut its influence in the Middle East. He suggested Bevin was anti-Semitic and declared the foreign secretary was “wrong, wrong in his facts, wrong in his mood, wrong in the method and wrong in the result,” that “no one has been proved by events to be more consistently wrong on every turning-point and at every moment than he,” and that he pursued a “policy of folly, fatuity and futility the like of which it is not easy to find in modern experience.” Instead, Churchill thought Britain should welcome the establishment of the State of Israel as “an event in world history” to be understood in the perspective of thousands of years.
The mostly short-term war aims of the Balfour Declaration meant that many of the ideas that animated it no longer were relevant after WWI. The anti-Semitic sentiment behind it, however, did persist, and now took on an anti-Zionist form. So after Lloyd George left the scene and Arab-Jewish tension and violence was worse than expected, British will weakened, the Palestinian Arabs were emboldened, and Britain sought to reduce and eventually renege on its commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Chamberlain and then Attlee culminated that evolution, with their disregard for the Jews, catering to the Arabs, sense of British weakness, and misunderstanding of British values and true strategic interests. Churchill, as usual, had a completely different outlook than the establishment, and he became more Zionist as Britain became less so. He felt a kinship with the Jews, believed the Holy Land belonged to them for historical and forward-looking reasons, saw the Zionists and Palestinian Jews as natural, stalwart strategic allies with Britain, and partners with Britain in the advance of civilization.
On this centennial, it is right to celebrate the Balfour Declaration for contributing to the creation of the State of Israel, and recognizing prominent British officials, such as Balfour, Lloyd George and Churchill who were instrumental in its creation and implementation. Still, one should be mindful of the prejudices that helped give rise to the Declaration, prejudices that remain present 100 years later in some leading British circles.
Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on November 2, 2017.