When God made covenant with Abraham and his descendants by establishing the length and breadth of Eretz Israel — from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates — no one could have imagined that it would take the cascade of centuries before a one-sentence British statement with a dodgy backstory finally delivered the framework for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
During the time between Genesis 15 and November 2, 1917, Jews scattered across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the New World, persistently enduring economic, political, and religious deprivations far from their biblical cradle. Not until Britain approved the Balfour Declaration at the height of World War I, with imperial considerations far outweighing religious altruism, did even notional hopes of “next year in Jerusalem” become greater than a glimmer.
The brief pronouncement fueled excitement for Zionists and carried the endorsement of the British War Cabinet and its foreign minister, Arthur James Balfour. Once prime minister himself, Balfour encouraged its gestation after forging a bond with the politically astute and personally mesmerizing (and sometimes infuriating) Chaim Weizmann. Approved between the flowering of Zionism and the impending Holocaust, it stirred expectations among Jews far beyond its vague geography and squishy language.
At minimum, the declaration redeemed a pledge to Zionists for a toehold in Palestine, while allowing established Arab populations status quo ante. But it did deny, by Machiavellian omission, a Jerusalem caliphate to the nationalist princes of the Arab Revolt, who contended that Britain promised them the prize if they rose up against the Ottoman Empire.
Thus did the distrust and enmity now blanketing the region begin to fester in the wake of World War I diplomatic deceits, overtopped with a few good intentions and several bad translations. While edging toward the declaration and even afterward, Britain more than justified its reputation as Perfidious Albion, virtually “re-gifting” Palestine three (possibly four) times during negotiations with Zionists, Arabs, the French, and the Ottomans.
The tiny island nation that ruled nearly one third of the world emerged after the war with even more dominion in the Middle East. It was awarded portions of Mesopotamia (Iraq), and more importantly, Mandatory Palestine, the vital strip of land on the eastern Mediterranean, from which it could keep tabs on the French at Suez and the Turks and Russians in the Dardanelles (although both were nonthreats after the war). From there it also could squeeze enemy forces from their new ports at Accra and Haifa and their old redoubt at Gibraltar.
Never did the art of muddling through play out more masterfully.
With the declaration’s centennial at hand, it seems appropriate to revisit Jonathan Schneer’s “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israel Conflict,” published in 2010 and reissued in paperback. Schneer’s probing, gracefully composed analysis holds up well against the current glare of the Mideast and will prove indispensable for both the historically minded and those passionate about the State of Israel and how it got from there to here.
“Balfour” avoids a dense plunge into biblical or recent yesteryear, instead offering a whirlwind of wartime intrigue and clashing religious aspirations. Every clue and character contributing to the region’s present disequilibrium comes into play in Schneer’s panorama. Schneer, a professor of modern British history at Georgia Tech, brings bracing immediacy to T.E. Lawrence’s desert adventures, the rivalry among streams of British Judaism, and the agony of Sharif Hussein, emir of Mecca, as he deludes himself with British promises and plots with his sons against the Ottomans.
Readers are whisked from the deliberations of the War Cabinet to diplomatic conferences, clandestine meetings, and sandy battlefields. Schneer interweaves diverse locations, time frames, and principals into a seamless whole. The personalities are complicated, eccentric, and often prejudiced, even when they consider their mission noble, even civilizing. (The British derisively refer to the people of the Mideast as “orientals.”) Thumbnail sketches in an introductory glossary provide readers with a helpful scorecard on these post-Victorians, now mostly consigned to history’s dustbin.
Here then, the one-sentence Balfour Declaration, proving brevity isn’t necessarily a virtue and the word “homeland” doesn’t easily translate into “nation”:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favor in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.”
On its face, it is seemingly anodyne and elastic enough for all parties to lap at. Weizmann, Harry Sacher, Nahum Sokolov, and other Zionists had a hand in several drafts as the document made its way through the labyrinths of the Foreign Office. Weizmann’s ability to fend off repeated challenges to his leadership bore fruit when he persuaded Baron Walter Rothschild, leader of the country’s assimilationist Jewish establishment, known as the community of cousins, to join the pro-Palestine fold at a critical moment.
Indeed, Weizmann played his cards as cannily as the mandarins of the Foreign Office. He nurtured their philo-Semitic tropes (cloaked, naturally, in smug, Christian evangelical condescension) of superior Jewish intellect, special financial acuity, and a global web of connectivity (read conspiracy) to buttress their view that a homeland for the Jews, as a British protectorate, would be of benefit to the empire. Contemporaneously, Weizmann let the British worry, no matter how mistakenly, that if Palestine wasn’t offered, the Germans would dangle it to their Jewish citizens and tip the wartime balance.
While granting Weizmann entrée to the highest councils, Britain continued its diplomatic duplicity, concluding a secret side deal — the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement — with its French entente partner in 1916. That agreement divvied up the region into spheres of influence (France would get territory in what now is Syria and Lebanon, England would absorb most of what is Iraq today), and assigned Palestine a “condominium” joint rulership. Rebellious Arabs would be rewarded with swaths of Ottoman territory. Britain, of course, had absolutely no intention of allowing its ally any say or sway in Palestine once the war ended. And British Jews had no appetite for French rule anywhere.
Muddying the waters further, many times Britain attempted to detach the Ottomans from their German-Austrian partners by putting Palestine into play, even after the Balfour Declaration was issued. Ascendant “easterners” in the cabinet, led by Lloyd George, were willing to grant territorial concessions and direct cash to the junta of pashas, using a notorious arms dealer as an intermediary, even offering the Ottomans a shadowy presence in Palestine. Fortunately, the carnage of World War I ended before these schemes gained traction.
Britain continued to govern Mandatory Palestine for nearly 30 years beyond Balfour. It was an uneven, sometimes harsh, often exclusionary relationship, depending on the whims of the high commissioner at the moment and the nature of domestic politics in London. Jewish immigration to the region was reduced to a trickle on the eve of World War II, when it was most needed, while Arabs grew more restive in the interwar period, and violence with Zionists became the norm.
Balfour, long term, roiled the waters more than it calmed them. But it also paved the way for a high-tech, vibrant Israel prospering alongside an aggrieved, sullen, bifurcated Palestine. Much more will unfold and much more will be written. Hopefully, Schneer will help chronicle the drama.
Jonathan E. Lazarus is a former editor at the Star-Ledger and a proofreader for the Jewish Standard.