The 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration has led to a number of statements and press articles pointing out the arrogance and hypocrisy of Britain giving away land which it didn’t own to people who didn’t live there, against the wishes of the inhabitants writes Roland Rance. Although this assessment is correct as far as it goes, it ignores many of the factors behind the actions of the British government, and vastly oversimplifies the complex calculations.
What was the Balfour Declaration?
On 2 November 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Baron Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement in Britain, stating “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.”
Despite all of the reservations and equivocations in this statement, it was recognised as an affirmation of British support for the Zionist aim of establishing a Jewish national state in Palestine, where Jews formed just 7.5% of the population; the majority of these were traditionally religious Jews, not Zionist immigrants.
At the time, the British army was in the process of occupying Palestine, previously under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The very same day, the British Expeditionary Force began the assault on Gaza; within a month, General Allenby had seized Jerusalem. When the League of Nations subsequently granted Britain a mandate over Palestine, the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the text of the mandate document.
It is unsurprising that the British government was totally duplicitous in its diplomatic manoeuvrings. At the same time as the discussions with Zionist leaders, leading to the Balfour Declaration, Britain had been negotiating with Arab leaders, encouraging them to rise up against Ottoman rule; in return, Britain promised to support the claims of tribal leaders to establish independent states across the region. They were given no hint that Britain proposed to alienate Palestine from the rest of the region, and to establish a “Jewish homeland” there.
In fact, unknown to both Zionist and Arab leaders, Britain was simultaneously negotiating with the French and Russian governments, behind their backs, to ensure an imperialist carve-up of the Middle East following the war. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement allocated to Britain all of Palestine, as well as what was to become Iraq, Transjordan, Kuwait and parts of Saudi Arabia.
This deal contradicted the conflicting promises given by Britain to both Zionists and Arabs, though the Foreign Office showed a marked leaning towards the former. Explicit recognition of this can be seen in a memorandum written by Balfour in 1919, in which he wrote “In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in the present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
Why in November 1917?
The British government had been in discussions with the Zionist movement for many years. In 1903, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain offered a large area in what was to become Kenya and Uganda for the resettlement of Jewish refugees. The Zionist Congress, committed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, rejected the proposal (a minority, which supported the proposal, split from the Zionist movement as a result, setting up the Jewish Territorialist Organisation, led by novelist Israel Zangwill).
However, not until 1917 was it deemed opportune for Britain to publicly support Zionist aspirations. Several factors contributed to this. Britain had administered its empire through means of “divide and rule”, pitting one community against another. The encouragement of Zionist settlement, presumably beholden to the British colonial power, was thought beneficial to imperial interests. Recognition of this came in a 1917 comment by Sir Ronald Storrs, military governor of Jerusalem, that Britain’s support for Zionism would establish “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”.
David Lloyd George, who had succeeded Herbert Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916, was a strong supporter of Zionism. He believed that the Jews wielded huge power in the USA and elsewhere (a belief encouraged by Zionist leaders), and that support for Zionist aims would reinforce US support for the war, which it entered in April 1917. He was also concerned at reports that the German government was also negotiating with the Zionist movement, and he wanted to pre-empt any German statement in support of Zionism.
But the major spur was neither developments in the USA, nor those in Germany. For the Balfour Declaration, despite its significant effect in later historical and political developments, was of course not the only event in November 1917. Within a week of Balfour’s letter to Rothschild, the Bolsheviks had taken power, and pulled Russia out of the war. Lloyd George believed that Russian Jews, out of enthusiasm for the Zionist project, would exert their presumed power to keep Russia in the war. In this he was disappointed; Russian Jews, like most Russians at the time, had more pressing concerns than British imperial machinations.
Lloyd George’s antisemitic belief in the power of “world Jewry” was shared by his Cabinet colleague Winston Churchill, who noted that “among the Jews … this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence, and impossible equality, has been steadily growing … Zionism has already become a factor in the political convulsions of Russia, as a powerful competing influence in Bolshevik circles with the international communistic system. .. The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people.”
The Impact in Palestine
Although British occupation of Palestine and support for the Zionist project marked a turning point in the conflict, it would be a mistake to see 1917 and the Balfour Declaration as the beginning of the Zionist colonisation of Palestine.
The first Zionist colonies were established in 1882, and almost immediately Zionist settlers clashed with Palestinians. The Zionists bought land from absentee landlords; but, unlike other owners, they did not continue to extract a tithe or rent from the farmers working the land, instead evicting them and themselves settling there. An Israeli PhD student has recently discovered in Istanbul a long-forgotten archive of thousands of letters from Palestinian villagers to the Ottoman authorities, protesting at this behaviour. The archive confirms oral history studies, showing that the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians long preceded the British occupation.
However, following 1917, Zionism developed in Palestine with official backing from both the British Colonial Office, and the League of Nations. It was under British rule that the Zionist bodies were recognised as equal in status to the organisations representing the Palestinians, who were more than 90% of the population, and under British sponsorship that the Zionist Jewish community in Palestine was able to develop economically, politically and militarily so that by 1948 it was able to seize three-quarters of the land, expel the bulk of the Palestinian population, and expropriate their lands, homes and businesses.
The military censors initially banned publication in Palestine of news about the Declaration, but, as information and rumours circulated, unrest developed. .Despite bland assurances from the British, and from Weizmann, Palestinian leaders recognised almost immediately that the Declaration meant, in effect, that Palestine would be transformed, over their heads and under their feet, into a Jewish state. They were particularly concerned at their dismissal as “existing non-Jewish communities”, and by their growing recognition of British duplicity. By 1920, this discontent had led to major disturbances, and the thirty years of British rule in Palestine were marked by increasing civil unrest, culminating in the six-month General Strike in 1936 and the 1936-9 Uprising.
Jews and the Balfour Declaration
The Balfour Declaration has often been portrayed as a personal reward by Balfour to Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann, a leader of the Zionist movement in Britain, was a research chemist whose development of a process to synthesise acetone made a significant contribution to British military production during the war. In his memoirs, Weizmann – later to become first president of Israel – claimed that he told Balfour that he spoke for millions of Jews, and when Balfour commented that he had never met another Jew who thought like Weizmann, Weizmann replied that Balfour “met the wrong kind of Jew”.
A sharp rejoinder to Weizmann’s view came from the only Jewish Cabinet member, Edwin Montagu, who denounced the Balfour Declaration in a memorandum “on the Anti-Semitism of the British Government”. Montagu called Zionism “a mischievous political creed”, and argued that the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine would lead to discrimination against both non-Jews in Palestine, and Jews elsewhere – the two reservations explicitly noted in the declaration. The truth is that, at the time, Weizmann and the Zionists did indeed represent a very small part of Jews in the world. Of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled Tsarist oppression and pogroms between 1881 and 1914, perhaps 1% travelled to Palestine. The huge majority were not motivated by nationalist concerns, and preferred to seek safety in Britain, the USA, Argentina, South Africa and elsewhere.
This wave of refugees brought about an antisemitic backlash, and to attempts to keep the refugees out. In Britain, the 1905 Aliens Act was introduced by the same Balfour, who warned Parliament in his speech of “the undoubted evils that had fallen upon the country from an immigration which was largely Jewish”. Like Lloyd George and Churchill, and many other European supporters and sponsors of Zionism, Balfour was motivated by antisemitism and fear of a mythical “Jewish conspiracy”. In this, they were assisted by Zionist leaders, who shared their desire to transfer Jews from Europe to Palestine, and who consciously fostered this myth.
The true significance of the Balfour Declaration is as the first, and perhaps most striking, manifestation of a European desire to solve its own problem of antisemitism at the expense of the people of Palestine. Ninety five years on, the Palestinians are still paying the price for European crimes.