Book Review

The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Jonathan Schneer

Winter 2010, Volume XVII, Number 4
During World War I, then, Britain and her allies slew the Ottoman dragon in the Middle East. By their policies they sowed dragon’s teeth. Armed men rose up from the ground. They are rising still (p. 376).

In his extraordinary book The Balfour Declaration, Jonathan Schneer provides an in-depth look at the process by which the document that birthed the State of Israel came about and situates it in the whole of British Middle East policy during World War I. Thus he pays close attention throughout to British relations with the Arabs, including the circumstances and controversies surrounding the 1914-15 Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, which included the Damascus Protocol and which the Arabs were led to believe included Palestine; the course of the Arab Revolt; the roles of Sharif (later King) Hussein of Mecca and his sons Feisal, Abdullah and Ali; as well as the progress of T. E. Lawrence and his Bedouin troops. The Arabs never knew about Britain’s conspiracy with France or about the Balfour Declaration and remained loyal and committed to Britain during rhe whole of the war.

At the same time, Schneer closely analyses the relationship between Britain and its wartime ally France, including the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which envisioned an international condominium administering Palestine and the carving up of the remainder of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire between France and Britain in classic imperialist style. On the other hand, Britain secretly hoped to exclude France from the Middle East altogether.

After the Bolshevik revolution, Moscow pulled Russia out of the war and canceled all its wartime treaties and commitments. Britain secretly negotiated with Russia to keep it in the war by promising Moscow control of Istanbul and the Dardanelles. London failed to apprise Paris of this promise.

The Zionist movement in Britain is covered in detail, and we learn that the great majority of British Jews were “assimilationist” and therefore anti-Zionist. Led by Lucien Wolf, who came to dominate the Conjoint Committee of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Wolf and his colleagues (especially Claude Montefiore and Edwin Montagu) worked tirelessly to influence British policy against establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Their position denied the existence of Jewish nationality, and they sought assistance from Britain to ensure the rights of Jews in whatever country they lived. They also wanted Britain to pursue a separate peace with the Ottomans.

Chaim Weizmann became Britain’s leading advocate of Zionism and played a crucial role in bringing about the Balfour Declaration. Together with Nahum Sokolow and Walter Rothschild, and to a lesser extent Harry Sacher, these few men managed to gain support of a slight majorty of British Jews as well as critical persons in the British government, for example, Herbert Samuel, Arthur Balfour and later Sir Mark Sykes. Samuel is an especially interesting character (among a plethora of fascinating men). A wealthy assimilated Jew (part of what Schneer defines as the “Cousinhood”), initially he had little interest in Zionism. After meeting Weitzmann, his interest grew, and he facilitated contact between Weitzmann and important British officials. He personally felt constrained from public advocacy; he was both a Jew and a member of the cabinet. After the war, he served for five years as Britian’s first High Commissioner in Palestine.

Weizmann, more than any other individual, orchestrated the wartime campaign for British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As such, the question arises, where did he receive his influence and power? It came mainly from Weizmann’s perfecting a process for fermenting acetone from grain rather than wood (Schneer mentions this much on p. 155, but little more), to be used in the manufacture of explosives. During World War I, acetone was in short supply in Britain, and this new synthetic material produced by Weizmann went a long way in helping the British win the war. That the prestige he gained from this important discovery would surely translate into political power seems relevant and significant. Schneer does not make this connection.

There was another actor vying for Palestine: the Committee of Union and Progress of the Ottoman Turks. Britain had long sought to conclude a separate peace with the Ottomans and was prepared to make important concessions. During 1917 and 1918, secret meetings took place with Ottoman representatives. Britain was prepared to permit a Turkish flag to fly over Palestine as well as over Greater Syria and Mesopotamia, though with Britain running the countries. Schneer writes:

To detach the Ottomans from the Central Powers would do more to win the war for Britain than anything connected to Arabs or Jews . . . . Eventually, through his emissaries, Lloyd George offered the Turks, among other inducements, that their flag continues to fly over Palestine if they would make a separate peace, even as other British officials were promising Zionists and Arabs that the Ottomans and their flag would be expelled from the Middle East altogether. In the end Enver Pasha [one of a triumvirate who ruled the Ottoman Empire 1913-18] spurned Lloyd George’s offer. Nevertheless, it seems right to suggest that Palestine was not thrice-promised. It was promised, or at any rate dangled as bait, four times: before the Zionists and the Arabs, before Picot by Sykes in the shape of an as-yet-unformed international consortium, and before the Turks, who would otherwise lose it as a result of war (p. 368).

We shall return to the evolution of the Balfour Declaration, but so overwhelming is the sense after reading this book of British duplicity, deceit, double-dealing, obfuscation, ambiguity and back-stabbing in its relations with all the parties involved that one feels it necessary to highlight it. One example will suffice:

They [Weizmann and colleagues] did not realize that a year previously [1916] Sykes and Picot had agreed precisely to international control of Palestine as a whole, the so-called Brown Area except for the British corridor running east-west and the northern slice that would go to France. Herbret Samuel, who had been a member of the cabinet when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was made, knew of this plan but was bound by cabinet oath not to speak of it. The meeting on February 7 [1917], then, was based upon at least three layers of deceit. In the first layer Sykes was attempting to undermine an agreement with France that he (and Herbert Samuel) knew the British government had already accepted, that he himself had helped to negotiate, and that bore his name. In the second layer, Sykes and Samuel both were keeping the Sykes-Picot and Tripartite Agreements secret from everyone else at the meeting. From his French contacts James de Rothschild had gained some inkling of them. Twice he asked Sykes to confirm that Britain had made no promise of Palestinian territory to France. The first time Sykes replied that “no pledges had been given to the French concerning Palestine,” an outright lie . . . The second time he referred the question to Samuel: “Mr Samuel replied that he could not reveal what had been done by the cabinet” (p. 198).

Britain herself wanted Palestine. London believed that, by controlling Palestine, it could better secure the Suez Canal and maintain the puppet monarchy it had installed in Cairo.

The British government issued the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917, but until six months before that date and even up to the very day of its announcement, its existence was uncertain. Until the very end, Lucien Wolf and his followers remained staunchly anti-Zionist and pressed the Foreign Office hard. Their position continued to be emancipation and assimilation for Jews everywhere as well as opposition to the proposal “to give to the Jews of Palestine privileges not shared by the rest of the population of that country” (p. 306). The debate between the two British Jewish communities continued in The Jewish Chronicle, The Times and a variety of other forums. The publication of Zionism and the Jewish Future by Harry Sacher in late 1916 contributed mightedly to shifting the position of some assimilationists, but it was a bitter struggle. A vote taken in the Conjoint Committee in the fall of 1917 gave the Zionists 56 mandates to 51 for the assimilationists, signaling the end of the latter’s influence.

Potential problems came from another source. T.E. Lawrence and his Bedouin fighters encountered numerous unexpected and disabling factors as they planned to take Damascus. While the Zionists in London moved during the spring and summer of 1917 to assert control over British Jewry and to influence the Foreign Office, the Arabs pushed north from Wejh to Aqaba, intending to move on to Syria and claim their homeland. Schneer asks: “Had they reached Damascus before November 2, 1917, it is an interesting point whether the British would have felt confident enough about the future of that territory to release the Balfour Declaration” (p. 325). Near the end of October, Gaza fell, but not until November 30 were the Arabs able to penetrate Syria — three weeks too late for Arab interests to prevail. Of course, they knew nothing of the Balfour Declaration.

In mid-summer 1917, the Zionists wrote a paragraph that they wanted the Foreign Office to adopt and announce as policy:

(1) His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people. (2) His Majesty’s Government will use its best endeavors to secure the achievement of this objective and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization (p. 335).

It is of note here that the first sentence implies an unbroken link between Jews and Palestine despite a nearly 2,000-year separation, while the second sentence posits the Zionist Organization as the official representative of all Jewish interests. Needless to say, the British did not accept this formulation.

Indeed, both the Foreign Office and the War Cabinet were split and undecided about how to proceed. Weizmann then mobilized American support, including American Zionists and non-Zionists and President Woodrow Wilson (who was influenced by Louis Brandeis and other prominent Zionists) and who had just brought the United States into the war on the side of Britain and France. Wilson sent a strong letter of support. As a result, Weizmann had access to virtually every cabinent official, and the Declaration was shortly released. But British deceit and double dealing continued.

This is such an outstanding book that one is reluctant to point out errors and omissions, but it seems dishonest not to do so. The author mentions that there were “Shiite Muslims” and “Sunni-Shiite conflict” in Palestine (p. 9). However, historically or contemporaneously there were never any Shia in Palestine. When writing about conflict in the country (p. 9), it would have been relevant and accurate to mention the inter-hamula (clan) strife. He writes, “There were as well Druze and other Christians . . .” (p. 5). Druze are not Christians; they are a schismatic religion said to have begun as an offshoot of Islam but unique in its incorporation of Gnosticism, neoplatonism and other philosophies, similar to other followers of Ismaili Shia Islam. Further, in Jerusalem Schneer writes, “[with] Mecca-bound Muslim pilgrims, . . .residents did brisk business selling supplies, services, and trinkets typically of olive wood and mother-of-pearl” (p. 7). This is probably a true statement, but Schneer fails to mention that in all likelihood, the majority would have prayed at al-Aqsa Mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. The whole first chapter (pp. 3-31) has a condescending, almost derogatory tone in its analysis of the social and economic life of Palestinians before the British arrived.

With regard to the Jewish holy cities in Palestine, Schneer writes: “Earlier in the nineteenth century it had been mainly elderly Jews who immigrated to Palestine. . . . They were seeking . . . to end their lives in the holy land. These pathetic figures could be seen, ill-clad and malnourished, begging for alms in the streeets of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed” (p. 10). This hardly gives the holy cities their due as centers of spiritual learning. Safed came to be regarded as a holy city after an influx of Jews from Spain following their expulsion in 1492, and became known as a center of kabbalistic scholarship, a mystical/spiritual branch of Judaism. Tiberias was significant in Jewish history as the place where the Jerusalem Talmud was composed and as the home of the Masoretes (mostly Karaite scribes and scholars), but its status as a holy city is due to the influx of rabbis who established the city as a center for Jewish learning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Mr. Schneer repeatedly calls Weitzmann a “folks-mensch” (Yiddish for “man of the people”), but he was not one. Indeed, his elegant lifestyle and cultivated manners were a handicap to him in a movement increasingly dominated by the working class.

A topic that Schneer completely overlooks but that most definitely played a role in the realization of the Balfour Declaration is Christian Zionism. This is a literal belief in the biblical prophecy that the Jews must return to their ancestral home in order for the Second Coming of Christ to occur. Christian Zionism was born in Britain and has been widely influential there. British leaders such as Lord Balfour, Herbert Samuel, Lloyd George and others (including much earlier Lord Shaftesbury) mingled British imperialism with their belief in the need to restore the Jews to their home.

One final criticism, which can be relegated to the category “that is not what the book is about”: The author repeatedly (some 15 times) mentions together the Armenians and the British. Yet he never tells us who the Armenians are, why Britain is concerned about them, what it has promised to do for them, the genocide and so on — all of which could have been done in one paragraph and relieved a sense of void.

Despite these errors and omissions The Balfour Declaration is a masterful work of research and analysis. I highly recommend it to everyone interested in British policy in World War I and the origins of the Balfour Declaration.