This is a year of anniversaries. One hundred and twenty years since the first Zionist Congress. Fifty years since the victory in the Six Day war. Forty years since the election of Menahem Begin and the first right wing government in Israel – and many other lesser historical events. But perhaps most significantly it is exactly one hundred years since the issuing of the Balfour Declaration by the government of David Lloyd-George.
The Balfour Declaration and the October Revolution in Russia occurred within days of each other in 1917. They symbolically asked Jews which path they wished to follow in the twentieth century – Zionism or Communism. After all, both have origins in Jewish history and liturgy as the Book of Jeremiah bears testimony to.
Herzl had attempted to attain an international charter of support for Zionism, but to no avail. The British suddenly became interested in such a declaration only in early 1917. Sir Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP, elected in 1911, met several Zionist leaders on 7 February 1917 – and doors subsequently opened to Weizmann, Sokolov, James de Rothschild and Harry Sacher. While Sykes had been acquainted with some Zionists such as the Haham, Moses Gaster, since the spring of 1916, the February 1917 meeting paved the way for Zionist diplomacy in both Paris and Rome. This, in turn, laid the foundations for the Balfour Declaration.
Unbeknown to both the Zionists and the Arabs, Sykes had already negotiated with the French diplomat, François Georges-Picot, the year before – and divided up the ailing Ottoman Empire into areas of British and French influence and control. With the ascendency of Lloyd-George to the premiership in December 1916 and the war effort in the doldrums, British national interest lay in enlisting the Zionists – Sykes had similarly approached the Armenians.
Sykes came from an Anglo-Catholic family whose world outlook was disparaging towards Jews. Lloyd-George while recalling Biblical splendour during his Welsh childhood also referred to Herbert Samuel as ‘a greedy, ambitious and grasping Jew with all the worst characteristics of his race.’ Many in authority believed that ‘international Jewry’ was all-powerful. Russian Jews, it was believed, controlled the grain trade under the Tsar while German Jews were disproportionately dominant in the US. Clearly any declaration, it was argued, in favour of Zion would win Jewish hearts and minds. For the Zionists, this was a window of opportunity – and Chaim Weizmann played to such distortions of the Jewish reality.
It also allowed Vladimir Jabotinsky to establish the Jewish Legion from the remnants of the Zion Mule Corps whose members had carried bullets and bully beef to troops at Gallipoli. The Legion which modelled itself on the international armies that defended the French republic during the revolutionary period was opposed by many leading Zionists – Ahad Ha’am, Sokolov, Sacher, even Lord Rothschild, the recipient of the Balfour Declaration. Many worried that the Turks would turn against the Jews of Palestine in the manner that they acted against the Armenians – massacre and expulsion. Only Weizmann stood by Jabotinsky in his endeavours.
The Balfour Declaration went through numerous drafts by the Zionists – until the Foreign Office was content with the final version. ‘Jewish race’ became ‘Jewish people’. ‘Re-establishment became ‘establishment’. It was couched in the language of ambiguity. What did ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ mean? A community centre? Moreover there was no mention of a state.
At the same time, Sykes lubricated Nahum Sokolov’s diplomatic path in Europe. Sokolov was able to meet Pope Benedict XV who muttered sympathetic but non-commital words of support. Sokolov in turn reassured the Holy Father on the question of the Christian holy places in Palestine. But more significantly Sokolov extracted a letter from Jules Cambon of the French Foreign Ministry. It read:
It would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled many centuries ago.
The Zionists made sure that promises were always given in writing – to prevent them being reinterpreted later.
Cambon’s sympathetic but vague letter laid the basis for the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann wanted a British and not a French protectorate – and used it to good effect in the great game of Franco-British rivalry. Weizmann was also successful in heading off former US Ambassador to Turkey, Henry Morgenthau’s independent mission to secure Turkey’s exit from the war. Britain, the Zionists and the Arabs all wished to see the disintegration of the Ottoman empire.
And so, as history records, that despite the best efforts of Jewish anti-Zionists in cabinet and community, Arthur Balfour – affectionately known publicly as ‘Daddy Longlegs’ – wrote to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917.
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.
Weizmann then rushed to 175 Piccadilly to tell Simon Marks, then to James de Rothschild’s residence, then to Ahad Ha’am’s home in Maida Vale. That night Weizmann celebrated with a few close comrades at his home in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea. Amidst the food and drink, Chaim and Vera Weizmann, Jabotinsky and the others circled the kitchen table in a hasidic dance. Later they were joined by Colonel Patterson, commander of the Jewish Legion. Beer Sheva had fallen to the British that very day.
The Jewish Chronicle persuaded leading Zionists not to publish the Balfour Declaration until it was able to reveal it to the world in its edition of 9 November.
The Balfour Declaration changed the course of Jewish history. It marked a break with the past. It allowed the Jews to embark on a voyage of discovery. It is a voyage that continues despite some very choppy waters, but in comparison with our forebears of 1917, Jews now have the ability to govern themselves and to defend themselves.
As Chaim Weizmann remarked in his autobiography Trial and Error:
A new chapter has opened for us, full of new difficulties, but not without its great moments.
NNLS Magazine 19 September 2017