The Balfour Declaration was the British charter of November 1917 that viewed “with favour” the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Of course, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill interpreted this as a state; other British statesmen subsequently did not. Some would have preferred to understand it as tantamount to a community center – something politically inoffensive that would not impinge on British interests in the Middle East.
The interwar years were, on the one hand, peppered by concerted British attempts to row back from the interpretation of a state. On the other, nearly half a million Jews settled in Palestine during the period of the British Mandate – some six times the number at the beginning of British rule.
The wording of the Balfour Declaration and its implicit ambiguity was no accident. Indeed there were many drafts based on exchanges between the leading Zionists and the British government. However, all this was highly symbolic of the British desire to fool as many people as necessary for as long as the British needed their support to defeat the Turks during World War I. Indeed there were intense efforts in 1917 to persuade the Turks to withdraw from the war. Pledges were given and bribes offered, but to no avail. Yet it was certainly a close-run thing. Even after the Balfour Declaration was made public, Lloyd George offered to fly the Turkish flag over Jerusalem.
The author, Jonathan Schneer, a specialist in British history at an American university, demonstrates how the issuing of the Balfour Declaration was one of several parallel games the British Foreign Office was playing to secure victory in the Middle East.
Ambiguity was not simply the prerogative of the British. When Sharif Hussein, the Hashemite ruler of the Hejaz, first approached the British in Cairo, he stipulated that before taking any action against the Turks, he wanted Britain’s assurance that they would “abstain from internal intervention in Arabia.” But where was Arabia? The Hejaz or the entire Arabian peninsula? Did it include Mesopotamia and Syria – and therefore Palestine?
The famous correspondence in October 1915 between Hussein and the new British representative in Cairo, Lt.- Col. Sir Arthur Henry McMahon, has begged the century- old question as to whether Palestine was promised to the Arabs. Academic scholars have savaged each other in the cause of its correct interpretation. It stated that “the districts of Mersina and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Hama, Homs and Aleppo cannot be said to be purely Arab and should be excluded from the proposed limits and boundaries.”
What then was the meaning of “districts”? In its Arabic version, wilayat, it means vicinity or environs. Hussein therefore understood it as not excluding Palestine. The Zionists and the British utilized the Turkish version, vilayet, which denotes a province and hence political jurisdiction. The province of Damascus reached all the way down to Aqaba.
The desire of the British and the French to divide up the spoils of war between themselves manifested itself in the clandestine Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. Before the age of Arab nation states, the regions of northern Palestine, Lebanon and part of Turkish Anatolia would be annexed by France. Syria would be governed by an Arab king, but politically influenced by a strong French presence. A mirror image of British rule and influence was reflected throughout the regions of Iraq and Jordan. Russia was interested in extending its influence southward and laid claim to Constantinople as a warm-water port. Both Hussein and Chaim Weizmann were initially totally oblivious to the plans of the imperial powers.
Weizmann’s path to the Balfour Declaration was colored by his shrewd and incisive understanding of the British diplomatic game. When the Allies’ military position was bogged down in the mud of Flanders and tens of thousands died for no good reason, several British officials discovered the Zionist key to their predicament and started to woo world Jewry. Schneer points out that this small group was mainly of Catholic origin. Hugh James O’Brierne, a seasoned British diplomat, composed the first Foreign Office minute that linked Palestine with Jewish interests. Sir Mark Sykes was another Catholic who came up with increasingly innovative, but ultimately unworkable schemes to square the circle between Arabs and Jews.
Did the memory of Catholic martyrs in Protestant England stir a sympathy for Jewish aspirations? Did Catholic imagery of “Jewish power” inflate the significance of world Jewry? Weizmann brilliantly pandered to these stereotypes and exploited them to the full. Unlike the vast majority of the Zionist leadership, Weizmann rejected neutrality in the war and strongly endorsed Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s plan for a Jewish Legion in the British army. This was a gamble since the Germans collapsed only in the summer of 1918 and many Jews fought loyally for the kaiser.
When the Manchester businessmen Harry Sacher, Simon Marks and Israel Sieff established the British Palestine Committee which worked closely with Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow in London, they approached a multitude of prominent people to become patrons. There were only 10 responses, of which half were just acknowledgments.
Schneer has also uncovered some initiatives by British Muslims in 1917 to protest against the very idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. While they endorsed a war against Germany, they believed that the conflict with Turkey was disastrous and were advocates of a separate peace with the Turks. Some members of the British government were fearful that British Muslims would join in a jihad if a declaration was made.
Following the British cabinet’s decision on November 2, 1917, Weizmann, Jabotinsky and other Zionist leaders congregated at Weizmann’s Chelsea apartment and danced a hassidic dance around the small table in the center of the room. This story of this struggle had been told many times before, but Jonathan Schneer has shown with great detail how the attempt to raise the Zionist flag above so many other competing concerns was so difficult, complex and multifaceted.