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Overstating the Importance of the Balfour Declaration

Lord Balfour (center) visiting Tel Aviv in 1925. (Public domain)

Reading a recent commentary by Seth Lipsky about the Balfour Declaration, and then seeing a photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu celebrating the 100th anniversary of this so-called declaration, I had to ask myself: How didthis 67-word document, which was actually a letter sent by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, an influential Zionist, on November 7, 1917, authorize a Jewish state in the Middle East or, for that matter, anywhere else?  

The letter speaks about “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At that time the British government was not incidentally at war with the Central Powers, including the Ottoman Empire. It was therefore busily negotiating with other political actors besides Jewish Zionists—for example, the future Hashemite rulers of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The British had detached the Sharif of Mecca, an important Muslim religious official, from his erstwhile sovereign, the Turkish sultan. Furthermore, the negotiators promised to confer kingdoms on the Sharif’s sons in return for their support of the British effort in World War I. At the same time, the British also were putting finishing touches on what became the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which had the effect of dividing control over the same territory with their French allies.

If Zionists who were anticipating an Allied victory thought the Balfour Declaration smoothed the way for a Jewish state, they were mistaken. The declaration was a small piece in a broader British strategy of dealing with multiple players while trying to win a costly war. Lipsky criticizes the British for later showing less than wholehearted enthusiasm for a Jewish state. But the British, after the war, did not view the Balfour Declaration as something to which they had unconditionally committed themselves. It was something they had granted as a means of prosecuting the war, perhaps like the 1915 Treaty of London, in which London promised their prospective Italian allies loads of territory then occupied by Austrians, Slavs, and other non-Italian nationalities. The British naturally had second thoughts about supporting all the treaty’s provisions once the shooting stopped.

The Balfour Declaration’s core statements were incorporated into the agreement drawn up by the war’s victors at San Remo, Italy, in August 1920. This postwar agreement spoke about establishing a “national homeland” for Jews in Palestine, without prejudice to the rights of non-Jewish inhabitants. But the main concerns at the conference were about divvying up spheres of influence in the Middle East between the British and French, and about apportioning the region’s rich oil resources to the victorious powers in the recently concluded war. According to some Zionist polemicists, the San Remo agreement was meant toestablish a sovereign Jewish state embracing what are now the present states of Jordan and Israel. But the references in the agreement to a Jewish national homeland are less definitive than some historians seem to think. 

Contrary to the accounts of some historians with an interest in this subject, many Jews were on the other side in World War I. Note that the father of the Zionist movement, the Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl, regarded the German Kaiser as a likely sponsor of his project. At least some Zionists hoped to extract a deal for a Jewish political entity in the Middle East from the Germans—and even, for a while, from the Turks. But, as the Turkish Sultanate fell into chaos, and the German Imperial government exercised less and less influence over its unreliable and divided Turkish allies, the Zionists focused their efforts more on British, and then later American cooperation. Generally, Zionists favored their countries of origin–on either side of the divide—but they also pursued their own nationalist interests.

For two years after the war began, David Ben Gurion, the future Israeli premier, negotiated with the Turks in Istanbul. When that failed, he threw his support to the Allied side. While the Zionists concentrated on acquiring recognition of a Jewish state, Balfour and his wartime coalition pursued the goal of winning worldwide Jewish support for an Allied victory while also holding on to Arab allies and the British sphere of control in the Middle East.

In the end, Zionists succeeded in establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East for reasons that had little to do with the Balfour Declaration now being celebrated in London and elsewhere. This would occur because, contrary to British attempts not to disturb Palestinian Arabs, masses of Jews would legally or illegally enter what eventually became Israel, particularly after the Nazis had initiated the extermination of Jews. Because of understandable sympathy for the European Jewry after the Holocaust, Western Christian opinion swung decisively toward the Zionists. A similar development took place in some Jewish organizations in the United States, which had opposed the Zionist enterprise. Anti-Zionist Jews likewise changed sides by the end of World War II or shortly thereafter.

And when fighting erupted between the Jewish settlers and the Arabs in 1947, after provisional borders were set for a future Jewish state, the Jews fought more ably and more intelligently, and were able to expand their borders in both the north and south. They also expelled Palestinian residents, which generated other long-term problems. But whatever happened in the end had almost nothing to do with Lord Balfour’s letter-writing during World War I. 

The official date for Israeli independence, May 14, 1948, is now treated in Israel as a religious holiday (Yom Ha’atzmaut). This is a far more credible date than Balfour’s epistolary “proclamation” for marking the beginning of a modern Jewish state. And the Israelis seem to agree.          

Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.   

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