The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is an opportune moment to revisit the role played by Chaim Weizmann in the historic pledge given by the British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild in November 1917.
It was in White Russia as an 11-year old boy that he developed his passion for the Zionist cause, while living under Tsarist suppression and the savagery of the pogroms.
Weizmann believed that the rebirth of the Jewish people in their own ancestral homeland had to become a reality and he moved to Britain in 1904 believing that the preeminent global power possessed the means to bring this about.
On 16 September 1914, Weizmann recorded in his diary that he had met C.P. Scott, the editor of The Manchester Guardian (later, The Guardian) who was ‘quite prepared to help … in any endeavour in favour of the Jews … Scott carries great weight and he may be useful.’ By the end of November 1914, Scott had informed Weizmann of his discussions about Palestine with the British prime minister David Lloyd George, telling him that the British leader wanted to see Weizmann in the presence of cabinet minister Herbert Samuel. Following his meeting with Samuel, Weizmann wrote to Scott in great excitement on 13 December 1914 about Samuel’s ‘plans for the establishment of a Jewish community in Palestine under the British protectorate.’ Weizmann told Scott that he and the entire Zionist Movement was in his debt for organizing the meeting.
Weizmann’s relationship with Scott was vital in securing The Guardian’s support for Zionist aspirations in the months before the Balfour Declaration.’ In July 1929, on the occasion of Scott’s retirement as editor, Isidor Sandler of the Manchester Zionist Association wrote to him expressing gratitude ‘for the great part you have taken in the promulgation of the now famous Balfour Declaration…’ Scott’s response to Sandler was emphatic: ‘From the first day that I discussed the Zionist project with my old friend Dr. Weizmann I was convinced of its value not only for the Jewish people but for other nations as a connecting link between East and West.’ Here was early evidence of Weizmann’s apparent ability to win over Britain’s political and intellectual classes on the question of a Jewish homeland.
Yet, as Avi Shlaim has argued in The Iron Wall, Weizmann was mistaken in believing that the convergence of British and Jewish interests would endure. As Britain withdrew from the promises made in the Balfour Declaration, Weizmann became deeply disillusioned with the British leadership. The Zionist leadership perceived the British White Paper of 1939 with its restrictions on Jewish immigration as a severe act of betrayal. Yet Weizmann clung to the belief that there was no other option but to continue working with London as the mandatory power.
The State of Israel would eventually be established five years later, but it would take many years for Britain’s relationship with Israel to fully recover from the tumultuous Mandate period. Tragically, this was something that Weizmann never lived to see. He died on 9 November 1952.
As Britain’s Middle East policy has been re-examined over the decades, scholars have questioned whether Weizmann’s role has been exaggerated, while the real motivations of British statesmen have been overlooked. Thus, British politicians such as Balfour and Samuel were only too happy to support Weizmann in his propaganda campaign, believing that support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine would result in the intervention of Jewry on behalf of the British war effort against Germany. According to this thesis, the Balfour Declaration was influenced less by high-minded support for Zionism but rather by anti-Semitic perceptions that world Jewry was a force which could rally public opinion in the United States and Europe behind Britain. Arguably, Weizmann played on such fears and anti-Semitic images of Jewish power to enlist British support for Zionist aspirations.
Balfour himself harboured anti-Semitic prejudices which Weizmann knew only too well. In Weizmann’s defence, he was operating in a different era when genteel anti-Semitic prejudice was rife. Weizmann bore such prejudice with equanimity. Of greater consequence in the eyes of Weizmann and his contemporaries was Balfour’s support for the rebirth of the ancestral Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Azriel Bermant is a lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and a former research fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies. You can read the full piece in the new edition of Fathom.