Balfour, San Remo and the carving up of the Middle East

In a recent lecture at AACI-Netanya, Don Silverberg spoke about how unexpected events influenced Jewish history. Don is a nephrologist by profession and knows everything about Jewish history. He talked about the Balfour Declaration, that was issued in Nov, 1917 by the British Government supporting the establishment of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine in order to obtain Jewish support for British war efforts. He described how the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour asked for the help of Pres. Woodrow Wilson’s two close Jewish advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, to obtain American entry into WWI.

However, the German sinking of the US liner Lusitania in 1915 and the telegram that was sent in February, 1917 by the German FM, Arthur Zimmerman, asking the Mexican Government to declare war on the US, were enough to bring this declaration about in April, 1917. But, the British Government felt insecure about going ahead with the Balfour Declaration and held back until they could get US agreement. Balfour asked Brandeis and Frankfurter to obtain Wilson’s agreement, before the Balfour Declaration would be issued. Between April and November, 1917, they had great difficulty getting Wilson to commit the US to support the Declaration. But, finally WIlson one day produced a signed note giving US support, but requiring that this be kept secret. Only then did Balfour issue his famous letter.

I had never heard this byzantine story of American involvement in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration before, so I questioned Don afterwards about it. He inundated me with sources for the story, including: “Woodrow Wilson and the Balfour Declaration” Richard Lebow The Journal of Modern History, 40 501-523, 1968, and “Christian Zionists help make the Jewish State,” Jerry Klinger in the Jewish Magazine August 2010. But, in my quest for sources I came across an interesting fact, that the Balfour Declaration was not legally binding under international law until it was included in the Proceedings of the San Remo conference of 1920, that issued a Treaty on the fate of the Ottoman Empire’s former colonies ( ).

The secret Sykes-Picot treaty agreed by Britain and France during WWI that gave control over Syria and Lebanon to France and Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) to Britain, was the basis of the San Remo Treaty. The Treaty was implemented when the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) gave Mandates to Britain and France for precisely these territories. Because France refused to give the Arabs independence in Syria, Britain as they had promised the Sherif Hussein of Mecca, decided to establish two Arab States, one for each of his sons. One was Iraq, and the other was carved unilaterally and illegally by Britain out of the Palestine Mandate, namely Transjordan, later Jordan. The only legal basis for the Mandate that Britain had in Palestine was to establish a Jewish State, which they subsequnetly tried to prevent at all costs. In fact the only legal states founded in 1920 by the San Remo conference were Syria, Iraq and the Jewish State, subsequently named Israel.

Interestingly enough, the key individual on the British Government side who made these undertakings to the Arabs was Sir Henry McMahon. He testified after the fact that his understandings were that there was only supposed to be a Jewish State established in all of Mandatory Palestine, and no Arab State. There is already one, Jordan, and currently the Arabs are trying to make a second, Palestine. The history of the Middle East is indeed labyrinthine and unpredictable.

About the Author
Jack Cohen was born in London and has a PhD in Chemistry from Cambridge University. He moved to the US and worked at the National Cancer Inst. and then Georgetown Medical School. In 1996, he Moved to Israel and became Chief Scientist of the Sheba Medical Center. He retired in 2001 and worked as a Visiting Professor at Hebrew University Medical School for 5 years.