The Balfour Declaration Redux

Sunday evening we went to hear Jonathan Schneer talk about his new book “The Balfour Declaration: the origin of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” Prof. Schneer is a historian at the Georgia Tech. His presentation was extremely well-balanced and coherent. He illuminated some aspects of history that were new and novel.

To Zionists, the Balfour Declaration seems cut-and-dried. The British Government in Nov 1917, in the midst of WWI, stated its intention, under the signature of the Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, “to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine.” But, the path to the issuance of this statement and the intentions of the British Government were far from clear-cut or straightforward. Here is my summary of Prof. Schneer’s lecture.

In researching the history of the Balfour Declaration one realizes that it was far from a foregone conclusion that it would be approved by the British Government and further, while the British Government was making promises to the Jews, they were also making contradictory promises to the Arabs (this is known) and they were also making approaches to the Turks for a separate peace, although these never came to fruition. It is a misunderstanding of the situation to attribute the Balfour Declaration to the Christian Zionism of the British principals, although this may have played a role.

The first step in this convoluted story came in the early period of the war. In 1915 Sir Henry McMahon was appointed British High Commissioner to Egypt. By then Egypt was virtually a self-governing suzerainty, nominally within the Ottoman Empire, but actually under British control. The Turks had allied themselves with Germany. At this point, the British were desperate to break the stalemate on the western front, and were looking for a way to open up the “eastern door,” in other words to either attack Turkey or draw Turkey away from Germany. McMahon’s predecessor Sir Ronald Storrs had met with the Emir Hussein of Mecca, nominally the second highest authority in Islam after the Turkish Caliph in Constantinople. Hussein had indicated that he was being pressured by the Turks to raise an army to attack the British, but he and his people were prepared to attack the Turks in Arabia if the British would give them guns and would agree to establish an Arab State in place of the Ottoman Empire. This had initially been rejected, but now McMahon proceeded to establish communications with Hussein and the so-called “McMahon-Hussein” letters were exchanged. As a result of these letters, Hussein believed he had been given a commitment by the British that if they won the war against Turkey, then they would establish a large independent Arab State that would encompass all of Arabia and include Syria, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine. However, the borders of such a state were deliberately left vague and Palestine was never actually mentioned in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Nevertheless, Hussein then initiated the Arab revolt and was given British guns and support, with Col. TE. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as his liason.

Of course, at roughly the same time the British Government was flirting with the Jewish establishment in Britain, to gain support for the British war effrort and to try to bring the US in on its side. The Chief Zionist negotiator on the Jewish Side was Chaim Weizmann, who had charmed his way into the upper echelons of the British Government, after having helped greatly in the British war effort (by developing a simple production method for acetone). Weizmann found that most of the British were anti-Semites, but when they said that the Jews were too powerful, he agreed with them and when they said the Jews controlled the US Government, he agreed with them. The logical conclusion was that to obtain US support the British needed the Jews, and to get their support Weizmann told them they needed to publicly support the rights of the Jewish people to Palestine. Thus the idea of the Balfour Declaration was broached. The US entered the war in June, 1917, however, Balfour would not release his letter until he received the tacit approval of US Pres. Wilson. When this was obtained the letter was sent to Lord Rothschild in Nov 1917.

While these essentially contradictory agreements were being made by the British, their representative, Sir Mark Sykes, was engaged in negotiations with the British ally in the war the French, whose diplomatic representative was Francois Picot. This led to the infamous secret protocol known as the Sykes-Picot Treaty, that essentially divided the Middle East between the two imperial powers, with scant concern for the commitments made to either the Arabs or the Jews. In the map drawn by Sykes and Picot there were two large spheres of influence, the northern tier consisting largely of Syria and Lebanon which would be under French rule and the southern tier streching from Palestine thru to Mesopotamia (Iraq) that would be under British rule. Although Arabia was intended to be given to the Arabs, in this map provision was made for both Syria and Iraq to be under Arabian rule, but with actual control by the colonial powers. It was envisioned that both these kingdoms would be allotted to the sons of Hussein, Feisal and Abdullah. On the Sykes-Picot map, Palestine itself was to be made a separate entity under direct British control.

As well as these double-crosses, the British Government, particularly PM Lloyd George, was trying at the same time to make a back channel agreement with the military rulers of Turkey, known as the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the Head of which was Jemal Pasha (the Caliph was merely a figurehead). Without going into details, Lloyd George and his colleagues tried through three routes to contact and make a deal with the CUP heads. The British Govt. were prepared to offer enormous bribes and to allow the Turks to remain in control of most of the Middle East. So they were promising the same land (which they did not yet control) to three groups. Luckily for the Jews these transactions foundered, and the British invaded Palestine from Egypt and conquered it in 1917. Based on the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British were given a Mandate by the League of Nations (the precursor to the UN) in 1922 to administer Palestine until it could be transformed into a Jewish State. Britain unilaterally (and illegally) divided the Palestine Mandate in 1922 and split off the Arab State of Transjordan (now Jordan). This was done to reward Adbullah with a Kingdom, since the French reneged on their commitement to allow Syria to become an Arab Kingdom. Iraq was cobbled together by the British and given to Feisal as his Kingdom, under British “influence.”

While these machinations were on-going, under pressure from the terrible conditions which the Jews suffered in Europe, the immigration of Jews into Palestine increased. This displeased the Arabs, and there was the Arab revolt of 1936, that was put down by the British Army. But, from then on the British Government did all it could to counter Zionist aspirations, from the “White Paper” of 1939 to the curtailment of visas that condemned hundreds of thousands of Jews to death in Nazi occupied Europe. Only when the Jews were prepared to fight the British and obtain the vote of the majority of the UN members for independence and then fight the Arabs, only then could the State of Israel be firmly established in 1948. From the Balfour Declaration until the establishment of the Jewish State took 31 years.

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.