David Makovsky

The hidden US role in the Balfour Declaration

Before Britain would declare its support for the Zionist cause, it wanted Woodrow Wilson's public approval -- but the American president needed convincing
Illustrative. Commemoration of Balfour Declaration upon the 100th anniversary of its signing. (Wikimedia Commons)
Illustrative. Commemoration of Balfour Declaration upon the 100th anniversary of its signing. (Wikimedia Commons)

The 102nd anniversary of the Balfour Declaration is coming up on Saturday.

The rather recent Balfour centennial justifiably won attention. After all, Balfour was a milestone for the Zionist movement, as the right of a “national home for the Jewish people” was recognized by a leading global power, Great Britain. The Declaration was particularly important as Britain was poised to assume control over Palestine, and instead acknowledged the Jewish’s people connection to the land. The Declaration presented a highwater mark for the UK-Zionist relationship, and it is appropriate that the anniversary is being commemorated.

However, Balfour was not only a milestone for the Zionists’ relationship with Britain, but also with the United States. In fact, if not for the US, it is likely that the Declaration would have never occurred.

US President Woodrow Wilson’s support for the Balfour Declaration would not have been so strong if not for his view of America as the new Zion and support for Christian restorationism, the idea of a Jewish return to the Promised Land. From the time of the Puritans, Americans saw their country as having religious significance. Thousands of towns were given biblical names and colleges made Hebrew a mandatory part of their curricula. Restorationism was voiced by American leaders as early as second president John Adams, who wrote in a letter: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.”

Unlike other American alliances, which are based on democratic values and shared strategic interests, the US-Israel bond is also formed by the spiritual connection between the two states. Restorationism had a big impact on Wilson, whose father was a Presbyterian minister. He supported the Balfour Declaration against the advice of his closest advisors, notably saying “To think that I, a son of the manse [home of a minister], should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.”

Second, Wilson famously believed in the view of self-determination, as indicated in his Fourteen Points speech. He must have seen the ideological parallels in the case of the Jewish people.

Third, Wilson was also impacted by geopolitics. The debate over the Balfour Declaration happened in the midst of World War I, when it seemed like the Russians might abandon the eastern front and the US was considering joining the war effort. Wilson was torn as he had campaigned against entering the war but was concerned about the consequences of the US staying out.

Britain needed US support in the war, and therefore was willing to hold off on the Balfour Declaration until Wilson approved. Wilson was also keenly aware of the possibility that Germany might declare its own Balfour Declaration, allying the Zionists with the Central Powers. Balfour was considered so pivotal to the war effort that the British dropped leaflets over the German trenches announcing the declaration, a fact I learned interviewing historian, author, and former Israel diplomat Michael Oren for my new podcast series, Decision Points: The US-Israel Relationship.

Additionally, while Wilson had sympathies with the Zionists, there was the important consideration of US relations with Turkey. In 1914. Turkey broke ties with America, siding with Germany in World War I, but the two promised to keep the relationship as cordial as possible and to preserve the other’s best interests. Wilson and his advisers were hesitant to support any British moves that would damage peace with the Ottomans, particularly in Palestine. Ultimately, Wilson was willing to recognize a Jewish homeland, as long as it was kept quiet. Louis Brandeis, US Supreme Court justice and close friend of Wilson, was crucial in tipping the balance and urging the US president to give London the green light.

The Zionists learned an important lesson from the British as a result of Balfour: the importance of consultations with the US. Part of the strength of Zionism at the time of the Balfour Declaration was the ability to maintain a dual approach of an ethos of self-reliance along with close ties to the leading powers of the day, first London and then Washington. Before the US-Israel alliance grew in depth and breadth, despite many crises over the decades, the relationship began as a quiet London-Washington partnership 102 years ago.

The above was co-authored by Basia Rosenbaum. She is a research assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

About the Author
David Makovsky directs the Project on Arab-Israel Relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author with Dennis Ross of the new book Be Strong and of Good Courage: How Israel’s Most Important Leaders Shaped Its Destiny. He is also the host of the new podcast Decision Points: The U.S.-Israel Relationship.
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