Lord Balfour in Rishon Lezion in 1925.(Library of Congress)
Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Founding Document

A new book argues for the enduring significance of the 1917 Balfour Declaration

Adam Kirsch
August 31, 2010
Lord Balfour in Rishon Lezion in 1925.(Library of Congress)

On October 31, 1917, the British Cabinet approved a one-sentence statement of policy regarding its plans for Palestine, which the British Army was just then in the process of conquering away from the Ottoman Empire: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” Two days later, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour, sent this message in a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of Britain’s most prominent Jewish family, and a week later the so-called Balfour Declaration was made public. The reaction of Zionists, in England and around the world, was euphoric. For the first time, a great power had committed itself to Theodor Herzl’s dream of establishing a Jewish homeland.

The first person to learn about the Balfour Declaration—even before Rothschild—was Chaim Weizmann, who more than any other individual was responsible for winning the British government over to the Zionist cause. In The Balfour Declaration, his dynamic new telling of this famous history, Jonathan Schneer describes Weizmann’s reaction to the news, as recalled by a fellow Zionist leader, Shmuel Tolkowsky. “Weizmann was so filled with pleasure, Tolkowsky recorded, that he ‘behaved like a child: He embraced me for a long time, placed his head on my shoulder and pressed my hand, repeating over and over mazel tov.’ That night, at his home, at an impromptu celebration, Weizmann and his wife and friends literally danced for joy.” A month later, at a mass meeting in London, thousands of people heard Rothschild declare, “We are met on the most momentous occasion in the history of Judaism for the last eighteen hundred years.”

But was it? The Balfour Declaration is still regarded, almost a century later, as one of the great milestones in Jewish history and as the unofficial beginning of the State of Israel—if not its birthday, then its date of conception. Certainly, as Schneer shows, Weizmann and his colleagues—including Nahum Sokolow, the Zionist movement’s chief diplomat, and less famous figures like the Manchester-based Zionists Harry Sacher, Israel Sieff, and Simon Marks—had ample reason to celebrate. They had been working for years to convince the British government that Jewish settlement in Palestine would advance British interests in the Middle East, as well as being an act of historical justice for the Jews. They lobbied politicians all the way up to the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George. They enlisted journalists like C.P. Scott, liberal editor of the Manchester Guardian, and society figures like Dorothy Rothschild, the 18-year-old daughter-in-law of the family’s French scion. And they met with a surprising degree of enthusiasm from the British Foreign Office, especially from Sir Mark Sykes, the roving diplomat who was Britain’s chief Middle East expert. (It was Sykes who told Weizmann about the Declaration, greeting him with the words, “It’s a boy.”)

One of the many ironies in this story is that Weizmann, a Russian-born Jew who more or less appointed himself the leader of British Zionism, came to be seen by the government as a more legitimate representative of Jewish interests than Britain’s own established Jewish organizations, which were mostly anti-Zionist. Schneer focuses on the figure of Lucien Wolf, a former journalist who was the head of the Conjoint Committee, a group devoted to lobbying against the Zionist program. To Wolf, just as to some Jewish anti-Zionists today, Zionism was a betrayal of the Jews’ “invincible attachment to things of the spirit and … their strongly marked individualism.” The future, he and his supporters believed, would be post-national, with no place for ethnically based states. Worse, creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine would endanger the claims of Jews everywhere else to equal citizenship.

It was to assuage this fear that the Declaration included the phrase about not prejudicing the rights of Jews in any other country. But this provision was not enough to satisfy Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, who was the only Jew in the Cabinet that approved the Balfour Declaration—and its most vocal opponent. When the Declaration was approved, Montagu wrote in his diary: “The Government has dealt an irreparable blow to Jewish Britons, and they have endeavoured to set up a people which does not exist.” There was a certain idealism in the assimilationist view, Schneer shows, as well as an obvious dread of Jewish conspicuousness. What it lacked, as Schneer points out, was any realism about the Jewish predicament. “Anti-Semitism has scaled heights beyond Montagu’s imagining in 1917,” he writes, “but without regard to Britain’s recognition of Palestine as ‘a national home for the Jewish people.’ ”

In other ways, however, it is surprising how much the Balfour Declaration still seems to matter. Readers of Tablet will remember, for instance, that this summer, Israel’s President Shimon Peres caused a sensation when he undiplomatically told Benny Morris that the British establishment had always been pro-Arab and anti-Jewish. In the ensuing debate, exhibit number one was the Balfour Declaration. To Zionists, it is a standing rebuke to British hypocrisy, since—according to historian Efraim Karsh, writing about Peres’ comment in the Jerusalem Post—“no sooner had Britain been appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine, with the explicit task of facilitating the establishment of a Jewish national home in the country in accordance with the Balfour Declaration, than it reneged on this obligation.” To foes of Israel, on the other hand, the Declaration looks like proof that the country is a creature of imperialism. Thus a writer at the anti-Israel website middleeastmonitor.org speaks of “the persistent question marks over [Israel’s] legitimacy, going back to 1917 and colonial Britain’s endorsement of the Zionist project through the Balfour Declaration.”

It seems bizarrely easy to lose sight of the fact that, in the 93 years since the Declaration was issued, the Jewish population of what began as Palestine and is now Israel has grown from less than a hundred thousand to nearly 6 million. A network of agricultural settlements has become an advanced urban society and a powerful state. In short, it should no longer matter, practically or morally or legally, whether the Balfour Declaration made Israel possible, since it certainly did not make modern Israel actual. As Karsh notes, in fact, the Declaration was the high point of British enthusiasm for the Zionist project. Within five years of the Declaration, the British were restricting land purchases by Jews in Palestine; in the 1930s, they closed the region to Jewish immigration, just as Nazism made it more necessary than ever; and in the 1940s, they resisted Jewish claims to statehood as long as possible, including with violence.

Even the subtitle of Schneer’s book—“The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict”—seems to overstate the Declaration’s real significance. It is certainly true that Britain’s Middle East policy during World War I—and nothing less than that is Schneer’s real subject—laid up plenty of trouble for the future. Parallel to the story of the Declaration, Schneer tells the even better-known story of the Arab Revolt: the attempt, assisted by British officials including Lawrence of Arabia, to overthrow the Ottomans and establish an Arab state in the Middle East. Even before the war was over, it became clear that Britain’s promise to Sharif Hussein of Mecca—to install him as king of an Arab empire stretching from Damascus to Baghdad—was not made in good faith.

For one thing, of course, it contradicted the pledge of Palestine to the Jews. Still more duplicitous was the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which Britain and France secretly carved up the map of the Middle East between them. Britain even considered making a deal with the Ottoman Turks—a part of the story that Schneer tells in great detail, even though the unofficial negotiations never amounted to much. Even the willingness to consider a separate peace with the Turks, however, showed how ready the British were to throw over their Arab and Jewish clients in the interest of winning the war.

But even if the British had not been so feckless, there is no reason to think that more careful diplomacy could have headed off “the Arab-Israeli conflict.” The root of that conflict was not that Britain promised the same land to two different peoples, but that two different peoples wanted the same land. The Balfour Declaration, which inspired such jubilation among Zionists in 1917, did not give that land to the Jews. It only gave the Jews the opportunity to struggle for it.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.