Today in Middle Eastern history: the Balfour Declaration (1917)

[2017 update: It is now the 100th anniversary of Balfour, and while I still want to keep my history posts as non-partisan as possible I recognize even more today than I did two years ago that, with Balfour, it’s nearly impossible to do that. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined British PM Theresa May to celebrate Balfour’s centenary today, and while Netanyahu is who he is, for a British prime minister to do celebrate Balfour is–there’s really no other way to describe it–a gigantic slap in the face to Palestinians. May has been rightly criticized for it, but don’t fret–her government is raising “grave concerns” over Israel’s settlement practices, concerns that Netanyahu will happily ignore to zero consequence.

As Palestinian writer Yasmeen el Khoudary points out, Balfour is not some discrete relic of history that exists as an item in a textbook–it’s a letter (a single run-on sentence, really) that still affects people’s lives, often in brutal, dehumanizing ways, to this very day. It’s still omnipresent, and it will be until the unmentioned part of the letter–the bit about how “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine–has actually been fulfilled. OK, now on to my original 2015 post, with a few edits.]

I approach these historical pieces with the hope that I won’t shade into politics or advocacy and potentially turn some readers off. But on some topics that becomes almost impossible, and that brings us to today’s entry. I wouldn’t be keeping up with this history business if I didn’t mention that today is the anniversary of the day in 1917 when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a letter to Walter Rothschild that would wind up becoming one of the most important short documents of the 20th century, at least insofar as the makeup of the modern Middle East is concerned.

The Declaration as it was printed in The Times on November 9, 1917 (Wikimedia)

The Balfour Declaration has a lot more importance in hindsight than it really had at the time Balfour wrote it. In 1917, Britain was only just embarking on its period of greatest success in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I, when it captured Baghdad and used the Arab revolt that it had fomented the year before to dislodge the Ottomans from the Sinai and from Palestine. The Ottomans still controlled most of Palestine until around Christmas, so Balfour’s legal authority to parcel it out to the Jewish people, the Scottish people, the People Who Need People, or any other people was by no means apparent on November 2. Even after it gained control of Palestine, there’s obviously a strong moral argument to be made that Britain didn’t have the right to promise it to anybody other than the people who already lived there. But whatever its scope at the time, the Balfour Declaration became a much bigger deal as the war drew to a close, when it became a key component of Britain’s plans for the post-Ottoman Middle East.

The war, and British uncertainty over its outcome, did more to advance the Zionist cause in London than just about anything else. Don’t get me wrong–there was some genuine sympathy within the British government for Zionism. The World Zionist Organization had been formed in 1897 to promote Jewish migration to Palestine and to do the diplomatic work necessary to eventually see the establishment of a Jewish nation there. Many British politicians agreed on the need for a Jewish homeland, some out of a sense of justice for the Jewish people and others because they wanted Jews to get out of Britain. The British government, through its ongoing talks with WZO leaders, came in the 1900s to feel that the best thing for everybody (well, for the Jews and for Britain, anyway) would be for the UK to annex Palestine into the British Empire and then hold it as a Jewish homeland.

As the war went on, this feeling dovetailed very nicely with British war aims in a number of ways. First, London believed that siding with the WZO would help it shore up its support from America (Woodrow Wilson was thought to be sympathetic to the Zionist cause) and at the same time make things harder on Germany (by causing Jews living there to become more sympathetic to the UK). By November 1917 there was also the question of Russia to consider. London desperately wanted to keep Russia in the war despite the February Russian Revolution and the growing power of the Bolsheviks (though the Balfour letter was published in November on the Gregorian calendar, the October–on the Julian calendar–Revolution hadn’t happened yet). They figured that since there were several (ethnic) Jews involved in the Bolshevik movement (Trotsky, obviously, being the most prominent), Russia might be inclined to stay in the fight if it were clear that a Jewish homeland in Palestine was riding on the outcome. That last part didn’t come to fruition, but Zionist leaders did encourage Jews all over the world to support the Allied cause in any way they could, and that did help the war effort.

Arthur Balfour

So it was in that context that Balfour wrote his letter to Walter Rothschild to explain the British government’s view and to ask him to give London the early-20th century equivalent of a good Yelp review to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland (“5 stars, would definitely parcel out other people’s territories with them again”). One of the most contested issues when it comes to talking about Balfour is how much the British government actually meant what Balfour wrote, and even whether or not what Balfour wrote actually corresponds with what later happened. The Prime Minister at the time, David Lloyd-George, told the Peel Commission (a board established in 1936 to examine the causes for all the unrest in Mandatory Palestine) that the Declaration was a) explicitly made to promote the war effort and b) was only meant to express a general sentiment rather than a specific policy goal. Lloyd-George testified that his government’s intention was always to slow-roll the actual establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine until conditions there were mostly or entirely favorable to it. Oops.

The Declaration did explicitly use the term “a national home,” rather than “a nation,” or “a state,” precisely to avoid committing Britain to a specific policy (and because there was some opposition in Lloyd-George’s cabinet to the Zionist enterprise, even though Balfour and Lloyd-George himself, among others, were supportive). In this respect, men like Chaim Weizmann, the leading Zionist figure in Britain (the world, really) and the future first president of Israel, were really not all that pleased with the Declaration. They wanted a statement that Britain supported Palestine as the Jewish state, not some weaksauce thing about supporting a Jewish home in Palestine that also talked about protecting the rights of non-Jewish populations there.

The other thing to consider here is the conflict (maybe) between the Balfour Declaration and the letter written by Sir Henry McMahon, then-British High Commissioner for Egypt, to Sharif Hussein of Mecca, on October 24, 1915. This was back when London was trying, through the efforts of men like McMahon and T.E. Lawrence, to encourage Hussein to lead a general Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn did a four-part series (scroll down at that link and you’ll find it) on the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and its divergent interpretations that I highly recommend.

McMahon’s letter promised Hussein that “Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca”–once, of course, the Ottomans were out of the way. McMahon did exclude one area from the territory Hussein wanted, the area “west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo,” because that area “cannot be said to be purely Arab.” Thanks to the imprecision of his writing and the vagaries of how it was translated, we don’t know if he was just talking about Lebanon here or about Lebanon and Palestine, and we can’t be sure that he and Hussein understood the letter in the same way (this is the subject of Dunn’s series). McMahon and the UK always insisted that he meant to exclude Palestine from Hussein’s territory, in which case there’s no conflict between this letter and Balfour. But as you’ll see from reading Dunn’s posts, the case isn’t nearly that cut and dried. And since Britain eventually broke pretty much every promise McMahon made to Hussein anyway, the question of whether Palestine’s status was one of those promises is kind of irrelevant.

Obviously the rest of the story is pretty well-known. Jews began migrating to Mandatory Palestine in greater numbers, though I think it’s important to bear in mind that there was a sizable and growing Jewish population in Palestine already, whose existence was part of the reason Balfour and Lloyd-George came up with the homeland idea in the first place. As a result of the migration, more frequent and more violent clashes started to break out between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the territory and the British colonial bosses. World War II led to even more Jewish migration and to spurred the growth of a worldwide sentiment that establishing a Jewish homeland was a moral imperative. Then 1948 happened, and, well, we should probably call it a day there lest this post get really out of hand.

Author: DWD

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