The importance of the Balfour Declaration in the history of Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel is clear. But because of that it is actually appropriate to dig deeper into its international context and complexity of its formulation, in what it says and what it does not say, in this, the centenary year of the declaration.
The key is the opening sentence, in which “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” But alongside this sentence we must pay attention to what is missing from the letter of British Secretary Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild. The letter does not speak of establishing a Jewish state and not of turning Palestine into a Jewish state, but rather of the establishment of a “national home.”
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The declaration does not declare that Palestine will become the national home of the Jewish people, but that a national home will be established there. This is intentionally ambiguous wording and over the years it has had many contradictory interpretations. Immediately after it was publicized it was said that the declaration was not intended to harm the civil and religious rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine – even though Arabs or Palestinians are not explicitly mentioned.
For the first time the Zionist movement received in the declaration diplomatic support for the goal formulated in the Basel Program in 1897: Establishing a home (Heimstätte) for the Jewish people in Palestine. During all his years of intensive international action, Theodor Herzl tried to achieve this in the form of a charter from the Ottoman government – and did not succeed. By the time World War I began the World Zionist Organization had still made no progress with this goal.
When the war broke out, the Zionist movement found itself in a deep crisis: Most of the leadership was concentrated in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but most of its supporters and members came from the Russian Empire, which at the time included most of historical Poland, including Ukraine and Lithuania. The war cut off the Zionist leadership from its base and in light of this difficult situation, it was decided for the Zionist movement to preserve its neutrality. The center of its activities was transferred to Copenhagen, which let movement leaders stay in touch with people living in countries on both sides of the war.
It seemed like a cautious and wise decision, but in practice it diminished the Zionist movement. At the time, Chaim Weizmann was living in Manchester, England and understood that at a time when the fate of the world – and the future of Palestine – would be determined by the war, the neutrality of the Zionist movement meant that it was removing itself form the forces acting in the international arena. The power of the Zionist movement really was rather small, but the neutrality, as far as it was understood, made it even smaller.
When it turned out that as a result of the Ottoman Empire joining the Central Powers in the war, Palestine might be captured by the British, Weizmann was among those who understood the Zionist movement must take action with those who would determine Palestine's fate after the war. This political insight on Weizmann’s part was what spurred him to take advantage of his connections and present the Zionist cause to British leaders.
We must remember that Weizmann did not have a leading position in the Zionist movement. He may have been well-known, but he was only one of the deputy chairmen of the British Zionist federation. He conducted his contacts with the British leadership on his own authority alone without any mandate from the Zionist leadership, whose official neutrality paralyzed it in practice.
Some even viewed his actions as an illegitimate and even dangerous gamble.
The broader context of the Balfour Declaration was connected to the circumstances of the entry of the United States into the war alongside Britain, France and Russia in the spring of 1917. It was not easy for the United States to enter the war. There was backlash from those who maintained the traditional position that America must not become involved in European conflicts. And then there were German and Jewish immigrants, both of whom opposed entering its fray.
Looking back, it seems to be a strange partnership, but it was not so in the second decade of the 20th century. The German immigrant community, which is estimated to have numbered some 20 million Americans at the time, was partly united in the powerful organization of the German Bund, which alongside its focus on preserving its cultural and linguistic identity, did not want to see its new homeland going to war against its historic birthplaces.
The Jewish community was much smaller, and the Jewish opposition to America going to war came on two levels. The traditional Jewish leadership was to a great extent in the hands of the moneyed aristocracy composed mostly of Jews with German roots. This leadership did not want the United States to go to war against Germany, where they preserved significant links to its culture and Jewish community.
On the other hand, most of the Jewish immigrants, the masses who came from Eastern Europe to the United States in the waves of mass migration after the pogroms of 1882 and 1882 in Russia, were not enthusiastic about the idea that their new “Goldene Medina” would go to war alongside the Czarist regime they had escaped from. Political connections were spun between the German and Jewish communities in their joint opposition to going to war against Germany and the idea of fighting on the side of Russia.
The main goal of the Balfour Declaration as far as Britain was concerned was to reduce the opposition of the American Jewish community to going to war on its side. Among the reasons the declaration was written as a letter to Lord Rothschild was also the consideration that the Rothschild family’s connections with Jewish financiers in New York would aid in this mission.
In the Zionist historic memory, Weizmann’s development of his acetone production process, which may have allowed him access to the policy setters in London, as well as his own persuasive powers that played on deep religious tones, especially for Prime Minister David Lloyd George. But what decided the issue was the realpolitik considerations directed at the Jews of the United States. Ironically, exactly during the period when the Balfour Declaration was issued, Lenin and the Bolsheviks took control of the government in Saint Petersburg – the act that led to Russia leaving the war.
Another irony, that the Zionist memory does not always deal with adequately, is in the fact that the Balfour Declaration was given in the form of a private letter to Lord Rothschild. It may have been publicized widely, but at the time Britain had yet to conquer most of the territory of Palestine, and it was not at all certain that it would actually end up ruling Palestine. But the British government, which had decided to issue the declaration, was a party in the Sykes-Picot agreement (which was still being kept secret at the time). The significance of the agreement was that Britain and France would – in some form or another – control the territories captured from the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.
The fact that London was associated with promises given to Sharif Hussein of Mecca (through British intelligence agents in Cairo, inspired by Lawrence of Arabia), as well as the contradiction between these promises and the Balfour Declaration (despite its vague wording) hounded Britain for the entire period during which it ruled Palestine.
However, Weizmann’s greatest achievement was not the obtaining of this declaration. It lay in less dramatic and less known steps that were taken in the days that followed it, and in his tireless efforts to embed the promise made in this declaration in the political arrangements that were made after the war ended.
Weizmann’s feverish activity began while the war was still on. With the conquest of the southern part of the country by the British at the end of 1917, Weizmann managed to persuade the British authorities to allow him to lead a Zionist delegation on a visit to Palestine. The mandate of this delegation, referred to in British documents as The Zionist Commission, was never clearly defined, but the very act of sending it was an indication of the status the Zionist movement enjoyed in the territory that had just been transferred to the British military authorities.
However, the Commission received no mandate from the official Zionist leadership, which wanted to continue maintaining neutrality [vis-à-vis the Ottoman Empire]. The delegation was handpicked by Weizmann himself, and included people from countries belonging to the triple alliance between Britain, France and Italy, a combination which did not well represent the countries making up the Zionist movement or its leadership before the war.
The Commission arrived in Palestine and, in the absence of a clear mandate, behaved as if it were in charge, not the British army under General Allenby. Weizmann and his associates received royal treatment in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and in other Jewish communities. The fact that they were accompanied by Jewish British officers in uniform, such as James Rothschild and Edwin Samuel, whose father would go on to become the first British High Commissioner in Mandatory Palestine, lent an air of formality to their appearances. Weizmann also decided to lay a cornerstone for a Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, based on land titles held by the World Zionist Organization.
This is how without any kind of official authority granted by either Zionist or British leaders, the Commission in practice laid the foundations for what would eventually become the autonomous institutions of the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine, the Assembly of Representatives and subsequently the Knesset. General Allenby didn’t exactly like these moves, which in fact comprised the establishment of a parallel administration to the British military one.
He protested to London. But to no avail. Weizmann managed to create facts on the ground.
The next move took place in the international arena. It still wasn’t exactly clear who would rule the land after the war was over. The boundaries delineated in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 left much that was unclear, leading to a struggle between Britain and France. Weizmann was determined to ensure that control would be left solely in the hands of Britain. This clashed with the stance of another Zionist leader, Nahum Sokolow who, because of his French connections, wished to see joint British-French control of Palestine.
Weizmann viewed this strategy as dangerous and foolish. Britain had a clear commitment to the Zionist Movement, made in the Balfour Declaration, whereas French considerations in the region were different, given its ties to the Maronites in Lebanon and Syria, as well as to other Christian communities in the region. Weizmann managed to foil Sokolow’s efforts, which would have in effect undermined the gains made by obtaining the Balfour Declaration. At the San Remo Conference in April 1920 the Allies decided to transfer Palestine to British rule.
The transfer of control in the region to Britain and France by the League of Nations was done using a new form of government, the Mandate. The Mandatory powers were committed by this system to move the new countries that were formed this way (Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Mandatory Palestine) towards independence. For Palestine, the League of Nations determined special arrangements: the principles outlined in the Balfour Declaration were included in the mandate given to Britain. The second clause in the Mandate stipulates that the British government commits to promote the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people and the fourth clause says that a Jewish Agency would be formed to represent the Zionist movement.
The mandate transformed the Balfour Declaration from a British document to part of international law.
This, and not the Declaration, gave the seal of approval for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in terms of international relations and international law. It imposed on Britain the obligation to advance towards this goal, subject to reservations that also derive from the Declaration. These related to the rights of non-Jewish communities. The Mandate system required the Mandatory power to report to a Mandate Committee at the League of Nations on the progress towards the fulfilment of this goal. In the 1920s and 1930s League headquarters in Geneva received periodic reports from Britain, with both sides, the Jews and the Arabs, protesting British policies.
On the eve of discussions around the Balfour Declaration in the Mandate, Weizmann, who had just been elected as the president of the World Zionist Organization, whose headquarters had just moved to London, had to confront other Zionist leaders, less familiar with or experienced than him in international affairs.
Members of the socialist Poalei Zion group, for example, demanded that the Mandate specifically include a British commitment to turn the country into a Jewish state and not make do with the vague term “national home”. It wasn’t always easy for Weizmann to curb such baseless demands. How could the League of Nations, based on the principle of the right to self-determination (which was included in the definition of these mandates), embrace a policy which would grant the Jewish community, which comprised ten percent of the population at that time, dominion over the remaining 90 percent?
Ultimately, Weizmann’s sober and realistic position received the support of Zionist institutions, so that the first significant international achievement for the Zionist movement came in the form of this Mandate document.
Obviously, the complicated wording of the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate put Britain in an impossible position. It had to advance the building of a national home for Jews in Palestine without harming the rights of the Arab population, whose positions were increasingly nationalistic.
Ultimately, the British came out as losers on both counts.
Today, the path leading from the Balfour Declaration to the UN General Assembly resolution approving the establishment of Israel in November 1947 seems like a natural progression, almost deterministic, but this was not the case. Much could have gone wrong during the upheavals of World War II and post-war settlements.
It was only Weizmann’s determination which helped transform a unilateral British document, formulated in the midst of war, into a cornerstone of British rule in Palestine and of international law.
Weizmann realized that in the dynamic and fluid conditions of war one must take the initiative – even without a mandate from Zionist institutions. He pushed for interpreting the Balfour Declaration as a licence to begin behaving as partners with the British military authorities in determining future political arrangements. He knew how to steer diplomatic moves so that the Declaration would not become a worthless piece of paper, as happened to many other documents that were signed during and immediately after the war.
A blending of determination and flexibility were always a beneficial combination for the Zionist movement in its moves towards attaining sovereignty. It was lucky it had leaders who knew how to combine these qualities in a thoughtful way, while mobilizing support at home and abroad.
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