Balfour 1922-23: Fragile commitment and Zionist Response

By Dr William M Mathew

Paper given at Balfour Project Annual Conference
St. Chad`s College, University of Durham, 31 October 2015

In the limited time available I should like to make three basic points around this specific issue of fragility – and, in the process, move the emphasis away from the usual (and entirely proper) moral perspective on British deceit and Zionist presumption onto the more realpolitik consideration of Zionism`s acute sense of insecurity in its dealings with the British from the earliest Balfour days, and the critical implications of this for immediate and long-term Zionist political behaviour – with inevitably profound consequences for the Arab population of Palestine.

  1. The Declaration was, from its issuance in November 1917, through to its formal implementation in the finalised Palestine Mandate of September 1923, a decidedly fragile and uncertain official commitment, unsupported by any parliamentary vote, and presented without consultation with the resident population of Palestine.
  2. Because of that manifest fragility it needed, if long-term political confirmation was to be secured, a decisive rescue operation – but not one, in the circumstances, that could be conducted with much honesty, transparency, or fairness: and left largely to the colonial secretary Winston Churchill in the summer of 1922, his own ambivalent attitude to the Zionist project being well known, and his means of rescuing Balfour opportunistic and, to a degree, fraudulent.
  3. In consequence of such uncertainties, and in the general context of post-war confusions – around international treaties and mandates – Zionist leaders felt it necessary to resort to two particular courses of action:
  4. a) the rapid establishment of facts-on-the-ground, political as well as territorial, in Palestine, to serve as effective insurance against backpedalling in London;   b) relentless, often intimidatory, lobbying in both London and Jerusalem (and both legitimised, subjectively at least, by a near-universal racism, unsurprising in a body of immigrants from the harsh, illiberal environments of Eastern Europe).   Thus a twin-track approach that has become standard Zionist procedure ever since – with the focus being spread, over the decades, to a much larger area of Palestine, and to a wider spread of metropolitan capitals.
  1. The fragile commitment.

First: the Declaration – a brief document of ambiguous meaning – had no roots in any preceding substantive historical process: it arose from a set of short-term, war-related contingencies; it was, in the words of one of Chaim Weizmann`s biographers, “one of the most improbable acts in the history of British foreign policy”.

Second: there was a distinct strain of anti-semitism underlying the official concept of a Levantine national home – spotted famously by Edwin Montagu, Lloyd George`s Jewish secretary-of-state for India, in his August 1917 cabinet paper: “The Anti-Semitism of the British Government”.   Arthur Balfour himself wrote in 1919 of “the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body …which it was unable to expel or absorb”. And Winston Churchill took note in 1920 of a “sinister confederacy” of revolution-minded “International Jews” conspiring for the complete overthrow of that civilization.

Third: the final decision in London to proceed with the Palestine Mandate was the consequence, not of any enthusiasm for the national-home project among the Tory ministers – now in government following the collapse of the Lloyd George administration in October 1922 – but of elementary strategic anxieties centring on nearby Suez and Britain`s existentially critical access, through the Canal, to its economic and military power-base in India. As the peer Lord Islington pointed out in a House of Lords debate in March 1923, “many gentlemen to-day occupying quite prominent positions in His Majesty`s Government…were last year and the year before among the most active and vehement assailants of Zionist policy in Palestine” – the new colonial secretary, the Duke of Devonshire, hardly dissenting when he remarked, “we, the Government, are not responsible for any of the proceedings or pledges which were given”.

Fourth: there was widespread and mounting opposition to the pro-Zionist policy in the early 1920s – in the press, in parliament, among military and colonial officials and resident Jewish communities in Palestine, and, in sometimes physical terms, among the Arab majority population – the serious disaffection leading to two commission reports, Palin and Haycraft, in 1920 and 1921, both highly critical of the Zionist leadership and its procedures and assumptions.   Arab delegations came to London in the early 1920s to plead for political equity in Palestine; and in Parliament, the government was defeated 60-29 on its Palestine policy in the House of Lords, June 1922 – this despite the urgings of Arthur Balfour himself, recently elevated to the peerage.

Fifth: there was a growing public awareness, from 1922 onwards, through press revelations and parliamentary debate, that clear promises of political independence had already been made, in writing, for most of the Arab Middle East, in the form of the 1915-16 McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Specifically, Lord Curzon, latterly Lloyd George`s foreign secretary, wrote in 1918: “we gave him [Hussein] the assurance that Palestine… should be Arab and independent”.

Weizmann and his colleagues in the Zionist leadership therefore had cause for concern – Weizmann himself in July 1923 beating his well trodden path to the Colonial Office, according to its senior official, in “a great state of agitation” over the seemingly likely erosion of “Zionist privileges” in Palestine

  1. The Rescue Operation

This was effective, but the unscrupulous way in which it was conducted, cast in doubt any notion that the issue was permanently settled within the British political class.

First, there was the so-called Churchill White paper of June 1922, in which the colonial secretary contrived to argue that the area designated by McMahon as not available for any independent Arab polity, lying, as McMahon specified, to the west of a line running from Aleppo to Damascus, in fact included Palestine on the specious grounds that the Damascus administrative area rather than ending some little way south of the city in fact stretched for nearly 300 miles down to the Gulf of Aqaba.   In the words of the journalist Joseph Jeffries, writing in February 1923, “Churchill had produced as from a conjuror`s tall hat a line going south from Damascus which satisfied his requirements….And the word of England?….In the waste-paper basket”. Margaret McMillan has described it as “a defiance of geography”.

Second, there was the House of Commons debate in July 1922, in which Churchill had the job of countering the recent 60-29 Lords vote. His tactic was to set the Levantine issue in the thoroughly diluting context of a general vote on the government`s Colonial Estimates – discussion in the debate ranging over a wide range of imperial territories in Africa and Asia. Churchill, one of only a few speakers pronouncing on Palestine specifically – and this late at night – was unable to display any particular attachment to what he termed “the perfervid enthusiasms” of the Zionist project, going out of his way to acquit himself of any responsibility for the Balfour Declaration. His principal argument was the thoroughly orientalist one that Arabs – “a handful of philosophic people” – could not be allowed to take charge of a part of the world where Jews were now changing “desolated places to smiling orchards” and introducing “progress instead of stagnation”. (Presenting civilization to the Middle East while threatening to destroy it in Europe!) The Estimates vote was won by a majority of 292 to 35, Palestine policy being carried along in the wash. It was, manifestly, a fix; and hardly a convincing, reassuring victory for Zionism.

  1. Facts-on-the-ground & Lobbying


Political. There was, initially, the arrival of the Zionist Commission, led by Chaim Weizmann, in March 1918, well before the British conquest of Palestine was complete, “explanations and justifications for which”, according to Ronald Storrs, then military governor of Jerusalem, “were received with growing incredulity” – and being described only a year or so later, in the report of the U.S. King-Crane Commission, sent over by Woodrow Wilson to advise on mandate policy, as appearing “to have more power than the authorised Government. Practically all of the official world is under its control…”.

And the Commission (subsequently the Jewish Agency) went to work in tandem with the civilian government set up in June 1920, itself under the Zionist Sir Herbert Samuel as High Commissioner, with the similarly committed Norman Bentwich as attorney-general, the latter subsequently recalling: “In these days of determined hopefulness, the British Government was willing to appoint to senior positions several British Jews….Very few of the higher posts were given to Palestinians”.   Throughout the 20s and 30s, moreover, Zionists belligerently and successfully opposed any moves towards properly representative government. As early as July 1921 Weizmann declared to Samuel: “We all view with the gravest concern the establishment of a national assembly in Palestine”.

Territorial. The point hardly need be laboured that the whole purpose of Zionism was to create a settler community, both agrarian and urban, in Palestine, this to be achieved for the most part by land purchases (initially unrestricted by the British authorities) from Arab landowners, and the common expropriation of the existing Arab tenants – this sometimes referred to as “land redemption”, much assisted by a number of organisations set up with overseas funding for the specific objective of land acquisition.   The Hope-Simpson Commission Report on “Immigration, Land Settlement and Development” of 1930 drew particular attention to the strictly Zionist, exclusivist land provision for immigrants effected on extremely generous terms by the Jewish National Fund – this working alongside the comprehensively powerful General Federation of Jewish Labour – where the main principle was self-labour, or, if that did not provide sufficiently, the employment of an exclusively Jewish labour force – the land itself being permanently, inalienably Jewish. “…the result of the purchase of land by the Jewish National Fund”, observed Hope Simpson, “has been that land has been territorialized. It ceases     to be land from which the Arab can gain any advantage either now or at any time in the future”.

  1. b) Lobbying: Zionists of course started off with a great advantage over the Arab interest by having a forceful bourgeois presence in European capitals. Sir Reginald Coupland wrote some time later of what he termed the “inequality of access…to the democracy of Great Britain” between Arabs and Jews, the former being “too far away, too poor”; the latter, by contrast, being “represented in every layer of English society…”.

Specifically, and crucially, in this regard, was Chaim Weizmann`s intimate involvement (as academic, scientific adviser, and propagandist) with the highest levels of the British political establishment.  Battling against difficult odds in the war years, he conducted, by his own calculation, around 2,000 exchanges with ministers, officials, and diplomats. And he played shrewdly to Britain`s imperial obsessions: “A strong Jewish community on the Egyptian flank”, to cite one typical remark, would provide “a very effective guard for the Suez Canal”.

Less subtle and more belligerent in their demands in Palestine itself – often explicitly for the creation of a Jewish state rather than a mere national home – were important elements of the East-European Zionist leadership in Palestine itself, most notably the so-called “Revisionist” Zionists. Ronald Storrs records his dealings, as military governor of Jerusalem, with Menahem Ussishkin, Weizmann`s Russian successor as head of the Zionist Commission: “open in his opinion and tactics, he was known even among his own people as Menahem Pasha. To us he might well have been Czar Menahem; and when he was announced for an interview I braced myself to take my punishment like a man…”.

The Zionist leadership in Jerusalem, moreover, made much use of back channels to London, the 1920 Palin Commission commenting on “a tendency to put pressure on the [Palestine] Administration through the influence of their home organisation with the British Government, when they had failed to persuade the Administration to adopt their views directly….They are ready to use their powerful foreign and home influence to force the hand of this or any future Administration”. Plus ca change….

To conclude: establishing inalienable facts-on-the-ground, and lobbying relentlessly in London and Jerusalem, as the strategic Zionist responses to the fragility of Balfour in its earliest years

– producing immediate success in the sense that the national home survived, but failing to overcome a chronic sense of unease

– this in turn leading to a continuation of both practices throughout the 20s, 30s, and beyond, recording a major, last-minute triumph in 1931 with the government`s abandonment of its Passfield White Paper and intended restrictions on Jewish immigration into Palestine;

– suffering what was seen by Zionists as a major setback with the 1939 St James`s Palace Conference and the consequent MacDonald White Paper of that year – part and parcel, in Weizmann`s angry perception, of the Chamberlain government`s twinned policy of appeasement, Arabs as well as Nazis being the beneficiaries;

– but reviving, to generally successful, crude effect in new forms after the war (notably around the Israeli state) and new directions of lobbying into the 1940s and through to the present day.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all this – widening the focus to the whole general history of European imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries (on which Zionism of course rode) – it is that the systemic combination of power and insecurity can be lethal in relation to the rights of politically exposed and racially disparaged societies. Arguably, there was more insecurity than power for the Zionists in the early post-Balfour days; arguably, today, it is the other way round – with much of the sense of insecurity wilfully and tendentiously contrived (as, grotesquely, with Netanyahu`s recent blaming of the Holocaust on Palestinians). But the fateful combination has always been there, and it gives pause to any notion that mere moral rightness, however justified in relation to painful long-running historical circumstance, can ever hope to win the day. International history does not do either sentiment or morality.



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