The Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917: A Fateful Improbability

Centenary Lecture to the History Group, The Norfolk Club, 14 September 2017 by William Mathew

It is argued here that only a special conjuncture of chance and short-term circumstance made it possible for an effective pro-Zionist policy to be successfully pursued by the British government in 1917. Much of this was war-related, and the absence of any one factor could have fatally damaged the entire project: the Ottoman Empire`s entry into the war as an enemy belligerent; Herbert Asquith`s replacement as prime minister by David Lloyd George in December 1916; Chaim Weizmann`s presence in Britain as the most energetic and insistent of Zionist propagandists; and the failure of the anti-Zionist opposition in government in the persons of Lord Curzon and Edwin Montagu to persuade their colleagues of the folly of their Palestine policy. The seeming fragility of the British commitment, in play with other issues concerning paramount imperial interests and past promises to the Levantine Arabs, had an immediate and powerful effect on Zionist political and territorial behaviour.

Rarely in history has there been, as with the Balfour Declaration, such a combination of short-term, variously accidental, origins with dramatically fateful, long-run consequences – these latter persisting now for a full century. Improbability, endurability. And, as will be suggested, the improbability, paradoxically, has been a powerful factor underlying the endurability.
The famous Declaration, in the form of a letter dated 2 November 1917 from the foreign secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, began by stating that `His Majesty`s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.` Beyond 1917, there followed various international moves to settle the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, its terms including the objectives of the Declaration. This was finally achieved in September 1923.

territorial promises, contrary to some common assertions, had already been made to the resident Arab population of Palestine that they would be granted post-war political independence if Britain was in a position to deliver it.

This paper, and the article `War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: An Improbable Regression`, Journal of Palestine Studies (Winter 2011) on which it is loosely based, is part of a wider project in which, in addition to this improbability argument, I have presented two other suggestions: first (`The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate, 1917-1923: British Imperialist Imperatives`, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies [July 2013]), that British-imperial, India-related priorities, not Zionism, lay behind the seizure and retention of Palestine; and, second (Introduction to edition of J.M.N. Jeffries, The Palestine Deception, 1915-1923 [Washington D.C., 2014; originally 1923), territorial promises, contrary to some common assertions, had already been made to the resident Arab population of Palestine that they would be granted post-war political independence if Britain was in a position to deliver it.
These three circumstances, taken together, help explain Zionist insecurity from the very earliest days of the national home, and, consequentially, the early Jewish resort to two modes of action that have been part of the so-to-speak Zionist genome ever since: establishing inalienable facts-on-the-ground in the form primarily of land acquisition; and engaging in vigorous, insistent, and sometimes intimidatory lobbying in the metropolitan capitals, initially London, and latterly Washington.
What then of these war-time accidents, contingencies, just one of which, if absent, could have precluded any issuance of the Balfour Declaration? – described by one of Chaim Weizmann`s biographers, Norman Rose (New York, 1986), as `one of the most improbable acts in the history of British foreign policy`, and by Walter Laqueur, in his History of Zionism (London etc., 1972) as a `utopian and reactionary attempt to arrest the movement of history`.
Four contingencies, all war-related, will be examined: the loss of the traditional Ottoman ally to the German cause at the start of the war; Herbert Asquith`s replacement as prime minister in December 1916 by David Lloyd George, a man of imperialist disposition; the presence in Britain of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, insistently promoting his cause – as what Isaiah Berlin has called `an irresistible political seducer`; and the failure of the powerful anti-Zionist opposition in Britain, led in government by Lord Curzon in the War Cabinet and the Jewish secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu, to block a policy that they regarded as injurious to both British and Jewish interests. No inevitabilities then; no great compelling sweep of history.

The first development that had to materialise before the British could sponsor a Jewish national home in Palestine was, obviously, military and political control of the territory. And the necessary invasion and conquest could only respectably take place if the Ottoman empire became an enemy belligerent – something, regarding contingencies, decidedly odd given Britain`s centuries-long critical alliance with Turkey, as a buffer covering the land and sea routes to Britain`s economic and military power-base in India and the farther East.
What changed from late-century on was the growing economic, political, and diplomatic involvement of Germany with Constantinople, this deliberately threatening British imperial interests – the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway being the most substantive and provocative of German Middle East forays, if not quite reaching hits intended terminus. Germany and Turkey signed a Treaty of Alliance on the eve of war on August 2nd 1914. Palestine, as Herbert Samuel, Britain`s first high commissioner there noted in his Memoirs (London, 1945), `bordered on the Suez Canal`; `The moment Turkey entered the war the position was entirely changed. If Palestine was to be given a new destiny, Great Britain, with her important strategic interests in the Middle East, was directly concerned`.
The invasion of Palestine had, of course, to be successful and comprehensive, and at the time of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917 the British had only penetrated Palestine`s southern borderlands, and had lately suffered major setbacks at the hands of Turkish forces under the control of the German general Kress von Kressenstein – the first two battles of Gaza, in the spring of 1917, producing British and Anglo-Indian casualties in excess of 10,000.
Moreover, much opposition by military men in London to any fighting in Palestine had to be rebuffed before the advances could continue. The chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, declared to the War Cabinet in December 1917 that the `first rule in all wars was to concentrate on the main [i.e. European] theatre all forces that can be made available.` His staff, he went on, had `never been able to regard an offensive campaign in Palestine as a sound military measure`. Shortly after, Robertson was sacked by Lloyd George – by the `little man` as he contemptuously called him – and in late October 1918, almost a full year on from Balfour, the whole of Palestine was finally brought under British control.
That was, in a number of regards, a close-run thing; and Britain had to make sure that they replaced the Ottomans decisively and comprehensively for the Zionist project to be implemented. But that too was in doubt. There was much private talk of negotiating a separate armistice with Turkey, detaching it from its German alliance, in early 1918, with the obvious likelihood that Palestine would be left in Ottoman hands – with the Balfour Declaration a dead letter. That, in the event, came to nothing, but it was a serious consideration for Lloyd George who, at one point, with remarkable inconsistency and opportunism, proposed the payment of a large sum of money to the Turkish authorities as part of a peace deal.  Jonathan Schneer, writing of `an extraordinarily murky situation`, documents this at length in his recent book The Balfour Declaration (London etc., 2010). On 9 January 1918, a mere two months after Balfour, Lloyd George`s secretary, J.T. Davies, handed to a go-between, the businessman Sir Vincent Caillard, the British government`s negotiating terms, the second paragraph of which read: `It is agreed that in the event of all Turkish troops in PALESTINE and on the HEJAZ Railway being withdrawn north of the railway line from HAIFA to DERAA a sum of $2,000,000 will be paid and the following guarantees given` – the second of which promised that `PALESTINE will not be annexed or included in the British Empire`. In an earlier communication, Jan Smuts, then in the Imperial War Cabinet, wrote that Turkey could `continue to fly her flag over Palestine`. The separate peace, of course, did not materialise – but as Schneer concludes, `the declaration bearing the foreign secretary`s name seems to have just missed the side track`.

As for the second contingency, the change of war leadership n London, there was nothing pre-ordained about Herbert Asquith`s loss of the premiership to Lloyd George in December 1916. Had Asquith shown more vigour and focus as a war leader, and had he been prepared to accord Lloyd George, successively his munitions minister and war minister, a more central role in determining general strategy, he might well have survived. And had he continued, it is extremely doubtful that he would have agreed to any commitment to privileged Jewish settlement in Palestine. He showed no enthusiasm for any post-war imperial expansion, mandatory or otherwise – and the notion of a Jewish Palestine under British suzerainty was one that he found particularly unappealing. It was, he suggested in Parliament, based on a number of `fragile, precarious, crumbling hypotheses`, among them the `very large hypothesis` that `the Jews and Arabs are going to live side by side in Palestine`. The danger, as he saw it, was that Britain would, fatally, and quite gratuitously , be replicating an Irish-style impasse in the Middle East – a telling point in the fraught domestic circumstances of 1916, and of course a highly prescient one.
Lloyd George, by contrast, had no such forebodings, rejoicing in the biblical resonances of British progress through the Holy Land. `The name of every hamlet and hill`, he told the House of Commons in December 1917, `…thrills with sacred memories. Beersheba, Hebron, Bethany, Bethlehem, the Mount of Olives are all names engraved on the heart of the world…`. With his so-called `eastern perspective` on the war, as mentioned, he wished, more soberly, to widen the conflict from the stalemate of the European trenches to areas of imperial concern in the Ottoman Levant where there was a better chance of morale-raising battlefield victories.
But it was not enough for Lloyd George to assume the premiership; he also had to hold onto it, this against much parliamentary and military opposition. `Western Front` men like the commander-in-chief in the field, Sir Douglas Haigh, and the chief of the Imperial Defence Staff in London, Sir William Robertson had, as noted, little time for Lloyd George`s eastern advances. When Robertson was sacked in early 1918 there was a real danger, according to one of Lloyd George`s biographers, John Grigg (Lloyd George War Leader 1916-1918 [London etc., 2002]), that the prime minister would be unseated by a combination of soldierly Tories and resentful Asquithians.
One may cite here, by way of illustration, the so-called Maurice affair – arising from a public charge by Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, lately Director of Military Operations at the War Office, and acting with the support of Sir William Robertson, that Lloyd George had misled the House of Commons on the issue of British military strength on the Western Front and in the Middle East – the premier having declared on 9 April that the army in France was `considerably stronger` at the start of 1918 than it had been a year earlier. Lloyd George vigorously denied the accusation of spreading false reassurances in a debate called, intriguingly, by Herbert Asquith on 9 May – carrying the House by a decisively large majority of 293 to 106. Grigg writes that `Lloyd George and indeed the whole War Cabinet` suspected `that a campaign was being orchestrated by the government`s enemies in Parliament, the press, and the higher ranks of the army, with a view to forcing it out of office` – with the mooted possibility of the return of Asquith to Downing Street. The `principle of civilian control was under threat`, Grigg continues. `In the Maurice affair, if not before, Lloyd George`s idea of a military conspiracy was surely not entirely fanciful` – the vote in the Commons being, albeit precariously, `a victory for parliamentary government` as well as for the prime minister himself.
It was also important, in the previous year, that Lloyd George found opportunity to keep the Zionist project afloat among his ministers at a time of increasing difficulties over existing imperial domains in Ireland and India. Examining the agenda of all 261 War Cabinet meetings between Lloyd George`s accession in December 1916 and the Balfour Declaration less than 11 months later one discovers that a scant four of these included discussion of the Zionist issue – and these usually as late-scheduled items. Stephen Roskill, biographer of Sir Morris Hankey (Hankey Man of Secrets, Vol.1 1877-1918 [London, 1970]), the head of the cabinet secretariat, notes how Hankey`s diaries for late 1917 make no mention of the Declaration, Roskill explaining what he terms the `seemingly casual way` in which it was approved by the fact that `all the War Cabinet were at the time deeply involved in preparing for the historic Rapallo conference` – for which Lloyd George and his delegation departed the day after the Declaration was agreed, and where the Allied Powers resolved, on 5 November- with the impending disastrous defeat of the 2nd Italian Army by Austro-Hungarian forces at Caporetto – to form a Supreme War Council based at Versailles. The question of Zionism, therefore, received only brief, fleeting, distracted attention by the Cabinet – and no reference at all was made in the discussions to the fact that Britain had already promised Palestine exclusively to the resident Arabs.
Finally, of course, Lloyd George had to be, so-to-speak, saved from himself, given his flirtation, as discussed, with the idea of a separate peace with Turkey, in which Palestine would remain in Ottoman hands and as such closed to Zionist settlement – the Turks having no apparent interest in the privileging of Jewish immigration.

The third fortuitous factor was the presence in Britain in the run-up and follow-on to the Balfour Declaration of Chaim Weizmann (later first president of Israel), a remarkably energetic and insistent propagandist in the Zionist cause, unabashed in his approaches to the most influential people in the land – and actually lunching in Downing Street with Lloyd George on the day the war ended.
His move to England, specifically Manchester, which he described as `a leap the dark`, came not so much from any Zionist ambition but from his successes in the academic job market, his appointment, already with a PhD, to a chemistry assistantship at Manchester University following on from previous posts in Freiburg and Geneva. But it was in Manchester that he got to know a local MP, for Oldham, Winston Churchill, his almost exact contemporary in age – and, in 1906, that he collared Arthur Balfour, lately prime minister, after an election meeting in the city, Balfour later recording that the 31-year-old had convinced him `that if a home was to be found for the Jewish people, homeless now for nineteen hundred years, it was vain to seek it anywhere but in Palestine`.
In the course of the war, by his own calculation, Weizmann engaged in `around 2,000 exchanges with diplomats, civil servants, and ministers`. At a social event in London in the early 1920s, Winston Churchill, pointing to Weizmann, remarked to Clement Attlee: `He is your teacher, he is my teacher, he was Lloyd George`s teacher – we will do whatever he tells us`. And, very specifically, as a chemist, he had close, regular contacts with officials and ministers as he worked, now in London, on the extended production of acetone from maize, the compound an essential ingredient in cordite, the propellant for bullets and shells
Lloyd George remarked, quite egregiously, in his War Memoirs (London, 1938), that as a previous munitions minister, he had asked Weizmann how he might be officially rewarded for his scientific work. Weizmann, Lloyd George recorded, `explained his aspiration as to the repatriation of the Jews to the sacred land they had made famous. That was the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for the Jews in Palestine`. (`Humbug, alas`, writes the historian Margaret MacMillan, Lloyd George`s great-granddaughter.)

Fourthly, and finally, the failure of the forces of opposition to Zionism in Britain to block, or at least seriously modify, the Balfour policy – that opposition comprising most of the British press; peers in parliament who, in a debate of June 1922, voted 60 to 29 on a motion of the Palestine Mandate, incorporating the Declaration, being `in its present form…unacceptable to this House`; and, dramatically, the India secretary, Edwin Montagu, who produced a memorandum in August 1917 entitled `the Anti Semitism of the British Government`, asserting in a further document, of the following October, that almost all the most influential members of the Jewish community in Britain were, like him, assimilationists and, as such, opposed to pro-Zionist policies, listing 46 prominent individuals who had allowed their names to go forward – men who had no wish to emigrate to the Levantine desert, and who feared that the reality of a Jewish national home would give encouragement and focus to anti-Semites wishing to be rid of the current Jewish population in Britain.
Especially notable was the failure to decisively influence events of the most powerful, and most centrally placed, of the dissenters, George Curzon – Marquess, subsequently Earl, Curzon of Kedleston – lord privy seal, a key member of Lloyd George`s inner War Cabinet (frequently chairing its meetings), and, in 1919, the successor to Arthur Balfour as foreign secretary. Had he been sufficiently persuasive in 1917, as the minister best travelled and best informed on Middle Eastern issues, and a former viceroy of India (1899-1905) – backed by these various oppositional forces, by the great majority of British military and political officers in Palestine itself, and in effective alliance with Edwin Montagu – the Balfour Declaration would never have been written or delivered, and the whole course of Levantine history radically altered. Fateful accident indeed, on the grandest of scales.
Curzon`s anti-Zionism was certainly unambiguous. He refuted the notion that `the connection of the Jews with Palestine, which terminated 1200 years ago, gives them any claim whatsoever. On this principle we have a stronger claim to parts of France`. As for the resident Arabs: `They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants, or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter`.
Much of the explanation for his failure does seem to lie in temporary circumstances and peculiarities of personality. Curzon`s very superiority of knowledge and experience appears to have backfired as a result of a regular arrogance of manner that impeded effective collaboration with associates in government: he was not remotely collegiate. As Harold Nicolson, then at the Foreign Office, commented, Curzon was commonly unable to `cooperate with ministerial colleagues whose irresponsibility shocked him and whose ignorance filled him with dismay`. He also developed, some have suggested, a marked inability to follow through on his more firmly held political convictions, Winston Churchill observing `that he thought too much about stating his case, and too little about getting things done`.
His frequent threats to resign when thwarted never resulted in an actual principled resignation, rendering him an unpersuasive, almost comic figure. `Curzon was always sending me letters of resignation`, Lloyd George commented: `He would send them by a messenger afflicted by a club-foot. A second and more nimble messenger would therefore be despatched with a second letter`. Harold Nicolson described him as `a martyr who refused invariably to go to the stake`. What is more, he treated his possible anti-Zionist ally, Edwin Montagu, with casual disdain as a comparatively junior minister outside the War Cabinet – who also presumed, as India secretary, to have opinions of his own on the future of the sub-continent on which he, Curzon, of course, was the grand panjandrum.
Also, despite his centrality in government, he appears never to have been in the loop while the secretive Zionist exchanges were being conducted, writing in 1919 that he had `never been consulted as to the Mandate at an earlier stage, nor did I know from which negotiations it sprang….I have no idea how far the case has been given away to the Zionists`. As a vocal anti-Zionist, he was, in the context of acute war-time pressures, being decisively marginalised. And he was severely weakened institutionally in 1921 by the loss of direct responsibility for Palestine when that brief was transferred to Winston Churchill, newly appointed at the Colonial Office – Churchill then going on (as I have argued in an earlier post on this website) to rescue, by sometimes devious means, the Declaration from its gathering host of denunciators.
In the end, Curzon relaxed into fatalistic acceptance, observing in Parliament in June 1920 that, entirely against his own personal judgement, the National Home issue was now closed. `It is well nigh impossible for any Government to extricate itself without a substantial sacrifice of consistency and self-respect, if not of honour. Those of us who have disliked the policy are not prepared to make that sacrifice`. In March 1925 death removed him from the scene altogether, taking to his grave the conviction that the Balfour Declaration represented `a striking contradiction of our publicly declared principles` – `the worst of Britain`s Middle Eastern commitments` – and `a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with [the] Mandate`.

The argument can be left hanging on these points of acute concern. Paradoxically – as suggested at the outset – the very improbability of the Declaration led, circuitously, to its remarkable staying power through to the creation of the state of Israel. The Zionists, tenacious east Europeans for the most part, fearing abandonment and treachery from the British – given the uncertain commitment of the London government from the outset, its India-focussed imperialist priorities, and its war-time promises of Palestine independence to the Arabs – immediately set to work to make their presence in Palestine permanent, by establishing inalienable facts-on-the-ground, and by lobbying intensively in the metropolitan capitals – this always, and up to the present day, with a continuing, energising, and dangerously legitimising sense of existential insecurity. And so the drama – the tragedy – continues.


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