Wartime contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917 William Mathew: an Improbable Regression

Review by Mary Grey

Although for many Jews this Declaration represented a dramatic re-entry of Jews into history, this article argues that it was more a regression than an advance. True, the  Balfour Declaration promised to protect the  civil and religious rights of the Arab population, but not the political – despite certain remarks made by — for example Churchill and Mark Sykes urging that equal privileges be accorded to all nationalities. Also, Revisionist Zionists like Jabotinsky urged preparation for battles to come.

Mathew’s first argument  is that it was the entry of the Ottoman empire into World War I as an enemy that made possible Britain’s invasion of Palestine. (He recognises that there was nothing pre-ordained about this, and it would almost be a full year after the Balfour Declaration before Palestine was secured.

A second factor was the removal of Herbert Asquith from government to be replaced by David Lloyd George – an imperial enthusiast and Zionist sympathizer-  in December 1916. Even so, time had to be found amidst the pressures of war on the western front – and in addition it was necessary to behave duplicitously in the face of promises already made to the Arabs. (McMahon Letters)

A third factor was the influence of Chaim Weizmann. He was, Mathews writes, “hugely persistent and persuasive campaigner, unabashed in his approaches to the most influential people in the land”. Weizmann convinced Balfour that history could not be ignored, and 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.”(p.38) Vital to his success was his  conviction that the project could best be pursued through the sponsorship and force majeure of a “mighty and just power”—imperial Britain.(p.42) Weizmann found common cause with Lloyd George in the objective of establishing a national home in a future British Palestine—where, adjoining the strategically crucial Suez Canal, there would ideally emerge a European community indebted and obliging to its imperial protector.

The opposition of Lord Curzon was also a key factor. Curzon was lord privy seal, leader of the House of Lords, a key member of Lloyd George’s inner War Cabinet and by far the best informed minister on Middle and Far Eastern affairs. In February 1919, Curzon became acting foreign secretary during Balfour’s absence at the Paris Peace Conference, and in October that same year assumed full office, a post he retained until January 1924. It was Curzon’ s cutting statement that is remembered today: “As for the resident Arab population, whose forefathers have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years. . . . 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.”(p.33) But Curzon’s intervention came very late, his memorandum briefly discussed by the War Cabinet only two days before the Declaration was issued.

The other leading anti-Zionist at the time was the secretary of state for India, Edwin Montagu who was an assimilationist . In the first of his two tightly argued papers on the dangers of a Jewish national home submitted to the War Cabinet in August and October 1917, he expressed the “fear that my protest comes too late, and it may well be that the Government were practically committed when Lord Rothschild wrote . . . for there has obviously been some correspondence or conversation before this letter.”(p.35)

Additionally, almost the entire British civilian and military leadership in Egypt and Palestine was unreservedly critical. There were also objections from the British Jewish community: Montagu asserted in his War Cabinet memorandum of October 1917 that almost all the influential members of the Jewish community in Britain were assimilationists, and as such opposed to pro-Zionist policies—listing forty-six individuals “prominent in public life” who had allowed their names to be cited (p.35)

Despite all opposition, with the required parliamentary approval thus obtained, the government was submitted its draft Mandate for Palestine to the Council of the League of Nations—approval following on 24th July, with full implementation enacted on 26th September 1923. Months after the Mandate had been granted Curzon insisted that the Balfour Declaration represented “the worst” of Britain’s Middle Eastern commitments and “a striking contradiction of our publicly declared principles.” To Balfour himself, he said that “Palestine will be a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with its Mandate.”(p.35) He died in March 1925. In conclusion Mathews considers the character of Balfour himself as an important factor: to Arthur Balfour the enterprise was an interesting experiment and an adventure.

The full paper is available as a download. It is in the Journal of Palestinian Studies,  158, Vol., XL, No.2, Winter 2011, pp.26-42 and is reproduced with permission of the author.


This entry was posted in Historical, Pre-Balfour Declaration and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.