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A hundred years ago today, while World War I was raging and no one knew which side would win, the British government, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, released a declaration bearing the name of Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary. This “Balfour Declaration” promised to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” so long as that did not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” there. That short document (its crucial paragraph contains 67 words) laid the foundation of modern Israel—but also sowed dragon’s teeth.
Why did the British government do it? Some historians argue that a few cabinet ministers sympathized with the Jews and wanted to help them. Others point out that Lloyd George and Balfour were Christian Zionists, who wanted to facilitate the gathering of Jews in Palestine, a precondition, they believed, for the Second Coming. Still others note Palestine’s strategic importance: it overlooks Egypt, through which runs the Suez Canal, the United Kingdom’s economic jugular at the time, and the cabinet wanted a grateful and largely European population to provide stability if the British established a protectorate there. Moreover, as yet other historians have noted, Foreign Office mandarins pushed Lloyd George and Balfour to act because they feared that if they did not, Germany would, thereby depriving the United Kingdom of Jewish support.
Each of these arguments is true, and the last one points to the most important reason of all. Lloyd George’s government issued the Balfour Declaration primarily because it thought that doing so would help it win the war. Most of its members believed that “world Jewry” had great subterranean influence—over world finance, for example, and, contradictorily, over world socialism. They thought that American Jewish financiers could persuade U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to bring his country into World War I. They thought that Russian Jewish socialists could persuade Russian Prime Minister Aleksandr Kerensky not to leave it. And they thought that the way to win over these disparate Jews was to promise them Palestine.
They believed all of this because the most important Zionist in the United Kingdom, Chaim Weizmann, had convinced them of it. Weizmann was a Russian Jew, educated in Germany and Switzerland, and employed at the time by the University of Manchester as a reader in chemistry. Somehow, this Volksmensch, or “a man of the people,” as a friend once called him, learned to speak the language of the British political elite and to move easily among its members, despite their anti-Semitism. In fact, Weizmann practiced on them a kind of political jujitsu, using their prejudices to his own advantage. When they charged that Jews had vast mysterious powers, he agreed. “You need us,” he told them in effect, “now more than ever.”
Charismatic and compelling, Weizmann embarked in 1914 on a political charm offensive, teaching the British governing class the principles of Zionism, the first of which was that the Jews must have their own country, like any other nationality. He elbowed aside British Jews who argued that the Jews did not constitute a nation, that they merely shared a belief system that could be practiced anywhere and that therefore Jews should strive to assimilate in their countries of residence. Until then, these so-called assimilationists had spoken for the Jewish community in the United Kingdom. Weizmann triumphed over them completely. The Balfour Declaration is proof of that.
The document took so long to produce, however, and the process of its production was so tortuous, that it had unanticipated results. First of all, by the time it was released, the United States had already entered the war, and Russia was irrevocably on the way out. Contrary to the wishes of those who framed it, the Balfour Declaration did not influence the outcome of World War I. But surely it influenced what happened after.
During the war, the British government had been attempting to win over the Zionists with one hand, while coaxing Arabs into serving its interests with the other. It successfully encouraged Husayn ibn Ali, the sharif of Mecca, to rebel against their common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. When the sharif launched his insurrection, he did so believing that the United Kingdom had promised to support the establishment of an independent Arab kingdom, including Palestine, of which he would be the leader—not a home in Palestine for the Jewish people. He therefore viewed the Balfour Declaration as a great betrayal. After November 2, 1917, neither he nor his followers would trust “perfidious Albion.”
Nor would many Zionists (although Weizmann remained an Anglophile all his life). This is because they had discovered that even as the British government was promising Palestine to them, it was bound by the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 to cede the north of the country to France and the holy cities to government by international condominium. Of course, Zionists did not view the Balfour Declaration as a betrayal, but they knew now that the British government was capable of forsaking them.
What they never learned was that Lloyd George had been prepared to betray them even as they celebrated the declaration he made possible. In January 1918, mere weeks after issuing it, he had sent an emissary to speak with the Turks about a separate peace. Having Turkey out of the war would be a greater contribution to an Allied victory than anything concerning Jews and Arabs. Lloyd George offered the Turks various inducements. One was that if the Ottomans deserted Germany, their flag could continue to fly over Palestine. Had they accepted this offer, no one would be referring to the Balfour Declaration today.
So much deceit and betrayal could not but lead to trouble—and so they have, as a hundred years of Middle Eastern history testifies. A further point gives rise to even more sobering reflections, however. When Lloyd George approached the Turks in January 1918, he did so without informing his foreign secretary or, in fact, anyone else in the Foreign Office. He was acting on his own. Surely, he is not the only leader of a country to have ignored his advisers. That was dangerous enough a century ago. In the age of President Donald Trump, it is terrifying to contemplate.