The Balfour Declaration Century

Weizmann and Balfour (center)
"Our policy may fail; I do not deny that this is an adventure," Arthur Balfour said, in an address to the House of Lords, defending what has become known as the Balfour Declaration. "Are we never to have adventures? Are we never to try new experiments?”  At the time of that speech, his declaration was not quite five years old; today, it is exactly a hundred years old. (It was made public, in a letter to Lord Rothschild, on November 2, 1917.) “His Majesty’s government,” the Balfour Declaration read, “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, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

He accepted the view, Balfour continued before the Lords, “that some members of this race may have given—doubtless did give—occasion for much ill will.” But this should be seen, he continued, in light of the “tyranny and persecution” to which they were subjected. Surely it was proper to send a message, to “every land where the Jewish race has been scattered,” that Christendom is not “unmindful of the service they have rendered to the great religions of the world.”

In 1917, Balfour was Foreign Secretary to Prime Minister David Lloyd George at a point, in the Great War, when General Edmund Allenby’s army was poised to take Jerusalem from Ottoman forces. It seemed the moment to tip his hand. It was clear by 1922, however, how serious were the contradictions in the purposes the Declaration had braided together. In May, 1921, the first serious riots had broken out in Jaffa and elsewhere in Palestine, leaving forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs dead, and scores injured on both sides. In June of that year, hoping to preëmpt new tensions on the ground, the British High Commissioner in Palestine, Sir Herbert Samuel, fervently denied that, by “national home,” the British government had meant “a Jewish Government being set up to rule over the Moslem and Christian majority.”

Samuel lamented how a number of Jewish “new arrivals” were tainted by “the pernicious doctrine of Bolshevism”—a later Commission of Enquiry determined that a part of what provoked the riot was Jewish Communists handing out revolutionary leaflets, their women cadres wearing shorts—and insisted that “conditions in Palestine are such as do not permit anything in the nature of a mass immigration.” (The current British government appears to remain defensive about the Declaration and its empire’s role in this “experiment,” which led to the creation of the State of Israel, in 1948. The main event commemorating the Declaration is planned as a private dinner to be attended by Prime Minsters Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu and a hundred and fifty guests. No media will be present.

Balfour’s explicit rationale—“Christendom’s” bad conscience regarding Jews—was not entirely disingenuous. British statesmen, many of whom sang “Jerusalem” at Christmastime, or reconsidered anti-Semitism reading “Daniel Deronda,” imagined that, when the horror of the Great War was finally over, the world might be remade more nearly according to their ideals. Balfour, a Conservative, was an early convert to the idea that the Jews might constitute more than a religious community. In August, 1903, while serving as Prime Minister, he had agreed to what he thought a generous proposal, a territory for Jews in East Africa, and “on conditions which will enable members to observe their national customs.” The Seventh Zionist Congress—roiled by the offer, but its majority bent on Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel—rejected the East African option in the summer of 1905.

But the following winter, on a visit to his Manchester constituency, Balfour became friends with a thirty-one-year-old émigré from what is now Belarus: Chaim Weizmann, a charismatic professor of chemistry who made no secret of his support for the position of Zionist Congress’s majority. (Weizmann recalled telling Balfour that the Jews “had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”) Weizmann’s lobbying of Balfour—and other establishment figures, including Samuel and C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian—continued relentlessly over the following decade. Weizmann’s own prestige soared when, during the First World War, he came up with a novel way to synthesize acetone, crucial for the manufacture of explosives.

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