Why Commemorate the Balfour Declaration?
Why commemorate the Balfour Declaration? After all, some in Britain consider it to be ‘a historic mistake’. Others see it as the ultimate rebellion – the attempt of a small, persecuted people to return from the margins to the mainstream and thereby succeeding against all the odds.
Many Jews believe that it was solely Judaism that fortified and safeguarded the Jews during the millennia of exile. Indeed, the practice of Jewish learning and study today is often referred to as a portable homeland which the Jews took with them as they moved from land to land. Early Zionist writers such as Moses Margolin in St. Petersburg in fin de siècle Tsarist Russia argued that in addition, it was the very idea that the Jews were a nation as well that had maintained the Jews throughout the ages. His book, Basic Trends in the History of the Jewish People, published in 1901, influenced many. For the Jewish historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century a clear difference was made between Jewish history and Judaic history.
For the early religious proto-Zionists, Rabbis Kalishcher and Alkalai, it was Judaism that was at the centre with nationalism as a thin veneer. For secularists such as Vladimir Jabotinsky who used Jewish tradition to make the masses aware, it was the nation that was at the heart of Jewish survival; Judaism was merely a protective shell.
The ancient homeland held a fascination in the imagination of Jews worldwide. British Jews such as the East End furrier, Zerach Barnett, purchased land in Palestine twenty- five years before the first Zionist Congress in 1897. An ultra-orthodox Jew, he was ironically one of the founders of the ‘White City’ — secular Tel Aviv.
Theodor Herzl, one of the founding fathers of modern Zionism, understood the necessity therefore for international approval – manifested in a declaration by the great powers. Herzl tried and failed. He died at the age of 44, leaving his heirs with the need for a declaration, but with no idea of how to achieve it. World War I provided that political constellation in which it could be realised.
With Turkey’s entry into the war in November 1914, it was clear that at some point a British Expeditionary Force would move up from Egypt to confront Turkish forces in Ottoman Palestine. In January 1915 Herbert Samuel, the first Jew to sit in a British cabinet, submitted a memorandum to his colleagues. It argued that a return of the Jews to Zion was in the interests of both Jews and Britons. The memorandum embellished an exotic, oriental imagery of the Jews to non-Jews, of the sort projected by Disraeli half a century before. Even so, Samuel, who had never previously demonstrated any interest in Zionism warned:
“To attempt to realise the aspiration of a Jewish state one century too soon might well throw back its actual realisation for many centuries more.”
While some were captivated by the imagery of a return of the Jews to Zion after two thousand years, others such as the prime minister, Herbert Asquith and the Minister for War, Lord Kitchener, were not. By December 1916, the military stagnation, exemplified by the mud of Flanders Field, the huge losses at Ypres and at the Somme and the uninhabitable trenches of the ordinary soldier, forced Asquith’s resignation. Kitchener had been lost on board HMS Hampshire, sunk off the Orkneys by a German U-boat, in June 1916. Lloyd-George became prime minister and doors suddenly opened for Zionist diplomats.
In February 1917, Mark Sykes, a Conservative MP and unofficial diplomat, met the Zionist leadership. He endorsed the idea of a declaration and indeed a Jewish fighting force. He lubricated the path of Nahum Sokolov to visit the Pope as well as Italian and French political figures. All the while, Sykes never mentioned that he had previously negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement with the French to divide up the post-war Middle East between the imperial powers. This meeting was followed by a breakfast between Lloyd-George and Weizmann in early April 1917.
Sykes was keen to involve ‘international Jewry’ in the British war effort. The British were desperate to bring the United States into the war and to prevent Kerensky’s new Russia from pulling out. Weizmann pandered to this delusional belief in the power of the Jews and played it to the full to secure his diplomatic goals.
As history records, the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Balfour – affectionately known publicly as ‘Daddy Longlegs’ – wrote to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917:
“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, 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.”
The Zionists of 1917 understood that they could change the course of Jewish history – and acted. This is a voyage of discovery that continues today – a voyage which carries all of us as its passengers.
Colin Shindler is an emeritus professor at SOAS, University of London and a member of New North London Synagogue.