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Weizmann, Herzl and Eretz Yisrael

From Basel to Balfour, Derek Penslar looks at how we got the Balfour Declaration

    Chaim Weizmann
    Chaim Weizmann

    Without Herzl, there would never have been a Balfour Declaration. Yet he did not procure it, nor could he have done so. Herzl was a vital link in the chain that connected the early Zionist activists of the 1880s and 1890s, known as the Lovers of Zion, with the diplomatic activity of Chaim Weizmann and his allies during the First World War.

    Herzl created a well-organized, international Zionist movement which attracted global attention and he strove tirelessly to win the Great Powers’ support for his cause.

    Yet he failed, as he was bound to, so long as the Ottoman Empire stood and no western state was willing to be the Zionists’ protector.

    Herzl’s Zionism was based on two distinct yet overlapping goals: the achievement of security for Jews suffering from persecution or discrimination and the attainment of Gentile respect for Jews wherever they lived.

    When Herzl became a Zionist in the spring of 1895, he immediately saw a Jewish state with international recognition as the means of achieving both of these goals.

    Not only would Jews in their new state be able to determine their own fate; that state would be a model of social experiments, such as a seven-hour work day. This “land of miracles,” Herzl wrote, would become “a target of the civilized world, which will visit us” just as it visits Lourdes and Mecca.

    In turn, those Jews who choose not to emigrate to the new state will be respected by their non-Jewish neighbours for its wondrous accomplishments.

    When in 1895 Herzl began to develop an idea for mass Jewish migration, he knew nothing about Zionism and was unsure where the Jewish state would be. He seemed to prefer Latin America which, he wrote in his diary, was “far from seedy and militarized Europe.”

    By the time Herzl published his pamphlet The Jewish State in February 1896, he had come into contact with Zionist activists and appreciated their attachment to Eretz Yisrael. In the pamphlet, Herzl appeared open to whether the state should be in Argentina or Palestine but he did make a stronger case for Palestine, “our ever-memorable historic home.” But attaining Palestine, Herzl acknowledged, would depend upon the good graces of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdulhamid II.

    Why should the Ottoman sultan give Palestine to the Jews? Would the caliph of the Sunni Muslim world surrender Jerusalem, long revered by Muslims and home to the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque?

    Herzl had two answers. One was to propose that, in return for rights over Palestine, Zionists would raise vast sums of money that would pay off the Ottoman Empire’s sovereign debt. A second was to appeal to the western Great Powers to push the Ottoman Empire to grant the Zionists a charter, or to flex their muscles and extend a protectorate over the land on the Jews’ behalf.

    When Herzl wrote The Jewish State, he very much had a western, non-Jewish readership in mind. He insisted that the Jewish state’s existence would be guaranteed by Europe, that it would be neutral and that Christian holy sites would be extra-territorialized “as is well-known to the law of nations.” The Jews would “form a guard of honour about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfilment of this duty with our existence.”

    Herzl’s ideas attracted interest but no takers. It took five years and several trips to Constantinople before Abdulhamid granted him a personal audience. Abdulhamid was intrigued by the prospect of a massive infusion of cash into his debt-ridden Treasury and he was receptive to Jewish immigration to various parts of his empire but he would never accept Jewish domination in Palestine. Herzl also tried his luck with the German emperor, Wilhelm II, whom he met in both Berlin and Palestine in 1898. Wilhelm was impressed by Herzl and briefly considered lobbying his ally the Sultan on behalf of Zionism. But Ottoman resistance was firm and Wilhelm quickly dropped the idea.

    The only country that gave Herzl serious consideration was the United Kingdom.

    In 1902, Herzl and British officials conferred about the possibility of Jewish 
settlement on Cyprus or El Arish, on the Sinai peninsula’s Mediterranean coast. Those options proved impracticable but the following year the colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and the foreign secretary, Lord Landsdowne, offered the Zionists a measure of autonomy over portions of 
British East Africa, along the Uganda railroad. The British did not act out of idealism or compassion but practical need — the territory was thinly populated by European settlers and it was expensive to run.

    What became known as the “Uganda” offer put Zionism on the global diplomatic map. A Great Power had recognized the Zionist claim on territory and the Zionists would obtain what had long been, from the very start, the objects of Herzl’s desire: a charter, flag and self-government.

    Herzl did not wish to limit himself at this point to East Africa but envisioned Jewish chartered companies all over the world as political statements, way-stations to the ultimate goal, Eretz Yisrael.

    The British government, in turn, believed that Jews would be productive and law-abiding settlers whose taxes would defray the cost of colonial administration.

    The parallels to the Balfour Declaration are clear — the search for a useful client to buttress the empire and the willingness to recognize Zionism’s fundamental legitimacy. Alas for Herzl, East Africa was not Eretz Yisrael and the Zionist movement was bitterly divided over whether the scheme should even be considered.

    In the midst of the raging debate, in 1904, Herzl died prematurely at the age of forty-four. The Uganda proposal withered.

    In the following years the Ottoman Empire’s stance on Palestine did not change, although the Turkish Revolution of 1908-09 raised Zionist hopes that a Jewish Palestine could be recognized as an autonomous component of an Ottoman parliamentary democracy.

    Herzl was therefore wrong when he wrote in his diary on September 3, 1897, shortly after the conclusion of the first Zionist 
Congress in Basel: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state.” He founded the Zionist Organization, which over time developed the institutions of a proto-state but without international recognition and support the minuscule Jewish community in Palestine could never attain the necessary critical mass to become a sovereign state. Not only did Herzl’s diplomacy fail; before the first World War the Zionist movement as a whole was uncertain about its goals.

    Its platform, adopted at the First Congress and known as the Basel Program, aspired to the “creation of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine to be secured by public law.” This programme represented a compromise between those who wanted a clear declaration of aspirations for statehood and those who feared that such boldness would endanger the status of the movement in Tsarist Russia and of those Jews living under Ottoman rule in Palestine. The term “public law” was itself a neologism, proposed instead of the term “international law” favoured by many delegates and which had stronger connotations of statehood.

    During the First World War, Weizmann faced a more open playing field and more freedom of operation than Herzl. The British government was divided between those who wished to preserve the Ottoman Empire and those who wanted to dismember it. The latter group, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, wanted to act in the name of national self-determination rather than imperialistic conquest, which in the dawning Wilsonian era of international diplomacy was falling into disrepute.

    Weizmann could address British long-term interests in the Middle East while playing upon British notions that a declaration of support for Zionism would unleash Jewish financial and political support for the war in the US and Russia.

    Not only was Weizmann operating in a different geo-political universe than Herzl, he was also far more successful than Herzl in connecting emotionally with British luminaries. Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour, meeting Weizmann in December of 1914 and hearing Weizmann present a threnody on the Jews’ legacy of suffering, was moved, so Weizmann wrote to Ahad Ha-Am, “to tears...[A]nd he took me by the hand and said I had illuminated for him the road followed by a great suffering nation.”

    Compared with Weizmann, Herzl’s bearing was stiff and aloof, and he spoke English somewhat laboriously, without the sparkle that characterized his command of German and French.

    Last but not least, Weizmann and his allies (such as Nahum Sokolow and Aaron Aaronsohn) operated on their own, beyond the framework of the Zionist Organization, whose activity was hobbled by the war. Unlike Herzl, they did not have to report on a regular basis to the Zionist Organization’s executive body or Zionist congresses. The Declaration was presented to the world as a fait accompli and, for the most part, Jews were overcome by joy, gratitude and pride.

    A year after the Declaration was issued, the war ended and in February of 1919, a triumphant Weizmann presented Zionist claims to the Paris peace conference. Afterwards he told the assembled press, “Great Britain was chosen by the Zionists as protector because of her great experience in dealing with small nations in the east….” These words could have come from Herzl’s mouth in 1903 but back then the British offer of protection applied to a distant territory, not Palestine.

    Herzl laid the cornerstone of the Zionist-British alliance, but Weizmann built its edifice. 

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