What lay behind a national home for Jews?

Long term factors of the Balfour Declaration


In starkest terms, the Balfour Declaration is simply a letter sent by the then Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, on behalf of the Foreign Office, to Lord Rothschild (that is, Lionel Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, then president of the English Zionist Federation and a friend of Balfour’s of long standing) on November 2nd, 1917.

It reads:

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by the Cabinet.

‘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’

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Y(ours) sincerely

Arthur James Balfour

One of the most reliable sourcebooks of Jewish history, The Jew in the Modern World (edited by Jehuda Reinharz and Paul Mendes-Flohr), informs us that: “Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow . . . were instrumental in securing the Balfour Declaration . . . [They] submitted what they felt to be a moderate formula to the British government to recognize Palestine as the national home for the Jewish people . . . and for providing a ‘Jewish National Colonizing Corporation’ for the settlement and economic development of Palestine.

“The formula was not accepted. The British government substituted the indefinite article ‘a’ for ‘the.’ The declaration, after having been approved by the British cabinet, was signed by the foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, and sent to Lord Rothschild, who was asked to convey it to the World Zionist Organization.”

There is nothing glaringly incorrect about this synopsis, which more-or-less reflects the position of mainstream historians over the years.

But it is neither penetrating nor intellectually successful in situating the Balfour Declaration in its historical context. It fails to mention the all-important setting of the Great War, now known as World War I, which was still raging. There is little chance that anything like the Balfour Declaration could ever have materialised if not for the particular tensions, perceptions and misapprehensions arising from wartime.

As Mark Levene has written, in part the Balfour Declaration was conceived as an attempt to intensify the commitment of Russia to the Allied cause — as it was believed that the Jewish community in Russia was far more influential and supportive of Zionism than it actually was.

James Renton has refined this argument by showing that the Balfour Declaration also was inspired, shaped, and propelled because British policy makers furthermore believed that Jews, particularly in Britain and the United States as well as Russia, were more solidly behind Zionism than they actually were.

Even more important, Renton argues that the Balfour Declaration grew out of particular views on race, as applied to how ethnic-national groups in both Europe and the Near East were thought of. Renton convincingly proves that while British support for Zionism was based on a combination of foreign policy concerns, it also, quite critically, depended on the supposition that Jews constituted a unified “race” that was predisposed to see and realise itself as organically committed to a national home in Palestine.

One of the novel contributions of Renton’s analysis is that, first, the Balfour Declaration was far from the most urgent matter to the British administration; and concomitantly, that it was imagined as more of a propaganda exercise, as opposed to an actual policy to be consistently pursued on the ground in Palestine.

This goes a long way in coming to terms with the apparent superficiality of British support for Zionism and its fitful follow-through — and accounts for the frustration of Balfour himself at its failure to progress with consistent, deliberate speed.

As opposed to rejecting the formulation of Weizmann and Sokolow, as Reinharz and Mendes-Flohr state, it is far more important to recognize that the Balfour Declaration repeats the wording, albeit in translation, of the Basel Programme — that is, the Zionist Movement’s founding document of August, 1897.

In that statement the term “a national home” also was carefully chosen as a modest and more inclusive alternative to “the” national home. In 1897 as well as 1917, the notion of Palestine as “the” national home of the Jews would have been derided as a wild exaggeration, in terms of Zionism’s importance to Jews, and the movement’s place in the emerging world order.

In both cases the term “a national home” was intentionally vague and quite effective.

We can ask: what does it mean? The answer is something between everything and nothing.

While the diplomatic push and jostling behind the document has been revealed and explained from a number of perspectives, there is one part of the story that deserves greater attention.

In the spring before the articulation of the Balfour Declaration, Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, spent a month in the United States.

In his memoirs, Balfour asserts that the Zionists in America “had for a leader Mr. Justice Brandeis, a Judge of the Supreme Court, a great figure in the world of law and politics to whom President Wilson himself was readily accessible, a man who could meet a British Secretary of State on equal terms.”

Balfour states in no uncertain terms that his relationship with Brandeis was “important”. He found him “the most remarkable man he had met in the United States”, which was not a means of damning him with faint praise.

There were several men Balfour got to know on this mission who struck him as formidable and impressive. To Brandeis, Balfour “pledged his own personal support for Zionism. He had done it before to Dr. Weizmann, but now he was British Foreign Secretary.”

We also may wish to reflect on the Balfour Declaration as effecting, as well as signifying, the relationship between the Zionist movement and Britain. One of the reasons why the Balfour Declaration was greeted with near rapture is because there was a strong strain of Anglophilia running through Zionism from its very inception.

Zionism can be described as an anachronistic Central European national movement, mainly supported by East European Jews, toward the goal of creating a Jewish home in Palestine, infused with a sizeable dose of irrational Anglophilia.

This is similar to an earlier characterization of Zionism articulated by the late historian Lord Beloff and several others, as a movement in which one Jew asks another Jew for money in order to send a third Jew to Palestine.

Although Chaim Weizmann is recalled for investing a huge share of his own and his movement’s capital in His Majesty’s government, the fact is that Britain was regarded as extraordinarily important in the efforts and visions of Zionism since the days of Theodor Herzl, and even some of his precursors.

Herzl himself completely bought into the myth of Britain as the bastion of honour, manliness and civilisation. He even saw English games — such as cricket and football — as the fount of notions of fair play and character-building.

Part of the attraction of Jews to Mandate Palestine was not simply the burgeoning, effervescent Zionism of the place but the fact that it was part of the British Empire, the supposed Englishness of the enterprise.

Although the myth of England and the British Empire as a haven for Jews might not have surpassed that of the so-called Golden Door of the United States, it was nevertheless a powerful force.

This makes the crashing down of Zionist-British relations, in the bloody end of the Mandate, all the more poignant and heart-breaking as a tragedy and horror to all parties.

Yet in the end, it is indeed true that no matter its superficiality or cynical construction, the Balfour Declaration was a crucial step toward the materialization of the Zionist project in Palestine.

How one evaluates it depends in large part on one’s contemporary perspective. It may be scorned for having assisted in the dispossession of Palestine’s Arabs and rejoiced in for helping to provide a haven for hundreds of thousands of Jews who otherwise were not likely to have escaped the lethal grasp of the Nazis.

It proved to be one in a series of developments toward the eventual establishment of the State of Israel.

The complex, equivocal, and supremely vague Balfour Declaration, in any event, adjusted the trajectory of Zionism, and helps to account for the shape of things to come, as well as unresolved tensions that remain to this day. 

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