Celebrations of the Balfour Declaration centennial are behind us. Most interpretations emphasise Chaim Weizmann’s political activities, his development of Acetone (a crucial ingredient in producing explosives for the British war machine) and his personal contacts with British leaders as a major factor that induced them to issue the pro-Zionist declaration.
Also, prompted by their Christian beliefs, British leaders, among them Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour, recognised the historical attachment of the Jews to the Holy Land.
However, these two factors are not sufficient as an explanation for making Balfour issue the Declaration.
Political and intellectual circles in England of 1917 commonly believed that Jews wielded significant power and worked together as a united international force. The intensive discussions in the British Cabinet in 1917 widely reflected this perception of Jewish influence.
Two major developments impacted on this (mis)understanding.
One was the situation in Russia. In February 1917, the Russian czar was forced to resign and a liberal government, headed by Alexander Kerensky, took over five months later.
It was clear that Russian soldiers no longer wanted to carry on fighting, and though Russia continued its membership in the anti-German alliance, there were hesitations. The assessment that Russian Jewry was very influential dominated the British cabinet. It was thought that a British pro-Zionist official statement would encourage Russian Jews to support their country’s continued participation in the war.
This was nonsensical. Russian Jews did not have a united national leadership. The Jewish tailors of Pinsk did not determine Prime Minister Kerensky’s government policy.
The previous Tsarist regime had persecuted the Russian Jews. Many of them were expelled from border regions into inner parts of the Russian Empire. In the war areas, Cossack bands had harassed and killed Jews. Neither Jews in the socialist (Menshevik) leadership supporting the Kerensky government, nor the Jews in the rival Bolshevik leadership had ever represented the Jewish community in Russia.
The British expectation that a powerful Russian Jewry would help keep Russia in the war was a delusion.
The second major issue was that London was eager to convince American Jews to support the decision by Woodrow Wilson’s administration, in April 1917, to join the Allies in the war. President Wilson’s sympathy with Zionist aspirations was considered to be an incentive for Jewish support.
This was a baseless assumption. Neither the New York sweatshop workers, nor the well-to-do leaders of the American Jewish Committee, were about to oppose President Wilson’s decision to join the war. Again, the British evaluation of the great Jewish influence in the US was based on misunderstanding.
Given the belief in the power of Jewish influence, Lloyd George clarified in his memoirs that the Cabinet issued the Balfour Declaration because “the Zionist leaders gave us a definite promise that if the Allies committed themselves to giving facilities for the establishment of a National Home for the Jews in Palestine, they would do their best to rally to the Allied cause Jewish sentiment and support throughout the world.”
Since the Jews kept their word in letter and spirit, Lloyd George asked whether the Cabinet meant to honour theirs. In Lloyd George’s view, it seemed like two equal powers were exchanging commitments, which again was truly delusional. Weren’t the British aware that the Zionist movement included only a minority of worldwide Jewry? From where did the idea of limitless power of American and Russian Jewry emerge? What is the origin of glorification of Jewish power, a phenomenon that continues in the Western democracies and other countries to this day?
The idea that Jews, like the Rothschilds were rich and powerful was widespread in the Western world. This myth became a permanent fixture once the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were published in 1903.
Even many who believed the “Protocols” were exaggerated still believed that an international Jewish cabal strived to control world affairs. The Balfour Declaration was at least partly — we would argue largely — rooted in the antisemitic view that perceived the Jews as a influential group, which it was worth luring to the British side.
It is no accident that the Declaration was not delivered to the Zionist movement or the Board of Deputies but was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of the English branch of the family.
The Rothschilds were the perceived head of Jewish international financial power. If you wanted to have that power on your side, it made sense to go straight to Rothschild himself.
Such views were not limited to Great Britain. They were common in the United States and can be seen in every US administration since the war.
In May 1948, on the eve of Israel’s independence, Secretary of State George Marshall accused President Harry Truman of yielding to the Jewish vote in recognising the fledgling Jewish state 11 minutes after it declared independence.
While Secretary Marshall criticised behind closed doors, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin lashed out publicly in a speech to Parliament, saying that Truman had yielded to the New York Jewish vote. Of course, the Jews in New York determined American policies — a throwback to the Balfour Declaration.
However, the American political scene is quite different from such preconceptions. Since the 1930s, American Jews have supported the Democratic Party and are doing that today as well.
Jewish political influence had only a marginal influence on US elections and American Jews had no united leadership. The Jewish vote would have had political weight only if it had been a swing vote but the Jewish vote was not a swing vote and never tilted the presidential election results one way or the other.
In any case, American Jews cast their votes for reasons connected with their American interests. Truman’s adviser, Clark Clifford, told his president that the elections would be decided in areas other than the east coast and Los Angeles. He was right.
The myth of Jewish influence continued to appear in later administrations. President Eisenhower, in a letter to his boyhood friend Evrett ‘Swede’ Hazlet, written on the eve of the 1956 presidential election, showed that he assumed the Jewish vote could influence the result and that the Israeli prime minister could turn the American Jewish vote.
Other expressions of the mighty Jewish influence and Eisenhower’s determination to fight it by “doing the right thing” are found in the transcription of telephone calls in and out of the Oval Office. Once again, we face a legend turned into political reality, based on the false assumption that Jews and the “King of the Jews” in Jerusalem, have a detrimental influence on US politics.
President Kennedy seemed to hold the same perception of oversized Jewish influence. He met Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion in May 1961 to discuss Israel’s nuclear policy and American arms sales to Israel.
According to Ben Gurion’s testimony, President Kennedy expressed thanks for the Jews having given him the election. Kennedy told him “I was elected by the Jews of New York and I have to do something for them.” To the dumbfounded Ben Gurion, Kennedy went on to say: “I will do something for you”.
Kennedy won the national popular vote by 112,827, a margin of only 0.17 per cent, and probably felt the need “to reward” his Jewish supporters and so he extended his gratitude to the prime minister of the Jewish state.
The myth of the “international Jewish cabal” had its impact once more.
In fact, most Jewish voters continued voting for the Democrats. They were only a part of a coalition of ethnic minorities that gave Kennedy a slim majority.
Another major example: never mind the size of the Jewish world population in comparison to the other monotheistic beliefs —13 million Jews, 2.38 billion Christians and 1.8 billion Muslims — the common Christian view places the three monotheistic religions on equal footing. The Jews are considered to be, for good or bad, a central power, swaying all the others.
Many Christians and Muslims view the Jews as a political, social, economic, religious, philosophical force that could be trusted, treated suspiciously, hated, murderously fought, or sometimes, if possible, made into an ally. The myth about the Jews, whether it has positive or negative meaning, supersedes reality or logic.
President Trump declared that Jerusalem has always been the capital of the Jewish people, which is another case of overstatement. From the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, and until 1948, Jerusalem, with the exception of the 100 years of Hasmonean rule, Jerusalem was not ruled by Jews.
Trump made the statement to please those evangelical Protestants who supported him and believe that a Jewish return to the Holy Land and their rule over all of it is God’s will. This will result in a major struggle between Gog and Magog, with the decisive battle taking place at Armageddon (Megiddo in the Jezreel Valley). The result will be the Second Coming, and the Jews who survive will convert and be part of the kingdom ruled by Jesus.
It may be doubted whether President Trump cares much about the Jews, Palestinians, or evangelical theology, but he does care about evangelical support.
The government of Israel has enthusiastically greeted this demonstration of positive antisemitism.
But positive for who? For the Jewish people? This may be a subject worth examining.
Yehuda Bauer is professor of Holocaust studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr Moshe Fox is a historian working at the Israel State Archive