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Israel in Embryo

The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate for Palestine

by Ronald Sanders
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 746 pp., $24.95

Ronald Sanders’s book is both valuable (with one large reservation, of which more below) and highly readable. It differs from the two previous principal studies of the subject—Leonard Stein’s The Balfour Declaration (1961) and Isaiah Friedman’s The Question of Palestine, 1914-1918 (1973)—mainly in that it takes in a panoramic sweep of British activities in relation to the Middle East during the First World War, whereas the two earlier studies tended to concentrate on the declaration and/or on the limited context of Palestine.

Mr. Sanders has, quite rightly, a good deal to say, not only about matters directly bearing on the Balfour Declaration but also about the Arab (or rather, Hejazi) revolt of 1916; the British-Arab negotiations which preceded that revolt (Hussein-McMahon correspondence of 1915); and the Anglo-French agreement (Sykes-Picot) partitioning the Fertile Crescent between Britain and France—an agreement of 1916 later partially and unilaterally repudiated by the British.

Mr. Sanders has drawn copiously on Foreign Office documents available in the Public Record Office at Kew, London, as well as on other pertinent material (mainly British). He offers a fuller and better rounded account than any hitherto available of British activities—to say “policy” would be rather exaggerated—in the Middle East in the period in which the Balfour Declaration took shape.

Mr. Sander’s use of his material is generally (with that one large reservation again) judicious and sensitive. He writes well, he has a sense of humor and of drama—both very pertinent—and he is capable, unlike his more severe predecessors, of giving expression occasionally to a shrewd hunch. (As when, having recorded a conversation between Herbert Samuel and Lloyd George in November 1915 on the subject of a Jewish state, the author notes: “It was not long after this that Samuel was regularly to make a point of describing Palestine as ‘a country the size of Wales.’ Had the comparison come up in this brief talk?”)

The High Walls of Jerusalem, then, is recommended reading. But in this case, the recommendation is qualified by a warning against accepting a significant part of the conclusions toward which the book tends; or rather to which it is arbitrarily turned by obiter dicta. There is in fact a huge hole in the High Walls. To see where the hole is, we have first to look at the reasons that have been offered both by participants and by later writers for the decision of the British government, in October 1917, to declare its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine.

I shall, for convenience, classify these reasons as follows:

A. Reasons connected with the conduct of the war.

  1. Desire to influence the United States, through the Zionist sympathies of a large section of the American Jewish community, in the direction of firmer commitment to the common war effort, and greater specific support for the European allies.

  2. Desire to influence Russia, through the Zionist sympathies of Russian Jews, in the direction of staying in the war.

  3. Fear that imperial Germany might be itself about to issue a declaration in favor of a national home; thus weakening both American and Russian commitment to the war effort.

B. Reasons connected with the nature of a desired postwar settlement.

  1. The desire of the then prime minister, David Lloyd George, to “grab Palestine” (L. G.’s words to the journalist C.P. Scott).

  2. Perceived utility of the concept of a Jewish national home in swaying American (and perhaps Russian) support to a British-controlled Palestine; or at least to blunt American (and/or Russian) opposition to British Palestine.

  3. Perceived utility of the Jewish national home concept in the dismantling of the (pre-Lloyd George) Sykes-Picot agreement, under which the French were to share control of Palestine with the British. (This one is exceptionally complicated, because the French had already issued a “Balfour Declaration” of their own—the Cambon Declaration of June 1916—which indeed went further than the Balfour Declaration, since it promised the protection of the Allied powers “in the Renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago”—far better wording than that of “Balfour,” from a Zionist point of view. But it was the British, not the French, who were about to push the Turks out of Palestine in 1918. So the “weaker” Balfour Declaration counted for more than the “stronger” Cambon. And the Zionists who were to count, in relation to the peace, were the Zionists who had won the Balfour Declaration—primarily Chaim Weizmann (with the critically important support of Louis Brandeis, at a crucial moment).

Weizmann wanted British sovereignty over Palestine, and no role at all for the French, in spite of Cambon. Zionists generally seem to have agreed. The French government of the day was friendly, but the French in Palestine would be drawn from the very institutions which had been most hostile to Dreyfus and the Jews generally—the army and the Catholic clergy. So the Zionists did help the British to undo the Sykes-Picot agreement, and the Cambon Declaration was turned against its authors. Balfour made use of “Cambon” in persuading the war cabinet to agree to the Balfour Declaration.

C. Transcendental (or sentimental) considerations.

  1. The Biblical traditions of the Welsh Nonconformist community in which David Lloyd George was brought up. (But see also B1 above. There is a connection. As Winston Churchill saw, the acquisition of Palestine was likely to go down well with Welsh voters.)

  2. The determined personal and philosophical commitment to Zionism of the then foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour.

  3. A “missionary” conception, blending Biblical and imperial enthusiasms, shared by certain members of the war cabinet (Alfred Milner, Jan Smuts).

No doubt all these nine factors (as well as, perhaps, others) played some part, large or small, in making possible the declaration. Estimates of their relative importance could reasonably vary quite widely. I think myself that the decisive factors were probably in category A, with support from the other categories, especially C2. C2, I believe, worked on A1 to 3, and also on B1 to 3, and on C1 and 3.

That is a matter of opinion; any impression of precision that may be conveyed by all the above algebra should be discounted. But, as a matter of fact, not opinion, factors A1 to 3—having to do with the winning of the war—must be distinguished from all the others, not only conceptually, but because they were the explicitly acknowledged elements in the decision, at the time it was taken.

When in October 1917 Arthur Balfour commended to the war cabinet the document that now bears his name, he did not make—or at any rate is not recorded as having made—any reference to any bearing it might have on the postwar settlement. Nor did he allude explicitly to his own Zionism (or the sentiments of some of his colleagues) though his own sympathies might be inferred from some of his language. His main points, on October 4, were that the Zionist movement “had behind it the support of a majority of Jews, at all events in Russia and America,” and also that “the German Government were making great efforts to capture the sympathy of the Zionist movement.” When the war cabinet considered the matter again, on October 31, he summed up his main, positive argument (as distinct from arguments in rebuttal of objections). “The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favorable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favorable to such an ideal,” he said, “we should be able to carry on an extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.”

It was at this meeting that the war cabinet decided in favor of the declaration. On the face of it—and whatever other ideas and sentiments some of them cherished—it was as wartime propaganda in Russia and America and as preempting a possible, competing German declaration that the war cabinet endorsed the Balfour Declaration.

Mr. Sanders notes the arguments advanced by Balfour, and the war cabinet’s apparent acceptance of these arguments, in its acceptance of the Balfour Declaration. But Mr. Sanders takes the view that the arguments in question turned out to be wholly illusory. In regard to the “Russian” argument (A2 above) Mr. Sanders is obviously right. As he puts it, the timing of the declaration (for publication on November 9) “could hardly have been worse”:

On the sixth the long-expected Bolshevik uprising had occurred, and the All-Russian Congress of Soviets had convened the next day to elect Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as president of the First Council of People’s Commissars. The news reached Britain in time for Friday’s editions. “ANARCHY IN PETROGRAD,” The Times headline read, “POWER SEIZED BY LENIN.” Next to this was a small box headed “Palestine for the Jews—Official Sympathy,” which began: “Mr. Balfour has sent the following letter to Lord Rothschild in regard to the establishment of a national home in Palestine for the Jewish people.” The text of Balfour’s letter followed—but nothing more. There was no leader on the subject, nor would there be for several weeks.

The Times, which had urgently called for this declaration just two weeks before, now had nothing to say about it. On October 26 it had written: “Have our Government, for instance, considered the value of Jewish influence in counteracting the insidious German propaganda in Russia?” But now the argument that the Jews of Russia, swayed by a pro-Zionist declaration, might be able to prevent the radicalization of the revolution there was manifestly being swept into the dustbin of history at the very moment the declaration became a reality.

So far, so good. In its Russian aspect, the Balfour Declaration proved to be a dud. Possibly, as some of Balfour’s colleagues believed, it might have been of some help to the Allied cause in Russia, if it had been issued earlier: say in April instead of November, 1917. Published when it was, it could do no good at all. Lenin and Trotsky, and the rest of the Bolsheviks, gentile or Jewish, were almost as fiercely anti-Zionist as they were anti-Entente. Most Russian Jews may well have been pro-Zionist, but the course of Russian history was not about to be determined by counting heads, whether of gentiles or Jews. So A2 was a blank.

But Mr. Sanders goes on, immediately after the passage quoted above (on p. 615):

The argument for winning American-Jewish support of the Entente also had become irrelevant. Oddly, little excuse for the declaration was left outside of the idealism that above all had motivated its principal makers.

It is this passage that makes what I have called the “huge hole” in the argument of The High Walls. Consider the two sentences that make up the passage.

For the flat assertion contained in the first sentence (about the American factor—A2) Mr. Sanders offers not one shred of evidence. Why had this argument become irrelevant? When did it become irrelevant? Mr. Sanders makes no attempt to answer these questions, though they call for answers. He does show why the Russian factor didn’t work. But this demonstration was not needed by anyone who has studied the period at all. Nobody has ever supposed that the Balfour Declaration caused the Bolsheviks to look more favorably on Russia’s commitment to the war than they would otherwise have done. It is self-evident that the Balfour Declaration did not, and could not, have any such effect.

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