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Israel in Embryo

Mr. Sanders’s procedure here is very odd. He proves the aspect of his argument (Russian) that needed no new proof. He offers no evidence for the aspect of his argument (American) that is not at all self-evident, as I hope to show below.

In the second sentence of the passage quoted he makes another flat and unproven assertion: that idealism “above all had motivated” the “principal authors” of the Balfour Declaration.

How can anyone be certain about the prime motive—the “above all” one—in such a complex set of motives as we know to have been at work in this case? There were “idealistic” motives—I have listed them above as category C. There were also nonidealistic, even Machiavellian reasons: my category B. Prime Minister Lloyd George was, with Foreign Minister Balfour, one of the two principal authors, in the British government,1 of the Balfour Declaration.

Lloyd George, greedy for motives as for most other aspects of life, was apparently influenced both by category B and by category C (as well as A—see below). It would be a bold man who would say whether it was the Welsh Bible and the “Chosen People,” or the need to “grab Palestine” for the Empire and ditch the French, or simply the need to win the war, that dominated the consciousness of Lloyd George in the autumn of 1917. But Mr. Sanders apparently is a bold man. In this passage he shows himself to be a veritable Evel Knievel of historiography.

The importance of the passage is that it unwarrantedly throws the weight of Mr. Sanders’s otherwise impressive book behind a thesis, about the genesis of the Balfour Declaration, which is already much more influential than it deserves to be. This is the thesis that the British government, in adopting the Balfour Declaration, was not really thinking, or not thinking seriously, about British interests. It is a thesis that apparently has some appeal both to Zionists and to anti-Zionists. The Zionist Arthur Koestler, in Promise and Fulfillment, believed that the British government’s motives in issuing the declaration were “not cynical” but “romantically sentimental”: language equivalent to Mr. Sanders’s “idealist.” The anti-Zionist Elizabeth Monroe wrote in Britain’s Moment in the Middle East that: “Measured by British interests alone, it [the Balfour Declaration] was one of the biggest mistakes in our imperial history.” None of these writers offers argument in support of their peremptory affirmatives, or at least no argument based on the circumstances in which the declaration was actually made. (Miss Monroe offers argument of a retrospective character only.)

I should like to suggest that it is not an extravagant hypothesis that, in October 1917, the British war cabinet was thinking about the war. The cabinet minutes record that it was discussing the utility of the declaration for Britain’s war effort and there does not seem any good reason to believe either that they really had something quite different in mind, or that they were altogether mistaken in their view that the declaration might help them win the war. If they did not win the war, after all, neither the transcendental aspirations (category C) nor the Machiavellian arrière-pensées (category B), which some of them entertained for Palestine, could come to any fruition. If they lost the war, everything they stood for and hoped for was utterly ruined.

In the autumn of 1917, an Allied defeat seemed a strong possibility. The collapse of Russia was clearly imminent. The French army had come near to mutiny. The only bright spot was America’s entry into the war the previous April. But America had not yet committed forces of its own to the war in Europe. There was the dreadful—and probably even terminal—possibility that Russia would withdraw from the war, leaving Germany free to concentrate all its forces against France and Britain, and that America would then hesitate to commit itself fully to what might look like, and become, a lost cause.

In this setting, anything that looked as if it might help both to keep Russia in the war, and to bring America more fully and quickly into it, had a powerful attraction. And the Foreign Office had for some months been mulling inconclusively over the possible contribution that commitment to a Jewish national home in Palestine might elicit for the British war effort. Sir Mark Sykes—who by October 1917 was both an adviser to the war cabinet and chief political officer for the Middle East—had written on this subject, in a breezy letter to the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, Sir Arthur Nicolson, as early as March 1916:

If they [the Zionists] want us to win, they will do their best which means they will (A) Calm their activities in Russia^2 Pessimize in Germany (C) Stimulate in France, England and Italy (D) Enthuse in the US.

Sykes added that it might seem “odd and fantastic” but “when we bump into a thing like Zionism which is atmospheric, international, cosmopolitan, subconscious and unwritten—very often unspoken—it is not possible to work and think on ordinary lines.”

I think a link can be discerned in that last passage, between our “category A” and our “category C.” People who could feel the attraction of the Zionist idea were ipso facto people who had experienced the persuasive powers of Zionists. It was natural for Britons who believed in these powers to want to see them enlisted on Britain’s side, in a war that seemed to threaten Britain’s very existence. There was no contradiction between a belief in Zionism, as a good thing in itself, and a belief that a Zionist declaration might help Britain win the war. On the contrary, the two beliefs went easily and naturally together.

That the war cabinet believed the Balfour Declaration would help Britain win the war—through the stimulation of a favorable international lobby—seems hard to deny. But did it actually help? Obviously, the hopes for Russia were unfulfilled. But how about America?

The British government certainly had good reason to think the declaration might help their cause there. Even before the war, the British ambassador in Washington, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, had been stressing the importance of the Jewish lobby. “They are far better organized than the Irish and far more formidable,” he wrote in February 1914. “We should be in a good position to get into their good graces.” After the outbreak of war, however, Spring-Rice saw no prospect of winning these “good graces” for the cause of the Allies. On November 13, 1914, he wrote:

The German Jewish [sic] Bankers are toiling in a solid phalanx to compass our destruction. One by one they are getting hold of the principal New York papers. The Government itself is rather uneasy and the President [Wilson] quoted to me the text, “He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” One by one the Jews are capturing the principal newspapers and are bringing them over as much as they dare to the German side.

Again, in January 1916, Spring-Rice lists “Jews, Catholics and Germans” in America among the enemies of England.3

By far the strongest reason for Jewish hostility to the Allied cause was, of course, that the Allies included the anti-Semitic regime of Nicholas II of. Russia—“He that keepeth Israel,” as Woodrow Wilson had described him in his Biblical quotation. The fall of the czar, in the February revolution of 1917, removed that reason but did not necessarily, by itself, ensure active support, among Jews, for an Allied cause that they were in the habit of regarding as tainted. The German imperial government had taken trouble to win Jewish good will, and had had some measure of success. In the areas occupied by Germany in Eastern Europe, Jews were treated with consideration, and the fact was publicized. The contrast between German civilization and Russian barbarism was played up, in a manner that seems ironic only in retrospect. Wilhelmine Germany was perceived as an effective protector of Jews, even beyond its own borders.

As Professor Friedman has shown, the Jewish population of Palestine itself may well have owed its survival to determined German diplomatic intervention at Constantinople, aimed at ending, or at least checking, the persecution of the Jews of Palestine at the hands of the Ottoman governor, Djemal Pasha. Indeed, had it not been for these interventions—which continued throughout 1917—there might well have been no Jewish community in Palestine at the time when the Jewish national home there was announced.

The German government of this period, then, showed in these very practical ways that it regarded Jewish good will as something to be strenuously cultivated. The French government had shown a similar interest through the Cambon Declaration. If the Balfour Declaration can only be accounted for on grounds of romanticism, sentimentalism, and idealism, then these amiable if feckless qualities must have been more prevalent in the chancelleries of Europe during the First World War than most historians have hitherto supposed.

In short, the Powers, in 1917, were still competing for Jewish support. The German government had toyed with the idea of a Zionist declaration on the lines of the eventual Cambon and Balfour declarations and had allowed hints to that effect to appear in the German press. (And the hints—along with Cambon—were among the arguments used in favor of the Balfour Declaration.) But the Germans could not actually go so far as that, for fear of offending their valued ally, Turkey. After the Balfour Declaration had been welcomed by American Jews, the Germans felt they had lost ground, and they vainly tried to regain it. They got the Turks—in December 1917—to agree to remove restrictions on Jewish immigration, provided the Jews accepted Ottoman nationality. The Germans then tried to make what mileage they could, in their propaganda, out of the Turkish announcement. But they were ruefully conscious of having sustained a propaganda defeat. Their efforts to steal the thunder of the Balfour Declaration, where Jewish opinion was concerned, had fizzled. “We are trailing behind, as usual,” noted Kaiser Wilhelm II, about these German efforts to offset the Balfour Declaration.

I think that the Kaiser would have been surprised by Mr. Sander’s view that, at this time, “the argument for winning American-Jewish support had become irrelevant.” The Kaiser would also have been puzzled by the concept that the declaration was a product of British idealism. The Kaiser’s impression was that his government had been outsmarted by the clever British, who were managing to get the Jews on their side, thus dealing a blow to Germany.

So if the Balfour Declaration was a miscalculation with regard to British interests, it was a miscalculation that looked at the time, to Britain’s deadly enemies, as a brilliant coup. It seems at least possible that it was not a miscalculation with regard to British interests.

It would be hard to measure how much the impact of the declaration on American Jews actually helped to improve Anglo-American relations at this time. I don’t know if any detailed study of this matter exists; I have not come across any reference to such a study, in my reading on and around the declaration; if any reader can provide me with a reference, I shall be grateful. I had hoped that Mr. Sanders’s book, since it is published in America, might fill that gap, but in fact The High Walls of Jerusalem is markedly Anglocentric. This is natural enough, up to a point, since Britain made the declaration, but it has led to a relative neglect of the international situation, especially the American connection. Mr. Sanders tells us, for example, about the (favorable) reaction of the British press to the declaration, but nothing about the (also favorable) reaction of the American press: a matter which is much more relevant to what the declaration seems to have been about.

It seems that Jewish opinion in America did welcome the declaration, and often warmly so. So in some degree the effect of the declaration must have strengthened American commitment to the European Allies with whom America was not quite allied—as the phrase “the Allied and Associated Powers” reminds us. If the declaration strengthened that association, even in quite a small degree, then the declaration “measured by British interests alone” was fully justified, in the desperate circumstances of late 1917.

Category A, by itself, is thus adequate to explain the wartime decision; and the most parsimonious assumption is therefore that it does in fact account for it. Category B came into play with the peace. Lloyd George used the national home concept in his successful efforts to scale down Sykes-Picot, and maneuver the French out of Palestine, with Zionist help.

Did category C come into play at all, other than in providing a vaguely favorable atmosphere for the practical considerations of A and B?

I think that the part where there is most reason to sense the active presence of category C is in the actual shaping of the mandate itself. The mandate did not take final shape until 1921-1922. By this time category A had long ceased to be operative, and category B was fully satisfied, Palestine having been duly “grabbed,” and the French having dropped their claim to it. In these circumstances, even a moderately cynical person might expect to find a watering-down, in the wording of the actual mandate, of the commitment to a Jewish national home. This does not happen: on the contrary the mandate (which was drafted entirely by the British although promulgated by the League of Nations) actually strengthens the commitment in question by including, along with the words of the declaration, “recognition…to the historical connection of the Jewish people in Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” The mandate also specifically recognized “the Zionist organization” in an institutional role in Palestine.

The initial wartime commitment to the national home can easily be explained in terms of British national interests. The strengthening of the commitment, in the conditions of 1921-1922, would be much harder to explain in those terms. (Mr. Sanders offers no explanation of this phenomenon, and shows no sign of considering that there is anything that needs to be explained. Although his subtitle refers to “the birth of the British mandate,” his treatment of the mandate, as distinct from the declaration, is quite skimpy.)

The matter seems all the odder when we consider that the British military administration in Palestine—and the army generally—had been bitterly opposed to the national home, and that the foreign secretary who actually gave final approval to the mandate—George Curzon—hated the whole idea. The draft mandate, wrote Curzon, “reeks of Judaism in every paragraph,” and “has been drawn up by someone reeling under the fumes of Zionism.”

He meant Balfour—category C2. Balfour had ceased to be foreign secretary by this time, but he remained indispensable to Lloyd George’s increasingly shaky coalition, and he was not going to let the government go back on its commitment—and his personal commitment—to the Jewish national home. His success in actually strengthening the British commitment in those circumstances is still startling.

Balfour was helped, I believe, by a rather general feeling that the Zionists had been as good as their word, and had done everything they could to help the war effort. This was combined with a feeling that Jewish influence, having been useful, was a power, and might be needed again. Stressing the need to hold on to Palestine, in 1923, General Smuts said, “there is no more subtle influence working in the world, I hope for good [sic], than the influence of that international people, full of brains and character, and dominating much bigger nations in many parts of the world through the filtration of their ideas and policies.”

Such ideas remained influential throughout the Twenties, and began to fade only in the early Thirties, when it became apparent that the “powerful” German Jews were unable to check the rise of Hitler. By 1939, the British government, realizing that the Jews everywhere would have no choice but to support Britain, decided to woo the Arabs, by beginning to throttle the national home. (This decision, in its final form, in the white paper of 1939, was part, as Professor Yehuda Bauer has pointed out, not of appeasement of Germany, as has often been supposed, but of preparation for was. The psychological climate of the appeasement period had, however, prepared the way for this dismissal of the Jews.)

During World War I, and immediately after, Britain may possibly have over-estimated Jewish influence in America. In the aftermath of World War II, the British government seriously underestimated that influence, to its cost. American Jews played a significant and perhaps decisive role both (pace Mr. Sanders) in the creation of the Balfour Declaration and the mandate, and in the dissolution of the mandate. It is improbable that the state of Israel could have come into existence without the influence, both imputed and real, of the Jews of America, at both the crucial stages.

The Balfour Declaration is rightly seen, by friend and foe alike, as the critical breakthrough toward the creation of the state of Israel. To ascribe that breakthrough just to the idealism, romanticism, or sentimentality of British politicians falsifies, localizes, and trivializes the nature of the phenomenon. The Balfour and Cambon declarations, the American endorsement of the Balfour Declaration, and the German-inspired counterdeclaration of the Turkish government, all expressed a common perception among the belligerents that Zionism had become a force, one capable of tilting, in some degree, the balance, both of the war and of the peace. How much truth and how much illusion there was in that perception would be impossible to say, but certainly it was common ground, among leaders on both sides, that the Balfour Declaration, on its publication, titled the balance slightly in favor of the Allied and Associated Powers, and against the Central powers.

The sense of Zionism as a force had been conveyed by the Zionists themselves, and particularly by three outstanding Zionist leaders: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and Louis Brandeis. Herzl had prepared the way, through his repeated (and at the time apparently fruitless) contacts with kings and potentates, including Kaiser Wilhelm II—around the turn of the century. These contacts created a vague impression that the bond between the Jews of the Diaspora and the land of Palestine might somehow, sometime, be a force to be reckoned with in international affairs.

The Zionist leaders of the period of the First World War labored in all the belligerent capitals to strengthen that impression, and convey that the time had come. In relation to the Balfour Declaration itself, the decisive figures were Weizmann and Brandeis. Weizmann convinced Balfour of the moral and intellectual force of the Zionist idea; he convinced Balfour’s more mundane associates in and around the Foreign Office (with Balfour’s help) that Weizmann and his friends would be useful chaps to have on one’s side in a tight corner, such as one was actually in; and he surely managed to convey both notions (and perhaps others) simultaneously to the complex and avid receiving mechanism of Lloyd George’s mind. And it was the moral and intellectual authority of Louis Brandeis—at Weizmann’s call—that ensured, at a most critical moment, President Wilson’s endorsement of the draft declaration.

It is an astonishing story, and Mr. Sanders tells some parts of it very well. But as I said he left a hole, and I have done my best here to fill in part of that hole.


Backing for Balfour June 14, 1984

  1. 1

    Formally Balfour was not a member of the (restricted) war cabinet. But he attended war cabinet meetings when—as in this instance—important international questions, not solely of a directly military character, were under consideration, and he carried more weight than any other member of the government except the prime minister. This was not only because he was a former prime minister but because of the respect his mind and personality inspired, and also—and not least—because as the senior conservative in the government, and strongly loyal to the prime minister, he was the linchpin of the Lloyd George coalition.

  2. 3

    Oddly enough, Spring-Rice, whose emphasis on the importance of the Jewish lobby must have helped to prepare the ground at the Foreign Office for the Balfour Declaration, was by no means enthusiastic about the declaration, when it came. “You would not,” he wrote on December 21, 1917, “conciliate all the Irish by making Carson a Viscount and the situation is rather similar. The great mass of the Jews appear to be resolutely opposed to the Zionist leaders.” That last sentence was untrue, and the comparison with Carson is ludicrously wild (as the Anglo-Irish Spring-Rice ought to have seen). But Spring-Rice’s judgment was not at his best at this moment. He had just learned that he was about to be replaced as ambassador to Washington by an eminent English Jew, Lord Reading (Rufus Isaacs). And the Reading appointment may reasonably be considered as cognate to the Balfour Declaration, since both seem to have been influenced by a high estimate—fostered by Spring-Rice himself—of Jewish influence, especially in banking (a pressing concern for Britain at the time) and over the press. The ambassador, in fact, may have helped to dig his own diplomatic grave.

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