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

Arthur Balfour
Arthur Balfour; drawing by David Levine

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.

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.

Desire to influence Russia, through the Zionist sympathies of Russian…

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