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.

  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.

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 Russia2 (B) 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.

This Issue

March 15, 1984