The letter from Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s Foreign Secretary to Anglo-Jewry’s leading representative was only three sentences long. But it set in motion a series of events which are still political dynamite today. The letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, dated November 2nd 1917, is kept in the British Library. Little did they know that they were setting in play a conflict which seems more intractable now than at any time over the last 100 years.
On the surface the letter can seem uncontroversial. It starts with the sort of officialese language - formal and flowery - that is very much of its time: Dear Lord Rothschild, I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
And then, the pleasantries dispensed with, the single sentence which has caused both celebration and dissent from the moment it was issued, containing as it does two promises, one theoretically backed by the British government, the other unenforceable because dependent on the good-will of the recipients of the first promise.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
I want to look at the content of this famous/infamous sentence. But we should note first the concluding, third sentence, Balfour’s request to Lord Rothschild: I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation. And after these typed sentences, the author signs off in his own handwriting: Yours, Arthur James Balfour. Not ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘Yours faithfully’, just the more honest, clipped ‘Yours’.
More honest because we know that Balfour was neither a faithful friend of the Jews; nor was he quite sincere in the sentiments expressed in this letter. He had been the Conservative Prime Minister at the time of the notorious Aliens Act of 1905, the legislation directly targeting Jews, restricting them from entering the country from Eastern Europe. So hardly faithful to the Jews. Nor sincere: what we don’t have in the letter is any hint about the background reasons why it was thought necessary to offer this declaration to the Zionist organisation at this particular point in time.
Remember it is 1917, the ‘war to end all wars’ has been rumbling on for 3 years and thoughts were beginning to turn in the Government to what would happen afterwards, and particularly in the Middle East, once the Ottoman empire had crumbled. A year before the Declaration, Britain and France had come to a secret agreement – the Sykes-Picot agreement - to carve up Turkey , Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq into separate spheres of influence, although they left undecided who would control Jerusalem and its surrounding territory.
Previous to that, Balfour had made a secret pledge to the Hashemite Arab leader, Hussein ibn Ali, that Britain would support Arab independence in Palestine once the Ottomans had been defeated. But the need to outsmart the French was paramount - and this included using Palestine’s strategic centrality to ensure smooth passage through the Suez canal en route to India. So the 3 sentences of the Declaration are just the tip of a rather large and irregularly-shaped iceberg. Britain’s post-war national interests are what the Balfour Declaration hides.
Plus there was the need to keep the Jews on side during the War. Balfour hoped that by making a promise of a Jewish national home in Palestine, the Jews of America and Russia, Britain’s wavering allies, would put pressure on their governments, in Washington and St.Petersburg, to stay with the war until total victory was achieved. Balfour’s words to his Cabinet are worth hearing: “If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal [i.e. Zionism], we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and in America”.
What’s fascinating about this is the fantasy of Jewish power and influence on foreign governments. As if Jews have some secret network of international influence with each other and thereby on the governments of the countries where they live. Do you recognise this fantasy? It’s a standard anti-Semitic trope, the most notorious example in that same period of history being the Russian ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ (1903), a fabricated text which described a Jewish plan for world domination. I’m not saying of course that the Balfour Declaration is some spooky shadow twin-sister of that Russian anti-Semitic text, but that behind the Declaration not only is there all that British diplomatic intrigue and political national interest manoeuvrings but also this fantasy that by offering British support for a future Jewish national home, Jews in the lands of Britain’s Allies would be able to exert pressure on their governments.
Balfour could have looked closer to home to see how odd this fantasy was. For the only person in the Cabinet who opposed the Declaration was himself Jewish, the Liberal MP Edwin Montagu. He thought Zionism was "a mischievous political creed", and that the Declaration was itself anti-Semitic. His concerns resulted in a change to the text, which added that last part of the sentence, that nothing should be done that would prejudice “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
In a memo to the Cabinet – entitled Memorandum of Edwin Montagu on the Anti-Semitism of the Present British Government – he outlined his dissenting views on the forthcoming Declaration. It includes these paragraphs, which are worth dwelling on for they represented a real Jewish concern about Zionism, and indeed some of his thoughts remain remarkably prescient:
...I assume that it means that Mahommedans [Muslims] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test...
...When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah...
...I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens...
...I can easily understand the editors of the Morning Post and of the New Witness being Zionists, and I am not in the least surprised that the non-Jews of England may welcome this policy. I have always recognised the unpopularity, much greater than some people think, of my community. We have obtained a far greater share of this country's goods and opportunities than we are numerically entitled to. We reach on the whole maturity earlier, and therefore with people of our own age we compete unfairly. Many of us have been exclusive in our friendships and intolerant in our attitude, and I can easily understand that many a non-Jew in England wants to get rid of us. But just as there is no community of thought and mode of life among Christian Englishmen, so there is not among Jewish Englishmen.
More and more we are educated in public schools and at the Universities, and take our part in the politics, in the Army, in the Civil Service, of our country. And I am glad to think that the prejudices against inter-marriage are breaking down. But when the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world's Ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine. Why does Lord Rothschild attach so much importance to the difference between British and foreign Jews? All Jews will be foreign Jews, inhabitants of the great country of Palestine...
[For the full text of this remarkable document see: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/montagu-memo-on-british-government-s-anti-semitism ]
Of course, things have not turned out quite like that. Nevertheless I think it is worth recording, amidst all the celebrations in some sectors of Anglo-Jewry, a dissenting British Jewish voice who foresaw some of the complications attendant upon a national home for the Jews. Of course too, the events in Europe a generation after the Balfour Declaration made the moral, spiritual and political case for a Jewish national home incontrovertible. (The relationship between the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel is a topic in its own right, but I’m not going to dwell on it here).
What I am going to highlight though is the tragic element within the Balfour Declaration, the element which spells out that the British Government supports the Zionist project “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. [Note too the absence of 'political' rights]. The British Government have had no power to enforce that understanding. And it is an understanding that I think we can recognise has not been honoured by either the waves of Jewish immigrants that came into Palestine in the 1920s and 30s or after 1948 by the State itself. One can see why, from an Arab or Palestinian perspective, this British commitment is a source of mourning and protest rather than celebration. It doesn’t even give those indigenous Arab Palestinian communities the dignity of a name – they are just “non-Jewish communities”.
And this gap between high-minded declarations of intent and the reality on the ground is also there within Israel’s own Declaration of Independence when the State was established on 14th May 1948. The Declaration contains this uplifting moral claim:
The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development off the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will grant freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Apart from that first clause – it will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles – who can put their hand on their heart and say that any of the other proud aims of that paragraph have been enacted or achieved? When we measure all the undoubted achievements of the State, we are duty-bound too to measure the failures. We do this with a heavy heart – because it affects us as Jews wherever we are. Why should we in the UK have to build walls round our synagogues? Why do we need to employ security teams: security for synagogues, security for Jewish schools and buildings?
Do we think any of this paraphernalia of security would be necessary now in 2017 if either the moral intent of the Balfour Declaration or the moral intent of Israel’s foundational document had been adhered to with steadfast faith and belief and commitment? A homeland for the Jewish people was supposed to normalise the Jewish condition in the world. Instead the State, sadly, tragically, has become a pariah amongst nations and we have to have CCTV cameras fixed to the walls outside our own building here in suburban Finchley.
Let us hope, let us pray, that by the time the Jewish community celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration we can truly celebrate not just the resilience and survival of the Jewish people, but their capacity to enact in Israel, in Palestine, the “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel”.
[based on a sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, November 4th, 2017]
You may be interested in a film I contributed to on alternative perspectives on the Balfour Declaration: https://youtu.be/a2Y3Pllutjo