Amid world war and nationalist passion, Britain committed itself to the founding of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Less than two decades after Theodor Herzl inaugurated the Zionist movement with his book "Der Judenstaat" ("The Jewish State"), the British government, in 1917, issued the Balfour Declaration, promising to use its best efforts to establish a home in Palestine for the Jewish people.
Hailed as a milestone by Zionists—and still mourned in the Arab world as the first step toward what it regards as the "catastrophe" of the founding of the state of Israel—this extraordinary promise, made in a public letter written by Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, proved to be even more momentous than it seemed at the time. It is now the subject of Jonathan Schneer's analytical narrative and contextual history, "The Balfour Declaration."
By issuing the declaration, as Mr. Schneer notes, Britain was making a promise that seemed to contradict one that it had made to Arab leaders, who had risen up against the Ottoman Empire in 1916-18 in the expectation that they would be rewarded with postwar Arab nation-states. But at that moment in history—in the middle of World War I, with the outcome very much in doubt—Britain was prepared to make all sorts of promises, some contradictory. It had also reached an agreement with France to divide the postwar Middle East between the two countries. To keep the czar fighting, it had promised Russia control of Constantinople and the Dardanelles. It was engaged in diplomacy with the Ottomans, promising that the Turkish flag would continue to fly over Palestine if Turkey made peace with the Allies.
The Balfour Declaration was one of Britain's few diplomatic efforts that was not conducted in secret. It was issued in the form of Balfour's letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, who was encouraged to make its contents known. As Mr. Schneer documents, the declaration was, among much else, part of a campaign to foster world-wide Jewish support for the Allied war effort, not least in the U.S.
The chances that there would ever be a document like the Balfour Declaration had seemed remote only a few years before. Mr. Schneer begins his chronicle on the eve of World War I with Nahum Sokolow, a prominent advocate for a Jewish homeland, being fobbed off on a lesser official when he wanted a meeting with the head of Britain's Foreign Office. Once the war came—especially after Turkey entered on the German side—the Zionist cause was shown more respect.
Mr. Schneer rightly gives chief credit for the Balfour Declaration to Chaim Weizmann, a great British chemist who was also the de facto leader of the Zionist cause and who would go on to become, decades later, Israel's first president. It is one virtue of "The Balfour Declaration" that Mr. Schneer highlights the contributions of others, too, including Sokolow, a cultivated, Polish-born journalist then based in England.
The Balfour Declaration
By Jonathan Schneer
Random House, 432 pages, $30
* Read an excerpt from 'The Balfour Declaration'
Sokolow's visit to Paris and Rome in 1917 was remarkable in many ways, not least for its success. He managed to enlist the support of both the French and Italian governments for a Jewish homeland in Palestine; in Italy, Pope Benedict V amazed him by endorsing the idea as well. The pope's concern was free access to Jerusalem's holy sites; once assured of that, he expressed sympathy for the Zionist enterprise. Weizmann telegraphed Sokolow: "heartily congratulate brilliant result."
Weizmann's focus had always been on Britain, his adopted homeland (he had been born in Russia). He saw Britain as the nation most likely to foster Zionism. Lest we forget, Balfour's Conservative government (Balfour was prime minister in 1902-05) had offered the fertile "white highlands" in British East Africa as a Jewish homeland. Herzl had favored accepting the offer. It was Weizmann who led the fight within the Zionist movement to reject it, saying that only Palestine would do.
And so it came to pass that Britain's war cabinet, in search of support and wartime allies and in keeping with Britain's prewar affinity for the Zionist goal, agreed to consider a draft document from the London Zionist Political Committee about a Jewish homeland. The draft proposed that "Palestine be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people" and that Britain "use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object."
The war cabinet revised the draft in important ways, ultimately issuing the Balfour Declaration in November 1917. It stated that the British would "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."
The phrase concerning the rights of Jews in their respective countries world-wide came as the result of a passionate objection by the only Jew in the cabinet, Edwin Montagu, who wrote that Zionist policy would "prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world," depriving Jews of their right to be thought full citizens in the countries of their birth or adoption.
The phrase about the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine was included because some cabinet members, such as Lord Curzon, were concerned about the wisdom of imposing a Jewish homeland on a majority-Arab region. But for most of the cabinet, including Balfour (whose commitment to Zionism was lifelong), there were few qualms about neglecting the majority population. This was, after all, an age of empire, when governments thought nothing of carving up distant lands.
The British government clearly believed that, by dismembering the Ottoman Empire, it was liberating the Arabs and creating the possibility of Arab nation-states, something they had never had. Surely the region could make room as well for a small Jewish state (and a Christian one in Lebanon). It was on the basis of the Balfour Declaration that the British took control of Palestine in 1920, accepting a mandate from the League of Nations.
As we know, a great deal of geopolitical struggle would take place before the founding of Israel in 1948—and a great deal of struggle would follow the founding as well, up to the present day. On the whole, Mr. Schneer is not in the business of assigning blame for Middle East strife, though he does speak, at the end of the book, of the "dragon's teeth" sewn by the Balfour Declaration. His main task is to chronicle events, something he does well, though he seems impatient at times, giving quick summaries where more detail would have been welcome. And his sourcing can be frustratingly incomplete. Why quote the analysis of a "friend" of Weizmann's without giving his name in the text—and then, in a footnote, refer only to a secondary source, still without revealing the name?
Mr. Schneer pays a great deal of attention to the infighting among British Jews, presumably to show their conflicted feelings about Zionism. The result is that the global context—the many nationalist movements elsewhere in the world—gets short shrift. The British focus does, though, reveal the ordeals that Chaim Weizmann faced. For instance, his devotion to British interests caused his Zionist allies to think him a lackey of the British Foreign Office. Mr. Schneer repeatedly calls him a "folks-mensch" (a Yiddish term meaning a man of the people), but he wasn't one. Indeed, his elegant lifestyle and cultivated manners were a handicap to him in a movement increasingly dominated by the demotic. Worst of all, Mr. Schneer slights Weizmann's scientific achievements.
In 1912, Weizmann perfected a process to manufacture acetone by way of bacterial fermentation. With the advent of war the process became of national importance, since acetone is a crucial ingredient for the manufacture of the cordite in ammunition, and the supply of calcium acetate (acetone's usual source) was controlled by Germany. Weizmann became head of the British Naval Ordnance Laboratories and thus came to know David Lloyd George, minister of munitions, and Balfour. He did not have to meet such figures through the Rothschild family or Lady Astor, as you might think from Mr. Schneer's narrative.
This is no small matter. For decades a prevalent myth claimed that the Balfour Declaration was granted by Britain as a quid pro quo for the Weizmann acetone process. The myth still has currency in the Arab world and needs to be addressed. That is not to say that Weizmann's distinction as a scientist, along with the qualities so evident in men like him, did not play a role in influencing the British to believe that the Zionist enterprise would harness great talents to the benefit of the entire Middle East.
Such matters do not interest Mr. Schneer as much as they should. And yet there is much to be learned from his account—about the constellation of imperatives, including world war and nationalist passion, that would give momentum to the process of Israel's founding. Contemplating the events of 1917, it is worth heeding some of Mr. Schneer's opening words: "The Balfour Declaration was not, in and of itself, the source of trouble in a land that previously had been more or less at peace, but nor was it a mere signpost on a road heading undivertibly toward a cliff. No one can say what the course of events in Palestine might have been without it. What did come was the product of forces and factors entirely unforeseen."
—Mr. Rubin is a writer in Pasadena, Calif.