The Balfour Centenary
By Ben Volman, Messianic Rabbi and Toronto Ministry Team Leader
By Ben Volman, Messianic Rabbi and Toronto Ministry Team Leader
On November 2, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, one of the most remarkable documents of the First World War. It was a public statement from the British government that raised the hopes of Jewish people around the globe and inspired thousands of Christians who were anticipating the return of Israel to their ancient homeland.
In 1917 at the time of the Declaration, this area of the Middle East, which includes modern Israel, was firmly controlled by the Turkish government—a legacy of the Ottoman Empire that had ruled the region since the early 1500s. The Turks had not stopped Jews from settling in the original regions of ancient Israel, but persistently rejected any recognition of Jewish national hopes.
Only 20 years earlier, Theodore Herzl had drawn hundreds of committed Jewish participants and observers to the first Zionist conference in Basel, Switzerland. The opening statement of the 1897 final “program” was this: “Zionism aims at establishing for the Jewish people a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.”
It was precisely this statement to which Britain’s government—the world’s leading colonial and naval power—was pledging support. The event was nothing short of history changing. And it wasn’t done secretly. The announcement was published in England’s most distinguished newspaper: “The Times” of London. The declaration from the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, to Lord Walter Rothschild, a supporter of the Zionist Federation, read as follows:
November 2nd, 1917
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.
“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 should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
Palestine in 1917
What did the declaration signify? The British government was not simply sanctioning the development of a Jewish colony under its protection in the Holy Land—but openly lending support to the commitment of 85,000 current Jewish settlers in their vision of creating a viable Jewish national entity. Meanwhile, Britain and its Empire partners were battling for the region with the Turks, who were ably assisted by their German allies.
The Islamic Arab population, approximately 700,000, historically identified their region as a southern portion of Syria. The Jewish settlers identified it as Palestine—the name chosen by the Romans to identify Israel’s original Biblical homeland. (That name was a deliberate insult to the Jews, who the Romans fought repeatedly for its control.) Under Turkish rule, it was usually forbidden for local landowners to sell their land to Jews, but the settlers paid for the land they cultivated—often at very steep prices. Most landowners lived elsewhere and were never prosecuted.
A large number of Jewish settlers had arrived from Eastern Europe since the 1880s—many of them from regions controlled by the Russian czars whose antisemitic policies, including the silent assent to violent and unchecked pogroms— were meant to drive Jewish people abroad. The British connection with Jewish people in Palestine had begun some 50 years earlier.
Michael Solomon Alexander
In the early 1840s, a group of leading evangelical British statesmen, including the Prime Minister, had succeeded in convincing the Turks to allow the installation of a Protestant bishop in Jerusalem.
Michael Solomon Alexander, a Messianic Jew, was appointed the first Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem in 1842. His sudden death in 1845 was a tragic disappointment. Alexander had been a vigorous, successful leader and was irreplaceable. Nevertheless, the decision by these inspired major English political leaders like Lord Shaftesbury and Palmerston (the British Prime Minister) to promote the return of Israel to its Biblical homeland remained a meaningful touchstone for their 20th century counterparts. Since that time, the Turks had acknowledged the British as protectors of the Jewish population in the region.
The 20th century leaders including Lord Balfour, Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, Winston Churchill and even T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) were all aware of this legacy. Balfour and Lloyd-George were genuinely motivated by a personal, Biblical understanding of the significance of the Holy Land for the Jewish people. But they were also persuaded by one of the most passionate and convincing supporters of the Zionist cause, Chaim Weizmann.
A brilliant chemist, Weizmann’s work to facilitate the development of acetone for use in British munitions during the war had proved invaluable to David Lloyd-George, who had been Minister of Munitions at a time when the British were literally running out of ammunition during WW1.
As a convincing advocate of Zionism, Weizmann energetically and effectively pursued international and influential leaders with the message that the future of the Jewish people depended on controlling their destiny within their own national borders. General Jan Smuts, one of the leading military members of the British War Cabinet, later said of its members in relation to Zionist aspirations: “We were persuaded … it was Weizmann who persuaded us.”
The Great War Years
The first attempts at interesting the British government in supporting the Zionist cause had come in 1915 through representations to the War Cabinet by the widely admired Jewish politician and cabinet member, Sir Herbert Samuel. The Prime Minister at that time, H.H. Asquith, had dismissed the notion out of hand. However, Lloyd-George had privately approached Samuel to support the proposal. Late in 1916, Lloyd-George was moved into the position of Prime Minister after widespread public disappointment with Asquith’s leadership of the war effort.
In 1915, with the major European powers literally entrenched in a military stalemate that stretched through Belgium and northern France, Britain sought to turn the tide of the war with more decisive victories against the relatively weak Turkish empire. One of the younger members of the cabinet, Sir Winston Churchill, proposed a bold attempt to take the Turkish capital, Constantinople, through the straits known as the Dardanelles. The British navy was supported by a French warship and large British Empire contingents from India, Australia and New Zealand (the “Anzacs”). Their attacks (February 1915 – January 1916) through the Dardanelles, best known for the beachhead at Gallipoli, were an overwhelming failure and led to a military decision of great importance for the Zionists.
In March of 1916, an expeditionary force was formed—first to protect Britain’s Suez Canal and then to launch attacks from Egypt into Turkish-held regions including Palestine. (The deployment was called the Egypt Expeditionary Force or EEF.) British policy to undermine the Ottoman Empire had already led them to publically support Arab nationalist aspirations. Zionist leaders privately began to press that their cause deserved equal treatment. Initially, Arab leaders were not averse to this. Prime Minister Lloyd-George gave the proposals a quietly positive reception. His Foreign Secretary, the former Prime Minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour, was equally supportive. Both men were great admirers of Dr. Weizmann.
However, a large number of leading British Jews were not comfortable with “that impractical Zionist scheme.” One of the most common antisemitic accusations was that Jews held no true loyalties except to their own interests or each other. Prominent Jews rightly feared that any statement by the British government suggesting that their true “national homeland” was elsewhere would ultimately deprive them of their hard-won status as citizens who could hold public office or be entrusted with major positions in British society. These voices needed to be somewhat placated before the Cabinet would assent to any support for Zionism.
The Sykes-Picot Agreement
By early 1917, the British began to anticipate that their campaigns in Palestine would succeed, despite the EEF’s failure during two major strikes into the region repulsed by Turkish forces at Gaza. The British had secretly agreed to a regional division of the Ottoman Empire which would allow France to oversee the areas including modern Syria and Lebanon while leaving other areas around Egypt (such as Palestine, though less well defined) to be controlled by the British. This proposal, known as the “Sykes-Picot Agreement” turned out to be more of an irritant than a genuine guide to managing the eventual peace. It initially allowed for shared international oversight of “Holy Sites”—particularly Jerusalem. But once the EEF began to make serious headway toward Jerusalem, the agreement with the French became less important. Areas for which British troops had fought and died would first be considered British.
Another concern of the British was support from Jewish people internationally for the Allied cause. The Russian government had fallen in March 1917, withdrawing their troops from the war and the British wanted to retain support from Russian Jews for the Allies. Support from American Jewry was also a concern. They were convinced that both Russian and American Jewry would support an alliance with the Zionist cause.
The British would not issue a declaration without the support of the Americans. President Woodrow Wilson wasn’t too interested in Palestine or the Zionist cause. However, he was not a supporter of furthering the colonial traditions of the European powers. Although he wasn’t familiar with the regional issues, at the behest of his Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a convinced Zionist supporter, he consented.
As the British geared up for the campaign for Palestine in the fall of 1917, the Turks and Germans were equally determined to halt their advance. The War Cabinet appointed a new general, Edmund Allenby, to take charge. Allenby was a professional soldier who never travelled without his Bible. His clear instructions from Lloyd-George were designed to lift the spirits of the British people, desperate for some sign of victory: “Jerusalem by Christmas” 1917.
A Jewish Homeland
Meanwhile, Britain’s War Cabinet had been considering a statement of public support for the Zionist cause. In July, Lord Walter Rothschild had sent a proposal on behalf of the Zionist Federation. Finally, in October 1917, Balfour pressed for the cabinet’s support based on a number of crucial issues, including the recent news that the Germans were considering a similar decree. The arguments were extensive and focused on the impact that such a statement would have on providing support for the British from the global Jewish community. At the time, the British had even received positive response to the move from Arab nationalists. Churchill later said that he never knew of any statement from the cabinet that had received more consideration than this one issued by Balfour.
Wording of the declaration was revised to satisfy both the leaders of the local Arab population and those powerful Jewish interest groups who didn’t want Palestine to be designated “the Jewish homeland.” Instead, it was referred to as “a Jewish homeland” and a substantial clause was added: “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.” Although there was no mention of creating a Jewish state, at the San Remo conference this would become the critical reason for a British mandate in Palestine.
“Jerusalem for Christmas”
Allenby’s strategy would not lead back through Gaza again, although his forces made a feint toward the area. Instead, his newly combined two corps made their decisive assault on the Turkish forces at Beersheva, October 31, 1917. The combined British-Anzac forces broke through the Turkish defenses and the great cavalry charge by the Australians on the Turkish lines sealed the fate of the defenders. The Turks would continue to be driven back over the next month until the fall of Jerusalem on December 9. It was a joyous moment for the Jewish populace throughout the region: the first night of Hanukkah, 1917!
Two days later, December 11, Allenby rode up to the Jaffa Gate, dismounted and entered Jerusalem on foot to cheering crowds as he mounted a podium before the famous Citadel of David. Lloyd-George had something special to present to His Majesty and the British people: “Jerusalem for Christmas.”
The Balfour Declaration was not the last word on Palestine by a British government—but it was a decisive turning point in the history of the region. The Jewish settlements—known in Hebrew as the “Yishuv”—would have ample reason to regret the fickleness of British promises over the next 20 years—including the closed door on Jewish immigration in the critical moments leading to the Holocaust.
In 1947, when the UN’s Special Committee on Palestine addressed the question of a future for the Jewish people in the region, the committee recognized the Balfour Declaration as a significant and legitimate promise. It was no less valid for the Jewish people than the decisions at San Remo that formed other new nations out of the complex tapestry of nationalist movements across the Middle East. These had led to the formation of modern Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Iraq. None of these nations would openly accept a modern Jewish state in their midst, but that was not their decision.
In the end, Balfour didn’t deliver a miracle or a fulfillment of Jewish hopes. But he did lay the foundations for a nationalist vision. At one point, during his visit to Washington in meetings with Justice Brandeis, Balfour succinctly stated, “I am a Zionist.” Lloyd-George and other cabinet colleagues would later declare that the Jewish people had given too much to Western civilization to be deprived of a homeland.
All the hopes that were raised for a moment would eventually confront greater challenges than anyone could have foreseen. But for the past century the declaration has remained a vital, symbolic and visionary step toward the great “dream” to which Herzl had so passionately stirred the Jewish people—a homeland in which they would stand as equals in the ranks of the nations.