by Georgios Rigas
A text of only 67 words that took the form of a missive sent by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to the prominent Jewish figure Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild came to be the cause of the kindling a fire that still burns in the Middle East, or so it appears to many. The semantics of the letter, the fact that it became public a week after its writing, and the expectations it created to both sides led many to view the Balfour Declaration as both the beginning and cause of all the suffering and turmoil that occurred in the Middle East during the last 100 years.
The carefully worded letter, the final form of which was the result of months-long consultations, did not refer to the creation of a Jewish state, but of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine instead. It is worth noting that then the term Palestine pertained not only to contemporary Israel, West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also to the territories currently held by Jordan and Lebanon. The publication of the Balfour Declaration, combined with the almost simultaneous revelation of the Sykes-Picot agreement, which divided the Middle East between a British and a French influence sector, by the nascent soviet government in Moscow, justly caused anxiety and despair in the ranks of the Arabs. And this is actually the moment when a strong anti-western feeling began to take shape along the breadth and length of the Arab world.
From their part, the Jews welcomed so warmly the Declaration as to make the 2nd of November a quasi national celebration day. This enthusiasm was mainly expressed with the stepping up of the “aliyah”, the immigration to the Holy Land. The consequent demographic pressures created tensions between Arabs, Jews and Britons, who in the meantime had taken control of the territory. In the aftermath of World War II and with the Holocaust casting a heavy shadow the British withdrew from Palestine. In the conflict that followed the Jewish militias emerged victorious thereby rendering the creation of the sate of Israel possible. Israel expanded and became quite stronger in the following decades.Yet, this came to the detriment of the native Arab population which was forced to exile, occupation and / or discrimination.
In the aforementioned events there are quite a few who choose to see a direct chain which gives credit to the notion that what has happened since 1917 was the implementation of a well designed plan. It is also true that the identity of the recipient of Balfour’s letter (i.e. Lord Rothschild) does little to fend off conspiracy theory lovers, especially those affiliated with the far right. What the latter fail to see is that Zionism was nothing more than another branch of nationalism; the political current that was thriving in 19th century Europe. Zionism’s objective was the creation of a Jewish state in any available land. To be sure, Theodore Herzl and other Zionist leaders saw fit to make plans for settlement in Argentina, Cyprus, Siberia, Uganda, or even in an Oasis in the Gulf near present Bahrain. And the decision was of course not theirs to make. Only Britain, or one of the other great European industrial powers, had the ability to initiate the process. In other words, the influence and the pressures that prominent Jewish individuals and associations exercised played a role but they were hardly critical or decisive.
Britain started considering seriously the contingency of the creation of Jewish national home in the beginning of the 20th century. It is worth mentioning that what actually motivated the British to make such considerations was their concern that the Russian pogroms might drive large waves of Jewish refugees towards the British isles. Balfour, prime minister at that time, appointed a young ambitious lawyer, Lloyd George, to come up with a plan for a potential Jewish colony in East Africa. In December 1916 Lloyd George became prime minister himself and Balfour was to serve as his foreign secretary. The changes in the cabinet resulted in the marginalisation of Edwin Montagu, a practicing Jew who despite his heritage was a fierce opponent of the Jewish statehood dreams. The case of Montagu speaks volumes regarding the unbridgeable gaps and differences within the Jewish community. For Montagu, the idea of building a state from scratch based on the common religion of its citizens was absurd. And the ensuing bloodshed in Europe between christian countries seemed to add credence to his point. Moreover, Montagu was afraid that in the event of the establishment of the Jewish homeland, the British Crown might drive out, or at least curb the political rights, of its Jewish inhabitants.
So, if it was not a well planned conspiracy that manipulated the British government, then what thrust Balfour to address to Lord Rothschild his infamous declaration? The answer lies in the service of Britain’s interests in a time that tectonic geopolitical shifts were taking place. After the entry of the US in the war, the prospect of victory seemed more realistic than ever. As a result, British officials were drawing plans with the aim of guaranteeing for London as many of the post-war dividends as possible. Balfour Declaration could and should be viewed as part of this wider context. It was just another state promise aiming to seal short-term, albeit useful, alliances. The British were hardly anxious to see to the implementation of the promise per se. To be precise, the reason why Balfour Declaration acquired this unique aura is not because London honoured its pledge to Lord Rothschild. On the contrary, this happened simply because the British failed others, like Hussein of Mecca, in a far larger scale than they did with the Zionists.
Whitehall leaked the declaration to the press little after General Allenby began his march towards Jerusalem. Soon the whole of Palestine came under his grip and it makes sense that the British wished to bear the fruits of their victory. Thus, affiliating the Jewish minority was an expected choice based on the repeatedly tested principle of “divide and conquer”. The French did something similar in Syria where they promoted the staffing of the bureaucracy and security services with members of the Christian and Alawite minorities. Furthermore, an extra reason why the British advanced their ties with Palestine’s Jews pertained to the situation in Russia. The new soviet government suspended all the czarist edicts targeting the Jews. However, so long as the political situation in Russia remained unstable, the possibility neither of restoration nor of renewed pogroms could be excluded. If this ended up to be the case, Lloyd George would have preferred fleeing Jews to head towards the Middle East and not Western Europe.
At the end of the day the crucial question is to what extent did Balfour Declaration help Britain to further her interest in the Middle East. The answer is a negative one because neither the Arabs, nor the Jews were keen on perpetually dancing to London’s tune. Therefore, when it became clear that the affiliation of Palestine’s Jewish minority was not part of a road map heading to the creation of a Jewish national home, the British had to face the animosity of both communities. What is more, no matter what initiative they would undertake, like the effort to control the rate of Jewish immigration, things went from bad to worse. Lastly, it was also their responsibility to intervene and restore order whenever tensions between Arabs and Jews flared up. No doubt, this is hardly what officials in London dreamed of when, with internationally recognised agreements, sealed their rule over Palestine. And it is partly due to this failure why, when they withdrew in 1948, they didn’t make any serious effort to influence the changes that were taking shape on the ground.
Today, millions of Palestinians take a glance a century back and wonder if a part of the pain and blood defining their collective memory could be averted had Lord Blafour not signed the infamous declaration that bears his name. The truth is that nobody could possibly know. Yet, the correlation of Balfour Declaration with the current siege of Gaza, the West Bank occupation and the hard conditions of the refugees’ camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Syria is analogous to the correlation of a butterfly’s behaviour in the Pacific with the outbreak of a storm in the Atlantic. Hence, if there is a true reason why Balfour Declaration should be commemorated and its original be kept and exhibited in the British Library, this is not because of its alleged role in the genesis of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. On the contrary, it should not fall into oblivion mainly because it constitutes a unique and rare encapsulation of the cynicism of the powerful’s mentality a century ago where, as Arthur Koestler stressed, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third”.
Georgios Rigas holds a Ph.D. in Modern Middle Eastern History from the University of Edinburgh.