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100 years on, the Balfour Declaration and the Great War

A century ago Britain published the Balfour Declaration, hailed today as a charter document for the state of Israel. But promoting Zionism was not the real aim – it was about winning a world war.

It’s an unimpressive piece of paper, just one page of double-spaced typescript, headed “Foreign Office November 2nd, 1917” and signed in black ink with a scratchy pen by “Arthur James Balfour”. It’s also one of the prize possessions of the British Library.

What became known as the “Balfour Declaration” was a single sentence of 67 words, which contained two important pledges and two equally important qualifications. It read:

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.

Sent in the form of a letter from Balfour, the British foreign secretary at the time, to Lord Rothschild, a leading British Zionist, the Declaration was published to the world a week later on 9 November. Today, it continues to provoke bitter controversy: hailed by Jews as a charter document for the state of Israel; reviled by Palestinians as a betrayal of their land. A century on, the Balfour Declaration has proved a very long sentence.

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In 2017 the “memory politics” are intense. From one side, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, speaking on 22 September 2016 at the United Nations, indicted “the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road for the Nakba [exodus] of Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land.”

In Britain recently, the so-called Balfour Project held a rally at Central Hall, Westminster on 31 October to urge the British government to redeem the “broken promise” of 1917 and ensure equal rights for “existing non-Jewish communities” and also to “support Palestinians and Israelis in building a peaceful future based on equal rights for all”.

On 2 November, Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu, the British and Israeli prime ministers, dined with 150 VIPs as guests of the present-day Lords Rothschild and Balfour. May had told the Conservative Friends of Israel in December last year that the Balfour Declaration was “one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride.” She admitted that “securing the rights of Palestinians and Palestinian statehood have not yet been achieved” and she also condemned “illegal settlements”. But these points were in the small print of her speech, not the headlines. Unlike for advocates of the Balfour Project, it is the first half of the Declaration that stands out for May.

In these various camps the “meaning” of the Balfour Declaration is generally understood teleologically, as if there were a straight and inexorable line from 1917 to where they feel we are now. It’s hard to avoid some tinge of hindsight, difficult to strip from one’s mind the appalling images of the Nazi Holocaust or to ignore the war of 1948, which created the state of Israel. For Israelis, 14 May is Independence Day (Yom Ha’atzmaut), celebrating the birth that year of a nation; whereas 15 May is commemorated by many Palestinians as the Day of Catastrophe (Yawm an-Nakba), when thousands of their forebears fled, or were driven from, their homes.

Nor can one forget the impact of the Six Day War of June 1967, which transformed Israel’s territorial position through the capture of Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and opened up the fateful new project of settlements. And so one can go on: successive intifadas, the Gaza camps, the suicide bombers in Israel’s streets, the wall snaking through the West Bank – all these inevitably colour our image of Balfour.

But, amid the politics of memory, it is worth thinking historically; worth trying to place that very long sentence in the context of October and November 1917 – of a war going dreadfully for Britain and its allies. The Western Front was stuck in the mud: France’s army had mutinied in the spring, and the autumn bloodbath of Passchendaele reprised the carnage on the Somme in 1916. The United States, though now a belligerent, had hardly begun to deploy its troops in France.

The position of Britain’s other main allies was precarious. At the battle of Caporetto, from 24 October, the Italians were routed and a quarter of a million troops surrendered, while Russia’s will to fight had crumbled, casting doubt on the continuance of the whole Eastern Front.

As far as a worried British government was concerned, the Balfour Declaration – those two pledges and two conditions – could only be understood in the context of this diplomatic and military crisis for the alliance and of the need for a successful “second front” to break the deadlock and counter despondency at home. For the cabinet, as it debated Balfour’s proposal, the priority was not promoting Zionism, let alone protecting the rights of the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, but how to win the war.

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Accounts of the Balfour Declaration, however, rarely foreground the war. The focus is usually on London Zionists and their remarkable influence over the government – for good or ill depending on one’s perspective.

The leading figure in that drama was a charismatic chemistry professor from Manchester, Chaim Weizmann – with his domed head, goatee beard and fierce intellect. Weizmann had gained an entrée into political circles thanks to CP Scott, the illustrious editor of the Manchester Guardian, and had then sold his Zionist project to government leaders, including David Lloyd George when he was chancellor of the exchequer.

Weizmann’s strongest backer was Balfour, himself a former prime minister, who admired the Jews for their energy and acumen but considered them an alien presence in Christian Britain. Helping the Jews to return to Zion would, he believed, “restore them to their dignity” so that “their intelligence will cease to be merely acquisitive and will become creative”.

But talking about the return of the Jews to the land of Israel was only meaningful because that land seemed up for grabs after the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany in 1914. For Britain, France and Russia – though primarily focused on Europe – war against a declining power long dubbed the “Sick Man of Europe” opened up the prospect of vast gains in the Levant and the Middle East.

The Ottoman army, however, proved no walkover. In 1915 it threatened the Suez Canal, Britain’s imperial artery to India, and then repulsed landings by British empire and French forces on the Dardanelles at Gallipoli. Although Baghdad fell in March 1917, two British assaults on Gaza that spring were humiliatingly driven back, with heavy losses. Deadlock in the desert added to Whitehall’s list of woes.

All this is easy to forget because the creeping barrage of British centenary commemorations has been focused on the Western Front. Last year at Thiepval and this year at the Menin Gate, VIPs, veterans and descendants of those who died have gathered to “remember” the Somme and now Passchendaele: to honour the “sacrifice” while not asking too many questions about the “strategy” behind the carnage.

In this prescribed narrative of remembrance for 1914-18, what happened outside the Western Front has been almost entirely obscured. The British army’s “Historical Lessons, Warfare Branch” has published in-house a fascinating volume of essays about what it tellingly entitles “The Forgotten Fronts of the First World War” – with superb maps and illustrations. The collection covers not only Palestine and Mesopotamia (roughly modern-day Iraq and Kuwait), but also Italy, Africa, Russia, Turkey and the Pacific – indeed much of the world – but sadly it is not currently available to the public. If sold as a book or disseminated on the web, this would be an ideal way to introduce schoolchildren and students in our new “Global Britain” to the forgotten globality of the Great War.

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The drama and significance of the war in Palestine came home to me vividly a few weeks ago, while researching a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the Balfour Declaration. Together with producer Mark Burman, I visited some of the war sites and monuments from Beersheba in the south, on the edge of the Negev desert, to the Jaffa Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem. Palestine 1917 has been aptly described by the historian Neil Faulkner as a “blitzkrieg campaign of 40 days” that abruptly ended four centuries of Ottoman rule over Palestine.

By 1917 Lloyd George, now prime minister, was utterly frustrated by what he called “the mud-crawling strategy” on the Western Front. Yet he felt unable to challenge directly its obdurate impresario, Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig. So Lloyd George looked east, seeking an eye-catching victory in Palestine to boost morale at home and advance British influence in the region. He personally chose Gen Sir Edmund Allenby: a 6ft 2in, barrel-chested former cavalryman with a booming voice and an explosive temper, nicknamed “The Bull”. Before Allenby left Britain to take up his new command, the prime minister delivered a brisk pep talk. “I told him,” Lloyd George recalled later, “that he was to ask us for such reinforcements and supplies as he found necessary and we would do our best to provide them. ‘If you do not ask it will be your fault. If you do ask and you do not get what you need, it will be ours.’ I said the cabinet expected ‘Jerusalem before Christmas’.”

Allenby took over the Egyptian Expeditionary Force at the end of June 1917 and immediately shook it up. He moved his HQ from Cairo to nearer the front line south of Gaza, so that he could keep a closer eye on troops and commanders, and he also upgraded supply lines up the coast from Egypt, especially the railway and the water pipeline. He trained his troops to use their initiative, rather than following orders to the letter, and kept units on their toes with surprise visits. Commanders often received a sudden cryptic message from colleagues: “B L” which signified “Bull Loose”.

This was one reason why Balfour and his colleagues finally got to grips with the Zionist agenda. With Palestine perhaps about to become the spoils of war, a declaration of British support for a Jewish homeland could give apparent moral sanction to Britain’s territorial claims in the struggle for empire in the post-Ottoman Near East. Britain would govern Palestine not for its own benefit but as a protectorate that allowed the Chosen People to return to the Promised Land.

There was another consideration behind the Declaration, testimony to London’s belief in the ubiquitous influence of international Jewry. British endorsement of Zionism was expected to strengthen support for the war in both Russia and America where, it was hoped, pro-Zionist Jews could help swing political and public opinion. After the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917 Russia’s provisional government was struggling to keep its war-weary country fighting; in the United States, which had entered the conflict in April, war mobilisation had been disappointingly slow.

Balfour and Lloyd George would have been happy with an unvarnished endorsement of Zionism. The text that the foreign secretary agreed in August was largely written by Weizmann and his colleagues:

“His Majesty’s Government accept the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object and will be ready to consider any suggestions on the subject which the Zionist Organisation may desire to lay before them.”

In due course the blunt phrase about Palestine being “reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people” was toned down into “the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine” – a more ambiguous formulation which sidestepped for the moment the idea of a Jewish state. But when this draft finally came before the war cabinet for discussion on 4 October, it ran into fierce opposition from two very different angles.

Edwin Montagu, newly appointed as secretary of state for India, was only the third practising Jew to hold cabinet office. Whereas his cousin, Herbert Samuel (who in 1920 would become the first high commissioner of Palestine) was a keen supporter of Zionism, Montagu was an “assimilationist” – one who believed that being Jewish was a matter of religion not ethnicity. His position was summed up in the cabinet minutes:

Mr Montagu urged strong objections to any declaration in which it was stated that Palestine was the “national home” of the Jewish people. He regarded the Jews as a religious community and himself as a Jewish Englishman … How would he negotiate with the peoples of India on behalf of His Majesty’s Government if the world had just been told that His Majesty’s Government regarded his national home as being in Turkish territory?

Montagu considered the proposed Declaration a blatantly anti-Semitic document and claimed that “most English-born Jews were opposed to Zionism”, which he said was being pushed mainly by “foreign-born Jews” such as Weizmann, who was born in what is now Belarus.

The other critic of the proposed Declaration was Lord Curzon, a former viceroy of India, who therefore viewed Palestine within the geopolitics of Asia. A grandee who traced his lineage back to the Norman Conquest, Curzon loftily informed colleagues that the Promised Land was not exactly flowing with milk and honey, but nor was it an empty, uninhabited space. According to the cabinet minutes, “Lord Curzon urged strong objections upon practical grounds. He stated, from his recollection of Palestine, that the country was, for the most part, barren and desolate … a less propitious seat for the future Jewish race could not be imagined.” And, he asked, “how was it proposed to get rid of the existing majority of Mussulman [Muslim] inhabitants and to introduce the Jews in their place?”

Between them, Curzon and Montagu had temporarily slowed the Zionist bandwagon. Lord Milner, another member of the war cabinet, hastily added two conditions to the proposed draft, in order to address the two men’s respective concerns. The vague phrase about the rights of the “existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” hints at how little the government knew or cared about those who constituted roughly 90 per cent of the population of what they, too, regarded as their homeland.

After trying out the new version on a few eminent Jews, both of Zionist and accommodationist persuasions, and also securing a firm endorsement from America’s President Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Balfour took the issue back to the war cabinet on 31 October. By now the strident Montagu had left for India, and on this occasion Balfour, who could often be moody and detached, led from the front, brushing aside the objections that had been raised and reasserting the propaganda imperative. According to the cabinet minutes, he stated firmly: “The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.”

This was standard cabinet tactics: a strong lead from a minister supported by the PM, daring his colleagues to argue back. And this time Curzon did not, though he did make another telling comment. He “attached great importance to the necessity of retaining the Christian and Moslem Holy Places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem”. If this were done, Curzon added, he “did not see how the Jewish people could have a political capital in Palestine”.

No one, however, paid much attention. Lloyd George and Balfour had secured the endorsement of Zionism they wanted, but in the form of a typical cabinet compromise, characterised by verbal dexterity rather than intellectual clarity. The two conditions had bought off the two main critics. That was all that seemed to matter, even though the reference to the “rights of the existing non-Jewish communities” stood in potential conflict with the first two clauses about the British supporting and using their “best endeavours” for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

Nor was there any debate about what all these phrases might entail in practice. The cabinet was interested in words, not realities: words that might help Britain win the war and define the peace. On 2 November, Balfour sent his letter to Lord Rothschild.

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Just then, however, this seemingly deadlocked war was taking directions that few had anticipated. Balfour’s letter was published in the Times on 9 November. But two days before, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had seized power in Petrograd. Not only did the coup in Russia hog the headlines, it also knocked away the main plank of the cabinet’s propaganda strategy, because Lenin’s principal objective was to get his country out of the war as soon as possible. On 15 December he signed an armistice with the Germans, and began negotiations for a full-scale peace treaty.

The Bolsheviks embarrassed the British government even further. Having ransacked the Tsarist archives, they published juicy extracts from the “secret treaties” that the Allied powers had made among themselves in 1915-16 to divide the spoils of victory. The Manchester Guardian’s correspondent in Petrograd, Morgan Philips Price, was able to examine the key documents overnight, and his scoop was published by the paper at the end of November. It revealed to the world, among other things, that the British also had an understanding with the French – the Sykes-Picot agreement of January 1916 – to carve up the Near East between them once the Ottoman empire had been defeated. In this, Palestine was slated for some kind of international condominium – not the British protectorate envisaged in the Balfour Declaration.

What’s more, Sykes-Picot appeared to conflict with promises made to Arab leaders, particularly Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca, who had proclaimed the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in June 1916. The meaning of the letters he exchanged with Sir Henry McMahon, British high commissioner in Egypt, in 1915-16 has been debated for decades. This is hardly surprising, not only because they were being translated to and fro between English and Arabic, but also because precision was never McMahon’s intention. As he told one critic:

“I do not for one moment go to the length of imagining that the present negotiations will go far to shape the future form of Arabia or to either establish our rights or to bind our hands in that country. The situation and its elements are much too nebulous for that. What we have to arrive at now is to tempt the Arab people into the right path, detach them from the enemy and bring them on to our side. This on our part is at present largely a matter of words, and to succeed we must use persuasive terms and abstain from academic haggling over conditions.”

The Bolsheviks did not discover that the British were also playing footsie with the Turks. In the middle of November 1917, secret meetings took place with Ottoman dissidents in Greece and Switzerland about trying to arrange an armistice in the Near East. The war cabinet recognised that, as bait, it might have to let the Ottomans keep parts of their empire in the region, or at least retain some appearance of control. When Curzon got wind of this, he was incensed: “Almost in the same week that we have pledged ourselves, if successful, to secure Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, are we to contemplate leaving the Turkish flag flying over Jerusalem?”

Fortunately, perhaps, for the British government, the talks with the Turks came to nothing. The “persuasive” words already trotted out to the Arabs, the French and the Jews were quite enough to confirm stereotypes about “Perfidious Albion”.

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While Balfour’s diplomacy was going nowhere, Lloyd George’s strategy was paying off. On 31 October, the day the revised Declaration was pushed through cabinet, Allenby’s troops captured Beersheba. Although his infantry had done most of the hard work, tying down the enemy on the west of the town, what hit the headlines were the exploits of the Australian Light Horse: 800 men charging across four miles of open ground, bayonets drawn (they didn’t have swords), over the enemy trenches and into the town before the Turks had time to poison the wells. Haig always dreamed of this kind of scenario on the Western front, but there such dreams were fantasies.

Beersheba has certainly not been forgotten on the other side of the world. Last month, on 31 October, the Australian and New Zealand prime ministers descended on Beersheba to watch a re-enactment of the Australian charge and to open a new Anzac Museum at the Commonwealth War Cemetery. For Aussies, and now increasingly Kiwis, the Great War is their “birth of a nation” moment, with Beersheba bidding to be the next Gallipoli. There is already a striking bronze of an Australian horseman leaping the Ottoman trenches, bayonet in hand, in the Peace Park on the outskirts of the modern city.

Beersheba set the pattern for the whole Palestine campaign. It was full of mistakes – as is any war – but Allenby was forever prodding his officers and men to seize the initiative and keep driving the Ottomans back. On 7 November, the day Lenin seized power in Petrograd, the Ottoman Seventh and Eighth Armies evacuated the town of Gaza – another decisive victory for the British empire forces, all the sweeter after two failed attempts in the spring. In Belgium on 9 November, the day the Balfour Declaration went public, Canadian troops finally captured what was left of the little ridge-top village of Passchendaele. This allowed Haig to claim that the Third Battle of Ypres had ended in success, even though he had advanced only five miles in 14 weeks and lost 250,000 British empire dead and wounded in the process – probably about the same as the German losses.

Hence British delight about Beersheba and Gaza. Over the next ten days the empire forces pushed the enemy back some 50 miles, dividing the two Turkish armies. Astride the Jaffa to Jerusalem road and railway, they were poised for the final push to get Lloyd George his Christmas present.

The defences west of Jerusalem were extremely strong – cut into the rock of the steep and forbidding Judean hills. I visited some of them, courtesy of Eran Tearosh, chairman of the Society for the Heritage of World War I in Israel, which is working valiantly to identify and preserve such sites before they are overrun by development. These Ottoman trenches are just a few hundred yards west of Yad Vashem, Israel’s centre of Holocaust remembrance, which is visited by more than a million people a year. But few of the visitors stray down the now-forested hillside to inspect these relics of an earlier conflict. Gazing down the sheer slopes, however, one can really sense the challenges of this now forgotten war that made possible the eventual state of Israel.

Allenby’s first attempt to crack the Turkish defences at Nebi Samwell ended in failure. But instead of allowing his weary troops to rest and regroup after three weeks of non-stop campaigning, he kept up the momentum, this time by a series of surprise infantry attacks around dawn on 8 December. Troops of the 60th (London) Division bore the brunt. One of them, a certain Private Wilson, drily recalled: “The distance on the map which we went that night was roughly two miles as the crow flies. Not being crows, however, we had to do the journey as the donkey walks and found it a different matter. Up hill and down ravine, winding about along ridges and down precipitous hill paths, the whole way literally strewn with stones and boulders, it took us seven hours without a stop to traverse that two miles – ‘as the crow flies’.”

After their gruelling night hike, the Londoners had to attack uphill against the Turkish line. In some places they succeeded, in others they were pinned down by shell fire. But their assault unsettled the Ottoman commanders enough to persuade them to evacuate Jerusalem. This sums up Allenby’s blitzkrieg, which had succeeded against the odds because it perpetually kept the enemy off balance. Ten divisions – a mere manoeuvre by Western Front standards, but a campaign whose conduct and consequences deserve to be remembered.

Allenby formally entered the Holy City on 11 December. He did so on foot through the Jaffa Gate, following strict orders not to emulate the German Kaiser’s grand entrance in 1898 on a white horse through a triumphal arch specially cut in the city wall. “Advantage of contrast,” the War Office told him tersely, “will be obvious.” (The current Viscount Allenby will retrace his forebear’s steps in another memory moment next month on 11 December.)

In 1917, Gen Allenby was also warned to avoid crusading rhetoric, even though the press in London was full of references to “The Last Crusade” and about finally realising Richard the Lionheart’s dream of taking Jerusalem. Palestine was predominantly Muslim – as was much of Britain’s Asian empire. When imposing martial law, Allenby was therefore careful to ensure that shrines sacred to Islam were protected by Muslim troops of his Indian army units – just as Curzon desired. And so the British depicted themselves not as conquerors or Crusaders but as liberators, freeing all the people of Palestine from four centuries of brutal and backward Ottoman rule.

What got virtually no mention in newly British Jerusalem that December was Balfour’s Declaration. It was stale news – last month’s propaganda. But the words would come back to haunt the victors.

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By the time Allenby entered Jerusalem in studiously humble triumph, the British government had given a range of incompatible pledges, nods and winks to the Arabs, the French, the Jews and the Turks. In the end the Turks lost their empire, the Arabs were fobbed off with Trans-Jordan and Mesopotamia, and the French propitiated in a modified carve-up of the Levant which gave them what became Syria and Lebanon. Britain kept Palestine but in the form of a “Mandate” from the postwar League of Nations, and with a commitment to prepare the territory and its feuding inhabitants for “self-government”.

For nearly 30 years the British tried to square the circle of Palestine’s two “selfs” – Jews and Arabs – within a vulnerable strip of land little larger than Wales. They tried democracy, autocracy, a partition plan and brutal counter-terrorism – lurching from one expedient to another in search of a solution. Eventually, after a second world war and the near-extermination of European Jewry, His Majesty’s government ended its efforts and left the contending parties to fight it out in 1948.

These later events cannot simply be attributed to Balfour, but Curzon had been right to warn of “raising false expectations which could never be realised”. In 1919, reviewing Britain’s wartime statements about the Near East, Balfour privately admitted that “the literal fulfilment of all our declarations is impossible, partly because they are incompatible with each other and partly because they are incompatible with facts”.

What seems remarkable now is the cavalier way in which the Balfour Declaration was formulated: as a response to immediate wartime exigencies, with little thought as to how it would be implemented on the ground, let alone harmonised with Britain’s other wartime pledges. One might wonder how a government could have been so irresponsible in the making of foreign policy. On the other hand, given what has happened in Britain over the past 18 months, one might not.

David Reynolds is the author of “The Long Shadow: The Great War and the 20th Century” (Simon & Schuster). His documentary “Balfour’s Promised Land” will air on BBC Radio 4 on 5 December

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory sinking ship