The Secretary’s Letter
Early in November 1917, Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, handed an extraordinary letter to Lord Rothschild, head of that famously successful Jewish family and unofficial representative of British Jewry. Balfour had chosen this rather personal means of communicating that the members of the British government “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” An important qualification added that nothing was to be done to prejudice the rights of the Arabs.
How this, the Balfour Declaration, came about has always been a mystery. A home in Palestine for the Jews could not be considered a British national interest. Nor did the issue of a national home attract more than a small and unrepresentative minority of Jews. Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was then a relatively new movement. Its leader, Chaim Weizmann, had presence and intelligence, but he was a social outsider, an immigrant speaking with a Russian accent. David Lloyd George, a prime minister of extreme moral agility, was prepared to ditch the Declaration up until the very last moment. Lord Curzon, former viceroy of India, and Edwin Montagu, a Jew, were the only cabinet colleagues with an informed interest in foreign policy, and both opposed the Declaration.
Arab nationalism was another relatively new movement, and its leaders at once objected to the idea of a national home in Palestine for anyone except themselves. The British seem to have set Arabs and Zionists against one another, with the immediate consequence of bringing trouble on themselves. As the Jewish national home shaped into the state of Israel over the next decades, many in the Arab and Muslim world came to believe that the Balfour Declaration marked a first step in an Anglo-Jewish imperialist policy of deliberately deceiving Arabs.
In The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Jonathan Schneer ’78GSAS, a professor of history at Georgia Tech who specializes in modern Britain, has put together a mass of material to decipher how the British got themselves and many others into a long-drawn mess. He concludes that there was no Machiavellian conspiracy. On the contrary, he shows that the Declaration was formulated amid the urgent but conflicting pressures of a world war. Official and unofficial lobbyists, busybodies, and double-dealers were in their element. This is a story about the workings of politics and diplomacy, and its moral is that even at the highest levels of government, decision making is at the mercy of opportunism, sheer chance, and, above all, ignorance.
The November 1914 decision of the Young Turks in Constantinople to join Germany’s side in the First World War was the first miscalculation with unforeseen consequences, for it placed at risk the future of the entire Ottoman Empire. Had Turkey instead joined the Triple Entente — composed at the time of Great Britain, Russia, and France — or stayed neutral, there would have been no Balfour Declaration. The embryonic Arab and Jewish nationalist movements were already anticipating independence from Ottoman rule. On the grounds that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, both were quick to seek British sponsorship for their ends. The British, in need of allies in the all-out campaign against the Turks, responded positively. Suddenly the future of the Middle East was up for grabs.
Sharif Hussein bin Ali of Mecca was the only Arab in a position to act as nationalist champion of the Arab cause, and Schneer deals kindly with him, and at length. Head of the Hashemite family, with impeccable Islamic credentials, the sharif was a shrewd and ambitious ruler who had few resources except his wits. He could raise only a limited number of undisciplined Bedouin tribesmen to fight for him, and they tended to vanish in a crisis. Prudently, he kept lines open to both Germany and Britain until he was sure that the latter would win the war and he could pick up from them whatever spoils were available. Once the British began driving the Turks out of Mesopotamia and Palestine, and once they had paid and armed the sharif, he liked to visualize himself as emir or grand sharif over Arabs everywhere.