Today in Middle Eastern history: the Balfour Declaration (1917)

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It was on November 2, 1917, when British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent a relatively brief letter to Walter Rothschild that would wind up becoming one of the most consequential events in modern Middle Eastern history. Really, if you’d looked at the letter at the time, you probably wouldn’t have envisioned the importance it would come to have:

The Declaration as it was printed in The Times on November 9, 1917 (Wikimedia Commons)

Not only does it seem fairly nondescript, but the fact is that it wrote some proverbial checks that Britain still wasn’t sure it would be able to case. In November 1917, Britain was only just embarking on its period of greatest success in the Middle Eastern theater of World War I, when it captured Baghdad and used the Arab revolt that it had fomented the year before to dislodge the Ottomans from the Sinai and from Palestine. The Ottomans still controlled most of Palestine until around Christmas, so Balfour’s legal authority to parcel it out to the Jewish people, the Scottish people, the People Who Need People, or any other people was by no means apparent on November 2. Even after it gained control of Palestine, there’s obviously a strong moral argument to be made that Britain didn’t have the right to promise it to anybody other than the people who already lived there, but I don’t want to go any further down that rabbit hole in this post. The declaration only really took on great importanceas the war came to a close, when it became a key component of Britain’s plans for the post-Ottoman Middle East, and for Mandatory Palestine in particular.

It was of course the war, and British uncertainty over its outcome, that did more to advance the Zionist cause in London than just about anything else. Although that shouldn’t be taken to mean that there wasn’t genuine sympathy within the British government for Zionism. The World Zionist Organization had been formed in 1897 to promote Jewish migration to Palestine and to do the diplomatic work necessary to eventually see the establishment of a Jewish nation there. The British government, through its ongoing talks with WZO leaders, came in the early 20th century to feel collectively that the best thing for everybody (well, for the Jews and for Britain, anyway) would be for the UK to annex Palestine into the British Empire and then hold it as a Jewish homeland.

As the war went on, this feeling dovetailed very nicely with British war aims in a number of ways. First, London believed that siding with the Zionists would help it shore up its support from America, as President Woodrow Wilson was thought to be sympathetic to the Zionist cause. It might also make things harder on Germany, by causing German Jews to become more sympathetic toward the UK.

By early November 1917 there was also the question of Russia to consider. London desperately wanted to keep Russia in the war despite the February Russian Revolution and the growing power of the Bolsheviks—the “October Revolution” actually took place on November 7 on the Gregorian calendar so it hadn’t happened yet. British officials figured that since there were several (ethnic) Jews involved in the Bolshevik movement (Leon Trotsky being the most prominent), Russia might be inclined to stay in the fight if it were clear that a Jewish homeland in Palestine was riding on the outcome.

(Ultimately Russia quit the war anyway and I don’t think you can say Balfour made any difference as far as Washington’s disposition in the war. But Balfour did convince Zionist leaders to encourage Jews all over the world to support the Allied cause in any way they could, which did help the war effort.)

Arthur Balfour (Wikimedia Commons)

So this was the context in which Balfour wrote his letter to Walter Rothschild to explain the British government’s view and to ask him to give the British government the early-20th century equivalent of a good Yelp review to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. One of the most contested points about the declaration is how much the British government actually meant what Balfour said, and even whether or not what Balfour said actually aligns with what later happened. UK Prime Minister David Lloyd-George later told the Peel Commission (a board established in 1936 to examine the causes of all the unrest in Mandatory Palestine) that the Declaration was a) explicitly made to promote the war effort and b) was only meant to express a general sentiment rather than a specific policy goal. Lloyd-George testified that his government’s intention was always to slow-roll the actual establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine until conditions in Palestine were mostly or entirely favorable to it. Well, they tried, I guess.

If you’re the kind of person who likes to parse things very closely, you’ll note that the Declaration used the phrase “a national home for the Jewish people,” rather than “the nation,” or “state.” Balfour used that language precisely to avoid committing Britain to a specific policy, and also because there was some opposition in Lloyd-George’s cabinet to the Zionist enterprise, even though Balfour and Lloyd-George himself, among others, were sympathetic to it. In this respect, men like Chaim Weizmann, the leading Zionist figure in Britain (the world, really) and the future first president of Israel, were not all that pleased with the Declaration. They wanted a statement that Britain supported Palestine as the Jewish state, not some half-hearted thing about supporting a Jewish home in Palestine that also talked about protecting the rights of non-Jewish populations there.

Another thing historians debate regarding Balfour is the question of whether it conflicts with the letter written by Sir Henry McMahon, then-British High Commissioner for Egypt, to Sharif Hussein of Mecca, on October 24, 1915. This was back when London was trying, through the efforts of men like McMahon and T.E. Lawrence, to encourage Hussein to lead a general Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn once did a four-part series on the Hussein-McMahon correspondence that talks about this very thing.

McMahon’s initial letter promised Hussein that “Great Britain is prepared to recognize and support the independence of the Arabs in all the regions within the limits demanded by the Sherif of Mecca”—once, of course, the Ottomans were out of the way. But McMahon did exclude one area from the territory Hussein wanted, the area “west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo,” because that area “cannot be said to be purely Arab.” This sounds like Lebanon, which was at the time predominantly Christian. But thanks to the imprecision of McMahon’s writing and the vagaries of how it was translated, we don’t know if he was just talking about Lebanon here or about Lebanon and Palestine, and we can’t be sure that he and Hussein understood the letter in the same way. McMahon and the UK always insisted that he meant to exclude Palestine from Hussein’s territory, in which case there’s no conflict between this letter and Balfour. But if you read Dunn’s series you’ll see that it’s not so cut and dried, and Hussein definitely seems not to have agreed with McMahon’s interpretation.

Obviously the rest of the story is pretty well-known. Jews began migrating to Mandatory Palestine in greater numbers (in part because the Declaration made it official British policy to support such migration), more frequent and more violent clashes started to happen between the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the territory and the British colonial bosses, World War II led to even more Jewish migration and to an increasing worldwide sentiment that establishing a Jewish homeland was a moral imperative, then 1948 happened, and in many respects the contemporary Middle East was born.