June 21, 2017 - The Balfour and Other Declarations

by Julian Zuckerbrot


Britain, at the time of the First World War, was not the only great power to support the idea of a re-established Jewish homeland. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, with which the British government publicly expressed that support, would likely never have been drafted without similar commitments by the other wartime allies. The French government’s equivalent declaration was not only stronger in its endorsement of the Zionist idea than the one that bears the name of Balfour, the British foreign secretary, it preceded it by half a year.


The French document – signed by Jules Cambon, Balfour’s counterpart at the Quai D’Orsay -- was dated June 4th, 1917.  It was, in fact, used by Balfour at a meeting of Britain’s war cabinet in October of that year, to gain backing for the declaration that would bear his name, which would be issued the following month.


Both the British and French documents were in the form of a letter,  Cambon’s to Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow and Balfour’s to Lord Walter Rothschild, but it was only the latter that was released publicly at the time, and it was widely reprinted in the press, on both sides of the Atlantic. That may be one of the reasons why it is so much better known. Similarly, the name of Chaim Weizmann, who championed the idea of the Jewish homeland among the British political elite (and was later named Israel’s first president), is much better known than that of Sokolow, whose job it was to get the support of the other allies.  


This story, while it has been told before, is not widely known. So a recent retelling in Mosaic by Martin Kramer, a scholar of the Middle East now at Shalem College in Israel and at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is both valuable and – on the centennial year of the events – timely. (https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2017/06/the-forgotten-truth-about-the-balfour-declaration/)


In 1917, the British government wanted to change the terms of the secret commitment it had made to divide up the post-war Middle East with its allies, France and Russia: the Sykes-Picot accord.  Britain wanted greater control of the Holy Land than France, since the forces of the British Empire that would be battling the Turks for control of the region. Kramer suggests that Zionism was the means the British used to bring that about. After a meeting between Sir Mark Sykes and British Zionist leaders, the courtly Nahum Sokolow was the man given the improbable task of getting the French – and the other Continental allies – to agree. And somehow he succeeded.


It was Sykes who introduced Sokolow to his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot. Sokolow also met with Cambon (three times) and with Alexandre Ribot, the French Prime Minister. The French suggested Sokolow should also enlist the backing of the Italian government, so he travelled on to Rome, with the assistance, once again, of Sir Mark Sykes.


In Rome, Sokolow, received the blessings not only of the Italians, but, at least as significantly, of the Pope himself. Benedict XV thus reversed the position of the Church under Pius X, who, thirteen years earlier had told Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement, that a Jewish homeland would not have the Church’s endorsement. Now, in 1917, Pope Benedict informed Sokolow that “God has willed it.”


Despite the solid support of the European governments, who knows what would have happened had the United States, the rising world power which had entered the War in April of 1917, not joined them? That the U.S. did eventually join the other allies was yet another surprising twist in this story, as Kramer describes it: “The American policy establishment was entirely hostile to Zionism: the Zionist idea seemed impractical, and missionary interests opposed it. On the first ask, in September 1917, (U.S. President Woodrow) Wilson had withheld his approval. Only the second time around, in mid-October, when Wilson received the proposed text from London, did he change his mind.”


With the US providing the final piece of the puzzle, the Balfour Declaration could be issued. A commitment to the re-establishment of the Jewish homeland became the official public position of the British government – and the unstated, or at least understated one of the other soon-to-be victorious allies.


Within a few years that position gained a broader international status and legal grounding with its incorporation in the agreements and resolutions that determined post-War borders: the San Remo Conference (1920); the Lodge-Fish Resolution of the US Congress (1922);  the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine (1922); the Rights in Palestine Convention (US-Britain, 1924-25); and, ultimately, the Charter of the United Nations (1945).


The issuing of the Balfour Declaration has been seen for a hundred years as crucial event in the emergence of the State of Israel. If it has been considered as something close to miraculous, how much more so is it when we learn that the Balfour Declaration was far from the only endorsement of the idea of a Jewish state by a world power? And that it might never have come about without the assent of all the allies, a group of nations with differing interests and priorities?


In retrospect, 100 years later, it is hard to imagine all these events occurring at a moment of history other than that one, when dying empires were being replaced by new nation states, and when powerful men were still guided by their personal religious beliefs as well as by their countries’ interests.

British Lord Arthur Balfour in Jerusalem in 1925.

© 2016 by SAG - Canadian Antisemitism Education Foundation