War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: An Improbable Regression

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VOL. 40


No. 2
P. 26
War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: An Improbable Regression


War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917   An Improbable Regression

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By William M. Mathew
Rejecting deterministic views of the 1917 Balfour Declaration as an expression of the inevitable work of history returning Jews to their ancient homeland, this article argues that Britain's fateful endorsement of the idea of a national home for Jews in Palestine was, in fact, the result of a combination of fortuity and contingency related primarily to World War I and the concerns and personalities of the British politicians involved. The article highlights the historic improbability of the Declaration and its implementation in the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, noting the regression it represented at a time when British imperial policy aspired to more flexible accommodations with colonial populations.

FOR MANY ZIONISTS in the early twentieth century, the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine through the British government’s Balfour Declaration of 1917 and its League of Nations Mandate of 1922 represented, momentously, the now-imminent return of a diasporic people, comparative aliens in gentile societies, to their ancient home in the Levant. The mystic Zionist, Abraham Isaac Kook, saw it all as an expression of divine purpose, a great restorative sweep of God-driven history. Such ideas were rooted, albeit with a political twist, in the ancient Jewish sense of a “sacred” history and a related metaphysic of material events. There was an even grander reclamation: a “return to history” (ha-shiva la-historia) itself. Until that point, lacking territoriality and incoherent as a nation, the Jews had been, in David Ben-Gurion’s words at the time of the Balfour Declaration, “extricated from world history.” Now, through the official agency of the British, they were poised for a dramatic reentry.


To the disinterested historian, however, what commands attention is not some working through of ineluctable religious or secular historical forces but rather the sheer short-term contingency, much of it war related, of the enabling factors underlying both the Declaration and Britain’s Mandate over Palestine in which it was ultimately incorporated. If there was any great movement of events, it was more a regression than an advance, involving as it did the establishment of a European settler community in an already well-peopled and well-charted territory. Britain’s sponsorship of the Zionist project stood in contradiction to the “Wilsonian” spirit of the times, in which self-determination for formerly imperialized societies had been, notionally at least, a significant concern in post–World War I political dispositions.

The British were remarkably explicit in their denial of democratic rights to the Palestinian Arabs. The author of the Declaration, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, insisted, in an oft-quoted remark, that the aspirations of Zionists were “of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land,” and that Arab claims to Palestine were “infinitely weaker than those of the Jews.” These views were consistent with the Declaration’s promise of protection for the “civil and religious,” but not “political,” rights of the so-called “non-Jewish” population of Palestine. Lord Alfred Milner, one of the drafters of the Declaration, suggested that history and tradition of “the most sacred character” made it “impossible . . . to leave it to the Arab majority . . . to decide what shall be the future of Palestine.” The prime minister, David Lloyd George, was more succinct: “You mustn’t give responsible government to Palestine.” Nor could the indigenous population do much by way of effective complaint: Sir Ronald Storrs, successively military governor of Jerusalem and civil governor of Jerusalem and Judea between 1917 and 1926, observed that the Palestinian Arabs, in making pleas for political justice, had “about as much chance as had the Dervishes before Kitchener’s machine guns at Omdurman.”

There was, of course, a widespread failure on the part of European colonial powers to deliver self-determination to their subordinate societies: It took a second world war to bring that about. But there was a distinct sense in British imperial policy that aspired to more flexible accommodations with colonial populations—notably in India, Ireland, and Egypt. Winston Churchill as colonial secretary had, despite his own vigorous Zionism, a clear sense of the inflammatory inconsistency involved, declaring in 1922 that the problem with the idea of a Jewish homeland was “that it conflicted with our regular policy of consulting the wishes of the people in mandate territories and giving them a representative institution as soon as they were fitted for it.” Another friend of Zionism, Sir Mark Sykes, insisted in 1918: “If Arab nationality be recognised in Syria and Mesopotamia as a matter of justice it will be equally necessary to devise some form of control or administration for Palestine” that recognizes “the various religious and racial nationalities in the country . . . according equal privileges to all such nationalities.”

The regression, however, was implemented, and proved to be of the greatest historical significance, with bloody consequences for the near-century ahead. The clear implication was that the Jewish national home in Palestine, inserted in newly conquered British territory, could survive only through radical moderation of its colonialist instincts and an historic compromise with the Arab majority; or, alternatively, by iron-fisted attempts to impose unmoderated Jewish political will. The second approach—the one that came to govern events—was well articulated by the “revisionist” Zionists, most notably by the Odessa-born Vladimir Jabotinsky. As Avi Shlaim indicates, Jabotinsky did not subscribe to the common, tendentious illusion that “backward” Arabs would welcome “modernizing” Jews into their midst. Conflict was bound to ensue, he maintained, and it was incumbent upon the arriving settlers to prepare psychologically and militarily for the battles to come. “Any native people,” Jabotinsky wrote in 1923, “views their country as their national home, of which they are complete masters. They will not voluntarily allow, not even a new master, but even a new partner. And so it is for the Arabs. . . . They look upon Palestine with the same instinctive love and true fervor that any Aztec looked upon his Mexico or a Sioux looked upon the prairie.” The analogies were not happy ones.

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WILLIAM M. MATHEW, a senior fellow in history at the University of East Anglia, U.K., is currently working on a project on the political, imperial, and war-time contexts of Britain’s Balfour policy and the Mandate. He wishes to thank Dr. Bill Albert, Dr. Neil MacMaster, and Professor David Seddon for offering valuable advice in the preparation of this article.