The Balfour Declaration 11: Celebrations, Expectations and The Truth

Expectations inside the Jewish community in Britain leaped like the proverbial salmon in the first few weeks of November 1917. The Balfour Declaration was hailed as ‘the greateThe original letter sent to Walter Rothschildst event in the history of the Jews since their dispersion.’ [1] In celebratory language that brooked no qualification, claims were made that ‘the House of Israel is fully conscious of the high significance of the pledge of the British Government concerning its restoration.’ Balfour’s letter to Walter Rothschild had been read aloud in synagogues and formed the text of countless sermons. Two important intertwined threads bound expectation to action. Suddenly, the Jewish community across the world, and particularly in Britain and America, valued the Allied cause, the ‘principles of the invincible integrity of smaller nations.’ The collapse of the hated Romanov dynasty in Russia had removed one obstacle from wide-scale Jewish support for the Allies and the timely British pledge unleashed a flood of enthusiasm for victory. Jews now believed that they had a vested interest of the highest order. The Zionist conference in Baltimore unanimously passed a resolution which ended: ‘… we and our Allies are prepared to make every sacrifice of treasure and life, until the great war shall have ended in the triumph of the high aims of the Allied nations.’ [2]  Treasure and Life … both very welcome to the Allied cause.


On Sunday 2 December 1917, a vast meeting was held at the London Opera House with delegates sent from Anglo-Jewish communities, synagogues and societies across Britain. It was chaired by Lord Walter Rothschild and reported almost verbatim in the Times. He too referred to the historic importance of the government’s declaration and faithfully promised that their non-Jewish neighbours in Palestine would be respected – though he did not use the term ‘Arab’. Lord Robert Cecil, made the word ‘liberation’ his keynote and welcomed representatives of the Arabian and Armenian races whom he added were also struggling to be free. His speech was proudly that of an English imperialist, dedicated to the Secret Elite cause. Cecil stressed that: ‘The Empire has always striven to give all the peoples that make it up the fullest measure of self government of which they are capable.’ Clearly the Irish nationalists imprisoned in England after the Easter Rising did not count. [3] He ended with what today must read like a chilling prophecy. ‘I believe it will have a far-reaching influence on the history of the world and consequences which none can foresee on the future history of the human race.’ [4]

One of the participants was Sir Mark Sykes; Sykes of the Sykes-Picot-Sazanov agreement. Perhaps he had forgotten the various false promises which he had helped deliver. Here was the British diplomat who had been empowered by the foreign office to re-draw the map of the Ottoman Empire which ceded joint ownership of Palestine to France. As a member of the Arab Bureau in Cairo he supported Faisal’s Arab revolt in the Desert. Now he appeared as an enthusiast for Palestine as a Jewish homeland. In each scenario, Palestine, or parts thereof, had been promised to a different party; shared ownership with France, Arab suzerainty and a Jewish homeland. Lies and false promises did not appear to concern him. Mark Sykes talked of the great mission of Zionism to bring the spirituality of Asia to Europe and the vitality of Europe to Asia. His nonsense ended in empty praise for the inclusion of ‘your fellows in adversity, the Armenians and the Arabs.’ Was anyone listening? There was one speaker who addressed the meeting in Arabic, Shakh Ismail Abdul-Al-Akki, himself sentenced to death by the Turks for having joined the Arab nationalist movement He appealed to the gathering not to forget that the sons of Ishmael [5] had also been scattered and confounded, but were now rising ‘fortified with sense of martyrs.’ [6] They cheered wildly; it was that kind of stage-managed event.

Zionist poster for Manchester meeting in December 1917

One week later a joyous celebration of Jewish gratitude took place in the Manchester Hippodrome. Sir Mark Sykes made a most interesting observation. His had been the only voice which cautioned care in taking serious account of native Armenians and Arabs who lived in or around Palestine. He warned that they too must be freed from oppression. His words have echoed down the century since: ‘It was the destiny of the Jews to be closely connected with the Arab revival, and co-operation and good will from the first were necessary, or ultimate disaster would overtake both Jew and Arab.’ [7] Unfortunately his words were not welcomed. Chaim Weizmann objected to Sir Mark Sykes’s warning, stating: ‘It is strange indeed to hear the fear expressed that the Jew who has always been the victim, the Jew who has always fought the battle of freedom for others, should suddenly become the aggressor because he touches Palestinian soil’. [8]

What a strange over-reaction. Weizmann and the Zionists held criticism on a short fuse. In the swelling chambers of organised celebration, Britain’s commitment to ‘facilitate’ the establishment of a national home for Jewish people had been translated by joyous sermon, by excited word of mouth and jubilant newspaper editorials into a fait accompli. What the faithful heard was the promised return to the Holy Land. The tragedy was that the Secret Elite had unleashed expectations they could never control. Undoubtedly, greater emphasis should have been given to the second part of the Balfour Declaration, namely: ‘it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may reduce the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ [9] It was ignored.

The immediate dividend from the Balfour Declaration was its propaganda value. The foreign office set up a special branch for Jewish propaganda, the Jewish Bureau, in the Department of Information under a ‘very active Zionist’, [10] Albert Montefiore Hyamson, previously editor of the Zionist Review. He distributed daily copy to two Jewish daily newspapers in the United States, The American Hebrew and American Jewish Chronicle. Leaflets containing the text of the Balfour Declaration were dropped over German and Austrian territory. Pamphlets written in Yiddish were circulated to Jewish troops encouraging them to ‘stop fighting the Allies…an Allied victory means the Jewish people’s return to Zion’. [11]

Co-incidentally, the Arab revolt against the Turks, lead by Sherif Hussein and advised by T.E. Lawrence was undermining Turkish defences in the desert. In the wake of two failed efforts by Sir Archibald Murray to capture Gaza, General Allenby was commissioned to take charge of the desert wars. The Arabs had captured Aqaba in July; Allenby’s troops, boosted by the fact that the middle-eastern theatre had become the second largest campaign after the Western Front, took Beersheba and then Jaffa.

Famous picture of Allenby's modest entrance into Jerusalem

On 9 December 1917, Jerusalem capitulated without a fight. On December 11, 1917, General Allenby entered Jerusalem. He had the wit to understand the symbolic sensitivity of the city both to its residents and to religious communities across the world. Allenby chose to enter Jerusalem on foot, through the Jaffa Gate, giving British propaganda a wonderful photo-opportunity. His modest and respectful acceptance of the keys to the city was intended to contrast with Kaiser’s visit in 1898 when Wilhelm inadvisedly insisted on entering the old city on a white horse. [12] Charles Picot, the French political representative, had been allowed to share the cautiously triumphant entrance to Jerusalem and duly announced that he would establish the civil government under French jurisdiction. Allenby cut him dead. The civil government would be properly established after he (Allenby) judged that the military situation warranted it. [13] Britain had no intention of surrendering to France the hard-won parts of Palestine which they had captured. Imagine the message that would have transmitted to the Zionist world had the French taken charge?

For self-evident reasons, the Balfour Declaration had not been publicised in Palestine but the news filtered through. A Foreign Office report on 20 December from Sir Gilbert Clayton at the Arab Bureau noted that ‘The Arabs are still nervous and feel the Zionist movement is progressing at a pace which threatens their interests. Discussions and intercourse with Jews will doubtless calm their fears, provided [the] latter act up to liberal principles laid down by Jewish leaders in London.’ [14] Aye, there’s the rub. By January 1918, Lloyd George’s War Cabinet realised that the unprecedented political success which had followed the announcement of the government’s declaration required evidence of action. A Zionist Commission was dispatched to Palestine. Led by Chaim Weizmann, in whom the Secret Elite vested a great deal of confidence, it was accompanied by one of Lloyd George’s pro-zionist minders, William Ormsby-Gore. [15] In advance of its arrival, the Foreign Office issued explicit instructions to the High Commissioner in Egypt to help create Jewish institutions ‘should military exigencies permit’. The British government ‘favoured’ the foundation of a Jewish University and Medical School, to which the Jewish world attaches importance and for which large sums are coming in …’ [16] From which sources were these funds flowing? Who was investing in the development of the homeland dream?

They also wanted to encourage good relations with non-Jewish communities and use the Commission as a direct link between the military and Jewish interests in Palestine. The task was enormous. Everything possible had to be done to invest credibility in the Zionist Commission in the eyes of the Jewish world and at the same time, allay Arab suspicions about the ultimate aims of Zionism. [17] Hercules would have baulked at such a task.

General Sir Ronald Storrs, first military governor of Jerusalem

The military governor of Jerusalem,  later Sir Ronald Storrs, did not see eye to eye with Chaim Weizmann. He refused to accept that it was his responsibility to make sure that the Arabs and Syrians accepted the British government’s policy on the future of the Jews in Palestine. He pointed to the many articles in the British Press supportive of the Zionist cause. Naturally these had unsettled Moslem confidence. Public meetings at which speakers attempted to show how the Jewish people could take over the ‘Holy Land’ only served to exacerbate the matter. What had Weizmann expected? Storrs stressed that Palestine was a Moslem country which had fallen into the hands of a Christian Power, which promptly announced that a considerable proportion of its land area was to be handed over for colonisation by a ‘nowhere very popular people.’ [18] The Commission had been warned in Cairo that rumours and misrepresentations were circulating throughout the region and they should make a clear statement to clarify their intentions. That, they had no intention of doing.

By late April 1918, Chaim Weizmann changed tack to offer reassurance to local Arabs. He told them that the Commission would never take advantage of low land prices caused by the war. He claimed that he wanted to improve opportunities for all and establish technical and other schools which would be open to Moslems, Christians and Jews. This spirit of conciliation had some effect, but behind the scenes Weizmann undermined the Arabs. In a letter to Balfour at the end of May 1918, he blamed the ‘problems’ confronting the Zionist Commission on ‘the treacherous nature of the Arab’. Though by Weizmann’s calculations there were ‘five Arabs to one Jew’… he boasted that they would not be able to create an Arab Palestine because the ‘fellah’ (the peasant labourer) was at least four hundred years behind the times and the ‘Effendi’ (Masters) were ‘dishonest, uneducated, greedy and as unpatriotic as he is inefficient.’ [19] These were not sympathies of conciliation. They were naked racist excuses for colonialism.

Balfour speaking at the 1925 foundation of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

There was a real purpose behind these machinations. Having realised that the war might end before substantial changes could be implemented in Palestine, Weizmann urged that tangible achievements had to be registered quickly. The foundation of a Jewish University and greater autonomy for Jewish communities had to be agreed ‘so that when the time comes for the Peace Conference certain definite steps will have been taken which will give Zionists some right to be heard.’ [20]

At last the truth. There had to be tangible evidence of Jewish involvement in Palestine before any peace conference.

1. Great Britain, Palestine and the Jews: Jewry’s celebration of its national charter, Preface v.
2. Ibid. p. 13.
3. At one stage around 1,800 Irishmen had been imprisoned at Frongoch in Wales in the aftermath of the British over-reaction to the Easter Rising. Most were released in December 1916 when Lloyd George became prime minister.
4. The Times December 1917, p. 2.
5. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, traced his lineage to Ishmael through his first born son, Nabaioth : Genesis 25:6 12-18.
6. Great Britain, Palestine and the Jews: pp. 50-51.
7. Ibid., p. 66.
8. Ibid., p. 75
9. CAB 23/4 WC 261, p. 6.
10. FO 395/202.
11. Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers, p. 19.
12. David B. Green, The Balfour Project
13. Lawrence, Seven Pillars, p. 360.
14. FO 371/3054.
15. Ormsby-Gore, was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Alfred Milner and as assistant secretary in the war cabinet, and to Sir Mark Sykes. Chaim Weizmann was a personal friend and he later approved Ormsby-Gore as the British military liaison officer with the Zionist mission in Palestine.
16. CAB 27/23.
17. Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers, pp. 21-22.
18. FO 371/3398.
19. Doreen Ingrams, Palestine Papers, p. 32.
20. FO 371/3395.

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