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On The Origins Of The Balfour Declaration

By Nicholas Lysson
May 2006

In the early years of the First World War, Jewish sentiment was solidly with Germany, because the "civilized" Germans were fighting the hated czar. The czarist regime had given its periodic support to anti-Jewish pogroms since the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. That spurred a great Jewish exodus—some bound for Germany, some bound for the United States, a few bound for Palestine—and greatly endangered the lives and property of those who remained in the Pale of Settlement.

Jewish pro-German sentiment, together with the similar views of Irish Catholics, German-Americans, and others of central-European origin, served to keep the U.S. neutral. In April 1915 Jacob H. Schiff of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. wrote in the Menorah Journal that ". . . I am a German sympathiser. . . . England has been contaminated by her alliance with Russia. . . . I am quite convinced that in Germany anti-semitism is a thing of the past." See Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration, p. 201 (1961). During the czar’s war against the Japanese in 1904-05, Schiff had refused to raise a penny for the Russians, and instead had raised $200 million for the grateful Emperor Mutsuhito. Now, Schiff and other Jewish financiers in New York—many of whom had family connections in Germany—withheld cooperation from Russia’s allies.

According to W.J.M. Childs, in Harold W.V. Temperley, ed., A History of the Peace Conference of Paris, v. 6, p. 172-73 (published under the auspices of the British Institute for International Affairs in 1924):

. . . [T]he German General Staff desired to attach Jewish support yet more closely to the German side. . . . [T]hey seem to have urged, early in 1916, the advantages of promising Jewish restoration to Palestine under an arrangement to be made between Zionists and Turkey, backed by a German guarantee. The practical difficulties were considerable; the subject perhaps dangerous to German relations with Turkey; and the German Government acted cautiously.

It’s hard to envision how the Germans could have induced their allies the Turks to give up land in Palestine that the Turks had already refused to yield for Jewish settlement. The Ottoman Empire had severe nationalities problems with the Armenians (whom the Turks slaughtered in enormous numbers in 1915) and the Arabs (whom T.E. Lawrence was stirring up); it wanted no further such problems.

Actually, says David Fromkin, in A Peace to End All Peace, p. 296 (1989), it was not the German government that took an interest in a pro-Zionist stance, only the German press—a distinction Chaim Weizmann and his group of Zionists in England had little interest in clarifying for the British government.

In 1916, according to Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, v. 1, p. 185 (1949), the Germans trusted the Zionists to the extent of asking their help in brokering a negotiated peace. Weizmann says the Zionists replied that they would act in that role only if there were to be no territorial adjustments. That Zionist reply seems to have been disingenuous (assuming Weizmann correctly reports it); the very raison d’etre of Zionism was to obtain a particular piece of territory. There was nothing for Zionism in a negotiated settlement—no leverage with which to move a great power capable of turning over Palestine.

By 1916, though, the Zionist dilemma was resolving itself. The czarist regime was in a state of progressive collapse. Rasputin—without whom, it’s said, there could have been no Lenin—was increasingly ascendant. The czar and his shifting cast of ministers controlled less and less. On March 15, 1917, the czar abdicated. As the regime weakened, Schiff’s thinking evolved. See Stein, p. 202.

As events in Russia unfolded, Weizmann and the other Zionists conducted intensive discussions with the British over what became the Balfour Declaration—the letter finally issued on Nov. 2, 1917 in which the British government promised its "best endeavours" to facilitate "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." The Declaration went through many drafts, beginning, according to the Microsoft Encarta online encyclopedia, as early as March 1916.

What did the British get for their promise of "best endeavours"? Stories abound. One (the acetone myth) is that the promise was made in consideration of Weizmann’s service to the British as a wartime chemist. Another is that the British were moved primarily by stories they read in the Bible, and by their religious services. Still another is that the British wanted another client state in the Middle East, in addition to Egypt, to protect their regional interests and their route to India.

According to W.J.M. Childs, however (pp. 173-74) there were more immediate, concrete considerations, and certain obstacles as well. The six-volume semi-official study that includes Childs appears in modern bibliographies, but there’s an apparent unwillingness to report what he says. Accordingly, I quote him at length:

[A] most cogent reason [for the Declaration] lay in the state of Russia herself. Russian Jews had been secretly active on behalf of the Central Powers from the first; they had been the chief agents of German pacifist propaganda; by 1917 they had done much in preparation for that general disintegration of Russian national life, later recognized as the revolution. It was believed that if Great Britain declared for the fulfillment of Zionist aspirations in Palestine under its own pledge, one effect would be to bring Russian Jewry to the cause of the [Anglo-French-Italian-Russian] Entente [thus keeping Russia in the war].

It was believed, also, that such a declaration would have a potent influence on world Jewry in the same way, and secure for the Entente the aid of Jewish financial interests. It was believed, further, that it would greatly influence American opinion in favour of the Allies. Such were the chief considerations, which, during the later part of 1916 and the next ten months of 1917, impelled the British Government towards making a contract with Jewry.

But when the matter came before the Cabinet for decision delays occurred. Amongst influential English Jews Zionism had few supporters. . . . Jewish influence both within and without the Cabinet is understood to have exerted itself strenuously and pertinaciously against the proposed Declaration.

Under the pressure of Allied needs the objections of the anti-Zionists were either over-ruled or the causes of objection removed, and the Balfour Declaration was published to the world on 2nd November 1917. That it is in purpose a definite contract with Jewry is beyond question.

* * *

[I]t is possible to understand from many sources that directly, and indirectly, the services expected of Jewry were not expected in vain, and were, from the point of view of British interests alone, well worth the price which had to be paid. Nor is it to be supposed that the services already rendered are the last—it may well be that in time to come Jewish support will much exceed any thought possible in the past.

What were "the services expected of Jewry" that were "not expected in vain" and were "well worth the price"? In 1936, Samuel Landman let the cat out of the bag with a pamphlet entitled Great Britain, the Jews and Palestine. Landman had been in Weizmann’s circle during the war—a point easily ascertainable from biographies of Weizmann—and was in a position to know what had gone on between the Zionists and the British government. Landman’s pamphlet is available in full text online - see http://www.itk.ntnu.no/ansatte/Andresen_Trond/kk-f/2005/0036.html - and can be found in the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Harvard Library, and perhaps other collections as well.

Landman’s pamphlet was addressed to the British government. His complaint was that in 1916 there had been what he called a "gentleman’s agreement" between the Zionists and the British government; that the Zionists had fully upheld their own end of the agreement; and that now, 20 years later, the British had yet to deliver Palestine.

According to Landman, the Zionist quid pro quo for the Balfour Declaration was nothing less than to "induce the American President to come into the War" on the British side. Landman complained that this wartime service to the British accounted "in no small measure" for Nazi anti-Semitism, and warned that if the British didn’t deliver a Jewish state in Palestine, the Jews in their despair might try to "pull down the pillars of civilisation."

Landman’s argument was in part that the British, having turned Jews into mortally endangered pariahs in Nazi Germany, had a moral obligation to extricate them. Similar moral-obligation arguments have recently been addressed to the U.S.—for example on behalf of Shiites and Kurds who rebelled against Saddam Hussein in response to American encouragement after the First Gulf War, and then found in the face of mass slaughter that the expected U.S. assistance was a chimera.

Landman’s words about pulling down "the pillars of civilisation," moreover, might have been taken as a threat that the Jews, having brought down two cousins of the English royal house, the czar and the kaiser, would turn next on the Nazi-sympathizer Edward VIII, then in the one partial year of his reign.

Landman’s pamphlet is a tale of double betrayal, first Zionist betrayal of the Germans—on whose side the Jews had first been—and then British betrayal of the Jews. The British had found their promise hard to keep. That was because of entirely understandable Arab resistance, amply forecast by the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky warned in his famous essay "The Iron Wall" (1923) that there had never been a people who had submitted willingly to colonization of their homeland, and that the Arabs in Palestine would not be the first. Nor was Jabotinsky’s warning new even in 1923. See Nur Masalha, Expulsion of the Palestinians: The Concept of "Transfer" in Zionist Political Thought, 1882-1948 (1992), and Masalha, The Politics of Denial (2003).

Landman’s pamphlet came just before the British began their suppression of the Arab revolt of 1936-39. According to Shlomo Ben-Ami, briefly the Israeli foreign minister under Ehud Barak, that "brutal" crackdown predetermined Zionist success in 1948. See Ben-Ami’s book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace (Oxford University Press 2006).

In 1997, John Cornelius argued persuasively in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs that the Zionists—having every incentive to guarantee British victory—brought the U.S. into the war in 1917 by leaking to British intelligence either the plain text of the Zimmermann Telegram or, more likely, the code in which it was encrypted. The Zimmermann Telegram, from the foreign office in Berlin to the German embassy in Mexico City, suggested that if the U.S. came in on the British side, Mexico be encouraged to "reconquer" its "lost territory" of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Cornelius’s argument is available online.

As a proposed grant of land not belonging to the grantor, the Zimmermann Telegram stirred the same outrage in the U.S. that the Balfour Declaration later stirred among Arabs. George Sylvester Viereck lamented that public revelation of the telegram was "the end of pro-Germanism in the United States." See his book The Strangest Friendship in History: Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House, p. 190 (1932). Viereck was the father of the historian and poet Peter Viereck, author of Meta-Politics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind (1941 and 1961). In its original form, as the younger Viereck’s Harvard Ph.D. thesis, the manuscript accurately predicted the Nazi holocaust. That prediction was deleted from the first published edition; the book’s editor thought it a set of "unrealistic exaggerations which the pig-headed young author would regret 20 years from now."

Six weeks after Woodrow Wilson published the text of the Zimmermann Telegram, the U.S. declared war against Germany, but not against its allies. As a result of American entry into the war, the Germans got not a negotiated peace, nor even Wilson’s Fourteen Points, but the catastrophically punitive terms Britain and France imposed at Versailles. John Maynard Keynes analyzed those terms in The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920). At p. 33, Keynes wrote: "[T]here is nothing very new to learn about the war or the end it was fought for; England had destroyed, as in each preceding century, a trade rival." At p. 268, he added: ". . . [V]engeance, I dare predict, will not limp."

Cornelius says that Barbara Tuchman’s book The Zimmermann Telegram (1958) contains "disinformation," and that "it is remarkable that Tuchman’s book continues to be read and believed more than 30 years after hard evidence has become available that the story is false." Cornelius’s charge against a most distinguished historian gains credibility from Tuchman’s enthusiastic review of Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial (1984), which Tuchman surely knew was a hoax. Peters’s book is the one that purports to prove that Palestine lacked any substantial Arab population before the Jews began to arrive, and that the Arabs swarmed in only later to partake of the Jewish economic miracle. Apparently, Tuchman’s work was of the highest standard only when it didn’t involve Zionism.

Samuel Landman’s pamphlet, being addressed to the British government, would not have alleged an agreement—and a form of performance—which that government knew to be mythical. Landman’s account of the "gentleman’s agreement" of 1916 is broadly consistent with a speech David Lloyd George gave in the House of Commons on June 19, 1936, which is excerpted in Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East 366-67 (2005). Lloyd George’s account implies, however, that bargaining for the Balfour Declaration began not in 1916, but in early 1917, when in his words:

. . . [T]he French army had mutinied; the Italian army was on the eve of collapse; America had hardly started preparing in earnest. There was nothing left but Britain confronting the most powerful military combination that the world has ever seen. It was important for us to seek every legitimate help that we could get. The Government came to the conclusion, from information received from every part of the world, that it was very vital that we should have the sympathies of the Jewish community. . . . They were helpful to us in America to a very large extent; and they were helpful even in Russia at that moment because Russia was just about to walk out and leave us alone. . . . The Jews, with all the influence that they possessed, responded nobly to the appeal that was made.

Lloyd George may have had a reason for fudging the date of the "gentleman’s agreement" from 1916 to 1917. His own accession as prime minister, replacing H.H. Asquith on Dec. 7, 1916, may itself have been a product of that agreement—a point he’d be at pains not to advertise. Lloyd George, Roberts & Co. had been lawyers for the World Zionist Conference since 1903, and had also represented Marcus Samuel’s Shell Oil Co. Installation of their own man as prime minister, in other words, may have been one of the Zionists’ demands.

On taking office as prime minister, Lloyd George immediately launched a campaign to take Jerusalem, an objective attained a year later. Lord Kitchener, as secretary of state for war, had opposed any such campaign as a mere diversion. (See Fromkin, above, p. 83.) On June 5, 1916, Kitchener drowned when the British naval ship taking him to Archangel hit a mine and sank. Fromkin (p. 217) says the British naval commander, Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, unaccountably ignored warnings from naval intelligence that Kitchener’s route was mined. Those warnings came to light only in 1985. If, as the Encarta encyclopedia has it, discussions on the Balfour Declaration had begun three months before, in March 1916, Kitchener’s death may be a relevant piece of the story, the removal of an obstacle.

Lloyd George’s 1936 speech in the House of Commons was reported verbatim in the next day’s Times of London. It would thus have been read almost immediately in Berlin. W.J.M. Childs’s chapter in the six-volume Temperley study was in libraries, and had thus been available to the Germans since 1924. The 1936 Samuel Landman pamphlet was also probably available to the Germans, if not from libraries then from intelligence sources. (In assessing opportunities for German intelligence, recall that in 1936 much of the English aristocracy, not just the king, had Nazi sympathies.)

So the German intelligence services read W.J.M. Childs’s statement that "the services expected of Jewry [in the war] were not expected in vain, and were, from the point of view of British interests alone, well worth the price which had to be paid."

They read Lloyd George’s statement that "the Jews, with all the influence that they possessed, responded nobly to the appeal that was made."

They read Childs’s statement that "it may well be that in time to come Jewish support [for Britain] will much exceed any thought possible in the past."

They probably read as well Landman’s admission that it had been the Jews who brought the U.S. into the war to crush Germany. Likewise, Landman’s remarkably infelicitous threat about pulling down the "pillars of civilisation"—which might have seemed to them a complete confirmation of Nazi ideology. Likewise again, Landman’s statement that "the New Zionist Organisation is pro-British to the core."

Nazi and Zionist propaganda were in close agreement that the Jews were unassimilable in Europe. See Lenni Brenner, Zionism in the Age of the Dictators (1983), available online. It’s against that background that the Germans read W.J.M. Childs’s conclusion—actually no surprise to anyone—that:

Russian Jews had been secretly active on behalf of the Central Powers from the first; they had been the chief agents of German pacifist propaganda; by 1917 they had done much in preparation for that general disintegration of Russian national life, later recognized as the revolution.

The Nazis no doubt took that to mean that Germany, as well, had to protect itself against the secret activities of its Jewish citizens, and that Jews would give their real allegiance—or at least assistance—to whatever power could deliver Palestine. That power, of course, was Great Britain, although in Jan. 1941, at the height of Nazi success, the Stern Gang actually tried to enlist Germany as its patron. See Avishai Margalet, "The Violent Life of Yitzhak Shamir," New York Review of Books, May 14, 1992.

None of the material cited above, from 1936 or before, told the Nazis anything they hadn’t already believed, at least since the peace conference in 1919. But such material surely tended to confirm their view about a "stab in the back." While there’s no gainsaying that the Nazi leaders were psychopathic, their obsessions didn’t come altogether out of Wagnerian mythology about dark Hagen and blond Siegfried.

In 1936, Winston Churchill either did or did not tell the New York Enquirer (forerunner of the National Enquirer) that American entry into the war had been a disaster, without which there would have been no Nazi Germany and perhaps no Soviet Union either. Churchill denied the statement—so vehemently that the journalist who’d reported it sued Churchill for defamation. (Letting the statement stand would have been profoundly embarrassing to Churchill if, as proved to be the case, he had to solicit American involvement in a second war.) Before testimony was taken, though, the U.S. was already in World War II and the suit was dropped.

Landman’s account, Childs’s, and Lloyd George’s seem to confirm at least some parts of a fiery speech (available online) that Benjamin Freedman—the principal owner of the Woodbury Soap Co.—gave to a far right-wing audience at the Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. in 1961. Freedman is not the most attractive witness; and his speech has become a favorite of some very unsavory types. But he gives a lot of factual detail that should be checkable, and that I’ve never seen refuted. He tells, for example, for whom he worked during the 1912 Wilson campaign (Henry Morgenthau, Sr. as his "confidential man" and liaison with Rolla Wells), some of the meetings he attended in the Wilson administration and at the peace conference, and what he personally saw and heard. He says that in Oct. 1916 Jewish leaders en masse switched their support from Germany to England "like a traffic light that changes from red to green."

Freedman agrees with Keynes, above, as to Britain’s war aim in 1914-18 being the destruction of a trade rival. Freedman and Landman both say that the Zionist wartime agreement with the British was discussed in the Jewish press of the time. Freedman says of the Zionist leaders that "the press was filled with their statements." It’s not clear how much of that discussion—if any—survives today. It would make interesting reading.

Perhaps Freedman belongs in the same vile category as those who for years circulated rumors about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—rumors that DNA testing now appears to confirm.


See also:

Samuel Landman: Great Britain, the Jews and Palestine (1936)

The Hidden History Of The Balfour Declaration

Benjamin Freedman speaks at the Willard Hotel, Washington D.C., in 1961

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