Few people remember today that Gershon Agronsky (Agron), the founder and first
editor of The Jerusalem Post, interviewed Lord Balfour at a press conference
held in Jerusalem on March 24, 1925.
(The Palestine Post was founded on
December 1, 1932, and became The Jerusalem Post on April 13, 1950.) This was an
unusual opportunity to convey to his lordship a number of important Yishuv
messages. A rather difficult task – one doesn’t embarrass an important guest
But while Lord Balfour was no longer the British prime
minister, he was still highly respected and could exert much needed influence in
the highest British quarters.
Palestinian High Commissioner Lord Samuel
was about to retire and it was vital that he be replaced by a strong man,
serious about the implementation of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which was in a
Arthur James, the first earl of Balfour and the father of
the B.D., arrived in Jerusalem for the formal opening of the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem, which was to be held on March 25, 1925. His arrival was a key
historical event because many forces wished to set his Declaration aside,
despite the Yishuv’s good progress.
The April 1920 Arab riots in Jaffa
left a growing apprehension in Britain about the continued adherence to the B.D.
More and more voices were heard saying that this obligation, assumed during the
turmoil of World War I, was a mistake which ought to be
English taxpayers questioned the cost of Zionism, which some
experts described as an unsound and uneconomic enterprise.
“anti-wasters,” led by Esmond Harmsworth, MP, claimed they had nothing against
Zionism, except that Jews pay for it, and that the Arabs were
Winston Churchill, who became secretary of state for the
colonies in 1921, argued that if there were no British troops in Palestine, they
would have to garrison the Suez Canal.
Chaim Weizmann, president of the
World Zionist Organization, proved that Zionism didn’t cost British taxpayers at
all, but the London press favored the “anti-wasters.”
The B.D. was also
fiercely attacked by an All-Arab Congress meeting held in Geneva in July and
August 1921, which demanded an all-Arab self-government for Palestine. The 1921
Haycraft Commission report on the Arab Jaffa riots of April 1920, condemned the
brutality of the Arab rioters, denied that the Jewish immigrants were
Communists, but questioned the British policy which, it claimed, had failed to
consider the extent of the rising Arab resentment, inflated by the 1917-1921
British Military Administration.
Lord Northcliffe argued that too many
Jewish settlers were Communists and questioned Zionism as a danger to the
British Empire which ought to keep 50 million Muslims happy.
A motion for
the repeal of the B.D. won a majority in the House of Lords. A distressed
Weizmann complained to Lord Balfour, who advised him not to take this affront
seriously, saying: “What does this matter, if a few foolish Lords passed such
A similar motion failed in the House of Commons. However
Churchill’s White Paper separated Transjordan from Palestine in order to
compensate Arabs. This had reduced the scope of the B.D. to one-third of the
Palestine Mandatory territory.
In his address to the Mandates Commission
in 1924, Lord Samuel said that the basic principle of his administration’s
policy had been to deal with the Arabs as if there was no B.D. The problem was
that he dealt with Jews in a similar manner, as if there was no obligation to
facilitate the Jewish immigration and their close settlement on land.
was, therefore, important that Lord Balfour visit Palestine and be shown that
the past seven years had changed an abandoned backwater of the Turkish Empire
into a Land of Promise. Chaim Weizmann wisely connected Balfour’s visit with the
formal opening of the Hebrew University and laying the Foundation Stone for the
Balfour-Einstein Institute of Mathematics and Physics. When invitations were
sent out for its opening ceremony to be conducted by Lord Balfour on April 1,
1925, Arabs protested and sent a delegation to Europe, the Vatican and Britain
seeking retraction of the B.D.
In March 1925, Weizmann, his wife and son,
Lord Balfour, his secretary Edward Lascelles and his wife, Balfour’s niece, Joan
Lascelles, boarded the MS Esperia in Naples to travel to Cairo. Balfour stayed
in Cairo with Lord Allenby who, according to Weizmann’s memoirs, a few days
later accompanied the whole party by train through Kantara to Jerusalem. Balfour
and his party arrived by train at Lydda to be welcomed by a representative of
Lord Samuel and by the government’s chief secretary, Sir Gilbert Clayton. In
accordance with the wishes of the lord, no other delegations and no
demonstrations were allowed and the party left by cars for Government House in
Jerusalem. The official directive was that if any sections of the population
wished to express welcome they could do this later.
It was a great
privilege for the Yishuv to greet this great man whose declaration of November
2, 1917, issued on behalf of the British government, had paved the way to the
restoration of the Jewish national home in Palestine. But even the opposition,
led by the Arab Executive which ordered “a day of rest” as a sign of protest,
was hardly universal.
Many Arabs noted the positive aspects of the Jewish
immigration and initiative. One Arab journalist rightly remarked that a protest
against Balfour’s visit was not the right way to a victory. The Arabs in
Palestine, he said, will not realize their aims by protestations, delegations or
disturbances. If the Arabs wished to compete with Jews, they should fight them
with their own weapons: culture and progress. Another Arab journalist commented
that the only purpose of the Higher Arab Executive in ordering the merchants’
strike against Balfour was to impress the poor fellahin, so that the Executive
could control them better.
The Mandatory Government’s official attitude
in the developing Arab-Jewish conflict was to remain a strictly neutral
spectator between all contending forces. It took care to refrain from any act or
statement which could serve as an indication as to where its sympathies lie. But
most British officials resented the B.D. and felt affinity towards the native
They were thus deeply disappointed when Balfour’s highly
successful visit and the formal opening of the Hebrew University strengthened
the Yishuv and made the B.D. even more relevant. The enthusiasm with which Lord
Balfour was received throughout the country was indescribable.
most warmly received wherever he went. At the opening of the university Balfour
said: “A new era has begun. The great cultural genius that came to an end, and
that had been dormant for so many years, is now going to be renewed.”
long list of diplomats and scientists who attended the ceremony described it in
glowing terms. Two important participants: General Allenby and Prof. William
Rappard, the permanent secretary of the Mandates Commission, the representative
of the University of Geneva, who were previously skeptical, became converted to
the Zionist cause.
The relevant details of Lord Balfour’s visit and the
accompanying commentary, including an original Pathe film, are all available on
the Internet today.
WHAT ONE cannot find on the Internet are the details
of the press conference, held at the Lord Samuel’s office in Government House,
attended by a few local and foreign journalists who arrived especially for the
occasion. Greeting his guests, Lord Balfour warned that it wasn’t his intention
to make a statement, for the reason that he had no statement to make. He came to
Palestine as a private visitor and an observer only.
Gershon Agronsky was
the first to ask Balfour what were the principal impressions of his visit.
Balfour said that the few hours that he spent in Palestine were hardly
sufficient to express an expert opinion, but he was deeply moved by his
enthusiastic, wonderful reception in Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion. Everything he
had seen was most interesting and greatly satisfactory and had by far exceeded
his expectations. He was most impressed by halutzim (pioneers) working at Dilb
(Kiryat Anavim) on the slopes of barren hills, carrying out the difficult and
arduous labor under burning sun with great energy and cheerfulness. He was not
an economic expert, but he felt that a great job was being carried there in the
way of terracing and farming. The modern dairy farms would do honor to modern
farming all over the world. Herds of cows were apparently better lodged than the
What did Lord Balfour think about the separation of
Transjordan, a deliberate amputation of the scope of the B.D.? Balfour said that
this was already done a few years earlier and there was no point in bringing up
the issue again. Anyhow, he had no authority to speak about political matters.
He quickly changed the subject and commented that he was not aware that the
Arabs who visited him were a formal deputation, he thought it was a social
They invited him to visit their villages. He saw that there were
signs that Arabs and Jews can work for common good together.
World War I veteran, complained that Beduin had no difficulty in obtaining free
land for their settlement, they even had a surplus of land, while the volunteer
soldiers of the Jewish Legion, who helped to win Palestine for Britain, were
never offered any. Lots of land was still available and pleaded for development,
but the administration made both the immigration and Jewish settlement on land
There was a deliberate attitude of hampering the Jewish
progress in response to the Arab inertia. The administration preferred to employ
Arabs rather than Jews.
Perhaps, Agronsky suggested, Jewish authorities
should control immigration and development? Balfour shook his head, for the
interests of the whole country were involved. He recalled that in 1917 Palestine
was a wartorn and neglected territory and great things had already been
achieved. There were always difficulties and people should patiently fight for
their rights. He was, however, certain of a great future for the entire country.
He will see what still can be done.
Balfour kept his promise. Already in
Alexandria he gave a glowing address about his experiences in Palestine. The
Yishuv was lucky that Lord Plumer, a former governor of Malta, a soldier and a
no-nonsense strong man was appointed as the next high commissioner. Plumer,
however, was replaced after two years only, apparently because he knew how to
oppose some extraordinary Arab demands.
In New York, questioned by an
Arab journalist what he meant by a “National Home,” Balfour answered:
“Everything except for pogroms....You should tell your fanatics that they were
shaming the name and opposing the welfare of Islam and civilization.”
was referring to November 2, 1925, the anniversary of the B.D., when angry
rioting Arabs shouting “Bilad Biladna wa’l Yehud kilabna” (“The country is ours
and the Jews are dogs”) killed four Jews and wounded eight seriously. But the
annual Arab November 2 protests failed to stop Jewish progress.
writer is chief archivist at
The Jerusalem Post.