It was always clear to Chaim Weizmann, the influential leader of the British Zionist movement, that the national homeland for the Jewish people could only be located in the land that once was Israel. It was, a century ago, a desolate district of the failing Ottoman Empire and a war zone known as the Second Front of World War One.
A decade before the outbreak of the Great War, when Arthur James Balfour, an ardent Christian Zionist and British prime minister in 1903 offered parts of Uganda and Kenya as a potential homeland for the Jewish people, it was rejected by Weizmann, who wrote: “We cannot possibly sell our birthright. It is like someone giving up one’s religion, giving up one’s self. We thank the British Government, but we cannot accept it, and we think the British Government is perhaps the only government which will understand the motives which lead us to refuse this offer.”
When Balfour was in opposition in 1906, he met with Weizmann for a chat. He was interested to learn why the Zionist leader had refused his generous offer to establish a future state to the Jews on fertile land in Africa under a British protectorate.
“Mr. Balfour,” Weizmann asked, “suppose I gave you Paris in place of London? Would you take it?” “We already have London,” the former prime minister replied.
“Mr. Balfour. We had Jerusalem when London was a swamp,” Weizmann answered.
Years later, when Balfour was appointed foreign secretary in David Lloyd George’s government, he invited Weizmann and Lord Walter Rothschild, on June 19, 1917, to submit a declaration that would propose the creation of a Jewish state, which he would bring to the War Cabinet for approval.
The initial drafting of the Balfour Declaration was the work of a group of Jewish and Christian Manchester Zionists. Among them were Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, partners of the famous Marks and Spencer stores, and Harry Sacher. They were helped and encouraged by C.P. Snow and Herbert Sidebottom, the editor and correspondent of the Manchester Guardian newspaper.
Sacher’s opening draft included the sentence, “The British Government declares that one of its essential war aims is the reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish state.” But by the time it had reached its final draft, by reason of the redrafting by Lord Milner and others, this had been watered down to read, “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Some people claim that it was never British intention to grant the Jews a state in Palestine, but there is much evidence written by those intimately involved with the Balfour letter that a Jewish state was, indeed, the intended result of their policy.
Lord Balfour said in 1918 that he hoped “the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a state.”
Prime minister Lloyd George confirmed that when the Jews became a majority, “Palestine would become a Jewish commonwealth.”
Leopold Amery, the parliamentary under-secretary in Lloyd George’s Cabinet, and intimately involved with the document, was acutely aware of the political implications and purpose behind the release of the Declaration. He wrote as late as 1946 that, “the phrase ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ was intended and understood by all concerned to mean at the time that Palestine would ultimately become a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ or a ‘Jewish state,’ if only Jews came and settled there in sufficient numbers.”
The British Cabinet met and approved the Balfour Declaration as official policy on October 31, 1917, which was, coincidentally, the same date that Gen. Allenby’s forces won the Battle of Beersheva, the first major British victory in World War One. The letter was sent to Lord Rothschild on November 1.
An interesting side story included in the book 1917 From Palestine to the Land of Israel notes that as Weizmann was waiting impatiently in the antechamber of the Cabinet Office to receive the decision of the British government to adopt Balfour’s letter as British policy, he was accompanied not by the Manchester drafters or by Lord Rothschild, but by a Palestinian Jew from Zichron Ya’acov.
Aaron Aaronsohn’s life was an amazing kaleidoscope. He was a pioneering agronomist, the founder of a covert espionage network operating under the noses of the enemy in Palestine in the service of the British for whom he served as an intelligence officer, and as a thrusting and unique diplomat who could knowledgeably offer a Palestinian perspective to British Zionist efforts.
When he was posted to advance the Jewish cause in London, his sister, Sarah Aaronsohn, took his place, becoming the only woman to head a spy network operating in enemy territory during wartime.
Was Lord Rothschild more concerned for Palestinian wildlife than Palestinian Jews? The question arises because, after the Balfour letter became British policy, and Weizmann was about to lead a Zionist delegation to Palestine, Lord Rothschild had one specific request of Weizmann: to go out of his way, on his short visit, to meet Israel Aharoni, a Palestinian zoologist who pioneered the scientific study of wildlife in the Holy Land.
Aharoni had sent Lord Rothschild, an avid collector of exotic animals and an expert ornithologist, a couple of ostrich eggs. Aharoni was rearing ostriches, a rare bird that had been present in the Holy Land since the time of the Bible. Weizmann took time out of his busy schedule to meet Aharoni and report back to the British lord on the healthy state of Palestinian ostriches.
Finally, there is the serious question of whether the military and civil administrators who governed Palestine following Allenby’s liberation used “their best endeavors” to carry out official British policy based on the Balfour doctrine.1917 From Palestine to the Land of Israel
records the collusion of several British officials who, instead of carrying out their duty, colluded with the Arabs and prompted them to violently protest British policy. One such anti-Jewish protest, headed by the infamous Haj Amin al-Husseini, resulted in what can be called the first major Palestinian terrorist attack against Jews in Jerusalem in 1920, which left Jewish property destroyed, women and young girls raped, and defenseless Jews killed.
The writer is the author of 1917. From Palestine to the Land of Israel. He is also the senior associate for public diplomacy at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.