The Balfour Declaration - Why Lord Rothschild?


          On November 2, 1917 a letter was delivered by hand from Britain’s foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to Lionel Walter, the second Baron Rothschild, at his home at 148 Piccadilly, a prestigious address if ever there was one.

          A question rarely asked is why Balfour addressed his letter to Lord Rothschild, rather than to Sir Stuart Samuel, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. After all, the Board of Deputies, its origins going as far back as 1760, was – and remains – the body officially representative of Britain’s Jewish community. The Board has been storm-tossed on many occasions during its long life. The reason it was not the recipient of Balfour’s historic communication is connected with a particularly tempestuous episode in its history.
          Back in 1871 the Anglo-Jewish elite, led by the recently retired editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Abraham Benisch, set up an organization to protect Jewish rights in backward countries. Both Benisch and his co-founder, Albert Lowy, were passionate believers in the emancipation of downtrodden Jews across the world.  Calling itself the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), it proved to be an effective means of influencing both British and foreign governments in opposing antisemitic activities.
          The AJA quickly grew in size and influence, and by 1878 it had attained sufficient status for the Board of Deputies to agree to form a Conjoint Committee with it, through which a unified position on the protection of Jews worldwide could be presented to the government.  Although the two bodies worked together well enough, something in the nature of a power struggle developed as each strove for recognition by the government as representing the Jewish community in the UK.
          On one matter, however, the leadership of both bodies was agreed – opposition to the wave of pro-Zionist sentiment that was sweeping Britain, an opposition rife among old-established Anglo-Jewish families.
          In 1917 the Board of Deputies was led by David Lindo Alexander, and the AJA by Claude Montefiore.  Both were convinced anti-Zionists.  In their view national identity and religion were completely separate.  They were Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion.  There was no such thing as the Jewish nation, and they saw absolutely no need for a separate state for Jews.
          The Conjoint Committee, composed of selected members from the Board and the AJA, was led jointly by Alexander and Montefiore.  Aware that Chaim Weizmann had gained the ear of the prime minister and leading members of the Cabinet, and fearful that the government was on the verge of declaring itself supportive of the Zionist cause, the joint chairmen drew up a statement of their position on the Zionist issue on behalf of the Conjoint Committee.  Dated May 17, 1917, they sent it to The Times.
          The editor of The Times, a member of the upper echelons of the British establishment by virtue of his position, was George Geoffrey Dawson.  He was certainly aware that prime minister Lloyd George, foreign secretary Lord Balfour, and other Cabinet ministers favored the Zionist cause.  It was no secret, either, that a conference had been convened in London by the English Zionist Federation for Sunday, 20 May, 1917.
          No doubt to their disappointment, Alexander and Montefiore did not find their letter in the correspondence columns on Friday 18 May. Nor did it appear in the Saturday edition. The Zionist conference duly took place on the Sunday.  As it got under way, Weizmann  made a momentous announcement. "I am authorized to state in this assembly that His Majesty's Government is ready to support our plans". For the first time Weizmann declared publicly that the Zionists could rely upon British support and protection during their progress towards their final aim – "the creation of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine".
          The wind had been taken out of the Conjoint Committee’s sails.  Their letter was held back for another few days, while news of Weizmann’s announcement spread.  When it finally appeared on the 24th of May, its attack on Zionism and its argument that establishing a Jewish national identity in Palestine would stamp Jews everywhere as 'strangers in their native lands', seemed petulant and ineffective.
          On the Monday morning The Times published three rebuttals.   A letter from Lord Rothschild emphasized that the anti-Zionists did not represent Britain’s Jewish community. Britain’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz asserted that the views of the Conjoint Committee belonged to a very small minority.  A letter from Chaim Weizmann, as chairman of the English Zionist Federation, regretted “that there should be even two Jews who think it their duty to exert such influence as they may command against the realization of a hope which has sustained the Jewish nation through 2,000 years of exile, persecution, and temptation.”
          In the next few weeks the pro-Zionist Jewish Chronicle was bombarded with letters and statements from rabbis, readers, community leaders, synagogues, and Jewish organizations, the vast majority opposing the anti-Zionists. The resultant furore led the Board of Deputies to permit a vote to be tabled censuring the Conjoint Committee, and on June 17 it was passed by 56 to 51, with six abstentions – presumably the six Board members on the Committee.  The result: the resignation of the Conjoint members, swiftly followed by that of the President of the Board, David Lindo Alexander, the co-signatory of the letter. Elected in his place was Sir Stuart Samuel, elder brother of Herbert Samuel, a former Home Secretary and later to be the first High Commissioner in Palestine.
          When Balfour penned his historic letter only four months later, the Board of Deputies was still heavily tainted by the Conjoint Committee affair, and Samuel had scarcely settled into his new position as its President.  The Declaration could not be despatched to an organization so equivocal about Zionism.  Lord Rothschild, a leading figure in the Anglo-Jewish community and a strong supporter of Zionism, who had written to The Times to condemn the Conjoint Committee’s statement, was the obvious recipient.
          On Sunday December 2, 1917 London’s Royal Opera House was filled to capacity. Rothschild was chairing a meeting of thanksgiving for the Declaration – thanksgiving directed, one presumes, equally to the Almighty and the British government.  Besides the government officials present, Zionist dignitaries were led by Chaim ‎Weizmann and included Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Congress, Herbert Samuel and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz. After speeches by clergy, officials and even an Arab representative from Palestine, the occasion ended with loud cheers and the audience singing “Hatikvah.”

The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review.  His latest book is: “The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016”.  He blogs at: