Brandeis’s role in Balfour

The truth is that Brandeis was involved at an important juncture in Jewish and world history, and his actions were as crucial as any of the players in the story.

Louis Brandeis (photo credit: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
Louis Brandeis
(photo credit: LIBRARY OF CONGRESS)
November 2, 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. In the US, my generation learned that Chaim Weizmann was presented the Balfour Declaration as a gift for his World War I chemical process that created acetone. The story about it is a sweet myth, but a more realistic appraisal is that Weizmann did his chemical work in the British War Department, where he made a favorable impression on key government leaders. In Weizmann’s biography, he confronts this story and says, “If it had been only that easy.”
The other myth is that Justice Louis Brandeis, a leading American Zionist, did nothing to convince President Woodrow Wilson to endorse the Declaration. The truth is that Brandeis was involved at an important juncture in Jewish and world history, and his actions were as crucial as any of the players in the story.
The Balfour Declaration should be seen as an aspect of British foreign policy because a British mandate in Palestine would guarantee a Westernized pro-British population close to the Suez Canal. They needed to dismember the Ottoman Empire. It was a time when British foreign policy and Zionist aspirations coincided. It also goes without saying that, when it suited the Foreign Office, they abandoned it.
The United States did not enter the war until April 1917. Wilson had a foreign policy different from England’s and, for his second term, ran on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” Though the war had become a world war, Wilson was still thinking of a peaceful solution. His thoughts then were focused on Turkey. The US did go to war, but did not declare war on Turkey.
UK foreign secretary Arthur Balfour came to Washington in May of that year and met with Brandeis on the 7th and 11th. Illogically, on the 13th, Balfour said he was also in favor of Turkey breaking away from Germany. This was a serious mistake on Balfour’s part because he had assumed Wilson wasn’t serious in talking a separate peace with Turkey. But Wilson took Balfour seriously and the result was that Balfour and the British government soon had to rely on Weizmann to intervene. Coincidentally, Henry Morgenthau Sr., the former US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, volunteered to negotiate a separate peace with Turkey.
Morgenthau felt that if he could talk with the Turkish leaders they would make peace on favorable terms. Thus, the Morgenthau Peace Mission was born. The plan was for Morgenthau to travel to Switzerland to meet two Turkish diplomats he had met while in Istanbul. Through them, he hoped Turkey would drop out of the war. Zionists on both sides of the Atlantic knew that if that were to happen the Ottomans would continue their control of Palestine.
In June, when Brandeis found out about the plan, he arranged for Felix Frankfurter, the assistant Secretary of War, to join the mission and cabled Weizmann and assigned him a meeting in Gibraltar.
Weizmann described the meeting of Weizmann, French representative Colonel Weyl, a German leader of the Zionists and Morgenthau as a comic opera. Speaking in German, the only common language, Weizmann grilled Morgenthau and convinced him to go to Paris to talk with Gen. John Pershing, who dismissed the peace plan. When news reached the White House of the failed peace mission, Wilson instructed his chief of staff, “Colonel” Edward Mandell House, to apprise the British of his support for the declaration.
Wilson seriously wanted the mission to succeed and to see the war end. This was his priority. Not so the British, who were thinking about victory and hegemony in the Middle East.
It is this gap in the months before the issuance of the Declaration, that confuses historians.
Weizmann’s actions were constant and persuasive, and he worked daily with the war cabinet to issue the declaration. Not so Brandeis, who did almost nothing to bring pressure for presidential action in Washington. Some scholars thus concluded that Brandeis was ineffectual and perhaps even naïve. Now it is clear, however, that Brandeis was simply waiting for Wilson to learn of the failure of the Morgenthau mission.
The key date is September 19, 1917, the day Morgenthau would report to the president. The British War Cabinet was very serious about issuing the Declaration but had held back waiting for Wilson.
However, the debate was not over in England. As late as October 4, the sole Jewish member of the War Cabinet, Edwin Samuel Montagu, had succeeded in having the Declaration postponed on the agenda. Finally, on October 6, they cabled the text to Wilson and two weeks later the US president sent his support.
Wilson’s support was key. Brandeis’s contribution was three-fold: He urged Zionist views on the president; warned Weizmann of the coming Morgenthau mission; and included Felix Frankfurter (who later became a US Supreme Court justice) in the party to protect Zionist aims.
In the years since Israel’s independence, it has been common to begin the story of US support and interest in Israel with President Harry Truman’s recognition of the state. However, the origins of that American commitment go back to Wilson, the intervention of Brandeis to derail the Morgenthau Peace Mission and the subsequent issuance of the Balfour Declaration.
Stuart Geller and his wife, Ellyn, made aliya 16 years ago from the US, and live in Jerusalem