The Balfour centenary: Living in interesting times

Recalling the heroes who sacrificed so much for Zionism and world democracy

British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour (photo credit: GPO)
British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour
(photo credit: GPO)
A single paragraph in a 1917 letter from a British foreign secretary to a prominent Jewish Englishman has done more to alter the history of the Middle East than perhaps any other words written in the last 100 years.
That paragraph – dubbed the Balfour Declaration – was included in a November 2, 1917 letter from British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, an active Zionist. It made public the British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and led the League of Nations to entrust the United Kingdom with the Palestine Mandate in 1922.
This coming autumn will mark 100 years since the victory of Britain and the Allies in the Middle East toward the end of the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire in prestate Palestine.
It was a time that linked the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the work of the NILI spies, Lawrence of Arabia and Gen. Allenby’s iconic march on foot into Jerusalem.
The Balfour Declaration did not happen in a vacuum. Evangelical Christian beliefs motivated Lord Shaftesbury and other lobbyists from the mid-nineteenth century to support Jewish settlement in Palestine. As early as the 1830s there was concern about the Russian influence in the region and both Lord Palmerston and Charles Henry Churchill approached Moses Montefiore, then leader of the British Jewish community, expressing concern.
Science also played its part in the initial support for a Jewish state, for Germany had succeeded in producing acetone, an important ingredient for explosives. Chaim Weizmann invented a fermentation process that allowed Britain to manufacture its own liquid acetone. This was brought to the attention of David Lloyd George, the minister of munitions and former prime minister Balfour, then the first lord of the Admiralty.
Weizmann, of course, was not just a scientist; he was the leader of the Zionist movement and eventually, the State of Israel’s first president.
Yet why, despite the declaration, did it take another 30 years to establish the independent State of Israel? Historian Elkan Levy, a British immigrant living in Netanya, sheds some light.
“The Balfour Declaration was an act of self-interest for the British,” he says. “They wanted a buffer between the French and Syria as there was a danger that France could control the entire region down to the Suez Canal, and as Weizmann said at the time, they thought it would persuade the United States to support the war.”
Failure to create a Jewish state following the Balfour Declaration was popularly attributed to Arab hostilities and the emerging dependency of Britain on Arab oil. “Additionally, Edwin Montagu – who was secretary of state for India, a major figure in the cabinet and as a member of a very assimilated Jewish family in Britain, extremely anti-Zionist – was determined that nothing should affect the rights of non-Jewish residents of Palestine. This authorized elements of the British government to do little to encourage Jewish settlement,” he explains.
Thus, although the Arabs mostly sided with the Germans during World War I (and indeed during World War II) and Jewish soldiers from Palestine as well as throughout the world fought in the British Army, successive British governments became increasingly anti-Israel. This hostile attitude of the British Foreign Ministry led to the White Paper of 1939 restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, costing innumerable Jewish lives in the Holocaust.
Elkan Levy, who served for many years as president of the United Synagogue in Britain and was director of small communities, adds however that the Jews themselves did not rally to the Zionist cause. In the 1920s there were immigration visas to spare. Weizmann had expected mass immigration from Eastern Europe and was disappointed that it did not materialize. “Jews, where are you?” he exclaimed. It was only in the 1930s, with the rise of Hitler and the efforts of Theodor Herzl, that the dream of a return to Zion inspired Jewish communities throughout the world.
Beth Hagdudim The Museum of the Jewish Battalions from the First World War – Beth Hagdudim – which now has a new wing with a focus on the Second World War and the efforts of the Jews from Palestine and other Allied countries, is housed in a French colonial-style building with beautiful gardens. The approach is through the tree-lined lanes of the green and leafy village of Avihayil.
After their demobilization, Jewish veterans were offered plots there in what at that time was an empty landscape of sand dunes.
When Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson was sent to Britain to recruit young Jewish Russian and Polish immigrants who had not been conscripted, he wondered about this motley crew of apprentice tailors, cutters and cabinet makers. Later he reported that they made excellent soldiers who should be proud of their contribution to the British victory in the Middle East.
Prior to World War I, Jews had organized defense groups to defend their settlements in Palestine. It was this nucleus that created the Zion Mule Corps in 1915 under the command of an Irishman, Patterson, and the legendary Joseph Trumpeldor.
In 1917, veterans of the Zion Mule Corps joined with Jewish émigrés from Britain to form the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers under the command of Patterson.
These brigades attracted thousands of Jewish youth from Britain, America, Argentina and the Jewish community of Palestine. Britain showed its appreciation of these Jewish soldiers by granting them British citizenship.
In spite of the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish veterans of these brigades, who stayed on to form the First Judeans in 1919, were not supported by the British in the defense of the Jewish community against the riots and violence of the following years. It took another 30 years of Jewish resistance before the British left Palestine and the State of Israel was born.
As a footnote, Patterson, considered the “godfather of the Israeli army,” was passionately supportive of Zionism.
He died one year before the establishment of Israel, having requested to be buried at Avihayil. His remains were reinterred there only in 2014.
Meanwhile, throughout his leadership during this part of the war, Field Marshal Gen. Edmund Allenby, commander of Britain’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, had been constantly concerned about the welfare of his son, Michael, who was then a young soldier fighting on the Western Front. In July 1917 he got news of the death of his son in action and subsequently worked with cold determination, driving himself without a break to achieve his goals. The iconic picture of him leading the march into Jerusalem on foot as a mark of respect for the city’s religious significance links him forever with the liberation of the city and the hopes of the Jewish population.
It took until the summer of 1918 to capture northern Palestine and advance to Damascus and northern Syria.
NILI With the threat of war and the continued persecution of the Jewish inhabitants by the Turkish occupiers, the villages around Zichron Ya’acov formed a defense group known as the Gideonites, which evolved into the NILI under the leadership of agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn. NILI is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “netzah yisrael lo yeshaker,” meaning the Eternal One of Israel will not lie (Samuel I 15:29), which served as its password. NILI was the first Jewish underground organization and it provided the British with valuable information from behind enemy lines.
The NILI Museum in the original Aaronsohn home in Zichron Ya’acov commemorates the tragic story of the spy group that contributed so much to British intelligence, but were betrayed and lost most of their comrades, including the feisty leader Sarah Aaronsohn.
A visit to the museum includes an audio-visual presentation and displays of historical artifacts and documents.
It was the family home and that of the oldest son, Aaron, who as an agronomist was able to travel freely throughout the country and pick up valuable strategic information. The museum is full of fine Damascene furniture and household items, as well as Aaron’s magnificent library.
It also includes the famous bathroom where Sarah had hidden a gun, which she retrieved to commit suicide rather than risk betraying her comrades under torture.
The Aaronsohns were early pioneers in Zichron Ya’acov. Aaron ran an experimental agricultural station at Atlit and had discovered a weather-resistant form of primitive wheat. He was allowed to move freely around the country in his work against locust infestations.
He and his siblings were inspired to act for the British as conditions for the Jews worsened in Palestine, with mounting famine and news of the Turkish slaughter of masses of Armenians.
He and his sister Sarah, brother Alexander and friends Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky formed the core of the spy organization, hoping to advance the Zionist cause. By signaling to boats at sea and using homing pigeons, they provided Gen. Allenby with information on Turkish fortifications and troop movements, desert routes and water sources.
Unfortunately, a misdirected homing pigeon fell into the hands of a Turkish governor and by the autumn of 1917, almost all the NILI group had been rounded up and executed.
However, acting on the information provided by NILI, the British Army with the help of the Australian cavalry surprised the Turks at the Battle of Beersheba, which opened the inland routes. Jerusalem was liberated and 400 years of Ottoman rule came to an end.
Aaron survived the war, but died in a plane crash in May 1919 on his way from London to the Paris Peace Conference. Avshalom Feinberg disappeared in the Sinai desert on a NILI mission and it was only after the Six Day War that his remains were discovered under a solitary date tree that had grown from a seed in his pocket. The Aaronsohns There are many romantic tales and myths surrounding this heroic family. Sarah and Avshalom were passionately in love, but he was in fact engaged to Rivka, the quieter and less active sister. Rivka survived into old age and even lived in the house after it was converted into a museum.
There are also some myths associated with NILI.
British ships that sailed along the coast past Atlit were reputedly fed information by the color coding of laundry drying on the roof of the agricultural station.
However, the property on which the station once stood is on a dip in the land and has no view of the beach. The stories of NILI members hiding on the beach to convey messages to those ships are more plausible.
Another story is that, as Sarah was arrested and taken through the streets of Zichron Ya’acov, she begged her neighbors to close the shutters in her father’s vineyard – a coded message to the Atlit station that all was not well. The Aaronsohn house is on the Founders Street in Zichron Ya’acov and not on the side of the Carmel ridge facing the sea. Even on a clear day there is no way that the house is visible from Atlit.
Another myth that has never been substantiated is that Sarah had a relationship with legendary British diplomat and writer T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), and that the “S.A.” inscribed in his book Seven Pillars of Wisdom is indeed Sarah Aaronsohn.
In James Srodes’s book, Spies in Palestine: Love, Betrayal and the Heroic Life of Sarah Aaronsohn, he refers to this rumor but adds that in fact T.E. Lawrence toured the Holy Land prior to his army service and stayed at Zichron Ya’acov, where he presumably met Sarah.
Whether they were attracted to each other we shall never know.
Lawrence, under the command of Allenby, organized disparate Arab tribes into armed revolt against the Turks, allies of Germany, from 1916-1918. Most sources claim that Lawrence was an antisemite who championed the Arab cause at the expense of the Jews living in Palestine. In fact, in Seven Pillars of Wisdom he commends the vision of the Zionists and their initiative and energy. He saw the future of Jewish experience in agriculture and technology as being advantageous to Arab national development.
In The Letters of T.E. Lawrence, edited by David Garnett, he is quoted as writing in August 1909: “Palestine was once a decent country and could be so again.
The sooner the Jews farm it all the better. Their colonies are bright spots in the desert.”
Aaron Aaronsohn claimed that Lawrence was anti-Zionist, while Chaim Weizmann claimed the opposite.
In his blog, Media Watch vice chairman Yisrael Medad quotes Lawrence as saying that the Jews’ experiment to settle the land is a conscious effort to return to their roots. “They propose to settle down amongst the Arabic-speaking population, a people of kindred origin but far different in social condition.
They hope to adjust their mode of life to the climate and with their skill and capital make it as highly organized as any European state. The success will inevitably raise the material level of the present Arab population to the benefit of the entire Arab world.”
Lawrence prophesied that the Jewish influence would make the area independent of industrial Europe, but warned that this might take several generations.
So during this centenary year, we are celebrating several life-changing events. Along with the celebrations, we lament the heroes who sacrificed so much for the Zionist cause and indeed, for world democracy.
Beth Hagdudim, Avihayil: (09) 862-9240; open Sunday through Thursday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Beth Aaronsohn NILI Museum: 40 Hamayasdim Street, Zichron Ya’acov. (04) 639-0120; open Sunday through Thursday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Fridays 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.