The Balfour betrayal: How the British Empire failed Zionism

The promises of empires and superpowers to the Jewish people often turn out to be the worst sort of perfidy.

Theodore Herzl 370 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Theodore Herzl 370
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Balfour Day will come and go in both Israel and the Diaspora and no one will take notice. There will be no fireworks on November 2, no concerts or picnics, no celebration. And perhaps that is the way it should be – the legacy of the 1917 Balfour Declaration is bittersweet and ambiguous.
The British Empire, the superpower of its epoch, made promises that could have given Zionist aspirations permanent legitimacy. Instead, England betrayed the Zionist movement and reneged on its recognition of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. We can learn many lessons today from this perfidy.
The declaration, issued by the British government on November 2, 1917, expressed England’s intention to establish a Jewish national home in a Palestine newly conquered from the dying Ottoman Empire. Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann and Nachum Sokolow, engaged the British in intense negotiations leading up to the release of the declaration.
Both British prime minister Lloyd George and foreign secretary Arthur J. Balfour supported the recognition of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. The reasons for their support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine are a complex mix of imperialist cunning and religious zeal. Eminent British historian Sir Martin Gilbert argues that the political force of the declaration was the primary motivation.
“As anti-war sentiment gained strength throughout Russia,” writes Gilbert in his history of Israel, “the British government became increasingly anxious to find a way to persuade the Jews of Russia to regard an Allied victory as an essential element in Jewish national aspirations.”
Other historians posit the theory that the British Empire produced the declaration as a way to convince American Jews to use their influence to bolster US commitment to fight the war with Britain and France against Germany.
In addition to the reality of the power politics of an empire, the element of religion was also a reality that we cannot ignore. Lord Balfour was a firm believer that Zionism was a fulfillment of the prophecy of the Bible. Balfour’s “Christian Zionism,” explored by Emory University professor Shalom Goldman in his most recent study, played an important role in British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
This Protestant theology of restoration elevated the British victory over the Ottoman Empire as the beginning of the final drama of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
For Balfour and other influential British statesmen, the Jewish return to the Land of Israel was more than just an expression of modern Jewish nationalism. The Balfour Declaration was a religious document.
The declaration took the form of a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in England and a representative of the powerful banking family. The document assured that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment of in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People.”
The use of the word “home” and not “state” was deliberate.
In what would prove to be the British policy in years to come, the recognition of Zionist aspirations was tempered by England’s fear of alienating the Arab world.
Some of the elite of the British Jews – led by Edwin Montagu – were anti-Zionist to the core and pressured their government to dilute its commitment to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
Yet, even in its final version the Balfour Declaration was a milestone in the history of Zionism. For the first time, a great power in Europe had recognized the goals of the Zionist movement. After the First World War, the League of Nations made the Balfour Declaration part of its mandate.
As Professor Alan Dershowitz convincingly argues in The Case for Israel (2003), the British declaration became “a matter of binding international law.”
The Balfour Declaration was the first step in the legitimizing by the international community of the Zionist project to revive a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael.
But Lord Balfour’s letter turned out to be a bittersweet victory for the Jewish people. The British, in the end, reneged on their promise. After a series of attacks by Arabs against Jews in Palestine in the post-war period, the British appointed Haj Amin al-Husseini grand mufti of Jerusalem.
The appointment of this man as spiritual leader of the Muslims in Palestine was meant to appease his followers and put an end to the violence.
The reality, however, was that Husseini was a rabid Jew-hater who gave his blessing to Arab pogroms against the Jews in the Land of Israel. The grand mufti cursed any attempt by Zionists to create a Jewish state alongside those of the Arabs. He promoted the use of violence that culminated in the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. It is no surprise that later in his life, the grand mufti was an ardent Nazi who propagandized for the murder of all Jews, from Auschwitz to Tel Aviv.
He would not have been as influential a force in Palestine as he was had not the British Empire given him his power in order to assuage the opposition of Palestine’s Arabs to the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
The imperialist betrayal of the Jewish people did not end with Husseini. In what proved to be a disastrous British policy in regard to the Jews of Europe, England closed the gates of immigration of Zionists to Palestine. In 1939, on the eve of the war that would prove to be the greatest disaster in Jewish history, British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine – a drastic curtailing that closed the escape route for Jews seeking a safe haven – and restricted sale of land in Palestine to Jews. This betrayal of Lord Balfour’s promise was a calculated political move by the British Empire to appease the Arabs of Palestine and the Middle East, enhancing the power of the empire in the region.
As important as the Balfour Declaration was to the Zionist movement, it turned out to be just a piece of paper and an empty promise.
Zionism is, at its heart, an anti-imperialist movement.
Theodor Herzl failed in all his encounters with imperial powers – the Germans, the Ottomans, the Russians, the British – to find support for a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael.
The brilliant Vladimir Jabotinsky believed that England was the key to the realization of Zionist goals – he took a gamble that failed and his followers later fought the British Empire in the pre-state underground. In the end, it was the blood, sweat and toil of Jews that built the State of Israel.
Diplomacy and legal recognition were no doubt important – and are still important today – in the reality of the State of Israel. But let us never forget that the revival of our people by Jewish men and women, many who gave their life for the cause, forged the reality of that revival in Eretz Yisrael.
The lesson we should learn is that the promises of empires and superpowers to the Jewish people often turn out to be the worst sort of perfidy.
The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.