The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion

When Al­lied forces cap­tured Jerusalem 100 years ago this month, Bri­tish lead­ers hailed a bright new new­dawn­dawn dawn for the theHolytheHoly Holy Land Land. ButBut, But, writes David Reynolds, by mak­ing con­flict­ing prom­ises of land to both Jews and Arabs,

BBC History Magazine - - Contents - Ac­com­pa­nies the BBC Ra­dio 4 doc­u­men­tary Bal­four: A Very Long Sen­tence

Bri­tain’s bun­gled diplo­macy in the First World War had ma­jor con­se­quences for the Holy Land, ar­gues David Reynolds

Jerusalem, 11 De­cem­ber 1917. It was one of the most care­fully chore­ographed mo­ments of the First World War. The Holy City had fallen to sol­diers of the Bri­tish em­pire after four cen­turies of rule by the Ot­toman Turks. At the end of a bleak year on the west­ern front – with the third bat­tle of Ypres bogged down in mud and blood – this whirl­wind 40-day cam­paign in Pales­tine seized the imag­i­na­tion of Bri­tain and the world.

Now, the vic­to­ri­ous Bri­tish com­man­der, Gen­eral Ed­mund Al­lenby – nick­named ‘the Bull’ on ac­count of his huge frame and vol­canic tem­per – pre­pared to make his cer­e­mo­nial en­trance. But there was to be no tri­umphal­ism: a terse ca­ble from Lon­don had made that clear: “It would be of con­sid­er­able po­lit­i­cal im­por­tance if you, on of­fi­cially en­ter­ing the city, dis­mount at the city gate and en­ter on foot. Ger­man em­peror rode in, and the say­ing went around ‘a bet­ter man than he walked’. Ad­van­tage of con­trast in con­duct will be ob­vi­ous.”

The “bet­ter man” was, of course, Jesus. And the Ger­man em­peror was Wil­helm II, the popin­jay kaiser, who had rid­den into the city in tri­umph on 29 Oc­to­ber 1898 through a cer­e­mo­nial arch spe­cially cut into the old walls. This had been the high point of a grandiose six-week Palästinareise, or­gan­ised by Thomas Cook & Son, to pro­mote Ger­man in­flu­ence and cul­ti­vate the Ot­tomans, who would later be­come his al­lies in the First World War.

Al­lenby’s Pales­tine jour­ney was no Cook’s Tour, nor was his en­try into Jerusalem any­thing like the kaiser’s. On 11 De­cem­ber 1917, the Bull rode up to the Jaffa Gate on his black horse, but then dis­mounted and en­tered the Holy City on foot, em­u­lat­ing Christ not kaiser. Al­lenby also struck a con­cil­ia­tory note to the peo­ple of Jerusalem in his procla­ma­tion of mar­tial law, promis­ing that the sa­cred places of Ju­daism, Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam would all be re­spected and pro­tected.

A dream come true?

Back in Bri­tain, how­ever, the mood was less re­strained. The press hailed the “End of the Cru­sades”, with Punch car­toon­ist Bernard Par­tridge evok­ing Richard the Lion­heart, who had failed to cap­ture Jerusalem dur­ing the Third Cru­sade, mur­mur­ing “My dream comes true!” Te Deums were sung in St Paul’s and in West­min­ster Cathe­dral, and Prime Min­is­ter David Lloyd Ge­orge ex­ulted in the House of Com­mons, declar­ing to a na­tion still steeped in the Bi­ble: “The name of ev­ery ham­let and hill oc­cu­pied by the Bri­tish Army” – places like Beer­sheba, Beth­le­hem

and the Mount of Olives – “thrills with sa­cred mem­o­ries.” What he called “the most fa­mous city in the world, after cen­turies of strife and vain strug­gle” had now “fallen into the hands of the Bri­tish Army, never to be re­stored to those who so suc­cess­fully held it against the em­bat­tled hosts of Chris­ten­dom”.

Grandil­o­quent words. The prob­lem was that the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment had al­ready tied it­self in knots about what to do with Jerusalem and what was called Pales­tine. In 2017, a cen­tury after the Great War, that tan­gle has still not been re­solved.

Sick man of Europe

In their hey­day, the Ot­tomans had shaped the des­tiny of south-eastern Europe, in 1683 even be­sieg­ing Vi­enna. By 1914, how­ever, their em­pire was a shadow of its for­mer self – the so-called ‘sick man of Europe’ – now stripped of its ter­ri­to­ries in the Balkans and north Africa by na­tion­al­ist up­ris­ings and Euro­pean ri­vals. Align­ing it­self with Ger­many seemed the best way to fend off tsarist Rus­sia, the most threat­en­ing of those foes. In Novem­ber 1914, align­ment turned into al­liance, as the Ot­tomans slid chaot­i­cally into war against Rus­sia, Bri­tain and France.

For th­ese three En­tente al­lies, though pri­mar­ily fo­cused on the con­flict in Europe, war against Tur­key opened up the prospect of vast gains in the Le­vant and the Mid­dle East. The Ot­toman army, how­ever, put up tougher re­sis­tance than ex­pected. In late 1914 it threat­ened the Suez Canal, Bri­tain’s im­pe­rial artery to In­dia, and in the spring of 1915 its troops re­pulsed Bri­tish and French land­ings on the straits at Gal­lipoli. Set­tling into a long war, the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment fo­cused on two cam­paigns – push­ing north-west from Basra to­wards Bagh­dad, to pro­tect its oil in­ter­ests in the Per­sian Gulf, and also north-east from the great Bri­tish pos­ses­sion of Egypt into Gaza and up the Mediter­ranean coast to help cre­ate a bul­wark to pro­tect the Suez Canal. Strate­gies for de­fend­ing the Bri­tish em­pire now mor­phed into poli­cies for im­pe­rial ex­pan­sion.

Poli­cies – or fan­tasies? What is strik­ing about Bri­tish diplo­macy in the near east in the First World War is its lack of re­al­ism and co­her­ence. The knot they wove for them­selves was com­posed of sev­eral strands.

One strand, from the au­tumn of 1915, was what be­came known as the Hus­seinMcMa­hon cor­re­spon­dence, prompted by Bri­tain’s de­sire to draw the Arabs into the war against their Ot­toman masters. Hus­sein was the Sharif of Mecca – tit­u­lar guardian of Is­lam’s holy places – while Sir Henry McMa­hon was the Bri­tish High Com­mis­sioner in Egypt. In re­turn for his mil­i­tary sup­port, Hus­sein wanted Bri­tain’s en­dorse­ment of a post­war Arab fed­er­a­tion, stretch­ing not just across the Ara­bian penin­sula but also em­brac­ing Syria, Iraq and Pales­tine. McMa­hon’s at­tempts to clar­ify what the Bri­tish would ac­cept were de­lib­er­ately vague – and even more so when trans­lated into Ara­bic, in which he had no fa­mil­iar­ity (not, of course, ideal for Bri­tain’s top man in Cairo).

Friends and en­e­mies

A sec­ond strand was the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment, drawn up in an ef­fort to square Bri­tain’s ter­ri­to­rial am­bi­tions with those of France. Although the two pow­ers were now al­lies against Ger­many, else­where they re­mained ri­vals for em­pire. François Ge­orgesPi­cot was a wily French diplo­mat, while Sir Mark Sykes was the Bri­tish cabi­net’s Mid­dle Eastern ex­pert. The word ‘ex­pert’ is, per­haps, a bit gen­er­ous. Sykes was an am­bi­tious, smooth-talk­ing Tory MP who had writ­ten an amus­ing book about his trav­els around the pre­war Ot­toman em­pire and then used it to in­gra­ti­ate him­self with the Asquith gov­ern­ment, des­per­ate for in­sights into a re­gion of which it knew lit­tle but now wanted much.

What is strik­ing about Bri­tish diplo­macy in the near east in the First World War is its lack of re­al­ism and co­her­ence

Clos­eted in a room in the For­eign Of­fice, on 3 Fe­bru­ary 1916, Sykes and Pi­cot drew lines in the sand – or, more ex­actly, crayons across a large map – to di­vide up the spoils of the Ot­toman em­pire. Area A, north of a line run­ning roughly from Acre to Kirkuk, would be French, while Area B, to the south, would be Bri­tish. Within the cen­tral part of Ar­eas A and B, the Arabs would be al­lowed their king­dom, but un­der the over­sight of France in the north and Bri­tain­tain in the south. Since both gov­ern­ments co oveted Pales­tine, which in­cluded sites holy to o Mus­lims, Chris­tians and Jews, Sykes and Pi­cotP coloured that brown, to sig­nify som me kind of in­ter­na­tional con­dom minium. Within weeks, the Sy ykes-Pi­cot plan had re­ceived offi fi­cial ap­proval in both cap pitals. The Arabs were not in­formed.i

On re­flec­tion, the Bri­tish were un­happy about t what this meant for Pales­tine, seen now as an im­por­tant buf­fer zone to pro­tect Egypt. And that’s where the third strand, the Zion­ists, came in. They were led by the fu­ture first pres­i­dent of Is­rael, Chaim Weiz­mann, who, with his charisma and fierce in­tel­lect, had won the sup­port of se­nior gov­ern­ment fig­ures. His lead­ing backer was AJ Bal­four, the for­mer prime min­is­ter, who ad­mired the Jews for their in­tel­lect and en­ergy but saw them as an alien pres­ence in Chris­tian Bri­tain. Help­ing the Jews to rre­turn to Zion would, he be­lieved, “re­store tthem to their dig­nity” so that “their in­tel­li­gence will cease to be merely ac­quis­si­tive and will be­come cre­ative”.

Bal­four’s strange mix of syym­pa­thy and prej­u­dice was not by it­self deeci­sive. The dec­la­ra­tion that would beear his name and add fur­ther to the Bri­tish tan­gle was a re­sponse to the ex­i­gen­cies of war in 1917.

Mil­i­tary dead­lock dead­loc

Lloyd Ge­orge hadd be­come prime min­is­ter in De­ceem­ber 1916. Dis­en­chanted bby the “mud­crawl­ing strat­egy” on the west­ern frontt but un­able to chal­lenge the dom­i­nance of Field-Marsh­hal Sir Dou­glas Haig, he en­vis­aged the Pales­tine cam­paign as a way to break the mil­i­tary dead­lock and boost morale. Seek­ing a com­man­der of a “dash­ing type”, he chose Al­lenby in June 1917, told him to ask for such re­in­force­ments as seemed nec­es­sary and stated that the cabi­net ex­pected Jerusalem “be­fore Christ­mas”.

Al­lenby man­aged to de­liver, un­like Haig. Push­ing north from Si­nai in late Oc­to­ber, he drove his men hard de­spite the heat and dust – ex­ploit­ing ev­ery open­ing as the Turks be­gan to re­treat. The fall of Beer­sheba, Gaza, He­bron and, fi­nally, Jerusalem came at the same time as the name of Pass­chen­daele, a lit­tle vil­lage east of Ypres in Bel­gium, was be­ing etched in Bri­tish cul­tural mem­ory as the ul­ti­mate sym­bol of the First World War’s mud-and-blood fu­til­ity.

With Al­lenby’s dra­matic vic­to­ries, the cabi­net ur­gently de­bated whether to is­sue a dec­la­ra­tion of Bri­tish sup­port for a Jewish ‘ home­land’ in Pales­tine. First, this would give some ap­par­ent moral sanc­tion to Bri­tain’s ter­ri­to­rial claims in the strug­gle for em­pire in the post-Ot­toman near east. The Bri­tish would gov­ern Pales­tine not for their own ben­e­fit but to pro­vide a pro­tec­torate that al­lowed the Cho­sen Peo­ple to re­turn to the Promised Land.

Sec­ond, given Lon­don’s be­lief in the po­tency of world­wide Jewry, it was hoped that Bri­tish en­dorse­ment of Zion­ism would strengthen sup­port for the war in Rus­sia and Amer­ica. After the over­throw of tsarism in Fe­bru­ary 1917, Rus­sia’s new pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment was strug­gling to keep its war-weary coun­try fight­ing. In the USA, which had en­tered the con­flict in April, war

For nearly 30 years, Bri­tain tried to square the cir­cle of Pales­tine’s two ‘selfs’ – Jews and Arab

mo­bil­i­sa­tion had been slow to get go­ing. In both of th­ese al­lies, it was hoped, pro-Zion­ist Jews could gal­vanise pub­lic opin­ion.

The pro­posed dec­la­ra­tion was dic­tated by the im­per­a­tives of power and pro­pa­ganda. Gen­uine sym­pa­thy for Zion­ism – though ev­i­dent in some pol­i­cy­mak­ers, not least Bal­four – was a se­condary con­sid­er­a­tion. Be­tween July and Oc­to­ber 1917, the text went through sev­eral ver­sions, as the orig­i­nal Zion­ist for­mu­la­tion was wa­tered down from a stark state­ment – “His Majesty’s gov­ern­ment ac­cepts the prin­ci­ple that Pales­tine should be re­con­sti­tuted as the na­tional home of the Jewish peo­ple” – into a vaguer af­fir­ma­tion that the gov­ern­ment “view with favour the es­tab­lish­ment in Pales­tine of a na­tional home for the Jewish peo­ple”.

Bri­tish plans un­ravel

Cru­cial qual­i­fi­ca­tions were also in­tro­duced after Lord Cur­zon, a for­mer Viceroy of In­dia, loftily re­minded col­leagues that Pales­tine was not empty ter­rain but al­ready had Arab com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing there and that the holy places of Jerusalem were ven­er­ated by Chris­tians and Mus­lims as well as Jews. A clause was duly added that “noth­ing shall be done which may prej­u­dice the civil and re­li­gious rights of ex­ist­ing non-Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in Pales­tine”.

The re­vised dec­la­ra­tion was pushed through cabi­net on 31 Oc­to­ber, the day Beer­sheba fell to Al­lenby’s troops. On 2 Novem­ber, Bal­four con­veyed its terms in a let­ter to Lord Roth­schild, a lead­ing Lon­don Zion­ist, which was then pub­lished in The Times on 9 Novem­ber. This turned out to be two days after the Bol­she­viks seized power in Rus­sia. And that’s when Bri­tain’s se­cret diplo­macy in the near east be­gan to un­ravel.

The Bol­she­viks im­me­di­ately pub­lished the Al­lies’ “Se­cret Treaties”, found in the tsarist ar­chives. And so, at the end of Novem­ber, the Manch­ester Guardian in­formed Bri­tish read­ers of the de­tails of the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment. Th­ese stood in ten­sion, to put it po­litely, with the Hus­sein-McMa­hon cor­re­spon­dence. Then on 15 De­cem­ber, Lenin, the Bol­she­vik leader, se­cured an armistice from the Ger­mans and be­gan for­mal ne­go­ti­a­tions. This un­der­cut the main pro­pa­ganda point of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion.

The cabi­net it­self was also breach­ing the spirit of the dec­la­ra­tion. Dur­ing that au­tumn, Bri­tish emis­saries held se­cret talks in Greece and Switzer­land with dis­si­dent Turks about a pos­si­ble armistice. In mid-Novem­ber, as Weiz­mann and the Zion­ists cel­e­brated their tri­umph, the cabi­net for­mu­lated Bri­tain’s ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion. It was agreed that not only would the Turks re­tain their Ana­to­lian heart­land but they would also be al­lowed to keep tit­u­lar con­trol over their pos­ses­sions in the near east, in­clud­ing Pales­tine. Cur­zon wrote an in­cred­u­lous memo: “Al­most in the same week that we have pledged our­selves, if suc­cess­ful, to se­cure Pales­tine as a na­tional home for the Jewish peo­ple, are we to con­tem­plate leav­ing the Turk­ish flag fly­ing over Jerusalem?” In fact, this se­cret pol­icy to­ward the Ot­tomans was driven through cabi­net by Lord Mil­ner, the man who had also drafted the fi­nal text of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion. Luck­ily, per­haps, for the Bri­tish, the Ot­toman peace talks pe­tered out in the spring of 1918.

Nods and winks

And so, by the time Al­lenby en­tered Jerusalem in stu­diously hum­ble tri­umph, the Bri­tish had al­ready given a range of in­com­pat­i­ble pledges and agree­ments, nods and winks, to the Arabs, the French, the Jews and the Turks. Some of the in­com­pat­i­bil­i­ties re­mained hid­den from pub­lic gaze; oth­ers were quickly and em­bar­rass­ingly ex­posed by the Bol­she­viks. It would take years to make some sense of the mess.

In the end the Turks lost their em­pire, the Arabs were fobbed off and the French were pro­pi­ti­ated in a mod­i­fied carve-up of the Le­vant, while Bri­tain got Pales­tine but in the form of a ‘Man­date’ from the post­war League of Na­tions and with a com­mit­ment to pre­pare the ter­ri­tory and its frac­tious in­hab­i­tants for “self-gov­ern­ment”. For nearly 30 years, His Majesty’s Gov­ern­ment tried to square the cir­cle of Pales­tine’s two ‘selfs’ – Jews and Arabs – within a vul­ner­a­ble strip of land lit­tle larger in area than Wales or New Jersey. Even­tu­ally Bri­tain threw in the towel in 1948 and left the con­tend­ing par­ties to fight it out.

In Oc­to­ber 1917, Cur­zon had warned the Bri­tish cabi­net that by com­mit­ting to a Jewish home­land in Pales­tine they could be “rais­ing false ex­pec­ta­tions which could never be re­alised”. A cen­tury later, his words seem trag­i­cally prophetic.

The Im­pe­rial Camel Corps out­side Beer­sheba, 1 Novem­ber 1917. Bri­tain’s seizure of ex­otic names with bib­li­cal res­o­nances thrilled what was still an es­sen­tially Chris­tian na­tion

AJ Bal­four gave his name to the dec­la­ra­tion that ex­pressed Bri­tish sup­port for a Jewish state in Pales­tine

Hus­sein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, sought Bri­tain’s con­crete sup­port for an Arab fed­er­a­tion but in­stead re­ceived neb­u­lous prom­ises

A map show­ing the Sykes-Pi­cot agree­ment of 1916, by which the French were ap­por­tioned Area A, and the Bri­tish Area B. Pales­tine would be­come an “in­ter­na­tional con­do­minium”, shaded (bot­tom left) in brown

Gen­eral Ed­mund Al­lenby walks into Jerusalem on 11 De­cem­ber 1917. News of the Al­lies’ seizure of the city – after 400 years of Ot­toman rule – was greeted with joy back in Lon­don

Chaim Weiz­mann (head of ta­ble), pic­tured in 1917, was one of the prin­ci­pal ag­i­ta­tors for the cre­ation of a Jewish home­land

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