Overstating the Importance of the Balfour Declaration

However Israel came to be it wasn't because of a 67-word letter during WWI.

Reading a recent commentary by Seth Lipsky about the Balfour Declaration, and then seeing a photo of British Prime Minister Theresa May and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu celebrating the 100th anniversary of this so-called declaration, I had to ask myself: How did this 67-word document, which was actually a letter sent by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, an influential Zionist, on November 7, 1917, authorize a Jewish state in the Middle East or, for that matter, anywhere else?

The letter speaks about “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” At that time the British government was not incidentally at war with the Central Powers, including the Ottoman Empire. It was therefore busily negotiating with other political actors besides Jewish Zionists—for example, the future Hashemite rulers of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan. The British had detached the Sharif of Mecca, an important Muslim religious official, from his erstwhile sovereign, the Turkish sultan. Furthermore, the negotiators promised to confer kingdoms on the Sharif’s sons in return for their support of the British effort in World War I. At the same time, the British also were putting finishing touches on what became the famous Sykes-Picot Agreement, which had the effect of dividing control over the same territory with their French allies.

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If Zionists who were anticipating an Allied victory thought the Balfour Declaration smoothed the way for a Jewish state, they were mistaken. The declaration was a small piece in a broader British strategy of dealing with multiple players while trying to win a costly war. Lipsky criticizes the British for later showing less than wholehearted enthusiasm for a Jewish state. But the British, after the war, did not view the Balfour Declaration as something to which they had unconditionally committed themselves. It was something they had granted as a means of prosecuting the war, perhaps like the 1915 Treaty of London, in which London promised their prospective Italian allies loads of territory then occupied by Austrians, Slavs, and other non-Italian nationalities. The British naturally had second thoughts about supporting all the treaty’s provisions once the shooting stopped.

Lord Balfour (center) visiting Tel Aviv in 1925. (Public domain)

The Balfour Declaration’s core statements were incorporated into the agreement drawn up by the war’s victors at San Remo, Italy, in August 1920. This postwar agreement spoke about establishing a “national homeland” for Jews in Palestine, without prejudice to the rights of non-Jewish inhabitants. But the main concerns at the conference were about divvying up spheres of influence in the Middle East between the British and French, and about apportioning the region’s rich oil resources to the victorious powers in the recently concluded war. According to some Zionist polemicists, the San Remo agreement was meant to establish a sovereign Jewish state embracing what are now the present states of Jordan and Israel. But the references in the agreement to a Jewish national homeland are less definitive than some historians seem to think.

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