The Balfour Declaration: Britain’s promise to the Holy Land – BBC 2


I knew that the BBC would manage to ignore the salient point about the Balfour Declaration – the fact that it was all about Manchester. It was!!  I’m telling you!  But, the way the BBC put it, you’d have thought that it was all the idea of a few posh blokes at the Foreign Office, mainly Leo Amery, presenter Jane Corbin’s relative.  Does anyone seriously imagine that the Foreign Office would just have spontaneously come up with the idea of a “Jewish homeland”?  The programme barely even mentioned the Zionist organisations whose idea it actually was.  Not impressed!

So let’s talk about the Manchester connection. Balfour himself, then the Foreign Secretary, was the MP for a Manchester constituency.  And that’s how he knew Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement and future first president of the state of Israel, who was a lecturer and leading biochemist at the University of Manchester.  And many of the other leading British Zionists of the time (I just need to get this bit in!) were Old Girls of my school or Old Boys of our “brother” school.

The senior library at my old school is never referred to in practice as anything other than “the senior library”, but it’s officially (there’s a plaque over the door, assuming it’s still there) named after one of the founders of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation, an Old Girl who’d made a lot of generous donations to the school. I didn’t go hanging round the boys’ school (honestly, folks, I didn’t!), but I understand that there’s a drama room/theatre there which is named after her husband, an Old Boy, who was another leading Zionist and another generous donor.

Yes, all right, all right, none of this is directly relevant to the Balfour Declaration and the course of Middle Eastern politics, but I’m making a point about the sort of people who were involved with it all. We’re not talking about ultra-Orthodox Jews who say that they should be allowed to build settlements on the West Bank because of something in the Old Testament.  A lot of Orthodox Jews at the time vehemently opposed the idea: there’s some religious text which specifically says not to try to set up a Jewish state.  We’re not talking about Ukrainian terrorists.  We’re talking about the sort of people who supported the education of children, girls and boys equally, in a secular environment where pupils from all different religious backgrounds were welcomed as equals.  And, OK, I’m biased because I love talking up the Manchester connection to anything 🙂 , but I do think that that’s worth bearing in mind.  Things in the Middle East haven’t turned out the way it was hoped they would.  And there’ve been a lot of articles in the press which seem to be making out that the Palestinians of 2017 are getting a raw deal because of the Balfour Declaration.  That isn’t very fair.  Things weren’t meant to be like this.

I like talking about the Russian Empire as well – although, in this case, I’m afraid it’s all negative. I’m deliberately saying “the Russian Empire” rather than “Russia”, because the large-scale pogroms weren’t in Russia: they were in areas which are now part of Moldova, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine.  But the May Laws, the anti-Jewish laws passed soon after Alexander III became tsar, came from St Petersburg, and the pogroms were pretty much sanctioned by the government.   And it was what went on in the Russian Empire that really kicked off the Zionist Movement.

But this sort of thing had happened before. No-one came up with the idea of establishing a Jewish state after, say, the Khmelnytsky massacres, or the expulsion of Jews from Castile.  OK, there’d always been plenty of Jews in “the Holy Land”, and there’d been a minor movement towards emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to the Holy Land in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it was mainly a religious thing involving disciples of the Gaon of Vilna.  Lithuania plays an important role in all this, because the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language was led by a bloke from … well, it’s now Belarus, but in those days it was part of the Governorate of Vilnius.  That was new as well.  No-one’d really tried to revive Hebrew as an everyday spoken language before.  All this was pretty new.

So, why? Well, it was the age of secularism – and, as I’ve already said, this was a secular movement, not a religious one.  No mystical Sabbatai Zvi figures this time.  Get practical.   There were a lot of new ideas about Judaism.  The “Manchester School of Zionism” was part of that – very much with the emphasis on secular rather than religious matters.  And “muscular Christianity” is a well-known Victorian term, but “muscular Judaism” was a term first used at a Zionist Congress, and it’s the same idea.  United played Benfica in the Champions League earlier this week, and someone was telling me about how Bela Guttmann, the great Benfica manager who led them to two European Cups in the 1960s, playing in Vienna in the 1920s.  Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish team for which Guttmann once played, won the Austrian League in 1925.  Apparently (thank you, Wikipedia!) they once gave West Ham a good thrashing, as well, LOL.  Sorry, I’ve now got off the point and gone on to football talk, but the point is that this was a very long way removed from traditional religion-based ideas about Judaism.

And it was the age of state-building. Italy had been unified.  Germany had been unified.  The different groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were agitating for independence.  Ireland was agitating for independence.  And the areas of the Balkans which had been under Ottoman rule had … well, Balkanised.  As the Ottoman Empire fell apart.  And that, of course, was another thing.  With the Ottoman Empire falling apart, there were inevitably going to be big changes in the Middle East – with its oil, and its strategic importance in terms of the Suez Canal.

And, according to the BBC, this is what the Balfour Declaration was all about – Britain’s view of what the Middle East was going to be like after the Ottoman Empire had finished collapsing. In fact, they didn’t really even manage to bring the Ottoman Empire into it – it was apparently just what Britain’s view of the Middle East from a particular point in time onwards was going to be like.  Because obviously the whole thing was just the idea of a few posh blokes at the Foreign Office.  Oh dear, BBC!  Context!!  Why didn’t you try to set it all into some sort of context?!

Having said which, obviously the Foreign Office was looking out for Britain’s interests.  That’s its job.  So, what was going on?  Well, the general idea was that Britain wanted to bring about the establishment of a friendly state in the area, because of the strategic issues.  There’s been a lot of criticism of this, but the BBC programme was fair enough to stress that Britain wasn’t just riding roughshod over the interests of the Palestinian Arabs.  The Foreign Office crew genuinely believed that there could be a “land of milk and honey” in which European Jewish immigrants and Palestinian Arab Muslims and Christians could all live in peace.  And be Britain’s ally.  There are letters saying as much.

But how much of a big deal was this idea of a future State of Israel being a crucial British ally in the area. For a start, it’s Egypt that controls access to the Suez Canal, not Israel.  And, as the joke goes, Israel hasn’t got any oil: it got the orange juice instead.  Furthermore, the Zionist idea wasn’t exactly a British Establishment thing.  It was a left-wing thing.  Kibbutzes are the most successful example in world history of communism in practice!   Hardly the sort of thing that yer old Harrovians would be into.  And, if the Foreign Office was just after a friendly state, then why not a friendly Arab state?  Britain and the Arabs had worked together against the Ottomans.  Lawrence of Arabia and all that.

So what else could it have been about? There’s a theory that Weizmann, having invented a process that was of great importance to the military during the Great War, wanted the Balfour Declaration as payment – but, come on, it’s a bit of a drastic way of rewarding someone!  I don’t think that idea really works.  Could it be that there genuinely was a bit of idealism going on here as well?  Well, yes, I think there was.  Part of it was the “Christian Zionist” idea, linked up with the Bible – but I don’t think the Foreign Office really makes decisions based on the Bible. But I do think that there was some genuine idealism coming back to Balfour and his links to the Manchester Zionists.

But, whichever way you look at it – and, OK, I think it has to be accepted that the belief that it was best for Britain’s strategic interests must have been paramount in the decision to issue the Balfour Declaration – you were talking about sending emigrants to a land that was already populated, and that’s what most of the controversy of the Balfour Declaration is about.

Just to wander a bit off the point again, it’s interesting that people argue that anyone fleeing persecution in the Russian Empire could (let’s not go into immigration quotas et al here) have gone to America instead. All these arguments about the rights of the existing population never get used when talking about emigration to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America or even South Africa.  I think that’s partly a basic cultural thing, though.  Lack of respect for cultures outside Europe and the Middle East.  And it’s also about numbers.  There’s rather a lot more room in America than there is in the Holy Land.  Although there are arguments about that as well.  Pro-Zionist historians point out that a lot of the land in what became Israel, especially in some of the desert areas, wasn’t populated and was going begging.  A taxi driver in the programme made this point as well!  It’s true.  Tel Aviv was a brand new city.  We’re not talking about the Turks taking over Constantinople and turning a cathedral into a mosque, or the Castilians taking over Cordoba and turning a mosque into a cathedral.

But there was, nevertheless, a sizeable population, mainly Arab and Muslim there already, and the rights of that population were supposed to be safeguarded, and the Balfour Declaration said that they would be.  And they haven’t been.  That’s where it’s gone wrong.  And the BBC programme, rather negatively, asked if that was inevitable.

Of course, the Balfour Declaration only talked about supporting the idea of setting up a Jewish state. It wasn’t binding on anyone.  The area was still part of the Ottoman Empire.  But it’s usually, and reasonably, credited both with popularising the idea of Zionism and with lending it gravitas.  Britain was still, at the time, the world’s leading power.  Support from Britain meant a hell of a lot.  The Balfour Declaration meant a hell of a lot.  And I do think that the people involved in it genuinely thought that the two groups of people could live in peace.  It does happen.  Until things go wrong.  India.  Bosnia-Herzegovina. Until things go wrong. And they usually do.

So what went wrong? Well, it has to be admitted that the Foreign Office screwed up from the start, by not even bothering to ask the Palestinian Arabs what they thought about it.  Even after pretty much promising to support the establishment of an Arab state encompassing what became Mandatory Palestine in return for Arab support against the Ottomans.  I think we have to hold our hands up here and admit to a lot of colonial arrogance.  Not our finest moment.  And the Arab leadership wouldn’t get involved in any organisations which involved Zionist participation.  Well, fair enough, from its viewpoint.  What had happened in the Russian Empire – which by this time had collapsed – was hardly the fault of the Palestinian Arabs.  What did it have to do with them?   And why was it up to Britain and France, who (it was supposed to be the Russian Empire as well, but that was pre-Revolution) took over control of the area after the end of the Great War, to decide what happened to the Middle East?   Did Britain and France get involved in the new states of Czechoslovakia and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes?  No.  Just the Middle East.   We didn’t

play very fair by the Arabs, and there’s not really any disputing that.

But was trouble inevitable? Well, it wasn’t really until the late 1920s that things started going badly wrong, first with extremist Arab groups launching terrorist attacks and then with extremist Zionist groups launching terrorist attacks.  And, really, a lot of that was due to external factors which no-one could have seen coming in 1917.  It was initially extremists from Syria who were stirring up trouble amongst the Palestinian Arabs.  And then it all completely kicked off with both sides because of the rise of Hitler and, as a result of that, a huge increase in the number of Jews wanting to emigrate to Palestine.  That hadn’t been part of the plan.  The Arabs weren’t happy.  Immigration quotas were imposed.  Refugees were treated very poorly.   The combination of that and attacks on Zionist immigrants by Arab terrorists resulted in an upsurge in Zionist terrorist attacks on Arab and British targets.  Everything just went horrendously wrong.

Was it all to do with external factors? Well, no.  Rural Palestinians were having a very bad time of it – but a lot of that was due to the devastation left by the Great War, and also to poor harvests, so it would have happened anyway.  But British attempts to deal with it, by restricting land purchases by Zionist groups, inevitably then wound up the Zionist groups.  As with the immigration issue, trying to placate one side just upset the other.  So much for the land of milk and honey. It ended up as a land of violence, with Britain stuck in the middle and eventually deciding to pull out.  What a mess.

It was eventually decided, as in India, and as in Ireland, that the best option was partition. Civil war broke out and, almost as soon as Israeli independence was declared, Egypt, Jordan and Syria invaded.  Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled during the fighting.  And there hasn’t really been any peace in the area ever since.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

So much external interference. From neighbouring states, with the growth of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism.  From the USA and the USSR, trying to score points during the Cold War.  Later, from Iran.  Everything escalated.  Israel took control of additional territory, in 1948 and, far more so, in 1967.   It’s also worth remembering that Jordan was never supposed to have had the West Bank in the first place: there was supposed to have been a Palestinian state there, but it never got chance to come into existence.  Tension grew.  Terrorism grew.  Everything spiralled.  It wasn’t until the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s that there seemed to be a genuine opportunity for peace, and that didn’t last very long: the Israeli Prime Minister of the day was assassinated by another Israeli, and Hamas weren’t having any of it.

So much of the programme was about what’s happened since 1948, rather than about the Balfour Declaration. A lot of it was about what’s going on now, 100 years after the Balfour Declaration.  Jane Corbin interviewed a man from New York, who’s living in one of the illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank.  Why, oh why, do people have to put their settlements there?  But then you read Little House on the Prairie and wonder why people had to settle in areas designated as “Indian Territory”.  This guy went on about the Bible and how it’s nothing to do with secular Israeli law or international law or the Balfour Declaration.  What are you supposed to say to that?  And she also interviewed a Palestinian activist who insisted that he would never accept any sort of partition and that he wanted the whole of what’s now Israel and the Occupied Territories as a Palestinian state.  What do you say to that?  As the programme said, there’s been an upsurge in extremist views on both sides.

It did try to end on an optimistic note, though. It was made clear that most people, as in every conflict zone in the world, just want to live in peace.  But there was some rather depressing talk about Jerusalem, and the failure to reach any compromise over its status.  It’s such a tragedy.  It should be the most visited city in the world.  Instead, it’s argued over and fought over and it’s a symbol of intractable conflict.

The question which the programme was supposedly asking was whether the aims of the Balfour Declaration, peace and unity, were doomed. Well, maybe unity was, but peace?  Jane Corbin concluded that it wasn’t, and that the problems have been a result of poor political decisions and that there’s still a chance for peace.

I don’t know that you can talk about the poor decisions and the Balfour Declaration in the same breath. No-one could possibly have known, in 1917, what was going to happen in Germany.  I don’t think anyone could really have foreseen that there’d be so much interference from other states.  And I don’t think anyone could really have foreseen the growth of religious and political extremism in the area – and that, as we’re all too well aware, is hardly just an issue in “the Holy Land”.

There’s been a hell of a lot of criticism of the Balfour Declaration in the media in recent weeks. Most of it involves people screeching that it was entirely an imperialist, colonialist decision made to try to secure Britain’s interests.  No.  It wasn’t.  It went back to when Arthur Balfour first met Chaim Weizmann in 1906, at a hotel in Manchester.  And Balfour’s connections with the British Palestine Committee – which was a Manchester organisation.  That wasn’t imperialism.  There really was some genuine idealism there.

It’s all gone horribly wrong. No-one’s disputing that.  But it really wasn’t meant to be like this.  And is there still a chance for peace?  Well, as the BBC programme said, yes, there probably is.  Let us all hope so.

6 thoughts on “The Balfour Declaration: Britain’s promise to the Holy Land – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Re the “Manchester connection” – you could have mentioned that the Balfour Declaration was effusively supported by the Manchester Guardian and that its editor, C.P. Scott, had introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George. The best media coverage of this topic must surely be Ian Black’s “The contested centenary of Britain’s ‘calamitous promise'” published by the Guardian on 17 October. Ian Black is a former specialist editor of the Guardian. His “long read” seems to be well-researched and balanced – definitely worth reading!


    • I noticed CP Scott’s name on the list of Freemen of the City of Manchester when I went on a tour of the Town Hall recently. Yes, he was well into it all, and so were some of the other Guardian journalists – which makes it quite amusing that this week’s Guardian seems to be full of articles saying what a bad decision it all was …


      • Chris Deeley

        I thought Ian Black’s article was well balanced. Re a good or bad decision – does one judge on the basis of contemporaneous or contemporary wisdom? A good example of a really bad decision is the British Empire complying with USA terms during the Washington Naval Conference. I quite like Napoleon’s approach, who didn’t care whether his generals were good/bad or lucky/unlucky, so long as they won.


  2. You can’t see into the future … I think you can only really judge on the basis of the situation at the time. It’s not very fair to blame people who were making decisions in 1917 – which a lot of the press are doing – for problems in 2017.


    • Chris Deeley

      Yes, but any assessment of any decision can only be based on the decision’s consequences. Congratulations or condemnations (blame) reflect outcomes that are fortunate or unfortunate (sometimes depending on the assessor’s point of view), but unpredictable. As I always say: “There’s a lot of luck in life”.


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