Jonathan Schneer, professor of British history at Georgia Tech University, has written two books, not one. The first, an account of what has been called the “Arab Awakening,” tells the story of the effort by a few distinguished and brave Arabs during the Great War to create, with British help, an Arab kingdom out of the failing Ottoman Empire. The second describes the simultaneous activity of the new Zionist movement to win support from Britain for a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine. To chronicle both stories under the single title “The Balfour Declaration” exaggerates the reach of Lord Balfour’s famous letter.
The experience of lawyers in ordinary commercial affairs teaches that ambiguous promises yield unenforceable or problematic obligations. In international affairs, the phenomenon is writ large. As Britain fought a desperate war against the Central Powers in Europe, it determined to weaken Ottoman hegemony in the Middle East. To that end, ambiguous promises were made to two possible allies. Whether the contradictory vagaries of British assurances to Arabs and Zionists were intentional, negligent, or merely insouciant is a vexing question raised by Schneer’s study, which might have been titled “Lessons in Diplomatic Obfuscation.”
In 1914, Hussein, the grand sharif of Mecca, carefully conspired against the Ottoman government in Constantinople. Although appearing to support Turkish armies in the Great War, Hussein, with British encouragement, worked to persuade Arab leaders in Arabia and Syria to throw off the Turks. In Damascus, Feisal, one of Hussein’s talented sons, devised a program known as the “Damascus Protocol.” The document outlined the boundaries of a new independent Arab kingdom comprising what we now know, roughly, as Arabia, Syria (including Palestine), and Iraq. British approval was sought, but Britain temporized. At last, on October 24, 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, high commissioner of Egypt, wrote to Hussein, generally accepting the boundaries set out in the Damascus Protocol, but excluding “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo.” If the territory west of these four points was being excluded, then McMahon was not including Palestine. But it has been argued that the translation given to Hussein led him to believe McMahon was referring to districts in a larger Arabic sense, covering, in part at least, Palestine. It is uncertain whether Hussein’s reply to McMahon of November 5, 1915, can be read to reject the exclusion of Palestine.
While McMahon was dealing with Hussein, François Georges-Picot of France and Britain’s Mark Sykes were redrawing the map of the Middle East, allocating specific regions of domination or influence to each of the two powers. Palestine (from Acre running south to Gaza), a touchy matter, was assigned to an international condominium, to be organized later. (That was not the burden of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence.) The seeming contradiction between the “agreements” of McMahon-Hussein on the one hand and Sykes-Picot on the other was later seen by Arabs as perfidious.
Meanwhile, Hussein and his sons pressed on with the Arab revolt and, to great astonishment, they roundly defeated the Turks. The contribution of Lawrence of Arabia to that effort is well known. Schneer retells the story in close detail and competent style.
Schneer’s treatment of the Balfour Declaration is equally detailed; we are perhaps told more than we need to know about the immense cast of characters. The hero of the story, Chaim Weizmann, professor of chemistry at Manchester, was an unceasing lobbyist in British government offices for Zionism and the rebirth of a Jewish Palestine. Why should Britain care? It is true that many Englishmen, biblical sentimentalists, regarded the return of the Jews to Palestine as an enchanting vision. In A Piece of My Mind (1956), Edmund Wilson maintained that there is something in the English character that “has a special affinity to Hebrew.” Indeed, Lord Balfour was moved to tears by Weizmann’s account of the Jewish struggle, and Weizmann’s contributions through chemistry to British munitions production helped. Foreign Office types, however, were simply delusional. In a soft form of anti-Semitism, they believed that Jewish money and international power would be useful to the British war effort.
With multiple forces at work, and with the support of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson through Justice Louis Brandeis, the British War Cabinet authorized Balfour, the foreign secretary, to proceed on October 31, 1917. He was to inform Lord Walter Rothschild, nominal leader of the Zionists, that
His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Balfour’s letter was issued on November 2, 1917. A photocopy in the Encyclopedia Judaica shows that the paragraph above was in quotes, to indicate War Cabinet action.
But what was a “national home”? Ironically, Schneer writes, the term originated with the London Zionist Political Committee. Mention of a “state” would push their luck, it was thought. Rothschild invited Balfour to use the “national home” formula, and the War Cabinet obliged. Weizmann had been away, and in his memoir, Trial and Error (1949), he writes that he did not like the Declaration “at first.”
Whatever the meaning of the Declaration, the next step was of greater legal and diplomatic consequence. In 1922, the League of Nations granted the Palestine Mandate to Britain in terms stronger than Balfour’s. Britain was to achieve the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national home by “reconstituting” the home in that country. This multilateral grant of power by the League had precedential force for the later (1948) legitimation of the State of Israel by the United Nations.
The subtitle of Schneer’s book attributes to the Balfour Declaration “the origins of the Arab-Israeli conflict.” That may go too far. It is true that the continued presence of Jews in Palestine, even after Roman ravages, Arab conquest, and Ottoman rule, did not provoke sharp Arab resistance, and that serious trouble began only after Balfour’s letter. But the proximate cause of Arab violence may be better ascribed to the Palestine Mandate as proposed at San Remo in 1920, not to the Declaration of 1917. For the Mandate would give Britain control over immigration into Palestine, and it was the great leap in Jewish arrivals after 1920 that precipitated Arab riots. Between 1920 and 1936, about 280,000 Jews immigrated to the country, bringing the number to 404,000—almost 30 percent of the total. Between 1933 and 1936 alone, the Jewish community expanded 83 percent, as 166,000 new settlers arrived. On this view, it was the diabolical policies of Nazi Germany that precipitated the Arab-Israeli conflict. At bottom, however, the Arab constitutional principle that “Palestine is a purely Arab land surrounded on all sides by purely Arab lands” was decisive, as Martin van Creveld has detailed in his recent study, The Land of Blood and Honey.
Schneer gets high marks for his deeply researched work. His affection, however, for dead metaphors and exotic clichés (we hear too often of the myth of Cadmus “sowing dragon’s teeth,” for example) does not enhance his achievement.