The Balfour Declaration: a tale of enchantment and disenchantment

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On 2 November 1917, Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent a letter to Lord Rothschild, unofficial leader of Great Britain’s Jewish community, affirming his government’s intention to support the creation of a ‘Jewish national home’ in Palestine. The vaguely worded commitment was formally incorporated, three years later, into the text that awarded Great Britain mandatory authority over Palestine under the aegis of the League of Nations, enshrining the promotion and protection of Jewish settlement in Palestine under international law.

The Balfour Declaration is more studied and more talked about than almost any of the numerous documents related to this hugely complicated and consequential moment in World War I history. There is no simple way to tell the story of why Great Britain embarked on a policy to support what was at the time a marginal Jewish movement and why it would, for as long as it did, keep promises that so quickly drew significant opposition.

Because of its geopolitical centrality and present day potency, the so-called Balfour policy has drawn the interest of most scholars to the diplomatic exchanges that registered deep scepticism of what was deemed a risky undertaking unlikely to serve long-term British strategic and political interests.

But British politicians who advanced the Balfour Declaration were not thinking long-term. Their attention was focused on the plight of their country still mired in an apocalyptic war striking down too many of its young men and depleting too many of its resources. The Balfour policy was intended to help Great Britain and its allies win the war by convincing the Russians to remain on the battlefield and persuading the Americans to send their boys to replenish allied troops.

Even while backing Zionists, British thinking was imbued with ordinary antisemitic tropes in assuming that Jews controlled both the socialists governing Russia and the capitalist bankers presumably dominating decisions in America. Above all, it was calculated to expand an imperial presence worthy of Great Britain’s wartime suffering.

It is important to remember that people see the world from where they are: the world rooted in time and place. People can do all they can to increase their knowledge and gain deeper insight. They can read history and philosophy; they can travel; they can ask questions and debate, but they will never fully or completely transcend where they are.

Just as British policymakers could not imagine a Jewish state emerging from this 120 word letter so, too, did many Zionists see Great Britain’s proffer of support as tinged with the same sinister elements they had encountered during the lifetime of Zionism’s iconic founder, Theodor Herzl. His insistence that Jewish national self-determination required international recognition and backing convinced some Zionists to forfeit their allegiance to the land of Israel if global permission could be secured for an unpopulated area on some continent as a safe haven for Jews. Even while acknowledging the Balfour Declaration as an achievement, Zionists worried, with good reason, that their new British overlords would extract concessions and essentially compromise their redemptive ambitions to transform the Jewish people.

Until 1917, any assessment of the Zionist project would have given it high marks for its educational and cultural projects but modest to weak grades for its economic activities noting the relatively small number of agricultural communities then viable and fully stabilised. Whether or not these grades were merited or inflated, there could be no denying the absolute Zionist failure on the political front. The Balfour Declaration and its incorporation into the terms of the British Mandate shifted, if not reversed that assessment posing a challenge to Zionists who fully believed not only that they could create their national home simply by force of vision and commitment but also that they had been making progress since Herzl’s death towards their redemptive goals.

These were the Zionists who feared the concessions they would have to make in deference to an ascendant political Zionism with its own demands for a rational setting of priorities in order to meet standards set by global interests. They worried that British support and international legitimacy would constrain activities or force Zionists to redefine their aims, undercutting the national destiny so many had come to embrace and were reluctant to let go of.

From its very first days, then, the Balfour Declaration was at the centre of clashing narratives about the establishment of a Jewish national home. A dialectic of enchantment and disenchantment polarised Zionists between those who read the statement as both granting permission and setting parameters for Zionist activities and those who construed it, with concern, as dialling down the intensity of Zionist ambitions to transform what it meant to be a Jew. But if the Balfour Declaration reminded Zionists of their ideological diversity, it also launched an argument for the value of inclusiveness and the notion that if a Jewish homeland was to be created, it would have to make room for everyone.

Most chronicles of Palestine’s Jewish National Home during British rule tell the
story as a communal narrative linking what Zionists recorded in prose and poetry with the way in which the national idea actually settled into people’s minds. But because the colonisation of Palestine brought men and women of diverse backgrounds together in what appeared the most unfamiliar of circumstances, it forced them, whether or not they acknowledged it, to confront the dissonance between Zionist theory and practice. For imagining a homeland fully liberating Jews from their marginal and subordinate existence was much easier than bestowing on it full and absolute harmony.

But still, few ask whether the idea of a national home made it possible for Jews to see Palestine as the place they could truly call their home. Thinking about the individual in this context is a different way of thinking about Zionism and about the impact of the Balfour Declaration on the lives of Jews in Palestine. How Palestine’s Jews shaped their particular lives under the shadow of the radical differences between the homes they left behind and the homeland they encountered is a story yet untold.

Professor Donna Robinson Divine will speak about ‘The Balfour Declaration and the transformation of mandate Palestine into a Jewish national home’ on 15 March, 7.30pm, at Mandelbaum House, 385 Abercrombie St, Darlington, Sydney.

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About Author

Donna Robinson Divine

Donna Robinson Divine is the Morningstar Family Professor of Jewish Studies and Professor of Government, Emerita at Smith College. Her most recent books include 'Exiled in the Homeland: Zionism and the Return to Mandate Palestine’ and 'Politics and Society in Ottoman Palestine: The Arab Struggle for Survival and Power.'

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