President Chaim Weizmann, who was a science professor before becoming Israel's first president, March, 1949. Wikicommons/ Hugo Mendemson. some rights reserved.After wading through a number of articles giving a retrospective, or more accurately, anachronistic views of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, I wish to contribute to the discussion.
I will begin with an interview I heard on the radio recently. The person being interviewed was Yehuda Meshi Zahav, of the anti-Zionist Eida Haredi movement, famous for organizing anti-government acts including burning Israeli flags, fasting and wearing mourning clothes on Israel Independence Day and other such activities. He is an eleventh generation Haredi Jew and he is the last of his line of anti-Zionists. Today he heads the ZAKA organization, which deals with the collection of the dead from terrorist attacks, traffic accidents and natural disasters as well as giving first aid to casualties as first responders. In 2012 his son was drafted into the IDF and served in a combat unit. What I found interesting was how real world situations impacted on ideological beliefs. More to the point, I was impressed by how Yehuda’s earlier beliefs and actions are not particularly relevant to evaluating his activities today or those of his son. In the same way I found most of the discussion evaluating the Balfour Declaration not particularly relevant to the situation today.
Political Zionists and Practical Zionists
Historically the Balfour Declaration was a consequence of several factors. From the earliest days of the Zionist movement, it was considered important to gain international recognition. Theodor Herzl saw this as a necessary objective without which there could be no Jewish state. Other Zionists were not as convinced as Herzl and saw establishing facts on the ground as being more important. This was the difference between the Political Zionists and the Practical Zionists as they were referred to then. There was a great deal of irony in this division within the Zionist movement. Herzl led the Political Zionists and was singularly unsuccessful in getting international recognition. During his time as a leader of the Zionist Movement and almost as an afterthought, he set up the institutions which enabled the practical successes of state building, without which there would be no State of Israel today. Despite this, Herzl died thinking that he had been a failure because no international recognition had been achieved.
In 1917 the recognition that Herzl sought was achieved through the efforts of Chaim Weizmann, who later became the first President of Israel and, ironically, during Herzl’s time was one of the leading Practical Zionists. Though in simplified Zionist mythology, Weizmann was granted the Balfour Declaration because of his contribution to the war effort, in fact Weizmann was aided by other Zionists who gained crucial approval from the French and Italians before the British war cabinet issued the declaration.
This was accompanied or shortly followed by approval from Prince Feisal, a significant Hejazi Arab leader, and vague approval from President Wilson. The British-Zionist negotiations were part of the war diplomacy which included the Hussein-McMahon correspondence with the Arabs of the Hijaz and negotiations between Ibn Saud and the British colonial administration in India. These were all in addition to negotiations about the same areas between Russian, French and British diplomats. All of this wartime diplomacy had a major impact on post-war developments but none of it played out in the way specified in the agreements concluded by the participants.
The Balfour Declaration was not all that the Zionists wanted in the way of international recognition, but like many partial Zionist achievements, the Zionist leadership made do with what they received. The Balfour Declaration became firmly established in international law in the San Remo Conference and was written into the decision of the League of Nations to award the mandate to Great Britain.
So, finally, the Zionist movement had achieved Herzl’s dream of international recognition. However, in the political realities of the post-war world, this meant less than Herzl had hoped. In several stages the British government first distanced itself from the declaration and finally completely abandoned it. The first distancing came when Britain unilaterally partitioned the mandate to create the Emirate of Transjordan. In the following years the British government placed limitations on Jewish land purchases and immigration. All of these were acts designed to advance British imperial interests and especially to gain the good will of the various Arab leaderships. The British government completely abandoned the Balfour Declaration when it issued the White Paper of 1939. The Arab leadership of the mandate, to the detriment of their cause, did not appreciate these British moves at the time. Nor do they now. For the most part Israeli and British current commemoration of the Balfour Declaration tend to ignore these developments as well.
The British abandonment of the Balfour Declaration continued during and after World War II. The British government abstained in the UN General Assembly vote to partition the mandate into a Jewish and an Arab state. The most successful Arab army in the 1948 war was financed and armed by the British government, led by British officers and non-coms and was given specific permission to engage in the war by the British Foreign Secretary. It took the British government a full year to extend de facto recognition to the Jewish state and almost another year to extend de jure recognition. The British Government abstained on Israel’s request to become a member of the United Nations.
“We’ll take it from here.”
As a Jewish Zionist Israeli, what do I make of all of this history and the current discussion? In my reading I came across a portion of an article by Einat Wilf which summarized my views. I will end this essay with a quotation from that article.
“The idea of Jews as active players in history – as masters of their fate — still grates on the consciousness of peoples and civilizations that were structured on the presumption that the Jews should have headed to the dustbin of history. For too many, the story that Jews could attain something for themselves by operating, as all peoples do, on multiple fronts – diplomatically, economically, militarily – is still so fanciful that to some, the story of Israel only makes sense if presented as a series of handouts by foreign powers with shady motivations.
To the chagrin of those who want to put the Jews back “in their proper place”, the State of Israel came into being thirty-one years after the Balfour Declaration, precisely because Zionist Jews were done entrusting their fate to others. Through their actions, from 1917 on, the Zionist Jews simply said to Britain, and the world: “Thank you very much Lord Balfour. We’ll take it from here.”
Mayor of Tel Aviv showing the city to Lord Balfour, 1925. Wikicommons/ Matson Photography collections, Library of Congress. Some rights reserved.