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Why the Balfour Declaration did not promise a Jewish state

Lord Arthur James Balfour, former Prime Minister of the UK [al whit/Twitter]

For some time, I have been grappling with the British reasons behind the Balfour Declaration and what it really meant.

Let us start with what we know.

In early March 1915, with a sense of urgency, Czarist Russia demanded that Britain and France should enter into negotiations over various concerns of the Entente powers in the Ottoman Empire. The Russians, seeking to secure control over the Bosporus and Dardanelle straights, were prompted to act after the launching of the British Gallipoli campaign on 19 February 1915, which aimed, in its first stage, at capturing Istanbul by a naval force.

British strategic imperatives in the Middle East

Russian interests in Thrace, the Straights and Eastern Anatolia, were agreed upon by the British in the Constantinople Agreement of 12 March 1914 (to be followed by the French on 10 April 1915). Yet, aware that it would soon be confronted by similar French demands, the government in London decided to form an interdepartmental committee, chaired by Sir Maurice de Bunsen, to look into, and define British strategic imperatives in the Middle East.

Delineation of the British and French interests, however, had to be negotiated. These negotiations started in London, on 23 November 1915, where the British were represented by Sir Mark Sykes and the French by Francois George-Picot. The two reached an initial agreement in January 1916.

UK Labour MP: ‘Mark’ Balfour centenary by recognising Palestine

Until the conclusion of negotiations between Sykes and George-Picot in January, there is no record of any meaningful contacts between the government of British Prime Minister at the time, HH Asquith (who served from 1908 to 1916) and the Zionist movement. Any contacts existed were made on personal, non-official bases.

Although it was met with criticism in Whitehall, the government decided to ratify the draft agreement between Sykes and George-Picot on 16 May 1916; first, because it did not look politically tactful to ask for revisions when France was shouldering the heaviest burden of the war; and second, because of the failure of the Gallipoli campaign.

It should also be remembered that, by then, the British had not yet made any substantive progress, neither in their Iraqi campaign nor in the Sinai expedition.

First official contact with Zionists

It was during that crucial period between the circulation of the draft Sykes–Picot agreement and its ratification that the first British official contacts with the Zionists were initiated.2

What prompted these contacts was the allusion to the aspirations of Zionist Jews to settle in Palestine, included in the critical response to the Sykes-Picot draft agreement, written by Captain Reginald Hall, chief of Naval Intelligence, in January 1916.

A month later, Hugh O’Beirne, one of the most senior officials at the Foreign Office, distributed a minute, summing up the FO’s views of the political advantages that adoption of Zionist interests in Palestine could bring to the allies’ cause, especially in the US.

Palestinians hold banners during a protest against the Balfour Declaration on its 100th anniversary, in front of the British Cultural Center in Ramallah, West Bank on 18 October 2017 [Issam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

Since the search had already begun for ways to release Britain from her obligations to France in the Middle East, even before the ratification of the agreement, Sykes moved to explore the Zionist option.3

From the British perspective, the area south of the line extending from northern Iraq to the Mediterranean, or from the last E of Acre to the last K of Kirkuk, as Sykes once put it, should come under British control.

UK Foreign Secretary: 1917 Balfour Declaration terms ‘not fully realised’

While it was obvious that the agreement with the French did not convincingly fulfil such a vision, it was believed that bringing the Zionists to the table could supersede the French demands and secure southern Syria as a British area of influence.

Cynical calculations

Claims by some historians that the British Zionist policy was motivated by Biblical, Protestant-Zionist affinities, are a bit farfetched.4

The British approach to the Zionists was rather born out of cynical calculations, shaped by strategic requirements of the empire in Egypt, the Eastern Mediterranean, Iraq and India. Neither PM Asquith, foreign secretary Edward Grey, nor the two Catholics, Mark Sykes and Hugh O’Beirne, was a Zionist.

Of the two Jewish members of government at the time, Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montague, only the first had Zionist connections.

Samuel’s January 1915 memorandum, in which he invited the government to take the Jewish aspirations in Palestine into consideration, did not raise much interest. The Asquith government took no action on Samuel’s proposal, his memorandum was not circulated to the concerned departments, and was kept, and can still be found, in the cabinet papers.5

Moreover, De Bunsen’s June 1915 report did not include any reference to Zionism or Zionist interests.

[5pillarsuk.com]

It was evidently upon reading Hall’s remarks and O’Beirne’s minute that Sykes took the initiative to make his first Zionist contact. He met with Samuel and Moses Gastor in the spring of 1916, and later in the year with Aharon Aaronsen.

At the same time, during the months prior to the change of government in December 1916, both Sykes and officials at the Foreign Office exchanged various ideas for the accommodation of Zionist aspirations in Palestine, with the full knowledge of Sir Edward Grey.

Neither David Lloyd George, Asquith’s successor in Downing Street, nor Arthur Balfour, who replaced Grey at the Foreign Office, undertook any major shift of policy in the Middle East. It is true that Lloyd George was more enthusiastic about the Middle Eastern front, mainly hoping to bring some good news to the British people, dismally tired of the longevity and horrendous losses of the war.

Yet, it is also true that discussion about the withdrawal from commitments made to the French in the Middle East, as well as about Zionist interests in Palestine, had already started before the taking of office by Lloyd George’s government. Above all, Sykes not only remained to serve the new government, but was also promoted to the cabinet secretariat.

‘The national home’

In its meeting of 31 October 1917, Lloyd George’s government approved the text of the foreign secretary’s declaration to the Zionists, which had already been subjected to several drafts. The 2 November 1917 declaration took the form of a letter from Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, the most eminent of the Jewish community in the UK, to be communicated to the Zionist Federation in Great Britain and Ireland. It read:

“His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.”7

The term “national home” is no doubt an ambiguous one. It certainly did not mean a state; and as James Galvin has observed, it had no precedent in international law. Almost every single Zionist leader in the subsequent decades, together with British officials who came to deal with the Palestine question, was aware of the ambiguity of the term.

#Balfour100

Even after the founding of the state of Israel, doubts were still lingering about the intent behind the “national home” expression.

In 1949, the Jewish Year Book of International Law published an article by Ernst Frankenstein, a prominent professor at The Hague Academy of International Law, entitled “The Meaning of the Term National Home for the Jewish People”.8 Employing an arsenal of legal rhetoric, Frankenstein could not find any concrete shred of evidence to prove that the Balfour declaration implied the establishing of a Jewish state in Palestine.

During the British mandate period, the first clarification of the declaration was to be suggested in the July 1937 Peel Commission report, which recommended the partitioning of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab one to be united with Trans-Jordan.9 The Peel Commission recommendations, however, did not stand for long, for in November 1938, another commission, headed by judge Woodhead, reached the conclusion that the partition plan was impractical and could not be implemented.

Balfour-Curzon correspondence

In a research visit to the Public Record Office, a few years ago, I came across a highly interesting document, enclosing some early 1919 correspondence between Lord Balfour, the foreign secretary, and his fellow member of the Cabinet, Lord President of the Council, Lord Curzon. It is perhaps worth noting that Curzon was to succeed Balfour in the Foreign Office later in the same year.

The first of Curzon’s correspondence to Balfour, who was at the time in Paris for the peace conference, was written on 16 January 1919, following a meeting that Curzon held with Major General Arthur Wigram Money, Allenby’s administrator of Jerusalem.

In his letter, Curzon said that what he understood from Money is that: “A Jewish government in any form would mean an Arab rising, and the nine-tenth of the population who are not Jews would make a short shrift with the Hebrews.”

Indicating his agreement with Money’s assessment, Curzon added, “As you know, I share these views, and have for long felt that the pretensions of Weizmann and Company are extravagant and out to be checked.”

A few days later, on 20 January, Balfour replied. His letter was brief but unequivocal, asserting the view that the British commitment to the Zionists did not entail the establishment of a Jewish state. He wrote: “As far as I know, Weizmann has never put forward a claim for the Jewish Government of Palestine. Such a claim is in my opinion certainly inadmissible, and personally I do not think we should go further than the original declaration which I made to Lord Rothschild.”

On 26 January, Curzon wrote a second, elaborate letter, in which he explained to Balfour that “… while Weizmann may say one thing to you, and while you may mean one thing by a National Home, he is out for something quite different.”

No Jewish state in Palestine

With a growing sense of desperation over the Palestine policy, Curzon sent a third letter to Balfour, on 25 March 1919, commenting on the decision by the Peace Conference to send an American commission of inquiry to the Arab Middle East.

Overthrow the Balfour Declaration

He wrote: “The one thing I should personally like the commission to do would be to extract us from the position in Palestine… I told you some time ago that Dr Weizmann had departed altogether from the modest programme upon which he agreed with you a year or more ago, and that the ambitions of the Zionists were exceeding all bounds.”

Curzon concluded his correspondence by expressing the hope that the American commission, known later as the King-Crane Commission, would advise that “the mandate in Palestine should be conferred upon anyone else rather than Great Britain.”

These were the opinions of two grandees of the British government during and immediately after the war. While both served as foreign secretaries, Balfour was the one whose name would forever be attached to the infamous declaration to the Zionists. Yet both were unmistakably clear that the declaration was not about the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine.

There is no doubt that the Balfour declaration was the source of all evils in the Arab Middle East. It does seem, however, that even that piece of evil was not meant to give rise to the monster it came to bring into existence.

This article first appeared on Middle East Eye, 1 November 2017

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  • Kaminoyona

    Opinion from a Jew hater.

    • Vinegar Hill

      The truth hurts and that is obvious with your feeble response which attempts to deflect from reality.

      • Kaminoyona

        The truth?

        this article is opinion from someone who is extremely biased.

        • Vinegar Hill

          I am impressed with your analysis which demonstartes that the writer is a “Jew hater” and also “extremely biased”.

    • Bishadi

      Jews know that zionist are defending an apartheid and why BDS, JFJFP and JVP even exist.
      Have you ever even met a jew?

  • Vinegar Hill

    The problem is that Israel has perverted and raised upon a pedestal the Balfour letter. In the Israeli so called declaration of independence, which is based upon lies, it uses this document along with others, to pretend that Jews have the right to establish a Jewish state in Palestine which accordingly has a clear legal base which was not true. What was established was a state created out of a war of aggeression with no legal base.

    • Kaminoyona

      The only “war of aggression” is when the Arabs refused their own state in order to kill every Jew so they could steal their land.

      • Vinegar Hill

        During the Mandate period “the land” belonged to the majority population, ie. the indigenous Palestinian Muslims and you have the gall to say that the Arabs” wanted to steal their land. You are utterly immoral and despicable with your lies and distortions of truth.

        • si91

          Most of the land under the Mandate was under government control, just as it had been under Ottoman rule. Very little of it was privately owned by Jews or Arabs, and even much of that was owned by effendi absentee landlords.

          • Vinegar Hill

            The Mandate was established to prepare the majority indigenous population for statehood. The majority wrere always the Palestinian Muslims and the Palestinian Jews were always the minority. Why do you lie and pervert the truth of the situation?

          • charliematerne

            Where, in the Mandate, is there a mention of “the majority indigenous population” or ” the Palestinian Muslims” or “Muslims”? Please give us the specific Article of the Mandate

          • Vinegar Hill

            It is accepted that when a mandate terminated sovereignty would automatically pass to the people of the territories concerned. “…the majority indigenous population” were “…the Palestinian Muslims…”.
            Don’t foget that the indigenous Palestinian Jews were always a minority.

          • charliematerne

            If you had ever actually read the Mandate you would know that it was for a HOMELAND FOR THE JEWISH PEOPLE and never mentions the “indigenous population” who were mostly immigrants who followed the higher wages paid by the Jews (which I do not condemn)
            the “mandate terminated sovereignty” when Israel declared itself as an independent nation state

          • Vinegar Hill

            If you read about the idea behind Mandates you will see what I have written is correct.
            Furthermore, the Jews werre to have a homeland in the Mandate for the indigenous Palestinian peoples not a state.

          • charliematerne

            Where, in the Mandate, is anyone other than the Jews specifically named? Are we about to go bck to you trying to explain how “in” doesn’t really mean “in”?

          • Vinegar Hill

            I’ll repeat….”If you read about the idea behind Mandates you will see what I have written is correct.” You can add to this that the Jews were to have a “homeland “…..”in”…Palestine.

            PS : Don’t forget that documents stand or fall on their wording.

          • charliematerne

            Paragraph 3 of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine:
            Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country;

            From the Franco-British agreement on borders of the various Mandates in the Middle East:
            Delineating the final geographical area of Palestine designated for the Jewish National Home as of September 16, 1922:11 PALESTINE INTRODUCTORY. POSITION, ETC. “Palestine lies on the western edge of the continent of Asia between Latitude 30º N. and 33º N., Longitude 34º 30’ E. and 35º 30’ E. On the North it is bounded by the French Mandated Territories of Syria and Lebanon, on the East by Syria and Trans-Jordan, on the South-west by the Egyptian province of Sinai, on the South-east by the Gulf of Aqaba and on the West by the Mediterranean. The frontier with Syria was laid down by the AngloFrench Convention of the 23rd December, 1920, and its delimitation was ratified in 1923. Briefly stated, the boundaries are as follows: – North. – From Ras en Naqura on the Mediterranean eastwards to a point west of Qadas, thence in a northerly direction to Metulla, thence east to a point west of Banias. East. – From Banias in a southerly direction east of Lake Hula to Jisr Banat Ya’pub, thence along a line east of the Jordan and the Lake of Tiberias and on to El Hamme station on the Samakh-Deraa railway line, thence along the centre of the river Yarmuq to its confluence with the Jordan, thence along the centres of the Jordan, the Dead Sea and the Wadi Araba to a point on the Gulf of Aqaba two miles west of the town of Aqaba, thence along the shore of the Gulf of Aqaba to Ras Jaba. South. – From Ras Jaba in a generally north-westerly direction to the junction of the Neki-Aqaba and Gaza-Aqaba Roads, thence to a point west-north-west of Ain Maghara and thence to a point on the Mediterranean coast north-west of Rafa. West. – The Mediterranean Sea.”
            Notice the words:
            “Delineating the final geographical area of Palestine designated for the Jewish National Home as of September 16, 1922”

            PS : Don’t forget that documents stand or fall on their wording

          • Vinegar Hill

            That defines the area for a “homeland” not a state. furthermore, it whas to be a “homeland”…. “in” Palestine not instead of it.

          • charliematerne

            Why do you continue to use the same childish and flawed argument? Each time you do, I give you a definition of “homeland” and even a definition of “National Home” that shows the foolishness of your argument. Then I ask you where “IN” the Mandate is there a provision for anything “IN” the geographic area the British called “Palestine” for anything other than a Jewish state. You never bother to answer the questions because “IN” means “IN” all of the Mandate area, between the river and the sea and between Sinai and Lebanon for the future (at the time) and current State of Israel. Perhaps with a little soul searching you could come up with another lie to support

          • Vinegar Hill

            A “homeland” according to international law was never synonymous with a state. Read what our friend Ernest Frankenstein has to say on the matter.
            The Balfour declaration was included in the mandate and there you will find “in”.

          • charliematerne

            Here we go again. One more time:
            Definition of homeland
            1: native land :fatherland
            2 :a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin;
            Should I get the number for the US Department of HOMELAND security so you can call them and they can laugh at you?
            Where, in the Mandate is there any reference to an Arab state or territory “IN” the geographic area the British/Mandate referred to as “Palestine”

          • Vinegar Hill

            No “charlie” that is not what the international law expert, Ernst Frankenstein argued in the Jewish journal of international law. His conclusion, in legal terms was that a “homeland” was not “synonymous with a state”. Why do you continue with your charade?
            I’ll repeat the Balfour declaration was incorporated in the Mandate. You will, therefore, find that the Jews were to have a “homeland “in” Palestine.

          • NYCMedic

            Actually, the Arabs that lived in that area identified themselves as Syrians, not Palestinians.

        • Kaminoyona

          Arabs in the majority were nomadic back then as well as there is the fact that the land was well known to be desolate and in need of a population hence the Ottoman invited the early Jewish settlers.

          These settlers drained the swamps to make the land fertile after centuries of neglect.

          What were your Arabs doing during that time?
          Why did they not drain the swamps?

          Oh thats right they were busy herding goats and being nomadic.

          • Vinegar Hill

            What a pathetic attempt to avoid the truth. Palestine was occupied by indigenous Palestinian Muslims who were the majority and the minority were always the Palestinian Jews. You then feebly attempt to claim that the latter should be owners of the land because of what they did when they ilegally took control of the territory.

        • charliematerne

          “The Land” belonged to rich Turks and Syrians who sold it to Jews. Much of “the Land” was, and still is, State Land. During the Mandate that made it British administered land for the National Home for the Jewish People.. After independence, title to that land passed to the State of Israel. The “Arabs” who later started calling themselves “Palestinians” owned very little of “the land”

          • Vinegar Hill

            The indigenous Palestinians owned more than the 6% (5.8%) by the indigenous Jews.

          • charliematerne

            But not more than the 90% or so owned by the State of Israel. Read the Mandate

          • Vinegar Hill

            The state did not exist prior to 1948 so could it own the land.
            The Mandate says nothing about a “state” for the Jewish people.

          • charliematerne

            It certainly doesn’t say anything about creating another (22nd) Arab state

          • Helen4Yemen

            Did you mean to say: sold it to the Ashkenazi who is 100% of Europoean origin? What were goddamned Lithuanians, Hungarian, Ukrainians doing on that land? Jewry owned only 01.% of Palestine when the Zionists arrived in 1882, is that not true?

            Palestine land ownership by Jews
            Please remember the “Jews” are all foreign
            since there are no more Palestinian Jews left
            anywhere in the world today.

            1882 …… 22,500 … 0.1%
            1900 ….. 218,000 … 0.8%
            1914 ….. 418,000 … 1.6%
            1927 ….. 865,000 … 3.2%
            1936 .. 1,231,000 … 4.7%
            1945 … 1,588,365 … 6.0%
            1947 … 1,734,000 … 6.6%

          • NYCMedic

            And your point is?
            The “goddamned Lithuanians, Hungarian, Ukrainians” were barely recognized as citizens in those countries, had limited rights, and were under tremendous oppression (pogroms, etc.) but did still have a historic connection to Israel.
            Each of the steps in the process that led us to where we are today was either a geoppolitical power play or the response to a bad situation. That’s why it’s such a mess.

          • Helen4Yemen

            95% of world Jewry is totally of European origin, the cousins of these:

            Alan Dershoitz……. 98.5% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Bernie Sanders…… 97.7% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Larry David………… 97.8% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Neil Gaiman………. 99.6% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Carol Kline………… 96.0% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Tony Kushner……… 97.5% Ashkenazi … 99% European
            Alex Feinberg…….. 93.6% Ashkenazi … 99% European

          • Vinegar Hill

            “silence gives consent”……I notice that charliematerne is as silent as a falling feather….

          • Helen4Yemen

            Please remember that their entire claim to Palestine is based on a myth called “diaspora”. Let’s assume the silly story is true, but then they say they are hybrids of European women and Israelite men (as a way to explain their European features). How then are they indigenous to Palestine but not to Europe? If you were to ask them what part of Europe did the Israelite begin to mate, there is no answer. But thanks to DNA, we do know that the Ashkenazi is 96% Ashkenazi (a code word for Khazar). They have no British or Irish or French or Italian or Greek or Iberian DNA. 23andme sent out messages last month to its subscribers finally saying that they believe the Ashkenazi are descended from Khazars. The next day, they were forced to pull that statement back and apologized. These goddamned fake Israelite simply faked their way to Palestine.

          • Helen4Yemen

            This is a great link to show that the Ashkenazi is nothing else but European.

            https://www.ancestry.COM/cs/dna-help/ethnicity/regional-overlap

          • Vinegar Hill

            Thanks for the reference. I have recorded it and will explore.

            I must admit I have never in my life encountered people such as the Israelis: In the past I lived and worked in Israel for just under a year and travelled throughout the country. Also I visited Gaza City and the West Bank so I have had some “experience on the ground”. I am astounded by their lies, distortions, their drama queen responses, their warped vision of life, their arrogance etc etc. They are indeed a Pandoras Box and a real threat to their own existence and that of numerous others .

            On another level I like yout approach to the conflict. You expose many of their lies with one stroke of the brush and the response is, more than ever, silence or a feeble effort at diversion.

          • Helen4Yemen

            There are thousands of videos on the internet of people sharing their DNA results with the world. For most, the results are unexpected and even shocking. But there is one group, usually very vocal, but is now totally silent. There are no Ashkenazi who recorded videos of their DNA results and the reason is because they too are in shock but also feel deep and excruciating shame to have been told all their lives that they were God’s special people and that they are a separate people with special DNA that connects them to Abraham and to find out that they are in fact the purest of any Europeans with not even a tiny trace linking them to the Middle East. Let alone to record videos, it is hard to even find their DNA information. Interesting also that the entire world seems to have some Middle East ancestry – from Africa to Europe to Asia and North America – but the one group who has none of it is the Ashkenazi. DNA is very humiliating for them, because DNA does not lie and once their DNA is disclosed where the Middle East DNA is totally absent, they simply hide that info. Imagine an Ashkenazi with even 5% Middle East DNA! I think it would be headline news on CNN for about a week.

          • Helen4Yemen

            Are you saying that the Turks owned all of Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq? How then did the Iraqis, the Jordanians, the Iraqis reclaimed their land but the Palestinians did not?

      • Helen4Yemen

        Every Jew on that land was a foreign predators since there were no Palestinian Jews, right? All the Jews were Yiddish-speaking from Eastern Europe, were they not? They were foreigners who arrived to steal the land, were they not?

  • Fasdunkle

    “There is no doubt that the Balfour declaration was the source of all evils in the Arab Middle East”

    And that is a fine example of the problem at the heart of islam – it’s always somebody else’s fault.

    • Bezukhov

      To err is Human. To blame it on someone else is even more Human.

    • Helen4Yemen

      Balfour simply wanted the hated Jews to move away from Europe.

      Balfour: “Wherever one went in Eastern Europe one found that by some way or other the Jew got on, and when to this was added the fact that he belonged to a distinct race and that he professed a religion which to the people about him was an object of inherited hatred, and that, moreover, he was … numbered by millions, one could perhaps understand the desire to keep him down and deny him the rights to which he was entitled.”

    • Helen4Yemen

      Balfour: ” the Jews undoubtedly constitute a most formidable power whose manifestations are not by any means always attractive.”

    • Helen4Yemen

      Balfour: “nearly all Bolshevism and disorder of that sort is directly traceable to Jews.”

  • Bishadi

    why? because the mount with the gold domed building will NEVER have a temple put on it, and even the English knew the intent of ‘zionism’ was for MORONs

  • Helen4Yemen

    Balfour just wanted Jews away from Europe. Here is one of many quotes by Balfour that I will be introducing:

    “If it succeeds, it will do a great spiritual and material work for the Jews, but not for them alone. For as I read its meaning it is, among other things, a serious endeavour to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a Body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb.”

    Notice the “Body” with capital B