One hundred years ago the British Government did an extraordinary thing. Arthur Balfour, former British Prime Minister and at that time Foreign Secretary, wrote to Lord Rothschild, as representative of English Jewry, informing him that His Majesty’s Government was in favour of establishing a national home for the Jews in Palestine. This was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and its message to the world was that Britain’s power and authority was to be used in an unprecedented manner in world history, to return a disparate and widely scattered people to a territory 2000 years after they had left it.
Britain was, to all intents and purposes, colonising a territory and imposing a foreign element in an area totally against the wishes of the natives. Palestine had been Arab since the 7th Century and the Jews had not lived there in significant numbers for two millenia. There were less than 100,000 Jews in Palestine in 1917 (about twice the number that lived in the East End of London) and over 700,000 Arabs. The Jews that were to be interposed there were European and Russian.
The Balfour Declaration was put together between July and October before being issued on November 2, 1917. It went through several drafts before being delivered: Zionist Draft (July); Balfour Draft (August); Lord Milner Draft (3 September); Lord Milner Draft (4 October); Balfour Final Text (31 October).
It was no historical accident that England should be the sponsor of and power behind the Zionist project. There had developed in Reformationist England a belief that the Jews should return to the Holy Land. The famous historian, J.R.Green in his History of the English People, had described how England had become in Elizabeth’s reign the people of the Book – meaning the people of the Bible. It was the Old Testament and the Wars of the Lord in which the Chosen People would “smite the Philistines and Amalekites” that primarily interested the developing English Puritan middle class. Among other things the Old Testament Bible was a programme for ethnic cleansing and genocide, projects intrinsic to the fundamentalist view of God that had taken root in Reformationist England and the destiny of the island empire.
The idea that had its origin in Reformation England was revived in 19th Century. This was that one of the Chosen Peoples were going to return another to the Holy Land as a matter of historic destiny and precursor to the Millenium. This idea became particularly influential in the 1840s as the Famine was let rip in Ireland.
Arthur Balfour converted to Zionism around 1906 after he met Chaim Weizmann, the leading Zionist in England. The previous year, as Prime Minister, he had presided over the Alien’s Bill which was primarily aimed at ending Jewish immigration to Britain. The Parliamentary committees established to examine the Bill reveal that England had become uneasy at the success of Jews, their developing influence in British society and the ways Jewish wealth was displayed in London. The Jews remained a distinctive community despite the efforts of individual Jews to assimilate.
Private correspondence shows that Balfour saw the Jews as a developing problem for England. He held the opinion that this problem would grow if the Jews remained a distinct community. Balfour therefore reasoned that the Jews should not maintain their separateness by continuing to oppose inter-marrying. He suspected them of not having a total loyalty to their country, making them unreliable and untrustworthy.
Balfour was a prominent Eugenicist and he had come into contact at the 1912 inaugural Eugenics World Conference (which he presided over) with the idea that the “Jewish Race” was the greatest success story in eugenics. The Jews, it was said, had maintained themselves as a separate entity by controlled and restricted breeding. They were the model of Eugenics the world should follow, suggested the Zionists, to keep out racial impurities in the mixing of races. At that time it was accepted that miscegenation was a bad thing for superior races like the Anglo-Saxons to engage in. If they did they would end up like the inferior Latins who had did this sort of thing in South America to their cost or the Ottomans who had no concept of racialism and had thrown away their Empire through the lack of a Social Darwinist philosophy, like that of the English.
Balfour, the philosopher Prime Minister, had the habit of seeing things with ruthless logic. This sometimes led him to dither when he understood the enmity of an issue and wondered how it could be overcome. But his thought was razor sharp. He did not approve of the Jewish pure breeding in England. Presumably he found it insulting that Jews would not inter-breed with the Anglo-Saxon master race. By maintaining racial purity the Jews were making themselves a problem for England when they could be an asset if they thoroughly inter-bred and assimilated, as some did. Balfour reasoned that they had to make up their mind about what they were or there would be trouble ahead. He came to the conclusion that the Jews should assimilate or be kept out. Hence the Aliens Act.
On the basis of this logic Balfour reasoned that the Zionist cause was good for the Jews and their host countries in forcing them to be loyal to either their state of residence or a Zion. If they could not assimilate they should go. Unlike others who began to see the Zionists as a potentially useful instrument for British expansion in the Middle East Balfour saw Zionism as being separate to the geopolitical interest of Britain – as a good thing in itself. He saw the Jews as unique in the world – a Special People:
“… the critics of this (Zionist) movement shelter themselves behind the principle of self-determination, and say that, if you apply that principle logically and honestly, it is to the majority of the existing population of Palestine that the future destinies of Palestine should be committed. There is a technical ingenuity in that plea, and on technical grounds I neither can nor desire to provide the answer; but, looking back upon the history of the world, upon the history more particularly of all the most civilised portions of the world, I say that the case of Jewry in all countries is absolutely exceptional, falls outside all the ordinary rules and maxims, cannot be contained in a formula or explained in a sentence. The deep underlying principle of self-determination really points to a Zionist policy, however little in its strict technical interpretation it may seem to favour it. I am convinced that none but pedants, or people who are prejudiced by religious or racial bigotry would deny for one instant that the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional, and must be treated by exceptional methods.” (Speech by Balfour at the Albert Hall at a Demonstration organised by the English Zionist Federation, to thank the British Government for the decision to incorporate the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish National Home in the Treaty of Peace with Turkey. July 12th, 1920.)
Balfour told Harold Nicolson that Zionism would remove the dangerous acquisitive intelligence of the Jews that stimulated their defects. Zion was required to solve England’s Jewish problem.
However, Balfour’s interest in Zionism remained an idealist flirtation for nearly a decade and he did not meet Weizmann for another 8 years after 1906. Balfour got back to more important and pressing matters in the world, helping to plan for a War on Germany through the Committee of Imperial Defence he had set up.
Herbert Samuel was an Anglicised Jew and member of the British Liberal Government that declared the War on Germany Balfour had helped plan. Just after the British Declaration of War on the Ottomans in November 1914 he disclosed to the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, that he was a Zionist. Up until that point Samuel had sympathised with Zionism but had written it off as impractical. But with Britain’s War on the Ottoman Empire signalling a consequent carve up the Ottoman territories Samuel began to see the Zionist ideal as a practical possibility for the first time.
Samuel discovered that Edward Grey himself was sympathetic to Zionism, as was Lloyd George and Lord Haldane. Samuel produced a memorandum for the Cabinet in January 1915 advocating the conquest of Palestine and the use of Zionism in its annexation. At that time Britain was refusing to display any interest in Palestine lest anyone think it was not fighting its War for the highest of motives. But the implication of destroying the Ottoman Empire was surely that Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia etc. were going to end up in other hands. It would be most unlike Britain to allow such strategic areas to go to others after scotching such a thing for a century.
The Samuel Memorandum advocating the planting of 4 million Jews in Palestine astonished the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith. Samuel persisted, however, advocating a British Protectorate over Palestine that would make a Jewish State functional.
Before returning to Balfour Weizmann found a Zionist sympathiser in C.P. Scott the famous editor of the Manchester Guardian. Scott had initially opposed the War but, being a Liberal with a bad conscience, having collaborated in something no Liberal should do, he liked the Zionist cause as something that Britain could wage its War for on an idealitic, altruistic basis. It made the mass killing and destruction a bit more palatable for a sentimental lover of the Bible.
Samuel was opposed by another Jew in the Cabinet, Edwin Montagu. Montagu held the traditional view of anti-semitism that saw it and Zionism as two sides of the same coin. He denied that there was such a thing as a Jewish race or Jewish nation except in the minds of anti-semites. Montagu saw the establishment of a Jewish state as potentially disastrous for the Jews left behind, outside the new nationalist construction.
Samuel was supported in his opposition to Zionism by the Jewish establishment in England. They had acquired prosperity, position and security in the country and saw themselves as loyal and great contributors to British life. They were strongly Anti-Zionist and saw nothing existing that could be called a Jewish Race or Jewish Nation. These were concepts employed by Anti-Semites to endanger the position of Jews and prevent their successful assimilation. Zionism raised the question of divided loyalties as a consequence of supporting a scheme that was just the pipe-dream of malcontents. It would undermine the toleration and inclusivity that was slowly being achieved by the Jews in Europe and bring to the fore ideas that were most unwelcome for the future of Jewish communities.
Chaim Weizmann wrote off these assimilationist Jewish elements and decided that in the interests of Zionism the important Gentiles who had anti-semitic attitudes were more useful and important allies to the cause.
Weizmann reconnected with Balfour through Samuel Alexander, Professor of Philosophy at Manchester. They met in December 1914 just after War had been Declared by Britain on the Ottomans. Balfour told Weizmann that the Jewish question in England would only be sorted out by complete assimilation through inter-marriage or by the establishment of a nationalist Jewish entity in Palestine. Those who stayed in England could assimilate while Jews who wanted a separate existence could go.
Balfour told Weizmann that he had had a conversation with the widow of Richard Wagner in Bayreuth in 1912, around the time of the Eugenics Conference in London he had presided over.
Richard Wagner, as well as being a highly cultured man and great composer, had participated enthusiastically in the 1848 Revolution. He was in no sense a reactionary. But he believed that the Jews were a danger to Germany because they would remain impervious to the German national spirit. And because Germany needed a national spirit for its development as a nation and security the Jews, as a distinctive element, were problematic.
Anti-Semitism in its modern – rather than Medieval – form was closely related to nationalism. Nationalism was the way through which Europe developed in the 19th Century. In the nationalising process the Jews were seen as forming a distinctive element which could not be readily digested by the nation. Nationalist development encouraged Anti-Semitism and this began to encourage a Zionist movement, even among assimilationist Jews like Theodor Herzl. Zionism was Jewish nationalism in response to European nationalism.
It was European nationalism rather than English nationalism that produced Zionism. However, it was British nationalism/Imperialism which made Zionism into an oppressive force through giving it a territory occupied by another people. That is what was problematic about Zionism rather than its actual existence.
Balfour told Weizmann he shared the Wagners’ anti-semitic views. Weizmann told Balfour that he too knew Frau Wagner’s views. They were that the Jews had contributed so much to German culture and materialism that they owned it to a great degree – a thing Frau Wagner resented. Weizmann saw the problem from the opposite point of view. The Jews had made and enriched German culture when they should have used their talents and energies in constructing their own nationalist culture in a Zionist project.
Balfour was in full agreement with Frau Wagner’s view of the Jews and Weizmann understood that this gave Zionism leverage over him. Weizmann assured Balfour that whilst Zionism could solve England’s problem with its unassimilatable Jews Russia was a different prospect. There were so many Jews in Russia that a Zion in Palestine could not take them, so Russia’s Jews would continue to disrupt Russia to England’s advantage in the long term. This must have been music to Balfour’s ears.
When Weizmann met Baron Rothschild in Paris to tell him of his meeting with Balfour and the potential acquiring of British Imperialism as an ally Rothschild pointed out the main impediments to the success of any Zionist project. These were, according to Rothschild, the English Jewish establishment centred around Claude Montefiore, President of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and Catholic Europe.
The Jews who opposed anti-semitism/Zionism needed to be sidelined as did England’s allies in Catholic Europe. The definition of anti-semitism was rewritten by the anti-semites to implicate those who opposed the Zionist project.
To be continued…
Published in The Irish Political Review July 2017