Jonathan Schneer's "The Balfour Declaration," reviewed by Eugene Rogan

By Eugene Rogan
Sunday, September 19, 2010


The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Jonathan Schneer

Random House. 432 pp. $30

On Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour transformed the future of the Middle East in 18 words: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

Before that date, Zionism was a marginal movement that divided Jews and was dismissed by gentiles. After the Balfour Declaration, the Jewish national project enjoyed the support of the leading imperial power of the age. Though he was not to know it at the time, the British foreign secretary had laid the foundations for the state of Israel and a conflict between Arabs and Zionists that, nearly a century later, remains unresolved.

British historian Jonathan Schneer has produced a remarkable book on this complex and divisive subject. His "Balfour Declaration" is engagingly written, adding to our knowledge of this frequently told story without ever taking sides.

The novelty of the book lies in the way he tells the story. Schneer sets the Zionist struggle for recognition in the context of Britain's conflicting promises to Arabs, Jews and its European allies as part of its desperate bid to defeat Germany in World War I. Britain supported these movements more for their utility to its own war effort than out of conviction.

The Arab movement was first to secure British support. When the Ottomans entered the war on Germany's side in November 1914, the Germans pressed the Ottoman Sultan to declare a jihad -- a religious war against the British and French. Germany hoped by this means to provoke internal uprisings in India and North Africa that would weaken Britain and France and hasten their defeat in the war. The Ottoman call for jihad raised genuine concern in British government circles, and they sought an influential Muslim ally to counter this threat.

Sharif Hussein of Mecca enjoyed wide respect as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad and as the leading religious figure in Islam's holiest city. Shortly after the Ottoman call for jihad, the British government entered into correspondence with the Sharif to encourage him to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans. The Arab statesman drove a hard bargain and secured from Britain promises of arms, grain and gold to sustain a revolt, and recognition of a vast Arab kingdom under his rule in the event his movement succeeded. In June 1916, the Sharif declared his own jihad, this one against the Ottomans, and activated a strategic alliance with the British.

The Zionists had a much harder time engaging the interest of British officials at first. As late as 1913, the chief diplomat of the World Zionist Organization, Nahum Sokolow, could get a hearing at no higher a level than the private secretaries of foreign office officials -- and with little effect. As one foreign office mandarin advised his aide after a meeting with Sokolow, "We had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement."

In addition, Zionism divided British Jews. The Jewish elite of wealthy businessmen and politicians known as the "Cousinhood" advocated assimilation to mainstream society as the solution to anti-Semitism. They rejected the Zionist assertion of a distinct Jewish national identity, as they believed it encouraged the view that Jews were always strangers in their land of birth. "No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists," mused Claude Montefiore, a leading member of the Cousinhood.

Chaim Weizmann proved essential to securing support for Zionism among powerful members of the Cousinhood and leading British politicians. Born in Russia in 1874, he fled czarist anti-Semitism to study chemistry in Germany and Switzerland, and moved to England to take up a post in the University of Manchester in 1904. He became a British subject only in 1910.

Schneer brilliantly captures Weizmann's rise, in which he used social contacts with the influential Rothschild family and discussions with liberal newspaper editor C.P. Scott to secure meetings with Balfour in December 1914 and Minister of Munitions David Lloyd George in January 1915.

Lloyd George and Balfour believed their support for Zionism would advance British war aims. They thought American Jews would encourage their government to enter the war, and Russian Jews would throw their weight behind the czar's efforts to ensure Germany's defeat and the creation of a Jewish national home under British sponsorship. Moreover, they believed that support for Jewish nationalism might advance Britain's territorial ambitions in Palestine. Having secretly agreed with France in 1916 to place Palestine under an international administration, Balfour saw an opportunity to use Zionism to gain international support to place the Holy Lands under British rule instead.

Yet even as they obtained British support for their cause, the Zionists sought accommodation with the Arabs. Given the care with which Schneer develops the parallel tracks of Zionist and Arabist politics, it is surprising that he fails to mention the direct negotiations conducted between the two sides towards the end of the war. The tireless Weizmann traveled from Europe to meet Amir Faisal, commander of the Arab revolt, in Transjordan in June 1918, and they later signed a formal agreement of mutual support between a future "Arab State" and a Jewish "Palestine." Yet as both Arabs and Jews were to learn, Britain's support was not to be trusted. With the British army caught in a murderous stalemate on the Western Front, Lloyd George (now the prime minister) actively pursued a separate peace with the Turks that would have left the Arab world under nominal Ottoman rule. Indeed, Schneer documents no fewer than five different initiatives to secure an Anglo-Ottoman peace, any one of which would have denied both the Arabists and the Zionists their objectives.

Previous authors have argued that, in pursuit of its wartime interest, Britain had promised Palestine to three parties -- Arabs, Jews and international overseers. Schneer has convincingly demonstrated that, had the British managed to detach the Ottomans from Germany, the British would have been just as happy leaving the country to the Turks. Clear and balanced, this is the most original exposition of the Balfour Declaration to date.

Eugene Rogan teaches the modern history of the Middle East at the University of Oxford and is author of "The Arabs: A History."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company