The Balfour Declaration’s 100th Anniversary

This November marks 100 years since the signing of the Balfour Declaration. Born in secrecy, intrigue, spying and double dealing, the negotiations among supposed allies prior to the Declaration must be one of military history’s low points.

Jews in Russian pogroms fed the beginnings of Zionism in the 1880s. Migrating to the territory of Palestine, Russian Jews were supported by philanthropists’ funds for purchase of land and equipment, trading the Russian Empire for the Ottoman. Ottomans also ruled over the dozens of Arab tribes spread throughout the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.

When the Great War began, the Ottoman Empire entered on the side of the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, known as the Central Powers, against the allied British, French and Russians. The war presented an opportunity for both the Zionists and the Arab tribes to assert greater control over their own destinies.

Anticipating eventual defeat of the Ottomans, Chaim Weizmann lobbied the British government for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, where an estimated 85,000 Jews already lived. Weizmann received support from prominent Jews in France and England, from The Manchester Guardian, and from Arthur Balfour, who became foreign secretary under David Lloyd George. While the morality of this cause appealed to European supporters, the allies had in mind an additional benefit of having the backing of Jews in the United States: they hoped the U.S. would join their war effort.

The Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca represented himself as a leader of Arabs in Ottoman lands. He negotiated with the British to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottomans, which the British envisioned would hasten the defeat of the Central Powers. Hussein presented the Damascus Protocol as the proposed boundaries of a new Arab Kingdom, which included present-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula. Britain’s negotiator, Sir Henry McMahon, wrote Hussein accepting modified boundary changes from the Damascus Protocol. However, in translating McMahon’s letter from English to Arabic, confusion concerning terms left ambiguous whether Palestine was to be included in the Arab Kingdom.

To add to the intrigue, Britain and France considered their own territorial goals following the expected victory. Represented by Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, the map of the Middle East was redrawn. They designated territories for British and French control, and for the Arab Kingdom, with French or British influence. Much of what Hussein expected to be designated as Arab lands were set aside for French- or British-administered territories. They left Palestine to be administered by an international condominium of powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was accepted by both Britain and France in May, 1916. Work on the agreement was not shared with the Arabs or the Zionists.

The Balfour Declaration was sent, as a paragraph in a November 2, 1917 letter, from UK Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, the unofficial leader of the British Jewish community. 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.

Arabs were angered at the outcome, and Arab-Jewish hostilities ensued almost immediately. Subsequent British actions angered both sides, and violence persists to this day.

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