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Did Antisemitism Give Us The Balfour Declaration?

Why does the Balfour Declaration, written in 1917 during the darkest of the dark days of World War I, yet tug at our elbow, yet insist that we pay attention to it? Indeed today, “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza harks back to Balfour. Political analyst Avishai Margalit: “You can unspool this vendetta back to the Balfour Declaration.”

The Balfour Declaration, written as a letter on November 2, 1917, from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to British Jewish leader Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, pledged British support for a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. The Declaration is one of the iconic documents in, and represents one of the great moments of, Zionist history.

Conventional wisdom has it that the Balfour Declaration was all about Zionism. Conventional wisdom has it that British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour were nice guys, “Zionists” both–whatever that meant in 1917–and that the Declaration written by Balfour and signed off on by Lloyd George was motivated by some kind of Zionist inspiration.

Alas–the genesis of the Declaration had little to do with Zionism, and everything to do with World War I, with British interests in the war, with power politics–and with antisemitism. Indeed, the Declaration derived from classic European anti-Judaism and from the gentile English version of antisemitism–all of which played roles in The Great War.

Who were the players in the drama? Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, to be sure. But central casting had others in mind.

The story begins not in Palestine but in Ottoman Turkey, in 1908, with the beginnings of the revolution of the Committee of Union and Progress–C.U.P, better known as the “Young Turks”–who ultimately established hegemony over the Ottoman Sultanate.

The leaders of the Young Turk uprising were viewed with sympathy by the British Foreign Office in London, but with disdain by the British embassy in Constantinople, which was where it counted. As historian David Fromkin tells it, the British ambassador, Sir Gerald Lowther, fell completely under the influence of his “First Dragoman”–his advisor on Middle Eastern affairs–Gerald FitzMaurice, who detested the C.U.P.-Young Turks. To FitzMaurice, the fact that the Young-Turk revolution began in 1908 in Salonika, Greece (then under Ottoman hegemony), was significant: more than half of Salonika’s inhabitants were Jews of one flavor or another. This, plus the fact that Salonika had a Freemason lodge founded by a Jew, was enough for FitzMaurice, who himself was entirely taken with the notion of an “international Jewish conspiracy”: the C.U.P. was part of an international Jewish Freemason conspiracy–“the Jew Committee of Union and Progress”–and FitzMaurice convinced his boss, Lowther (who was rather a fool to begin with), of this canard.

Together Lowther and FitzMaurice cobbled together a report to the Foreign Office that alleged that the Jews (“adept at manipulating occult forces”) had taken control over the Ottoman Empire.

The FitzMaurice and Lowther report won wide acceptance amongst British officials in London–what did they know?–and led to a profound misconception about Middle East power and politics: that a group of Jews wielded political power in the Ottoman Empire–indeed everywhere in the world–at that time. A misconception common enough–it found particular sinister expression in the Czarist forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion–but in this case the obvious conclusion was drawn: The Great War, in which Britain was by then heavily engaged, could be won by buying the support of this powerful group.

But bought with which coin? Zionism, of course, with British Zionists making the case for the notion of a British-allied post-war Jewish Palestine. To the British, this translated into Jewish support of their war effort, which could be bought by the promise of support of the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This notion–a natural to Gerald FitzMaurice and his obsession with “Jewish power”–persuaded the Foreign Office to pledge British support to the Zionist enterprise..

Enter Prime Minister Lloyd George.

It is true that David Lloyd George’s English Protestantism celebrated the Old Testament Hebrews; it was not uncommon amongst English Protestants to have deep feelings about the Jewish connection with the Holy Land. But it is more to the point that Lloyd George and the people around him were taken with the notion of Jewish international networking, and more so with international Jewish power. Bringing Jewish power into the picture, precisely when Britain needed help it the war effort, might ensure financial assistance to the Allied cause, and might even help bring America into the war. Thus the thinking. Lloyd George was in effect saying to Balfour–and, by extension, to the Zionists–“Let’s hedge our bets. Like chicken soup–it can’t hurt.”

Further, we need to recall that geopolitically Palestine was a side-show for the British. It was not clear to any British leader at the turn of the century and shortly after that Palestine had much strategic importance to the Empire. So strategic considerations were not what informed the Declaration. It was the war, goosed by old-fashioned antisemitism.

The British government never learned that Lowther and FitzMaurice had supplied it with a warped view of Ottoman politics, one in which the Ottoman government was pictured as a tool of world Jewry. In fact, this backdrop served as a perfect setting for the Balfour Declaration.

Our national icon derived from dark forces indeed.

Jerome Chanes is the author of four books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and book-chapters on Jewish history, sociology, and public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

By Jerome Chanes

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