Centrepiece of imperial strategy

On the centenary of the Balfour declaration, Tony Greenstein looks at the reasons underlying British support for Zionism

This week is the centenary of the Balfour declaration, one of the most infamous documents in the annals of British imperialism. Issued on November 2 1917, it was a textbook example of British perfidy and a warrant for ethnic cleansing and genocide. Even its wording was deliberately deceptive and anodyne:

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.

There was nothing in the declaration that spoke of a Jewish state or even declared it the national home for all Jews. On the contrary, there was a caveat that it should not undermine the rights of Jews in other countries.

Its reference to the 95% of Palestinians who were not Zionists was even stranger. They were described as the “existing non-Jewish communities”. In fact the majority of the 50,000 or so Jews in Palestine were part of what was called the orthodox Old Yishuv and as such were anti-Zionists. They constituted about half the Jewish presence in Palestine.

The promise to do nothing to prejudice the rights of the Palestinians was, of course, honoured in the breach. It could not be otherwise, because British sponsorship of the Zionist settlement in Palestine could not but hurt the rights of the Palestinians. Balfour himself made no pretence as to what his real intentions and those of David Lloyd George, the Liberal prime minister, were. On August 11 1919 Balfour wrote to his successor as foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, making clear the depths of British treachery and deceit:

In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country ... The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism - be it right or wrong, good or bad - is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land … In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.1

Balfour explained, in a memorandum to Lloyd George, the problems that the British were having with the King Crane commission that president Woodrow Wilson had set up. He had wanted Palestine to be excluded from the commission’s remit,

because the powers had committed themselves to the Zionist programme, which inevitably excluded numerical self-determination. Palestine presented a unique situation. We are dealing not with the wishes of an existing community, but are consciously seeking to reconstitute a new community and definitely building for a numerical majority in the future.2

Older pedigree

It would, however, be a mistake to believe that but for the Balfour declaration there would today be no state of Israel or Zionist colonisation. The Balfour declaration merely set the seal on an existing situation. Zionist colonisation had begun in 1882 with the first aliyah and in earnest with the second Labour Zionist aliyah of 1904. In 1918 there were maybe 30,000 Zionist settlers.

The Zionist movement, which was established by Theodor Herzl in 1897, was a political prostitute, selling her wares to the highest bidder. Herzl travelled the length and breadth of Europe trying to win the favour of the German kaiser, the Russia tsar and his ministers, the king of Hungary and the Ottoman sultan (in whose empire Palestine was situated), before settling on British colonialism, with, first, the offer in 1902 of El Arish in the Sinai and then in 1903 Uganda (actually it was Kenya) - an issue which divided the sixth Zionist Congress.

The idea of a Jewish state in Palestine has a much older pedigree, going back as far as Cromwell. It appealed to the romantic side of British imperialism’s ideologues. In 1840 during the Syria crisis, when the British forced the French-backed ruler of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, out of Syria and Palestine and when the nine-year occupation of Palestine came to an end, Palmerstone advocated the “restoration of the Jews to Palestine ... [which] had captured the imagination of certain religious circles in Britain”, including Lords Palmerstone and Shaftesbury.3

The Balfour declaration was thus a ‘marriage of convenience’ between British imperialism and the fledgling Zionist movement. In the words of Sir Ronald Storres, the British military governor of Jerusalem from 1920-25, the Zionist project would form for England “a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of hostile Arabism”.4

As prime minister, Balfour had introduced the Aliens Act 1905 aimed specifically at preventing the admission of east European Jewish refugees fleeing the pogroms of tsarist Russia. He warned parliament that the Jews “remained a people apart”.5 This view of Jews recalls the phrase of German idealist philosopher Johann Fichte, who in 1793 described the Jews as “a state within a state”.6

Balfour cannot be considered anything other than an anti-Semite. He did not want Jews in the UK, but he was more than happy to see them establish a British colony in Palestine. He told Chaim Weizmann that he agreed with some of Cosima Wagner’s ‘anti-Semitic postulates’. These postulates were that Germany’s Jews had “captured the German stage, press, commerce and universities and were putting into their pockets, only a hundred years after emancipation, everything the Germans had built up in centuries”.7

Although the Balfour declaration was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, its real recipient and the person who had been responsible for the negotiations over its wording was Chaim Weizmann - later president of the World Zionist Organisation and then Israel. Weizmann it was who negotiated with and formed a strong friendship with Arthur Balfour. The men shared the same conservative outlook and it was Weizmann who lobbied on behalf of the Zionist settlement with the British authorities. He wrote on May 30 1918 to Balfour, stating:

The Arabs, who are superficially clever and quick-witted, worship one thing and one thing only - power and success ... The British authorities ..., knowing as they do the treacherous nature of the Arab, … have to watch carefully and constantly that nothing should happen which might give the Arabs the slightest grievance or ground of complaint.8

As Leonard Stein notes, if Balfour was an ardent Zionist, “it was not out of a sentimental tenderness for Jews”. When the anti-Zionist leader of British Jewry, Lucien Wolf, appealed to him to intercede with the Russian government to end Jewish persecution, Balfour “admitted that the treatment of the Jews was abominable beyond all measure”, but also went on to remind Wolf that “the persecutors had a case of their own”.9

Balfour was “inclined to believe that nearly all Bolshevism and disorder of that sort is directly traceable to Jews”.10 “Always in the background,” writes the Israeli historian, Tom Segev, “was his evaluation of Jewish power.”11 It is from this belief, which was widely shared by people like Winston Churchill, that there sprung the view that Jewish power was behind the Bolshevik revolution and that Zionism was their only bulwark against it.

Churchill, colonial secretary at the time of the implementation of the Palestine mandate and an ardent Zionist, was a strong believer in the Jewish conspiracy theory. He divided Jews into good and bad and amongst the latter were the “international Jews” - the adherents of a “sinister confederacy” - in fact, “from the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxembourg (Germany) and Emma Goldman (United States), this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development, of envious malevolence and impossible equality has been steadily growing”.

“In violent contrast to international communism” was Zionism, which

presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character. It has fallen to the British government, as the result of the conquest of Palestine, to have the opportunity and the responsibility of securing for the Jewish race all over the world a home and a centre of national life.12

Balfour came well equipped for the job of midwife to Zionism. He first earned his political spurs in Ireland, where between 1887 and 1891 he was chief secretary in Britain’s oldest colony. After having ordered the police to open fire on a political demonstration in Mitchelstown, County Cork, killing three people, he earned the sobriquet ‘Bloody Balfour’.13

No mystery

Many reasons are put forward as to why Britain decided to agree to the Balfour declaration. As Doreen Ingrams shows through her book,14 much of British imperial officialdom - especially the military - was opposed to the Zionist project at the beginning. They worried deeply that British support for Zionism was imperilling its position in the rest of the Middle East. Indeed the Zionist mission to Palestine at the time had to make repeated appeals to the political echelon for support against obstructive local officialdom.

One such was the chief administrator in Palestine, major-general Sir Louis Bols, who took over at the end of 1919. He complained about the Zionist Commission, which had been sent to Palestine in order to begin making arrangements for the building of the Zionist colony, to the effect that: “It is manifestly impossible to please partisans who officially claim nothing more than a national home, but in reality will be satisfied with nothing less than a Jewish state and all that it politically implies.”15

At the beginning of the Palestine mandate the fiction had been maintained that the Zionists wanted nothing more than a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people rather than a Jewish state, because this would clearly have alarmed the vast majority of the indigenous population: the Palestinians. Of course, whilst they were in a minority, the Zionist settlers adamantly opposed any suggestion of self-government unless there was parity between the Jews - ie, Zionists - and the Palestinians: in other words, the Zionists would have been vastly overrepresented numerically.

Nonetheless there were some military officials, especially of a Christian persuasion, who were ardent Zionists. One such was colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, of whom Weizmann said: “Whenever he can perform a service for the Jews or Palestine he will go out of his way to do so.”16 However, he too was an anti-Semite! Christopher Sykes wrote of Meinertzhagen’s Middle East diary 1917-56:

an ingredient of that remarkable little book [which] attracted little attention [was] an emergent, self portrait of the author as a Zionist extremist, who recommended the adoption of anti-Jewish laws in England among the other singular discords of will and temperament.17

Later on in the mandate another such Christian soldier arose: colonel Orde Wingate, who created the Special Night Squads in order to defeat the Arab rebellion, using all the methods of terror perfected in Ireland.18 Indeed Churchill ensured that those who had served with such distinction in the Black and Tans were transferred to service in Palestine.

The question arises, of course, as to why the British agreed to the Balfour declaration. In my view this is no mystery. Churchill and others might have set their store by supporting the Zionists in Russia and elsewhere, but the real reason was clearly to promote imperial strategy. Not only was the alliance with Zionism useful in rebutting the claims of French imperialism, but a stable settler state adjacent to the artery connecting the Middle East to India via the Suez Canal was invaluable.

The Balfour declaration set the seal on that alliance between British imperialism and Zionism. It allowed the Zionist colony to be built under the protection of British bayonets. It allowed the Zionists to develop their own, semi-official militias - the Jewish Settlement Police were armed as a result of the Arab rebellion of 1936-39. Of course, what no-one could envisage - least of all Balfour - was that a time would come when Zionism had become strong enough to throw off the British imperial yoke in favour of outright independence and a change of imperial suitor.

Indeed Zionism was nothing if not promiscuous. It has had British, French and latterly American suitors!


1. D Ingrams Palestine papers 1917-1922 London 1972, p73.

2. Ibid pp72-73.

3. L Stein The Balfour declaration London 1961, p6.

4. R Storres Orientations London 1943, p345.

5. B Gainer The alien invasion: the origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 London 1972, p116. Gainer describes Balfour’s attitude towards Jews as “ambivalent” (pp117, 119).

6. English translation by M Gerber of the passage in Johann Gottlieb Fichte, ‘Beitrag zur Berichtung der Urteils des Publicums über die Französische Revolution’ (1793), quoted in P Mendes-Flohr and J Reinharz (eds) The Jew in the modern world Oxford 2010, p309.

7. C Weizmann Trial and error New York 1966,p153.

8. D Ingrams Palestine papers 1917-1922 London 1972, p31.

9. L Stein The Balfour declaration London 1961, pp163-64.

10. Diary entry by colonel Edward M House, chief aide to Woodrow Wilson, quoted in T Segev, One Palestine, complete: Jews and Arabs under the British mandate London 2001, p119.

11. Ibid p45. See also B Klug, ‘The other Arthur Balfour, “protector of the Jews”‘: www.balfourproject.org/the-other-arthur-balfour-protector-of-the-jews.

12. W Churchill, ‘Zionism vs Bolshevism: a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people’: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Zionism_versus_Bolshevism.

13. D Cronin Balfour’s shadow: a century of British support for Zionism and Israel London 2017, p5.

14. D Ingrams Palestine papers 1917-1922 London 1972.

15. Ibid p86.

16. Ibid p82.

17. C Sykes Crossroads to Israel Bloomington 1973, p58.

18. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orde_Wingate#Palestine_and_the_Special_Night_Squads.