The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion: The Ori­gins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

By – October 5, 2011

Jews often think of the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion as a stage in Zionism’s progress between the First Aliyah and the cre­ation of the State of Israel. His­to­ri­an Jonathan Schneer sees it as an out­come of Great Britain’s secret diplo­ma­cy dur­ing World War I, which gave rise not only to the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion but also to sim­i­lar promis­es to Arab lead­ers, lead­ing to inevitable con­flict between Jews and Palestinians.

Schneer, in fact, devotes the first hun­dred pages of this book to the nego­ti­a­tions between the British and Grand Sharif Hus­sein of Mec­ca. Hus­sein, who had ambi­tions of lead­ing a pan-Arab move­ment, was seen as the key to shift­ing Arab sym­pa­thies away from the Ottoman Empire and its call for jihad against the Entente pow­ers of Britain, France, and Rus­sia. The British cul­ti­vat­ed his hopes of rul­ing an Arab king­dom and encour­aged him and his sons to revolt against the Ottomans. 

With­out Hussein’s knowl­edge, the British gov­ern­ment was simul­ta­ne­ous­ly court­ing the sup­port of British Zion­ists with promis­es of a Jew­ish home­land in Pales­tine. This was not an altru­is­tic or ide­al­is­tic deci­sion. As one of the key play­ers in the For­eign Office wrote, I do not think it is pos­si­ble to exag­ger­ate the inter­na­tion­al pow­er of the Jews.” They imag­ined that the sup­port of inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish finance” was a crit­i­cal fac­tor in win­ning the war, and they want­ed to gain that sup­port ahead of Ger­many and its allies. 

These con­tra­dic­to­ry promis­es could not both have been kept. Yet as if that weren’t enough, Britain also nego­ti­at­ed a secret under­stand­ing in 1916 with France, the Sykes- Picot Agree­ment. In order to stake its claim to Ottoman ter­ri­to­ry in the Mid­dle East after the war, Britain promised France some sort of joint rule over Pales­tine and French sov­er­eign­ty over ter­ri­to­ry the Arabs thought would become theirs. What’s more, in the final year of the war, the British offered Ottoman suzerain­ty over Pales­tine and oth­er lands to tempt them to make a sep­a­rate peace with the U.K. and its allies. 

Whether this was treach­ery or Realpoli­tik is a mat­ter of opin­ion, but the same geopo­lit­i­cal con­tention is still with us today, and it is not lim­it­ed to the Arabs’ sense of betray­al and their resent­ment of the Jew­ish state. Turkey’s moves ear­li­er this year to take a greater role in the Arab world bring to mind its for­mer role as the seat of the Mus­lim caliphate. Its flotil­la against Gaza recalls the Ottoman defeat there in 1917 at the hands of Gen­er­al Allenby. 

Jonathan Schneer mas­ter­ful­ly high­lights reveal­ing details with­in the larg­er con­text in his wide-angled view of the region and the Great Pow­ers that con­test­ed it. The cloak-and-dag­ger sto­ries of clan­des­tine meet­ings in neu­tral Switzer­land might have come straight from an espi­onage nov­el. His in-depth his­to­ry of a crit­i­cal peri­od explains a great deal about the Mid­dle East today and is con­stant­ly fas­ci­nat­ing besides. 

Those events account for only a few pages in The Land of Blood and Hon­ey, Mar­tin van Creveld’s con­cise his­to­ry of Israel, since his task is to con­dense over a hun­dred years of events into a short vol­ume. Hap­pi­ly his sur­vey has room for many well-cho­sen and lit­tle-known par­tic­u­lars amid all the major events, dates, and per­son­al­i­ties. He calls atten­tion to the Jews of the First Aliyah who chose to wear kef­fiyehs, the tra­di­tion­al Arab head­dress. Haifa, we learn, was bombed by Axis forces dur­ing World War II. Ben Guri­on was so upset with the newsweek­ly HaO­lam HaZeh that he near­ly ordered the secu­ri­ty ser­vice to arrest its editors. 

Van Crefeld also takes pains to cap­ture the tex­ture of every­day life. He describes house­wives doing laun­dry by hand and man­ag­ing with­out refrig­er­a­tors in the 1950’s, and super­mar­ket employ­ees con­stant­ly updat­ing price stick­ers dur­ing the infla­tion of the ear­ly 1970’s. He also has an eye for the arrest­ing sta­tis­tic. Israel has led the world in the num­ber of pub­lished papers in com­put­er sci­ence per capi­ta, he notes, and it ranks near­ly as well in sci­ence, physics, and math­e­mat­ics. The per­cent­age of those who attend the the­ater in Israel is twice as high as those who watch soc­cer matches. 

Pol­i­tics, gov­ern­ment, eco­nom­ics, and war are the heart of the sto­ry, and van Crefeld sum­ma­rizes the events with max­i­mum clar­i­ty and min­i­mal con­fu­sion. He is also not shy about mak­ing the occa­sion­al judg­ment: he states unequiv­o­cal­ly that Moshe Dayan was the great­est sol­dier Israel has ever pro­duced.” His direct­ness may be less wel­come when he says things like the lib­er­a­tion’ of women usu­al­ly comes at the expense of oth­er women.” 

Some read­ers may be dis­tract­ed by the author’s use of lan­guage, start­ing with the book’s title. His chap­ters have trite, por­ten­tous titles like The Night­mare Years” and Tragedy, Tri­umph, and Strug­gle.” And he favors a num­ber of archa­ic usages, refer­ring to Mizrahi Jews as Ori­en­tals,” the city of Lod as Lyd­da, and the Jezreel Val­ley as the Plain of Esdraelon, its Greek name. Still, he has pro­duced a high­ly read­able and infor­ma­tive overview of Israel’s event­ful history. 

Jonathan Schneer, like Mar­tin van Crefeld, is in firm com­mand of his sub­ject, and is par­tic­u­lar­ly adept in his use of pri­ma­ry sources. What’s more, Schneer’s wit­ty nar­ra­tive voice and his choice descrip­tions of the lead­ing per­son­al­i­ties are rem­i­nis­cent of Gib­bon and Macaulay, fol­low­ing the great British tra­di­tion of grace­ful prose in the ser­vice of his­tor­i­cal sto­ry-telling. The Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion is his­to­ry at its best.

Robert A. Peck, an attor­ney who has been a Fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial real estate exec­u­tive, served near­ly sev­en years on the staff of the late U.S. Sen­a­tor Daniel Patrick Moyni­han, includ­ing two years as his chief of staff.

Discussion Questions

1. It seems his­to­ry is always a hair’s breadth away from tak­ing a dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent course. Tell us about some of the polit­i­cal whims, unlike­ly alliances, and back-room deals that led to the issuance of the Bal­four Declaration. 

2. What were some of the promis­es made in secret to dif­fer­ent par­ties? In par­tic­u­lar, tell us about the sep­a­rate peace prof­fered to the Turks, and the expec­ta­tions of Hus­sein Ibn Ali, grand sharif of Mecca.

3. What was the polit­i­cal cli­mate like in Britain at the begin­ning of the 20th cen­tu­ry? What were the atti­tudes of the British toward Jews? Toward Arabs? 

4. Tell us about the fis­sures with­in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Britain (i.e. between Zion­ists and those hop­ing for assimilation). 

5. Some fas­ci­nat­ing and less­er-known his­tor­i­cal fig­ures are high­light­ed in this book, includ­ing Chaim Weiz­mann, Basil Zaharoff, and Sir Mark Sykes. Who are these men, and what’s their sig­nif­i­cance? Who are some of the oth­er key play­ers that run the dan­ger of descend­ing into obscurity? 

6. How did the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion shape mod­ern his­to­ry? Would Pales­tine still be a glob­al flash­point if this doc­u­ment had nev­er existed?