How the story of Israel came to look a lot like 'Lawrence of Arabia.'
Rex USA / Courtesy of Everett Collection
In a way, Israel owes its existence not just to the homicidal anti-Semites of Central and Eastern Europe but to the much more gentle and genteel ones of Britain. The latter did not so much hate Jews as fear them, admire them, loathe them, and in other ways consider them to be a people apart—immensely powerful and rich, never mind their almost absolute powerlessness and widespread poverty. It was to curry the favor of these people—a kind of madness, if there ever was one—that accounts for why Britain announced in 1917 that it favored the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people." That home would be in Palestine, an amorphous entity regrettably located in the midst of millions of puzzled and hostile Arabs. It was a decision not without some consequence.
The story of how Britain decided to throw its considerable prestige behind a relative handful of Zionists—most English Jews were not Zionists, and some, the very rich in particular, viewed Zionism with horror—is the great and rambunctious tale that drives Jonathan Schneer's new book, The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. It involves some extraordinary figures—Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, King Hussein of the Hejaz—and some more ordinary ones with extraordinary names: Lancelot Oliphant, for instance, or the incomparable Marmaduke Pickthall. Among the more forgettable ones was in fact Arthur James Balfour, who, fortunately for his posterity, happened to be foreign minister when the government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George decided to enlist the support of world Jewry in Britain's fight with the German and Ottoman Empires. Balfour had been prime minister himself once (1902–06), but in all other ways he was a run-of-the-mill, upper-class Englishman, which usually meant a fondness for horses and an antipathy toward Jews.
Into this milieu entered the astonishing Chaim Weizmann. Born in the squalid and oppressive Pale of Settlement—that area of the vast Russian Empire where Jews were compelled to live—he managed by dint of a heroic self-discipline, stunning intellect, and, above all, phenomenal charm, to make the case for Zionism in the chancelleries and drawing rooms of Europe, particularly England. Weizmann was born lower than a serf, but he wound up president of the very country he helped create.
Weizmann was a man of many talents—not the least of them being the ability to harness the raw power of bigotry and enlist it in his cause. If Christians believed in vast Jewish wealth, he would not argue. If they believed in the immense and unseen power of this ancient tribe, so be it. If they believed that the Jews could somehow bring the First World War to an end—they were rumored to be the hidden power behind the Young Turks and have immense influence in the Kaiser's Germany, and could yank Russia out of the war if it suited them—then why would Weizmann disabuse them of such idiocy? Robert Cecil, son of one prime minster (Salisbury) and cousin to another (Balfour), put it best: "I do not think it is easy to exaggerate the international power of the Jews." Somehow, he managed.
Of course, given the era, anti-Semitism was a relatively minor madness. The world was at war, and by the time it was over, the Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian Empires were gone, and the Prussian one assembled by Otto von Bismarck had not only turned into a democracy but was greatly reduced in size. As a result, the British Foreign Office was a busy place. The machinery of diplomacy was in overdrive, amply lubricated by buckets of duplicity. At the very time Britain was telling Weizmann and others Jews that next year they might really be in Jerusalem, it was also promising much of the Arab world to Hussein Ibn Ali, sheriff of Mecca and a trusting soul. All the while, behind the collective backs of Arab and Jew, the Brits and the French were divvying up the Middle East, signing the notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, a closed covenant very closely arrived at.
In the end, much of what Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and François Georges-Picot of France agreed upon came a cropper. The French could hold neither Syria nor Lebanon. Hussein, given the boot by a tribal chieftain named Ibn Saud from up Riyadh way, decamped for exile. In compensation, Britain drew some lines in the sand and created Transjordan for one of Hussein's sons, Abdullah, while placing another, Faisal, on the throne of Iraq. That didn't last, either.
If some of this sounds like a recap of Lawrence of Arabia, it is because some of it is. The story of Balfour and his declaration is really the creation myth of the Middle East. It is an enormous, cinemascopic epic, hard to contain in a single book. Alas, Jonathan Schneer doesn't even try. The book sprawls, the consequential and the inconsequential getting equal time, its margins sprouting invocations, imprecations, and pleas from a vexed me: Stop! Enough already! Schneer tells you of meetings that didn't matter, the address of the houses where they occurred, and what might or might have been served for breakfast ("When Lloyd George, perhaps leaning over eggs, bacon, toast and coffee, informed…"). He speculates repeatedly on why something did or did not happen and when, unaccountably, he takes you into the desert with Lawrence of Arabia, it's the reader who wanders aimlessly, parched for relevance. Lawrence made it out; I barely did.
Still, this is a work of impressive research and scholarship. Its relevance is obvious. It rebuts the canard, so comforting to Israel's critics, that the Zionists never took the Arabs into consideration—"a land without people for a people without land," is the formulation often cited. But while the Jews never thought that Palestine was one big, empty place, and no one of importance urged genocide or anything even approaching it, they did think that the people who lived there did not matter much. This, after all, was an era when "white European" was not a description but a statement of entitlement, and the Arabs, at any rate, were not their own masters. Palestine was a part of the Ottoman Empire, later given to Britain by the League of Nations, and coveted by others, besides Jews. The Arab world was just coalescing, tottering on fledging ideologies and nationalisms, considered incapable of governing by the European powers and, to the fury of its own progressives, riven by tribalism, sectarianism, and a still-coalescing political geography. Syria was anything it said it was. Hussein in Mecca claimed Damascus in Syria. In this Wild East, anyone could stake a claim.
Lord Balfour went from being a gentleman anti-Semite to a lover of the Jews, reduced to tears by Chaim Weizmann's account of Jewish suffering. He slipped into history as an appendage to his much-more-famous declaration, and even that, like the papal bulls assigning various lands to Spain or Portugal, was nullified by reality. Soon enough, the declaration produced a colossal case of seller's remorse. The Jews had an emotionally compelling tale—for so many Englishmen, Bible tales come to life—but the Arabs had all that oil, the approaches to the Suez Canal and, not incidentally, the wholly understandable conviction that the land was theirs. By the late 1930s, the Balfour Declaration was a dead letter, and Britain had gone wobbly on the Jews. A royal commission had even suggested a division of the country—the so-called two-state solution that every so often comes around like a diplomatic Halley's comet and gets excitedly greeted as something new. By the late 1930s, though, the Jewish presence in Palestine had been established: a university, a symphony orchestra, a Bauhausian metropolis (Tel Aviv), and an increasingly effective militia, the Haganah. What had been an indifference to Zionism among European Jews turned hurriedly into a frantic enthusiasm as Hitler set out to murder them all. A Jewish state, as Zionism's founder, Theodor Herzl, had foreseen, had become a necessity. The Zionists would have liked Britain's support, but since that had been withdrawn, they wanted its departure. In 1948 a weary and bloodied Britain complied, struck its colors, and left. Within moments, Israel was born and war commenced. It has yet to end.
Cohen is a columnist for The Washington Post and the author of a forthcoming book on Israel.