Commentary Magazine

The Question of Palestine 1914-1918, by Isaiah Friedman

The Palestine Issue

The Question of Palestine 1914-1918: British-Jewish-Arab Relations.
by Isaiah Friedman.
Schocken. 450 pp. $12.00.

The triumph of 1948 turned Zionism—and Zion—from an affair of a distinct minority of Jews to the concern of all. Willy-nilly, one should perhaps add, but the change in the social and political topography of Jewry is nonetheless as near permanent as any such upheaval can produce. In contrast, the Zionists' effective ally at the laying of the cornerstone of the Third Jewish Commonwealth in 1917 proved ephemeral. The movement's special relationship with Britain, initiated under Herzl's leadership, brought to fruition during World War I, began to falter seriously almost immediately. It was delivered its body blow in 1939; by 1947, it was dead or dying. Yet such are the effects of long association on men's minds and habits, and so curiously interwoven were the threads of sentiment, principle, and ideology that bound great numbers of influential Jews in Palestine and Israel to influential (and many more less-than-influential) Englishmen in and around Westminster and Whitehall, that pockets of disbelief in its death could be observed for years thereafter—until even they, in turn, were finally rubbed out forever upon England's cold response to Israel's situation in the October 1973 war.

Today, in retrospect, the more carefully one looks at that brief, soon-bitter alignment of British imperialists with the men who claimed—with much justice but little authority—to speak for the Jewish people, the odder it seems. And the more sinister the carefully ambiguous language of the Balfour Declaration in which the alignment was proclaimed to all the world now appears. And, lastly, the more pitiful now seem all those, with Weizmann at their head, to whom the special relationship with Britain was not simply the best lever at hand to inch the Zionist cause forward, but the rock on which Israel had to be constructed and the decisive and irreplaceable factor in Zionist policy, to ignore or belittle which was to risk catastrophe. There is, in a word, a great deal to explain.

The importance of Isaiah Friedman's book lies in the fact that he is the first academic historian to try to deal with the matter in full. He has tried, in other words, to trace the entire network of British policy and British diplomacy during World War I insofar as it could then (and can now) be accounted relevant to the particular outcome on Palestine—namely, the Balfour Declaration and the institution of British political and military control of that country. Since the war itself drove the makers of decisions, along with the cohorts of advisers and asssitants who surrounded them, to break down the bureaucratic and conceptual compartments in which external policy had been traditionally devised and executed, and to see, or at any rate to seek, an underlying unity of purpose in all the affairs of the greatest empire of the day, the author's task was a formidable one. For to the myriad interconnections which the thoughtful historian discovers for himself there are added the almost infinitely complex crisscross patterns of communication, consultation, and influence which underlie every act of state like the proverbial mass of the iceberg below the waterline. Much of this, the inevitable detritus of decision-making, is preserved on paper, and vast quantities of paper at that; and much, if not all, of this paper has evidently been read, absorbed, and then incorporated either explicitly or implicitly into the present book. The result is a fairly straightforward exercise in diplomatic history, a meticulous (one is, pardonably, tempted to say over-meticulous) piece of work.

Under Dr. Friedman's magnifying glass the old myths about Weizmann as the singleminded and virtually singlehanded begetter of the Declaration duly vanish, while the crucial (if unwitting) role of the French is rendered plain as day. On the one hand, it was by adopting Zionist purposes as their own that the British were able to provide themselves with an argument for keeping Palestine (“the military gate to Egypt,” Curzon called it) for themselves, which is to say out of the French sphere. On the other hand, by their own statement in June 1917 in support of “the renaissance of Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago” the French themselves greatly helped to establish Zionist respectability and to edge the British forward to the day of the declaration.

Then we are given a proper perspective in which to see British considerations relative to American Jewry and the slow replacement of hostility to English Jewry for the pro-German sentiments of their brothers in the United States with a move to win their support. And so with Russian Jewry, whose hostility to the Czar's regime spilled over as disinterest in the pursuit of the war, and, in the event, was instantly reversed by the Balfour Declaration to the great satisfaction of the Foreign Office in London. Virtually all of the gigantic cast of characters who played—or seemed to play—a role in the slow and uncertain slide of the British into public support for the Jews figure in Dr. Friedman's book: Sir Reginald Hall in the Admiralty, Clayton, Sykes, Wingate, Milner, Ormsby-Gore, and the rest, down to the young Harold Nicolson, emerging as a minor writer of Foreign Office minutes with a word of his own to say on the subject from time to time. Above these, the major figures: Balfour, of course, and Lloyd George. These and dozens upon dozens of others who at one time or another, in St. Petersburg or Washington, in Cairo, in offices in Whitehall and the clubs of Pall Mall, each with his bright idea or comment, his memorandum, his objection, and, in the end, in most cases, his bland acceptance of the extraordinary idea of an alignment with the Jews—some of the Jews at any rate—as politic.

Why extraordinary? Because, in the first place, England was never a country in which the Jewish presence was sufficiently large and significant to make Jewish purposes and Jewish opinion a matter of lasting, direct, and internal political concern to a British government—in the way that the Jewish community was (and still is) thought a factor to be reckoned with (and squashed) in Russia and was looked upon rather more benevolently, say, in contemporary Austria-Hungary. Besides, the most forceful opposition to the Declaration and to the moves leading up to it came from within British Jewry; and the proof of the diplomatic purity, so to speak, of British purposes can be seen in the relative ease with which the government rode over it. But in terms of external policy, too, the decision to proclaim Britain's patronage of the Zionist cause did not stem directly from an intrinsic British need; still less did it embody a clear and authentic British desideratum. Rather, all was founded on a structure of calculation. The purposes behind the policy were instrumental; and they had to be set out and argued in detail, and the arguments repeated, with suitable modifications, over a very long period. The arguments used within the British establishment were not identical with those used by Weizmann, Sokolov, Jabotinsky, and many others in trying to storm it. But each set influenced the others; and because the Zionists were not British civil servants it was what they had to say that became better known.

In the circumstances, it is entirely understandable that the whole affair came to be seen as a triumph of Zionist, notably Weizmann's, diplomacy. But it was not. Once the British government had been made aware of Zionism, or, if one prefers, reminded of it, the machine ground on unaided in its cumbersome way with astonishingly little help. Which explains, as Dr. Friedman shows, how it came about that the Zionists in London were so modest in their demands, well beyond what the situation required.

The second curious aspect about Britain's pro-Zionist policy is that once it had been announced, it had served its purpose and the grounds for its adoption evaporated. With Russia's retirement from the war, the war's end, and the signing of the peace treaties the essential rationale behind the move was lost. There remained only the promise; and for reasons which lie beyond the scope of Dr. Friedman's book, it was a promise singularly difficult to break, even for so experienced a set of statesmen and diplomats as inter-war Britain was provided with.

There could have been a direct and continuing pro-Zionist policy based upon interest, rather than upon a wartime undertaking. There were some who propagated ideas like the incorporation of a Jewish state into the British Empire as a “dominion” and a “reliable,” perpetual ally (as opposed to the “unreliable” Arabs). But official thinking on such lines was never more than halfhearted, let alone put forward seriously as a basis for practical politics. The Jewish National Home in Palestine rapidly became—at any rate in the minds of the British—an albatross around the government's neck until, with anger and relief, it was cast off in 1947. Which is all the more reason why the story of how it came to hang there is of unending fascination.

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