Modern history



AT THE END of February 1919 a middle-aged British research chemist wrote to his wife from Paris: “Yesterday, the 27th February, at 3:30 p.m. at the Quai d’Orsay there took place an historic session.” It was, he told her, “a marvellous moment, the most triumphant of my life!” Chaim Weizmann had been at the Supreme Council with a deputation of fellow Zionists to make the case for a Jewish home in Palestine. That day in Paris he had spoken briefly, with his customary clarity and energy. He appealed to the self-interest of the powers: millions of Jews were trying to leave the former Russian and Austrian empires. Where could they go? “The Great Powers would naturally scrutinize every alien who claimed to enter their countries, and the Jew would be regarded as a typical wandering alien.” The obvious solution was to let them go to Palestine; it was underpopulated, with plenty of empty space. With money and work, both of which the world’s Jews were ready to provide, it could support millions more. All that was needed was the signal from the peacemakers. He was demanding this, he said proudly, “in the name of the people who had suffered martyrdom for eighteen centuries.” As he finished speaking, he told his wife, “Sonnino got up and congratulated me there and then, so did Mr. Balfour and all the others, except the French.”1

There were many such delegations in Paris and many demands. The Zionists did not have the influence or power of the Czechs or the Poles, nor was there in the public mind a Jewish cause like the Armenian one. They had some friends in powerful places, but they also faced hostility and indifference. Yet Weizmann was right to feel triumphant. He knew that, even if the French were hostile, the Americans and British were behind him; indeed, he had previously vetted his statements with members of their delegations.2Both Weizmann and Zionism had come a long way from their origins and would go a long way yet.

The son of a modest timber merchant, Weizmann was born in Russia in 1874, in a tiny hamlet in, as he said, one of the “darkest and remote corners of the Pale of Settlement.” Almost half the world’s Jews, some seven million, lived in Russia, most forced into the Pale, in what is today Belarus, Ukraine and eastern Poland. The country was flat and marshy— “mournful and monotonous,” said one Jewish writer—bitterly cold in the winter and stifling in the summer. The Jews were rich in tradition and faith, desperately poor in almost every other way. While their numbers were increasing, the land and resources allowed them by the tsarist government were not. “It was as if,” said an observer, “all the Jews of Russia were to be violently crowded in and piled on top of one another like grasshoppers in a ditch.” The government, which veered between indifference and brutality, offered no way out and no protection from anti-Jewish riots and pogroms. “It is an ugly life,” said a Jewish poet, “without pleasure of satisfaction, without splendour, without light, a life that tastes like lukewarm soup, without salt or spice.”3

Even in that world, though, ideas were stirring, ideas of socialism, democracy, nationalism. Some Russian Jews, such as Trotsky, turned to revolution; far more, hundreds of thousands, left for North America and Western Europe. In the years before 1914, the Jewish population in the United States went from 250,000 to 3 million; in Britain, from 60,000 to 300,000. Among the Russian Jews who moved westward was the young Weizmann. In Western Europe, he discovered a different world, where the ghettos and the old legal discrimination against Jews had vanished. Jews were able to live as British or French or Germans, with simply a different religion from most of their compatriots. Weizmann acquired a wife, a young medical student, herself from Russia, and two lifelong passions— for chemistry and Zionism.

At first Zionism—the struggle for a Jewish homeland, perhaps even a Jewish state, where Jews would be in a majority, where they would be safe and would be able to live with dignity—appealed to only a small number, to cranks or visionaries. By 1900, however, much had changed. Nationalism, which itself helped to produce Zionism, had also brought fresh dangers to Jews, when other nationalists turned a suspicious eye on the minorities among them. There was a bewildering and horrifying resurgence of the old dark European hatred for the Jews, even integrated, secular Jews. Sigmund Freud’s father had his hat knocked off his head by a stranger who shouted, “Jew, get off the pavement.” Surprising numbers of French, in the home of liberty, equality and fraternity, showed themselves ready to believe a trumped-up charge of treason because the officer in question, Alfred Dreyfus, was Jewish. In prewar Vienna, the mayor was a notorious anti-Semite and in the charming coffeehouses the Viennese told crude anti-Jewish jokes. In 1897 Theodor Herzl, a journalist from Vienna, held the world’s first Zionist congress. Weizmann attended the next one, and every one that followed.

Tall, balding, looking with his goatee like “a well-nourished Lenin,” Weizmann even then carried himself with great assurance. He criticized his seniors in the Zionist movement for being too timid. He publicly disagreed with Herzl over the scheme to buy Uganda from the British government and set up a Jewish state there. For Weizmann—and, in the end, for the overwhelming majority of Zionists—the only possible location was Palestine, in those days a small backward province of the Ottoman empire. That was where the holy places were and the reminders of the last Jewish kingdom, destroyed by the Romans. When Weizmann was once asked why the Jews had a right to Palestine, he simply replied: “Memory is right.”

Weizmann despised assimilated Jews and those who would not support Zionism. They were blind; worse, they were unpatriotic. “The essential point which most Jews overlook,” he said about the German Jews he had known as a student, “and which forms the very crux of the Jewish tragedy, is that those Jews who are giving their energies and their brains to the Germans are doing it in their capacity as Germans, and are enriching Germany and not Jewry, which they are abandoning.” A Jewish home in Palestine was essential. “Palestine,” he insisted, “and the building up of a Jewish nation from within, with its own forces and its own traditions, would establish the status of the Jews, would create a type of 100% Jew.” 4

By 1914 Weizmann had established himself in Manchester as a reader (assistant professor) in biochemistry at the university. He had also risen in the Zionist organization, which now had 130,000 paid-up members, but he did not have the position he felt he deserved. Jews from the East felt he had become too Anglicized, English Jews that he was too Russian. He had offended too many of the older generation with his criticism of Herzl and too many of his contemporaries with his sarcasm and lack of tolerance for bores. His speeches were lectures, from a platform of superiority. Abba Eban, later Israel’s foreign minister, worked for him as a young man: “He revealed a scientist’s economy of phrase and emotion, a hard sense of realities, and an almost cruel insistence on telling his Jewish audiences how difficult and complex their Zionist task was going to be.” Weizmann became Zionism’s leader in the end because there was no one else who could do the job. He frequently grew discouraged, often threatened to resign, but he never gave up on his long-term goal to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Perhaps his greatest contribution to Zionism was his extraordinary ability to win over key figures, both within the Jewish community and among the world’s leaders. “Starting with nothing,” he told an opponent, “I, Chaim Weizmann, a yied from Pinsk and only almost a Professor at a provincial university, have organized the flower of Jewry in favour of a project which probably by Rothschild (Lord) and his satellites is considered as mad.”5

With the war, Weizmann moved up a gear. By his own estimate he had 2,000 meetings with politicians, civil servants, diplomats: anyone who could be useful in gaining Palestine for the Jews. He overcame the offhand distaste for foreigners and Jews among the British upper classes. One forgot, said Cecil, with surprise, his “rather repellent and even sordid exterior” in the face of his “subdued enthusiasm” and “the extraordinary impressiveness of his attitude.”6 Weizmann made a conquest of Cecil; more important, he made one of Cecil’s cousin Balfour, foreign secretary after 1916. It was a strange friendship—the intense, committed Jew from the Pale and the charming, worldly Englishman who had drifted through life with such ease—but for Weizmann and Zionism it was crucial.

Balfour has always been hard to pin down: a philosopher who became a politician; an aesthete who loved tennis and golf; ruthless, as the Irish learned to their cost, but invariably kind and polite to his subordinates. When he forgot the name of a favorite thriller writer, he was mildly distressed. “That’s always the way,” he said sadly, “so ungrateful; so ungrateful.” Languid, dressed with casual elegance, with a smile, said one, “like moonlight on a tombstone,” he rarely seemed to take himself or anything else seriously. He was a great parliamentary speaker, but he made light of it. “I say what occurs to me,” he told Churchill, “and sit down at the end of the first grammatical sentence.” He told a lunch party that, alas, he had a strange mental quirk when it came to decisions: “I can remember every argument, repeat all the pros and cons, and even make quite a good speech on the subject. But the conclusion, the decision, is a perfect blank in my mind.” His defenders called this a pose, just as his habit of staying in bed all morning was his way of working hard. Others were not so sure. “If you wanted nothing done,” said Churchill, “A.J.B. was undoubtedly the best man for the task.” Lloyd George was once asked what he thought Balfour’s place in history would be. His answer: “He will be just like the scent on a pocket handkerchief.”7

From his father Balfour inherited a fortune that made him one of the richest men in Britain; from his mother, a deeply religious woman, the Cecil family tradition of public service and Conservative politics. Like Curzon, who succeeded him in the Foreign Office, he was part of that cosy, aristocratic world where everyone was somehow connected to everyone else. He once nearly got engaged, but the girl he had chosen died of typhoid fever. He never married, and one of his devoted sisters kept house for him. He was attached to his family and friends, but he did not really need them. As he wrote to one, “You are as necessary as you ever were— but how necessary is that? How necessary are any of us to any of us?” 8

He was clever, fascinated by ideas, and with a great ability to grasp the essence of an argument. He was also curiously, even alarmingly, detached. At the height of German submarine warfare, which threatened to strangle Britain economically, his only response to the daily list of sinkings was “It is very tiresome. These Germans are intolerable.” In cabinet meetings, Lloyd George said, Balfour would present a case persuasively and then, after a pause, the other side with equal eloquence, ending with a sigh: “But if you ask me what course I think we ought to take then I must say I feel perplexed.” Curzon, who knew him well, came to regard him as an evil and dangerous man:

His charm of manner, his extraordinary intellectual distinction, his seeming indifference to petty matters, his power of dialectic, his long and honourable career of public service, blinded all but those who knew him from the inside to the lamentable ignorance, indifference and levity of his regime. He never studied his papers, he never knew the facts, at the Cabinet he had seldom read the morning’s Foreign Office telegrams, and he never looked ahead. He trusted to his unequalled powers of improvisation to take him through any trouble and enable him to leap lightly from one crisis to another.9

It is strange, therefore, that Balfour not only made a commitment to Zionism but that he persisted with it. One of his subordinates thought that he had never really cared about anything else. Was it his early religious upbringing that left him, as it did Lloyd George, with an intimate knowledge of Jewish history? His fascination with the intellectual abilities of Jews? He told Nicolson that Jews were “the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the Greeks of the fifth century.” Did he see in Zionism, as he once said, “guardians of a continuity of religious and racial tradition that made the unassimilated Jew a great conservative force in world politics”? In a conversation with House, Balfour remarked that “someone told him, and he was inclined to believe it, that nearly all Bolshevism and disturbances of a like nature, are directly traceable to the Jews of the world. They seem determined either to have what they want or to upset present civilization.” While he found anti-Semitism vulgar, even deplorable, he also grumbled to a close woman friend that he had spent a weekend with too many Jews: “I believe the Hebrews were in an actual majority—and though I have no prejudice against the race (quite the contrary) I began to understand the point of view of those who object to alien immigration.” As with so much about Balfour, the workings of his mind and heart remain a mystery. Shortly before he died, one of his favorite nieces heard him say that “on the whole he felt that what he had been able to do for the Jews had been the thing he looked back upon as the most worth his doing.”10

Balfour met Weizmann for the first time in 1906: “It was from that talk with Weizmann that I saw that the Jewish form of patriotism was unique. Their love of their country refused to be satisfied by the Uganda scheme.” In 1914 the two met again and, according to Weizmann, Balfour said with evident emotion, “It is a great cause you are working for; I would like you to come again and again.”11 Balfour was not Weizmann’s only conquest. Churchill, Sykes and C. P. Scott all became his supporters. Most important, so did Lloyd George.

Like Balfour, Lloyd George had grown up with the Bible. “I was taught far more about the history of the Jews than about the history of my own land. I could tell you all the kings of Israel. But I doubt whether I could have named half a dozen of the kings of England, and not more of the kings of Wales.” And were not the Welsh and the Jews really quite alike: religious, gifted and with a love of learning? Lloyd George was thrilled when British forces captured Jerusalem, “something which generations of the chivalry of Europe failed to attain.” His geography of Central Europe may have been shaky but he knew the Holy Land. (Indeed, his sweeping statement that the British mandate of Palestine must run from “Dan to Beersheba” caused endless problems at the Peace Conference as the experts poured over biblical atlases to try to find out what he really meant.) 12

In his time as minister of munitions during the war, Lloyd George liked to say that he had incurred a particular debt to Weizmann. Britain had been running desperately short of acetone, essential for making explosives. By chance, Weizmann was working on a process for producing it on a large scale. In a grand gesture he made it available to the British for the duration of the war without payment. When Lloyd George asked Weizmann to accept an honor from the king, the answer was “There is nothing I want for myself.” When Lloyd George pressed him, Weizmann asked for support for the Zionist cause. “That,” claimed Lloyd George in his memoirs, “was the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for the Jews in Palestine.” (The French had yet another theory; that Lloyd George had a mistress who was the wife of a prominent Jewish businessman.)13

Weizmann and his acetone made a wonderful story but British statesmen, for all their sentiment, would not do anything against Britain’s interests. By 1917, these appeared to be converging with Zionist goals. Weizmann wanted a Jewish Palestine and, as he pointed out, it would need protection for some years to come. He did not trust the French and was cool toward the Americans. Britain was not only powerful, but just and fair; in addition, “the fact that England is a biblical nation accounts for the spiritual affinity between them and the Jews.” With Jewish immigration, Palestine would become “an Asiatic Belgium” and an important strategic asset for the British empire. “Palestine is a natural continuation of Egypt and the barrier separating the Suez Canal from . . . the Black Sea.” 14 That argument made sense to Lloyd George, to the War Office, and to at least some in the Foreign Office. So much the better if it removed Palestine from the French, who had been promised it under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that wartime arrangement among the Allies to divide up the Arab Middle East. From 1917, with Lloyd George’s encouragement, Sykes met privately with Weizmann and other Zionists. The final, and perhaps most important, factor in swinging British support behind the Zionists was to make propaganda among Jews, particularly in the United States, which had not yet come into the war, and in Russia, where Jews for obvious reasons were lukewarm toward their own government. When alarming rumors reached London that Germany was thinking of making a public declaration in favor of Zionism, the British government moved with speed.

Curzon, who unlike most of his colleagues had actually been to Palestine, thought the Zionist dream absurd. “I cannot conceive a worse bondage,” he said, “to which to relegate an advanced and intellectual community.” He also asked an awkward question: “What is to become of the people of the country?” A much more passionate argument came from Montagu, the highly strung secretary of state for India, who thought Zionism a “mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.” He himself was a Jew by faith but an Englishman by nationality. Was he now to be told that his true loyalty lay in Palestine? And what would that mean for the rights of Jews as citizens of other countries? The cabinet discounted these objections and by the end of October 1917 it had agreed on a formula. Sykes rushed out of the meeting waving a piece of paper: “Dr. Weizmann, it’s a boy!” Balfour announced British policy in a brief letter to Lord Rothschild, a leading British Jew: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the attainment of this object.” The words had been chosen with great care. “National home,” as the British government insisted repeatedly, did not mean a state. Weizmann and other Zionist leaders were equally careful. There was no intention, they said, of creating a Jewish state right away. It might be different, of course, in some distant future, when more Jews had emigrated to Palestine. Few people were convinced, and perhaps it was not expected that they would be. The day after the declaration was made public, The Times’ s headline read, “Palestine for the Jews. Official Sympathy.” From the start, Jews and non-Jews alike, politicians, diplomats and journalists, talked in terms of a Jewish state.15

In the next months, as British forces moved north from Egypt to capture Jerusalem and then the whole of Palestine, what everyone called the Jewish Legion—units of the Royal Fusiliers that had been specially recruited among Jews—went with them. (Vladimir Jabotinsky, the brilliant, abrasive and extremist Russian journalist who had brought the Jewish Legion into existence, marched in its ranks as a second lieutenant.)

When Allenby set up his military administration in Palestine, his first proclamation and all official documents were translated into Hebrew as well as Arabic. In the summer of 1918, with the approval of the British government, the Zionists purchased an estate on a hill in Jerusalem and, in the presence of a crowd that included Allenby and all the senior Allied commanders, Weizmann laid the foundation stones for the Hebrew University. In 1918, too, the British government authorized the dispatch to Palestine of a Zionist commission, headed by Weizmann. Although its instructions were vague—it was to act as a link with the British military administration as well as organizing the local Jews—the commission took on the character of official representative of the Jewish community in Palestine. Moreover, it acted, as British officers sometimes complained, like a government in the making.16

Weizmann himself moved cautiously. He easily resisted pressure from a minority of radicals, including Jabotinsky, who demanded an immediate Jewish state. He maneuvered to ensure that the British or the Americans, not the French, who were too imperialistic and too Catholic, became the mandatory power for Palestine. His task was complicated by divisions and rivalries within Zionism. In an echo of the Peace Conference itself, the Americans in the Zionist movement challenged the dominance of the Europeans. The American Zionist delegation to the Peace Conference complained that Weizmann was dictatorial and undemocratic, his draft memorandum on Palestine “too meagre.” They demanded a “Jewish Commonwealth,” even a “Jewish state,” with a Jewish governor and Jews throughout the administration and a Jewish majority on the executive and legislative councils. Weizmann found the Americans legalistic and politically naïve. “I urge again, our demands not to be a matter of a formula of the Peace Conference, but to be insistently and tirelessly pursued from day to day and from month to month.” He got his way partly by threatening, yet again, to resign, partly because the British government made it quite clear that it would not take on the mandate under such conditions. At that stage the Americans were not prepared to challenge him openly. As Felix Frankfurter, the future Supreme Court justice, pointed out: “He has a sway over English public men and over English permanent officials who will continue to govern England when Lloyd George and Balfour will be no more—such as no other Jew in England or on the continent has or can easily acquire.”17

Most of the leading Zionists went to Paris for the conference. Weizmann kept up his customary rounds of interviews with the powerful and influential. House, as usual, was sympathetic, Wilson gave him forty minutes and Balfour assured him that Palestine would be given generous borders. The French were less forthcoming. “I speak French fluently,” Weizmann told Wilson, “but the French and I speak a different language.” Weizmann was careful not to talk of a future Jewish state or a Jewish majority in Palestine. On one occasion, though, he used a phrase that came back to haunt the Zionists: that Palestine should “be as Jewish as England was English.” 18

When the Zionist mission appeared before the Supreme Council on February 27, Weizmann was not the only speaker. No American Zionist spoke, partly because their chief spokesman had not arrived from London, but several Europeans did. The Polish writer Nahum Sokolow reminded his listeners of the dreadful plight of the Jews of Eastern Europe: “The hour of deliverance of his unhappy people had struck.” Weizmann, who stood watching him, later recalled, “I could see Sokolow’s face and without being sentimental, it was as if two thousand years of Jewish suffering rested on his shoulders.” Menachem Ussishkin, a forceful Russian Jew, spoke in Hebrew, the ancient language which was now coming to life again. The final speakers—André Spire, a poet and leading figure in French Zionism, and Sylvain Lévy, a distinguished scholar—had been added to the delegation at the insistence of the French government and over the strenuous objections of Weizmann and his colleagues. What they feared happened: where the Zionist mission claimed to speak for the vast majority of Jews, Spire and Lévy showed a more complicated picture. They pointed out, quite correctly, that only a minority of French Jews were Zionists. They themselves were proud to be French (as Lévy said, “Jewish in sentiment, but French above all”). They requested that France’s ancient rights in Palestine, which included acting as protector for Catholics, be maintained and suggested that France, as a Mediterranean nation and a great force for civilization in the world, would be the most suitable nation to take on the mandate. 19

French Foreign Ministry officials looked on approvingly. (Lévy, said Weizmann contemptuously, looked as if he had been hypnotized.) The French had supported the idea of a Jewish homeland during the war, mainly for propaganda reasons, but there was no need in peacetime to give up French claims in Palestine, claims that, as colonialists never tired of pointing out, went back to the Crusades. French officials attached to the military occupation in Palestine were conspicuously devout. The British had no idea, Picot told Ronald Storrs, the military governor of Jerusalem, of the rejoicing in France when the Holy City had been taken from the Turks. Storrs replied briskly: “Think what it must have been for us who took it.” Before the Zionist mission presented its case to the Supreme Council, a senior official informed Spire, “we are anxious for a French Zionist to make a statement favourable to Zionism, but you should try to make it clear that France must have Palestine.”20

Lévy did even better, at least from the French point of view. Speaking at considerable length, he said firmly that he was not a Zionist at all. He pointed to the problems that would be caused if all the Jews in Eastern Europe, who Weizmann claimed were simply waiting for the signal to move to Palestine, actually did so. The country was not yet capable of supporting a large population. (In fact, although he would not have admitted it publicly, Weizmann shared this concern.) Lévy also raised a serious question: Was a Jewish home the right thing for Jews? “It seemed to him shocking that the Jews, as soon as their rights of equality were about to be recognised in all countries of the world, should already seek to obtain exceptional privileges for themselves in Palestine.” How could Jews around the world, as some Zionist leaders had suggested, share in the government of Palestine? “It would be dangerous to create a precedent whereby certain people who already possessed the rights of citizenship in one country would be called upon to govern and to exercise other rights of citizenship in a new country.” Jews already came under suspicion; “as a Frenchman of Jewish origin, he feared the results.” The argument was the same as Montagu had made in his attack on the Balfour Declaration. “A shameful spectacle,” Weizmann had said of Montagu and now he turned on Lévy, hissing “Je ne vous connais plus. Vous êtes un traître.” (“I no longer know you. You are a traitor.”)21

No decision was made on Palestine that day, or for months to come, and it barely came up at subsequent meetings of the Peace Conference. As so often happened in Paris, an issue that was to cause increasing trouble over the years was scarcely considered at all. “The Palestinians are very bitter over the Balfour Declaration,” reported an American intelligence officer in 1917. “They are convinced that the Zionist leaders wish and intend to create a distinctly Jewish community and they believe that if Zionism proves to be a success, their country will be lost to them even though their religious and political rights be protected.” The Balfour Declaration had promised such protection for what it called “the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” a curious formulation when Palestinian Arabs, most of them Muslim but including some Christians, made up about four fifths of a population of some 700,000. It also reflected a tendency on the part of both the world’s statesmen and Zionist leaders to see Palestine as somehow empty. “If the Zionists do not go there,” said Sykes firmly, “some one will, nature abhors a vacuum.” A British Zionist is supposed to have coined the phrase “The land without people—for the people without land.”22

Even those who recognized that there were Arabs living in Palestine tended to view them through the spectacles of Western imperialism. The Zionist settlers who arrived there before the war were frequently surprised at how “Oriental” and primitive their new land was. They and their leaders talked hopefully, for many of them were progressive and liberal, of how their presence would tug the Arabs out of their tradition-bound lives and help them to move forward. Herzl assured a member of a prominent Arab family that prosperity would grow throughout Palestine. “If one looks at the matter from this point of view, and it is the correct view, one inevitably becomes a friend of Zionism.” There would be no need for Arabs to think of self-government. Yet even before 1914, there were signs that nationalism and a corresponding unease at the Zionist presence were starting to stir among the Palestinian Arabs. Weizmann, who when he talked about the Palestinians sometimes sounded like a British district officer in India, at first discounted this: “The Arabs, who are superficially clever and quickwitted, worship one thing, and one thing only— power and success.” The innocence, and the incomprehension, were breathtaking—and dangerous.23

Even in 1919, the British in Palestine were finding themselves caught between Zionists and Arabs. The Zionists complained, with some truth, that the military authorities were at best insensitive, at worst anti-Semitic. Jabotinsky, from the Jewish Legion, said that the British could deal with the Arabs, “just the same old ‘natives’ whom the Englishman has ruled and led for centuries, nothing new, no problems.” The Zionists were a different matter: “a problem from top to toe, a problem bristling with difficulties in every way—small in numbers, yet somehow strong and influential, ignorant of English, yet imbued with European culture, claiming complicated claims.”24 (Jabotinsky’s own contribution to the problems was to organize an underground army.)

The British, of course, had created their own dilemma by making promises during the war that they could not now fulfill. On the one hand they had supported a Jewish homeland on land largely inhabited by Arabs, and on the other they had encouraged the Arabs to revolt against their Ottoman rulers with the promise of Arab independence. When the Arabs pointed out that Palestine had not been exempted from the land to come under Arab rule, the British accused them of ingratitude. “I hope,” noted Balfour, “remembering all that, they will not begrudge that small notch, for it is no more geographically, whatever it may be historically—that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it.”25

The Arabs did begrudge it, particularly the Palestinian Arabs. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 and the arrival of the Zionist commission in 1918, the waving of the blue and white Zionist flag throughout Palestine, the tactless demand of a Zionist conference in Jaffa that the name of the area immediately be changed to Eretz Israel (“the Land of Israel”), all worried them exceedingly. Curzon had warned about this: “If we were supposed to have identified ourselves with the Jews, and the whole Arab force backed by Feisal on the other side were thrown into the scale against us, that would produce complications.”26 Complications there were to be.

In an attempt to avoid the consequences of their own actions, the British encouraged the Zionists and Arab nationalists to come to terms. When Weizmann visited Palestine in 1918, the Foreign Office urged him to remember that “it is most important that everything should be done to . . . allay Arab suspicions regarding the true aims of Zionism.” When Storrs, the military governor of Jerusalem, gave a dinner party for the Zionist visitors and local notables, Weizmann made a gracious speech: “There was room for both to work side by side; let his hearers beware of treacherous insinuations that Zionists were seeking political power—rather let both progress together until they were ready for joint autonomy.” That summer, Weizmann and Feisal met in Feisal’s camp near the Gulf of Aqaba. The meeting was amiable, even friendly, and Weizmann put on Arab headdress for a photograph of the two of them. Both agreed that they did not trust the French. Feisal appeared well disposed toward a Zionist presence in Palestine but warned that he had to be careful of Arab opinion. He could not, in any case, make a definite commitment without consulting his father. Weizmann left with the impression that Feisal did not place much value on Palestine: “He is contemptuous of the Palestinian Arabs whom he doesn’t even regard as Arabs!” 27

Later in the year, after the war had ended, they met again, this time in London. Again all went well. Weizmann assured Feisal that the Zionists could use their influence to get American support for the Arabs, and Feisal in return indicated that he did not foresee any trouble over Palestine. “It was curious there should be any friction between Jews and Arabs,” he told Weizmann. After all, there was plenty of land to go around. On January 3, 1919, the two signed their agreement full of expressions of goodwill and hope for the future: Jewish immigration to Palestine would be encouraged, while the Zionists would lend their assistance to developing the independent Arab state which presumably was about to be set up by the Peace Conference. Feisal scrawled a brief proviso to the effect that his consent depended on the British carrying out their promises to the Arabs. The agreement, always improbable, vanished into the widening gulf between Feisal and the British and between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.28

The fate of Palestine rested, as it had done for centuries, with outside powers and in 1919 that meant mainly Britain and France. Italy tried to smuggle in some Italian priests disguised as soldiers during the military occupation to further its halfhearted claims to protect Christians in the Holy Land. The main Italian concern, however, was to ensure that France did not get anything that Italy did not.

The United States, in contrast to what happened after the Second World War, played a minor role. The American government had quietly approved the Balfour Declaration and Wilson himself was sympathetic to Zionism. “To think,” he told a leading New York rabbi, “that I the son of the manse should be able to help restore the Holy Land to its people.” It would do the Jews good, he thought, to enjoy their own nationality. He even contemplated, although only briefly, an American mandate for Palestine. But then there was the sacred tenet of self-determination. Why should the wishes of a minority of Jews prevail over those of a much larger number of Arabs? Balfour and Louis Brandeis, a Supreme Court justice and the leading American Zionist, came up with an ingenious solution. It was wrong to use mere “numerical self-determination”: a great many potential inhabitants of the Jewish home in Palestine still lived outside its borders. “And Zionism,” said Balfour, “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 any case, he pointed out, reverting to the language of the old diplomacy, the Great Powers were behind Zionism. Wilson nevertheless insisted that his Commission of Inquiry into the Middle East include Palestine. The two American commissioners, Charles Crane and Henry King, the businessman and the professor, reported back at the end of the summer of 1919 that the Arabs in Palestine were “emphatically against the entire Zionist program” and recommended that the Peace Conference limit Jewish immigration and give up the idea of making Palestine a Jewish homeland. Nobody paid the slightest attention.29

Where Palestine was concerned, the main issue by this point was its future borders. Lloyd George’s airy talk of a land stretching from Dan to Beersheba worried the French, who saw it as enlarging Palestine in the north at the expense of Syria. Did Dan include the Litani River and the upper reaches of the Jordan? Water was always an important consideration in the Middle East. The Zionists pushed for the most generous border. “It is absolutely essential,” Weizmann argued, “for the economic development of Palestine that this line be drawn so as to include the territories east of the Jordan which are capable of receiving and maintaining large Jewish mass settlements.” His borders would have included part of today’s Jordan. The British government supported him for its own ends: to limit French influence and to protect railway routes (even though the railways did not yet exist) between Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. The Quai d’Orsay protested: Palestine would stretch right up to the suburbs of Damascus.30 Clemenceau refused to concede any more to the Zionists or, as he saw it, to Britain. The border between Syria and Palestine remained substantially where it had been set by the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The French conceded only that Palestine could use surplus water from Syria; this has caused trouble down to the present day.

In April 1920, at San Remo, Britain and France set the final terms of their agreements on the Middle East. Britain got the Palestine mandate. (Its terms included carrying out the Balfour Declaration.) The French made one last attempt to keep their old rights to protect Christians. With an alacrity that suggests a previous deal with the British, the Italians said that, with the disappearance of the Ottoman empire and a “civilized nation” taking over in Palestine, it was no longer necessary to have special arrangements. At the end of the conference Lloyd George said to Weizmann, who had rushed over from Palestine: “Now you have got your start, it all depends on you.”31 The Palestinian Arabs were not represented in San Remo but they had made their feelings clear in the riots against Jews that had broken out in Palestine two weeks earlier.

All that remained was to draw up the details of the mandate and get it ratified by the League of Nations. This took another two years, mainly because it proved impossible to sign a treaty with Ottoman Turkey. The British simply carried on as though Palestine were officially theirs. Mindful of its promises to the Arabs, the British government, at the urging of Churchill, now colonial secretary, divided the mandate in two, with Palestine confined to the area west of the Jordan and a new little Arab state of Transjordan under the rule of Feisal’s brother Abdullah. Weizmann was disappointed. He had stressed to Churchill that the lands east of the Jordan had always been “an integral and vital part of Palestine.” The soil was rich, the climate “invigorating,” and there was plenty of water. “Jewish settlement,” he concluded optimistically, “could proceed on a large scale without friction with the local population.” 32 The Zionists, however, were not prepared to antagonize the British over the issue. It was much more important to ensure that the terms of the mandate were written in their favor.

This was not easy. Among the British, the realization was dawning that a Jewish homeland in Palestine meant trouble for Britain. Curzon spoke for many in the Foreign Office when he told Balfour, “Personally, I am so convinced that Palestine will be a rankling thorn in the flesh of whoever is charged with its Mandate, that I would withdraw from this responsibility while we yet can.” Zionism had produced what had not previously existed, an organized Palestinian Arab opinion, which learned rapidly to use letters of protest, petitions and the language of self-determination. On the streets of Jerusalem mobs took more direct action; from 1920 on the British authorities had to deal with sporadic outbreaks of violence there and elsewhere against Jews. Churchill was usually sympathetic to Zionism, but he warned Lloyd George: “Palestine is costing us 6 millions a year to hold. The Zionist movement will cause continued friction with the Arabs. The French ensconced in Syria with 4 divisions (paid for by not paying us what they owe us) are opposed to the Zionist movement & will try to cushion the Arabs off on to us as the real enemy.”33

The British grasped at one expedient after another. Perhaps the Arabs and the Zionists might still come to an understanding. In the summer of 1921 a delegation of Palestinian Arabs traveled to London. Churchill listened with a certain amount of impatience to their rambling complaints about the Zionists. (He dodged the awkward question posed by their leader, “What is this promise that you made and what does it mean?”) “Have a good talk with Dr. Weizmann,” he advised the Arabs. “Try to arrange something with him for the next few years.” Neither side was prepared to talk seriously to the other. “Political blackmailers” and “trash” was Weizmann’s view.34 The Arabs simply repeated that they refused to recognize the Balfour Declaration and anything done in its name.

At this point the British toned down the language of the mandate to imply that the Jewish national home would merely be in Palestine rather than occupying the whole. In place of the duty of the mandatory power to develop a self-governing commonwealth, they substituted “self-governing institutions.” Weizmann, traveling endlessly, firing off telegrams and letters, calling on all his extensive contacts, struggled to prevent the British government from making the terms even weaker. He wrote in despair to Albert Einstein: “All the shady characters of the world are at work, against us. Rich servile Jews, dark fanatic Jewish obscurantists, in combination with the Vatican, with Arab assassins, English imperialist anti-Semitic reactionaries—in short, all the dogs are howling.” He was not as alone as he felt. Support kept coming, often from unexpected quarters such as German Zionists, Anglican clergy or Italian Catholics. The United States Congress roused itself from its introspective, isolationist mood to pass resolutions in favor of the Jewish national home. And Weizmann’s chief British allies remained firm. In a private meeting at Balfour’s house on July 22, 1921, Lloyd George and Balfour assured him that “they had always meant an eventual Jewish state.” When the awkward issue of Zionist gunrunning into Palestine came up, Churchill winked: “We won’t mind it, but don’t speak of it.” All present agreed that the Palestinian Arab delegation was a nuisance. Why not bribe them, Lloyd George suggested cheerfully? The prime minister was full of helpful ideas. “You ought,” he told Balfour, “to make a big speech again in the Albert Hall on Zionism.”35

In July 1922 the League of Nations approved the Palestine mandate brought before it by the British government. In Palestine, an Arab congress rejected the mandate completely. Weizmann was elated: the mandate gave official recognition to the Jews as a people. This was, however, only the end of the first chapter of the Jewish struggle; “if only we go on working and working in Palestine, the time will come when there will be another opportunity of giving the Mandate its true value.”36 That opportunity was to come in a terrible and unexpected fashion with the rise of Hitler and the Second World War.

Balfour visited Palestine for the first time in 1925, with Weizmann and his wife. In Jerusalem, he opened the new Hebrew University with a stirring speech in which he talked proudly of his own share in the establishment of a Jewish home. He was touched by the reception he received throughout Palestine from Jews but failed to notice the Arabs in mourning and the shops closed in protest. His private secretary destroyed the hundreds of angry telegrams he received from Arabs before he could see them. When he and his party moved on to Syria to do some sightseeing, the French authorities mounted a guard around him, much to his annoyance. In Damascus, his hotel was surrounded by an excited crowd of 6,000 Arabs. As the paving stones started to fly and the French cavalry fired back, Balfour watched bemused. A young Arab attached to his party tried to explain why there was such opposition to Zionism. Balfour merely replied that he found the results of his experiment “extraordinarily interesting.” He sailed back to Europe on the Sphinx.37

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