LONDON ON DECEMBER 2, 1917:1 a cold, rainy, windy day: gloomy weather to match British prospects in the stalemated Great War. The Italians had just met a disaster at Caporetto so complete that it seemed likely to take them out of combat altogether. The Russian Bolsheviks, who had seized power in Petrograd the month before, were preparing to negotiate their country’s surrender to Germany. On the Western Front the Entente and German forces continued to wreak havoc upon each other with neither end nor breakthrough in sight. But the Germans were gathering for another tremendous offensive, intending to win the war before American troops arrived in sufficient number to tip the balance against them. Somehow Britain and France must summon the resolve and the resources to hang on.
On Kingsway, near the Strand, despite the rain and wind and generally awful war news, a steady stream of beaming men and women poured into the London Opera House. They filled the tiers of boxes, the auditorium, the saloons, lounges, and foyers, even the corridors. The handsome structure, designed to hold 2,700, was filled to capacity and more. People waited outside in the street under their umbrellas. They would not leave.
Inside about a dozen men gathered near the stage. Among them were a former Liberal cabinet minister, Herbert Samuel; the assistant foreign secretary, Robert Cecil; an assistant secretary to the War Cabinet, Sir Mark Sykes; the unofficial head of the British Jewish community, Lord Rothschild; and the two most important leaders of wartime British Zionism, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. They, and all the rest, beamed with pleasure. When finally the doors closed and the crowd settled, Lord Rothschild, hands in his pockets, spoke first to the breathless, happy audience. “We are met on the most momentous occasion in the history of Judaism for the last eighteen hundred years,” he began. “We are here to return thanks to His Majesty’s government for a declaration which marked an epoch … For the first time since the dispersion, the Jewish people have received their proper status by the declaration of one of the great Powers.”
He referred, of course, to the Balfour Declaration, which the War Cabinet had agreed to one month earlier and published on November 9. By this document the British government pledged “to use their best endeavors to … [establish] in Palestine … a national home for the Jewish people.”
One by one the men on the stage advanced to speak. One by one they offered thanks or congratulations and rosy predictions for the land to be freed, at long last, from the onerous Turkish yoke. Even an Arab spokesman, Sheikh Ismail Abdul al-Akki, foresaw the day when Palestine would again flow with milk and honey. Everyone said that the Declaration represented a historic gesture on the part of Britain and a historic achievement on the part of Zionism, the culmination of a joint effort that must lead to “Judea for the Jews,” as Robert Cecil put it. And because the Declaration also promised that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” they predicted that Jews and Arabs would share the land in harmony.
That last prophecy proved wishful thinking, but events have largely borne out the rest. Today we consider the Balfour Declaration a great marker in Jewish history, not merely a Zionist victory but a foundation stone of modern Israel. Some of us may know a bit about it: We may have read about the enormous effort, planning, and vision, as well as the unlikely alliances, prejudices, intrigues, and double-dealing, that went into its making. Few if any, however, can know that on the very day that the joyful throng gathered to celebrate at the London Opera House, Britain’s prime minister and his agents were engaged in secret maneuverings to detach the Ottoman Empire from the Central Powers. They were offering, among other inducements, that the Turkish flag could continue to fly over Palestine. But the Zionists had long deemed Ottoman rule in Palestine to be one of their chief obstacles. Most of them viewed Turkish suzerainty, no matter how attenuated, as intolerable. Had the Turks accepted Lloyd George’s offer, most Zionists, and certainly their most important leaders, would have felt that the British government had compromised, perhaps fatally, its recent pledge. In which case, no one today would pay much attention to the Balfour Declaration at all.
Of those secret dealings, two (or possibly three) men standing on the Opera House stage were well aware. They disapproved because they knew what the Zionist reaction would be, but they did not tell. Everyone else at the celebration remained in ignorance. That disparity of knowledge between government officials and the human objects of policy, and its potential for betrayal, encapsulates in a single moment the tortuous process that had led to the Balfour Declaration—and nearly to its swift negation. The meeting at the London Opera House on December 2 crystallized a convoluted history that too often has been conceived as an irresistible forward march. This book will show that the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration was anything but a simple triumphal progress. And since intrigue and double-dealing as much as bravery and vision were of its essence, the Balfour Declaration resulted not merely in celebration and congratulation but soon enough in disillusionment, distrust, and resentment. Nearly a century later these bitter emotions remain; compounded over the years, they continue tragically, bloodily, to unwind.