The Balfour Declaration’s bold expression of support for a Jewish homeland issued in 1917 by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on behalf of King George V and the government of Great Britain did not go unchallenged. The Mandate to establish a Jewish national home was virtually derailed by government officials motivated by misguided expediency rather than moral clarity.
THE LEAGUE OF NATIONS AND THE BRITISH MANDATE OF PALESTINE
Even before the Mandate of Palestine was granted to the British government by the League of Nations in 1920 and confirmed in 1922, it became evident that implementation of the declaration would not be as straightforward as many hoped.
The Treaty of Versailles between the Allied nations—England, France, United States and Italy—and the Central Powers—Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria (with Germany representing all)—was signed after World War I in Versailles, France on June 28, 1919. In addition to paying reparations, Germany was also forced to concede annexed territories to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland and France.
All colonies of the Central Powers became mandates of the League of Nations, an international body formed at Versailles in an attempt to prevent another global conflict. The purpose of the League of Nations mandate system was to administer areas of the defeated Ottoman Empire until local residents were capable of self-rule.
At Versailles, Prime Minister David Lloyd George was vocal about Britain’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Consequently, Great Britain was given the Mandate for Palestine to, “place the country under the political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home” (emphasis added). (1)
POLICY SHIFT IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE MANDATE
The British Mandate of Palestine drafted at the San Remo Conference in April of 1920 and confirmed by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 became effective September 26, 1923. British policy in administration of the Mandate, however, actually hindered the process of re-establishing Palestine as a home for the Jewish people.
In 1922, High Commissioner Robert Samuel instigated quotas that became a trend contrary to the spirit of the British Mandate restricting Jewish immigration and Jewish land purchases in the British Mandate of Palestine. Paradoxically, no restrictions were placed on Arab immigration from Egypt, Transjordan, the Sinai or Syria effectively displacing prospective Jewish immigrants.
When applications for immigration spiked due to the intensified persecution of Jewish people at the hand of Nazis Germany in the mid-1930s, the British administration of the Mandate granted only one-third of the permits requested by the Jewish Agency in Palestine. (2)
At the height of the Holocaust, shiploads of Jewish people fleeing Europe and seeking refuge in Palestine were repelled by British soldiers and forced to return to the very countries they had fled; many were murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers.
By 1937, the restriction of Jewish immigrants to Palestine under the British Mandate prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to confront British Secretary of State Cordell Hull with a restatement of the facts. Roosevelt bluntly inquired:
“I was at Versailles, and I know that the British made no secret of the fact they promised Palestine to the Jews. Why are they now reneging on their promise?” (3)
The charge was valid. It was apparent that the nation that had been so adamant in its support of a modern Jewish homeland was now defaulting on the pledge. What changed?
MISGUIDED EXPEDIENCY IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE MANDATE
The Christian worldview and pervasive Zionism of 19th century Britain waned following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. The strong political support for a national homeland for the Jewish people at the turn of the century was contested among government officials even as the Balfour Declaration was made.
During World War I, British emissaries bent on gaining Arab support to advance British ambitions in the Middle East formed a multitude of secret treaties and alliances working at cross-purposes and often contrary to the intent of the Balfour Declaration. Historian Barbara Tuchman gives a sense of the confusion:
“Everybody was negotiating with somebody, and nobody held all the strings in any one hand at any one time. The Foreign Office was negotiating with France and Russia. The War Office was negotiating with the Arabs sometimes with one set, sometimes with another, sometimes through the Arab Bureau at Cairo, sometimes . . . in the field. The Zionists were negotiating with the various Cabinet members in London. A crisscross of secret treaties, pledges, promises, and ‘understandings’ were made which have never since been satisfactorily untangled.” (4)
By the time the Balfour Declaration was signed, Zionists although influential were becoming the minority in the British government.
Christian Zionists were committed to securing a home in Palestine for the Jewish people, while government bureaucrats were guided by overarching goals—winning the war for Great Britain and gaining control of the Middle East. Simply stated, given the choice to secure a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine or wrest control of the entire Middle East, the majority favored the latter. They viewed Palestine primarily as a strategic land bridge between continents that was critical for British domination of the Middle East.
PRESSURE TO APPEASE IN THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE MANDATE
Despite numerous warning flags, British officials now worked to appease and gain support of the broader Arab community to achieve their goals. Foreign Office “Arabists” envisioned, “a vast pro-British federation from the Sudan to Iraq (creating a continuous overland route from South Africa to India).”(5) Appeasing the Arab population became a driving force often at an exorbitant price.
Two men were primarily responsible for the change of attitude. The first, Sir Mark Sykes worked with the Arab Bureau (one office of many of the British government) during World War I and favored Arab sovereignty. The other, T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia, a title coined by Hollywood in 1962), a junior British intelligence officer, served with Sykes and spent two years working with the Arabs; he was obsessed with advancing the establishment of an Arab state in the Mid-East.
In the months leading up to the critical Dardanelles Campaign foolishly anticipated as a certain victory over the Ottoman Turks, the Allies needed the support of the Arab Bureau of the British government to settle future shares once the Turks were defeated. Sykes was chosen to negotiate the terms of a treaty known as the Sykes-Picot Treaty. Described as one of the most unpopular documents of WWI, it was motivated by “imperative expediency”. (6)
Secrecy was paramount. The Allies divided shares of the Ottoman Empire via negotiations led by Sykes. The contents of the treaty remained secret until the conclusion of the war, but the agreement effectively made possible the separation of Transjordan from the Balfour Declaration by assigning it to the British.
At the same time, Lawrence worked with Emir Feisal to incite an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire promising a kingdom as incentive. At the end of the war, Lawrence played a minor role in the short-lived Feisal – Weizmann Agreement encouraging Jewish settlement in Palestine and committing to full cooperation with the Jewish people under the auspices of the British Mandate. (7)
Contrary to the image of wide support in the Arab world presented by Lawrence, within the year, Arab leaders not only rejected Feisal’s agreement, but also vehemently opposed Jewish settlement in Palestine. Consequently, an increasing number of British officials expressed reluctance to ignore Arab aspirations in order to support the existing pro-Zionist policy.
After the war, Lawrence successfully branded himself along with his Arab raiders as celebrated heroes to whom Great Britain owed a great debt of gratitude. He grossly exaggerated the contribution of the small faction of Arabs led by Emir Feisal that supported the British against the Ottoman Turks. (8) The ambiguity of the record does not allow accurate assessment of the number of these fighting forces with Lawrence. Suffice it to say, the number was minuscule in comparison to the hundreds of thousands who fought with the Ottoman Turks against the British.
Lawrence was committed to an ambiguous Arab sovereignty in the Middle East; his “success” during the war provided an opportunity to make the case for an Arab state before the Eastern War Cabinet and in a meeting with King George V.
Working in the Middle East Department, Lawrence convinced newly appointed Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill that the eastern portion of the British Mandate had been subsequently promised to the Hashemites during the war. He argued that removing land from the area described by the British Mandate (i.e. the re-establishment of the Jewish homeland) ironically would not substantially impact Jewish aspirations, “a line which Churchill, like so many other Western leaders after him, did not know enough to refute.” (9)
In 1920, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill severed some 80 percent of the area allotted to the Jewish people for a homeland under the British Mandate of Palestine and gave it to Abdullah Hussein to create a new Arab emirate called Transjordan (later Jordan). Despite objections by High Commissioner for Palestine Sir Herbert Samuel and former Prime Minister David Lloyd George countering that the territory was designated as a homeland for the Jewish people, Abdullah Feisal was installed as ruler of Transjordan in March 1920.
Before the British Mandate of Palestine could be fully implemented, the area east of the Jordan River that was vital to agriculture was unceremoniously ripped-out from under God’s ancient people. The duplicitous actions of a few men cascaded into disastrous consequences for the Jewish people in subsequent decades.
THE MANDATE HIJACKED
After World War II, the League of Nations transitioned into a new international community; the United Nations was created on October 24, 1945. On November 29, 1947, after almost 25 years of continuous conflict and unrest in Palestine, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to end the British Mandate and partition Palestine into two separate, independent states—a Jewish state and an Arab state. Jewish leaders accepted the partition plan; the Arab states absolutely rejected it.
The Arab League promptly vowed to annihilate the future Jewish state generating immediate conflict between the Jewish and Arab populations. The United Nations had no army to enforce the partition plan; and, the British refused to cooperate and announced their intention to withdraw from the area—which they did on May 15, 1948.
During the transition, the British army determined to act only in self-defense. Arab mercenary fighters began flooding into Palestine from neighboring states. They would ultimately be followed by the regular armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon in a brash attempt to prevent the Jewish state from being reborn. History amply records that British military and civilian representatives actively supported Arab militants at the expense of the Jewish population.
By the time the Jewish state was declared on May 14, 1948, the fledgling nation was in a war of survival. Attacking from all sides, Israel’s enemies had one objective—the annihilation of the newly declared Jewish state.
The failure of the British to establish a homeland for the Jewish people is tragically summarized in the words of Foreign Minister Lord Halifax,
“There are times when considerations of abstract justice must give way to those of administrative expediency.” (10)
A commitment to misguided expediency rather than moral clarity caused the greatest empire of that period of history to turn its back on the Jewish people. With sights set on controlling the Middle East at all costs, the British Empire failed to administer the Mandate and broke a pledge to the Jewish people.
A little more than four millennia earlier, God testified to Abraham,”I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Gen. 12:3).
While speculation abounds regarding the relationship between Britain’s decline as a world power and the documented failure of the nation to keep pledges made to the Jewish people, a more profound connection should be noted.
Moral clarity is imperative in every decision because every decision has the potential to change the course of history. People of faith firmly grounded in the foundation of the Bible can positively influence culture; and, every individual counts, especially today when the nations of the world are once again treading a slippery path of misguided expediency that the modern State of Israel knows all too well.
Post Script from the author:
I hope that briefly looking at a few of the contextual complexities following World War I will aid you in identifying influences that drove the policy shift in England. May God bless you for your interest in the convoluted circumstances that preceded Israel’s rebirth as a modern nation. The history of the last century should cause us to praise God for His ability to bring His plan for Israel and the world to fulfillment in spite of people!
Charles E. McCracken is an international Bible teacher, long-time friend of Israel and advocate for the Jewish people. In his work as the Executive Director of Olive Tree Alliance, Inc., Rev. McCracken authentically communicates biblical truth making his presentations relevant for those seeking to understand the significance of Israel and the church in Bible prophecy. He staunchly supports the nation of Israel and the Jewish people’s right to exist and live in peace.
Copyright © 2016 Charles E. McCracken. Repost/Reprint with permission. Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved. (Emphasis added).
1) The Mandate for Palestine, Section 2.
2) Article Four of the Mandate for Palestine stipulated a Jewish Agency would be, “recognized as a public body for the purpose of advising and cooperating with the administration in such economic, social, and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish National Home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine.”
3) Benjamin Netanyahu, A Durable Peace, (New York, Warner books, 1993), 55.
4) Barbara W. Tuchman, Bible and Sword (New York, Ballantine Books, 1984), 320-321.
5) Benjamin Netanyahu, 57.
6) Barbara Tuchman, 327.
7) Weizmann-Feisal Agreement.
8) Benjamin Netanyahu, 51.
9) Benjamin Netanyahu, 67.
10) Benjamin Netanyahu, 76.
1) Interior of the Palace des Glaces during the signing of the Peace Terms. Versailles, France on June 28, 1919. U.S. National Archives and Records Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: – MKM Portfolios
2) Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp survivors arrive in Haifa, Israel, July 15, 1945 only to be arrested by the British. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolio
3) Balfour Declaration, The London Times, November 9, 1917. (The London Times) [PD-US], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios
4) Three young Jewish DPs (displaced persons) look out of the window of their train holding a homemade Zionist flag as they depart from Buchenwald (the first German concentration camp on German soil) on the first leg of their journey to Palestine. The original caption reads, “These three Jewish children are on their way to Palestine after having been released from the Buchenwald concentration camp. The girl on the left is from Poland, the boy in the center is from Latvia and the girl on the right is from Hungary.” Pictured are: Yetti (Yocheved) Halpern Beigel (left); Martha Weber (right); and an unidentified Jewish youth from Latvia. Photographed by James E. Myers. Buchenwald, [Thuringia] Germany, June 5, 1945. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – Enhancement: MKM Portfolios