The Balfour Declaration at 100: Remembering Its Prophetic Jewish Critics

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 2017, pp. 42-43

Israel and Judaism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

ISSUED IN LONDON in 1917 a century ago this Nov. 2, the Balfour Declaration is one of the 20th century’s most important documents. It committed Britain to supporting in Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people,” and the consequences continue to be felt to this day.

Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, was a new idea beginning to take shape in Eastern Europe in 1881, when Russian revolutionaries assassinated Tsar Alexander ll. His son, Alexander lll, blamed the Jews and reimposed the anti-Semitic policies his father had relaxed. In 1897 the Zionist movement held its initial congress in Basel, Switzerland, triggering immigration to Palestine with the idea of establishing a Jewish commonwealth of some kind. In 1914, as World War l began, Jews represented perhaps one-ninth of the population of Palestine. 

Within England, Zionism had little support among British Jews. In his book The Balfour Declaration, Prof. Jonathan Schneer of Georgia Tech, a specialist in modern British history, notes that, “Prewar indifference to Jewish nationalism was widespread. The British public, including the vast majority of British Jews, shared it. Of 300,000 Jews living in Britain in 1913, only 8,000 belonged to the Zionist organization.”

Zionist leaders in London were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe. Most prominent was Chaim Weizmann, who took a post at the University of Manchester in 1904. In 1914, Zionists lacked easy entry to the Foreign Office. But a Jewish opponent of Zionism, Lucien Wolf, did have such access. Wolf was director of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, which held that British Jews differed from their Quaker, Congregationalist and Catholic Britons only in the religious belief system to which they adhered. While Zionists contended that Jews were a distinct nation, this view was rejected by most British Jews, in particular the Anglo-Jewish Association, which declared that British Jews were Britons who happened to be Jewish by religion.

Zionist leaders argued that support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine would serve both British interests in World War I as well as its post-war imperial ambitions. In the case of World War l, the Zionists played on the often anti-Semitic notion that world Jewry constituted an extraordinarily influential power, and that, thus, support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine would cause American Jews to urge the U.S. to enter the war on Britain’s side. Such support, the Zionists declared, would cause Russian Jews to urge continued involvement in the war and German Jews to lessen their support for their country’s war effort.

For a variety of reasons, the British government embraced the Zionist enterprise, while within Britain's Jewish community, the debate became increasingly heated. Zionists insisted that Jews constitute a distinct nationality. Jews who opposed Zionism insisted that Jews shared a religion and nothing more. As liberals, they considered the idea of special privileges for their co-religionists in Palestine, or anywhere else, as anathema. Rabbi Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, asked rhetorically in the April 1917 Edinburgh Review, “How can a man belong to two nations at once?” One who tried to do so opened himself to the charge of divided loyalties. “No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists.” 

Led by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, who insisted that Jews be regarded as a religious community and he as a Jewish Englishman, the anti-Zionist Jews fought the establishment of any Jewish state. They maintained that it would have the effect of “stamping Jews as strangers in their native land and undermining their hard won position as citizens and nationals of those lands.”

British cabinet records of 1915 to 1920, made public by the British government only in 1970, contained many references to the Balfour Declaration, including three memoranda by Montagu, the sole Jewish Cabinet member, which reveal his foresightedness.

In a memorandum circulated to other Cabinet members, Montagu used the term “anti-Semitism” to characterize the sponsors of Zionism's charter. The Aug. 23, 1917 document, titled “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government,” and marked “Secret,” is in many ways prophetic. 

It reads, in part: “I have chosen the above title...not in any hostile sense...not even with a view to suggesting that the government is deliberately anti-Semitic, but I wish to place on record my view that the policy of His Majesty's Government is anti-Semitic in result and will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country of the world.”

In Montagu’s view, “Zionism has always seemed to me a mischievous political creed, untenable to any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship...I deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history...the government should be prepared to do everything in their power to obtain for Jews in Palestine complete liberty of settlement and life on an equality with the inhabitants of the country who profess other religious beliefs. I would ask that the government should go no further.”


In the U.S., Jewish opposition to the Balfour Declaration was widespread. In 1919, a petition was presented to President Woodrow Wilson entitled “Statement to the Peace Conference.” It reflected the then-dominant opposition of most American Jews to Zionism and its claim on Palestine. Signatories included Rep. Julius Kahn of California; Henry Morgenthau, Sr., former U.S. ambassador to Turkey; Simon W. Rosendale, former attorney general of New York; Mayor L.H. Kempner of Galveston, Texas; E.M. Baker, president of the New York Stock Exchange; R.H. Macy's Jesse I. Straus; New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs; Judge M.C. Sloss of San Francisco; and Profs. Edwin S. Seligman of Columbia and Morris Jastrow of the University of Pennsylvania. President Wilson brought the petition with him to the 1919 Paris peace conference following World War I. 

The petition criticized Zionist efforts to segregate Jews “as a political Palestine and elsewhere” and underlined the principle of equal rights for all citizens of any state “irrespective of creed or ethnic descent.” It rejected Jewish nationalism as a general concept and held against the founding of any state based on religion or race. The petition asserted that the “overwhelming bulk of the Jews of America, England, France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland and other lands of freedom have no thought whatever of surrendering their citizenship in those lands in order to resort to a ‘Jewish homeland in Palestine.’”

As stated in Point 5 of the petition: “We object to the political segregation of the Jews because it is an error to assume that the bond uniting them is of a national character. They are bound by two factors. First, the bond of common religious beliefs and aspirations and, secondly, the bonds of common traditions, customs and experiences largely, alas, of common trials and sufferings. Nothing in their status suggests that they form in any real sense a separate nationalistic unit.”

With regard to the future of Palestine, the petitioners state: “It is our fervent hope that what was once a ‘promised land’ for the Jews may become ‘a land of promise’ for all races and creeds, safeguarded by the League of Nations which, it is expected, will be one of the fruits of the Peace Conference...We ask that Palestine be constituted as a free and independent state to be governed under a democratic form of government recognizing no distinction of creed or race or ethnic descent, and with adequate power to protect the country, against oppression of any kind. We do not wish to see Palestine, either now or at any time in the future, organized as a Jewish state.”

In his autobiography, Henry Morgenthau, Sr. described Zionism as “the most stupendous fallacy in Jewish history. It is wrong in principle and impossible of realization, it is unsound in its economics, fantastical in its politics and sterile in its spiritual ideals. I speak as a Jew.”

The 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration should be a time when we reclaim the often forgotten Jewish voices of 1917 and beyond who warned against moving forward with this enterprise. They understood, as more and more American Jews are realizing today, that Zionism was never integral to Judaism but was, in fact, a departure from it. They recognized, as well, the injustice which was being done to the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, an injustice which continues to the present day. It is the very moral integrity of Judaism which has been challenged by Zionism’s confusion of religion and nationalism and resulted in a form of idolatry, in which the State of Israel has replaced God for too many who have embraced the Zionist worldview. 

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.





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