The Balfour Declaration – intrigue and providence
RABBI RAMON WIDMONTE
The question is: Why would Great Britain, in 1917, in the midst of the Great War, even think of wasting mind-space and time, on this declaration? What was their intention and what in it for them?
The Balfour Declaration concerns power, money, courageous Jews and Jewesses, who boldly stepped into the annals of Jewish destiny. And of course, it rests upon the most amazing coincidences; or as others would put it, Providence.
Behind closed doors, what Britain was doing, was what it had always done: striving to build the British Empire and win its wars. The British were playing a four-way game between the Arabs, Turks, European powers and the Zionists.
The British held talks with each group separately, and only a few people in the entire empire (notably the War Cabinet) were aware of this. Each approach would yield a tremendous benefit for the Empire in the long run, and in the short run, would help them win the war.
Let’s review the plays:
Play 1: The Turks (Ottomans) were never a clear enemy of Great Britain, and even after Turkey joined the war on Germany’s side, the British attempted to lure them out of Germany’s embrace. They would have been happy for Turkey to remain a strong buffer against the Russians who were trying to expand their empire to reach the Mediterranean.
In November 1917, at the same time that the British were issuing the Balfour Declaration, they were secretly negotiating with the Turks to withdraw from the war. There were two lines of negotiation – one was run by Henry Morgenthau (an American ambassador) on a political level; while the other line was one of bribery and corruption. The former option would have entailed Turkey retaining much of its territory, including Palestine.
For the latter option the agent negotiating on behalf of the British was the infamous arms merchant, Basil Zaharoff, codenamed, “ZedZed”, by MI6.
The proposal was: the Allies would pay the Turkish government, and in particular, some of its highest-ranking members, to turn on Germany. In return for his, ZedZed was going to get a share of the money. But he also demanded “chocolate” – his codeword for a Knighthood. In November 1917, the British Prime Minister sanctioned paying $2 million to two high-ranking Turkish officials.
This offer was rebuffed. But ZedZed was not to be deterred, so in January 1918, he bid $5 million for safe passage through the Dardanelles for British submarines, which would then sink two German warships that were being used by Turkey. Another $2 million was offered if Turkish troops were pulled out of Palestine.
Two weeks later he increased the offer to $10 million if the Turks opened up the Dardanelles completely and allowed Britain to occupy forts on the Bosphorus. His final offer was in August 1918 for $25 million, but… the deal was never finalised. ZedZed, though, got his “chocolate” in the form of a knighthood.
Play 2: Prior to this, the British Government was enticing the Arabs. As early as 1914, the British attempted to conclude a deal with Hussein Bin Ali, who had immense religious authority as the Sharif of Mecca and as a claimant of direct descent from Muhammad.
The British urged him to lead an Arab uprising against the Turks, which would divert Turkish military power from the larger war effort. Lord Kitchener, specifically, tempted him with the promise of a new Arab empire under his control, detached from the Turks, but of course under the banner of Britain.
Ten letters were exchanged from July 14, 1915 to March 10, 1916 between Sir Henry McMahon and Sharif Hussein, in which detailed discussions were held on borders and the interests of other colonial powers. The cloak and dagger was deadly stuff – including letters written in invisible ink and smuggled in cakes, servants’ shoes and sword handles. It all culminated in the Sharif, who trusted the British, proclaiming a jihad against the Turkish Empire and launching the insurgency with his sons on June 5, 1916.
The famed Lawrence of Arabia-led guerrilla assaults against the Turks, was part of this campaign. The revolt failed to garner major Arab support and fizzled out. But the Sharif got a consolation prize: the short-lived Kingdom of Hejaz (western Arabia), his son Abdullah was given a brand-new country, made in England, called Transjordan (later to be renamed “Jordan”); and another son, Faisal, was given another country fresh out of the box, called “Iraq”.
Play 3: Meanwhile, just a month prior to the Arab Revolt, on May 16, 1916, the British, Russians and French, had been plotting to carve up the Middle East and had crafted a secret protocol – the Sykes-Picot agreement – which chopped up the Turkish Empire, leaving no place for a preserved Turkish state, Sharif Hussein’s Arab state or a Jewish state either.
When the Bolsheviks found these maps (which Sykes and Picot had outlined), they publicised them on November 23, 1917 (only three weeks after the British had published the Balfour Declaration). The British were embarrassed, but Sharif Hussein was livid.
One would think that all this scheming would be enough to satisfy one government, but one would be wrong!
The British had another plot in the pot: the Jews!
Play 4: Last on the list, seemingly with the least to offer were the Jews; and the British War Cabinet wanted them in the mix too. But why? We can understand what the Turks, Russians, French and Arabs had to offer, but what ace did we have up our taleisim?
This is a question which has confounded researchers for 100 years.
Perhaps our secret weapon was anti-Semitism. Some in the British establishment truly believed Jews really had a large degree of control over two countries which were part of the Alliance, but needed shoring up: the US and Russia.
In mid-1917, the Americans had just joined the war, but were not overly enthusiastic about it; while the Russians were about to have a revolution. In both cases, the British believed that playing to the Jewish “race” would engender large-scale Jewish support for the war effort in both the US and Russia.
Their theory was that most Jews were Zionists (which was incorrect at the time) and that they would want the Allies to fight and win the war and conquer the Turks and thereafter gain a “national home” for the Jewish people.
The network of Zionist activists, begun more than 20 years previously by Theodor Herzl, pounced on the opportunity. Aware of the British concerns, people like Vladimir Jabotinsky (who created the Jewish Legion), Chaim Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow, the Rothschilds, Louis Brandeis (in the US) and others in Russia, all pulled in the same direction, giving the impression that Zionism indeed was representative of the world’s Jews and that the Jews demanded a state in Palestine immediately.
Another reason was perhaps that the British wanted a sympathetic state as a buffer between the Suez Canal and the rest of the Middle East.
Perhaps it was just our time, or perhaps there were other factors at play…