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How France Beat Balfour To His Declaration – OpEd

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The 2nd of November 2017 will mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – the seminal document that has come to be remembered as either “one of the greatest acts of Western statesmanship in the 20th century” (vide British parliamentarian Richard Crossman) or “the single most destructive political document on the Middle East in the 20th century” (according to Palestinian scholar-activist Walid Khalidi). What is not generally known is that Britain’s Balfour Declaration was preceded – and may have been kick-started – by a letter from the head of France’s foreign office, Jules Cambon, issued on the authority of French prime minister, Alexandre Ribot.

Cambon letter
Cambon letter

On June 4, 1917, Nahum Sokolow, secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization, received the following:

“You kindly explained to me your project to develop Jewish colonization in Palestine. You believe that, given favourable circumstances, and with the independence of the Holy Places assured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to help in the rebirth, under the protection of the Allied Powers, of Jewish nationality in the land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.

“The French government, which entered the current war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and which continues the struggle to ensure the victory of right over might, can feel nothing but sympathy for your cause, the success of which is linked to that of the Allies.

“I am happy to give you such an assurance.”

As Weizmann’s biographer Jehuda Reinharz has noted, the Cambon letter “in content and form was much more favourable to the Zionists than the watered-down formula of the Balfour Declaration” that followed it. The French accepted a rationale in terms of “justice” and “reparation,” and acknowledged the historical Jewish tie to the land. The letter bound Zionism to the cause of all the Allies.

“The Quai d’Orsay had been skillfully and decisively outmanoeuvered” according to Andrew and Kanya-Forstner. The French obstacle to a possible British declaration had been neutralized.

“Our purpose,” explained Sokolow, looking ahead, “is to receive from the [British] government a general short approval of the same kind as that which I have been successful in getting from the French government.”

And indeed Sokolow deposited the Cambon letter at the British foreign office, where it stimulated a spirit of competition. British officials who sympathized with Zionism now urged that Britain “go as far as the French.”

Nahum Sokolow has been almost neglected by history. Born in Poland, he received a traditional rabbinic schooling but taught himself secular subjects and quickly gained a reputation as a prolific writer. In 1880 he moved to Warsaw, edited a Hebrew journal and was soon acknowledged as the world’s most prominent Hebrew-language journalist.

In 1897, Sokolow reported from the First Zionist Congress and fell under the spell of Herzl. It was he who translated Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland into Hebrew. Leaving journalism in 1906, he became the secretary general of the World Zionist Organization. He then threw himself into lobbying, diplomacy, and propaganda.

From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.

Portrait of Lord Balfour, along with his famous declaration. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Portrait of Lord Balfour, along with his famous declaration. Source: Wikipedia Commons

As for the Balfour Declaration itself, for so historic a document, it is surprisingly, even starkly, simple. It is difficult to believe that the British Foreign Office in the very heyday of British imperialism did not run to crested notepaper – which the Cambon letter certainly did. The letter from foreign secretary Lord Balfour to one of the leading figures in Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild, is a small sheet of paper with the words “Foreign Office” typed just above the date, November 2nd, 1917.

Asking Rothschild to “bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation”, the declaration in question ran:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Subsequent events are too well known to require elaboration. Following the Great War, the League of Nations endorsed an Anglo-French agreement to dismember the Ottoman empire, assigning control of the territories mainly to the two colonial powers. The British government was mandated to take over the whole region then known as Palestine, and to put into effect its desire, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration, to establish there a national home for the Jewish people.

Despite Britain’s eventual failure to fulfil the hopes set out in the Balfour Declaration, the British government continues to endorse the part it played in the eventual emergence of the State of Israel. In May 2017 a petition to Parliament called on the government to “apologise to the Palestinian people” over the Balfour Declaration because the UK’s colonial policy had caused “mass displacement” and injustice. The petition failed to gather sufficient signatures to trigger a parliamentary debate, but nonetheless the Government issued a formal response: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG does not intend to apologise.  We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

As an earnest of Britain’s stance, Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when in the UK in February 2017, was invited by Prime Minister Theresa May to attend November’s centenary celebrations of the Balfour Declaration in London.

From whichever side of the fence one regards the events of 1917 and beyond, it seems clear that France shares with Britain both the bouquets and the brickbats.


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Neville Teller

Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016” (2016), and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

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