The establishment of a strong, free Jewish state astride the bridge between Europe and Africa, flanking the land roads to the East, would not only be an immense advantage to the British Empire, but a notable step towards the harmonious disposition of the world among its peoples. (Winston Churchill)
My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish State (Sir Arthur Balfour)
Our wish is that the Arabian countries shall be for the Arabs, Armenia for the Armenians, and Judea for the Jews (Lord Robert Cecil)
The recent "Rapture" prediction, which has just failed, has thrown up a number of interesting comments which have been circulating from place to place on the internet, but without much in the way of critical checking of sources. This is, of course, par for the course, where the internet is concerned.
One of these involves the modern state of Israel, and the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 which announced that "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"
The way in which it ties up to the Rapture is as follows:
The modern state of Israel owes its existence at least in part to the decision of Lord Balfour to grant a homeland to the Jews from the British colonial holdings in that region. Balfour was among those who, like the Rapture-oriented Christians in the United States, believed that Israel would need to be restored in order for other end-times events to occur...The belief emerged that Israel has to become a nation again, the temple rebuilt, and the Roman Empire reconstituted, simply to have the references to those institutions in certain Biblical passages still be in the future - whereas it is much simpler, and more faithful to what these Biblical texts say, to take them as referring to the situation of Christians as it really existed in the first century. Be that as it may, Lord Balfour believed these things had to happen because the Bible supposedly said so, and he made them happen. (1)
But is this historically true? Was Lord Balfour a "believer in the end times"? On 11 August 1919, Balfour sent a memorandum to Lord Curzon, who opposed the Balfour Declaration, in which he stated that:
In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country, though the American Commission has been going through the form of asking what they are. The four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land. (2)
Now it all to easy to read into the "far profounder import" the proof of some kind of belief that the foundation of Israel was tied up with some kind of belief in the end times. And the literature for that was certainly around at the time. Grattan Guinness' "The Approaching End of the Age Viewed in the Light of History, Prophecy, and Science" wrote that biblical prophecy "predicted that the Turkish empire would lose control of the land of Palestine, and that the Jewish Diaspora would begin to return there, followed by `the restoration of Israel to a national existence in Palestine', and the second coming of Christ."(3). And now the Ottoman Empire had collapsed in the wake of the Great War, after they had sided with the German forces.
But that is to completely ignore both the way in which Balfour reasoned about political matters, and his reflections on matters of belief. Neither showed any indication of a man driven by the desire to fulfil prophecy.
On political matters, Balfour argued that a governing elite was always inevitable, and the traditional structures of political authority would be needed for the smooth running of a state (4). He followed closely the ideas of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen who argued that if political power was in little bits that "the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest'.
Towards the end of the Great War, the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, and would leave a power vacuum of "little bits", and Balfour wanted to pre-empt the reorganisation of the Middle East so as to ensure that Britain had the dominant role, before the other great powers, including France, managed to do so.
Why was Balfour so committed to Zionism? Part of this was a personal encounter. In her biography of Balfour, his niece remarks how:
Balfour's interest in the Jews and their history was lifelong. It originated in the Old Testament training of his mother, and in his Scottish upbringing. As he grew up, his intellectual admiration and sympathy for certain aspects of Jewish philosophy and culture grew also, and the problem of the Jews in the modern world seemed to him of immense importance. He always talked eagerly on this, and I remember in childhood imbibing from him the idea that Christian religion and civilisation owes to Judaism an immeasurable debt, shamefully ill repaid. His interest in the subject was whetted in the year 1902 by the refusal of the Zionist Jews to accept an offer of land for settlement in British East Africa, made to them by his own Government through Mr. Chamberlain, then Colonial Secretary. (5)
His Jewish friends, such as the Rothschilds, did not at that time belong to Zionist circles, and he was curious as to find out why they rejected the offer of land. He met with Dr. Weizmann, who was the leader of one of the Zionist circles, who tried to explain why their homeland in Palestine was so important:
"I began to sweat blood to make my meaning clear through my English. At the very end I made an effort, I had an idea. I said: 'Mr. Balfour, if you were offered Paris instead of London, would you take it? Would you take Paris instead of London?' He looked surprised. He: 'But London is our own!' I said: ' Jerusalem was our own when London was a marsh.' He said: 'That's true!' I did not see him again till 1916." Balfour for his part told me often about the impression the conversation made on him. "It was from that talk with Weizmann that I saw that the Jewish form of patriotism was unique. Their love for their country refused to be satisfied by the Uganda scheme. It was Weizmann's absolute refusal even to look at it which impressed me."(5)
So there was certainly a sympathy for the Zionist dream, but on rationalistic and compassionate grounds rather than connected to any idea of the fulfilment of prophecy - this was Balfour's "profounder import". But Balfour was also a hard-edged realist politician, who had rejected woman's suffrage on the grounds that while it was a just cause it was not the right time to succeed politically. Unlike that issue, in the 1917 situation, there was a good deal of self-interest for Britain in moving towards a Jewish settlement, if it meant they had political control in Palestine, as the Jewish settlers would be more amenable to British rule than Arabs. It satisfied both the personal sympathy and the political expediency, and as well, the final control of Jerusalem under British rule would show how the Empire had succeeded where the Crusaders had not; it was an act of Imperial triumphalism.
The British had become convinced of the desirability of a post-war British Palestine, but still needed to convince the French, since this contradicted the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 which determined that Palestine was to be under international control. The best way for the British to gain French support was first to convince them to support a Jewish national home in Palestine, which was achieved in June 1917.3 As a result of this diplomacy, the Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, 1917. French acquiescence to British rule in Palestine was a result of the realities brought about by British military successes in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire and Palestine in particular - in which the French played practically no role at all. (6)
Much as American realpolitik later came to support a number of different regimes in order to keep them within the American sphere of influence, so the British Empire was also trying to work out the best situation to support its own advantage over that of the other great powers.
The British issued the declaration for a number of reasons: to preempt what was expected to be a similar announcement by Germany; to win the support of worldwide Jewry, especially in the United States and USSR, that would aid the war effort; and to have a group beholden to British interests in Palestine in order to protect the right flank of the Suez Canal, act as a buffer between the anticipated French position in Syria and the British position in Egypt, and provide a land bridge from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf (from Palestine across Transjordan and Iraq to the Gulf. (7)
The conflict with Lord Curzon was not over some prophetic beliefs, but a difference of opinion over control. Balfour argued that the best form of control was Zionism as a regional proxy; Curzon argued that the Zionists would now seek a Jewish state and self-determination - "They not only claim the boundaries of the old Palestine, but they claim to spread across the Jordan into the rich countries lying to the east, and indeed, there seems to be very small limit to the aspirations which they now form"; these ambitions would run counter to British control.
Regarding Balfour's religious beliefs, his Christianity, as expounded in his Gifford Lectures, and the book "The Foundations of Belief", seem to have been a particularly rationalist kind of theism. He was well aware of Biblical criticism, and noted that the theologian of to-day must have "knowledge at first hand of the complex historical, antiquarian, and critical problems presented by the Old and New Testaments, and of the vast and daily increasing literature which has grown up around them. He must have a sufficient acquaintance with the comparative history of religions ; and in addition to all this, he must be competent to deal with those scientific and philosophical questions which have a more profound and permanent bearing on Theology even than the results of critical and historical scholarship." His own kind of belief might be considered a sort of ethical rational liberalism, arguing that science could only answer questions in its own domain, but also aware that it was absurd to pit religion against science in conflict. This passage is particularly interesting:
Poets and artists have been wont to consider themselves, and to be considered by others, as prophets and seers, the revealers under sensuous forms of hidden mysteries, the symbolic preachers of eternal truths. All this is, of course, on the naturalistic theory, very absurd. They minister, no doubt, with success to some phase, usually a very transitory phase, of public taste ; but they have no mysteries to reveal, and what they tell us, though it may be very agreeable, is seldom true, and never important.
Instead, he seems to have been of the conviction that there were "Christian verities which, once secured for the human race, cannot by any lapse of time be rendered obsolete" and noted that:
The feeling of trusting dependence which was easy for the primitive tribes, who regarded themselves as their God's peculiar charge, and supposed Him in some special sense to dwell among them, is not easy for us ; nor does it tend to become easier. We can no longer share their naive anthropomorphism. We search out God with eyes grown old in studying Nature, with minds fatigued by centuries of metaphysic, and imaginations glutted with material infinities.
And in Theism and Humanism, written in 1915, just two years before the Balfour Declaration, he notes that:
There have been mystics endowed with gifts of spiritual intuition which gave them, as they believed, immediate access to the loftiest realities. Of these seers, or of some of them, it may perhaps be said that, having found a better way, they rate discursive reason lower than it deserves. But I am not of their number. Though I do not undervalue their gifts, I have never pretended to share them. The humbler method, so well praised by Mr. Russell, which I endeavour to practice, is laboriously, even ostentatiously, different. It deals in argumentation almost to excess. It aspires to apply the test of rational examination to the most privileged assumptions. Neither the authority of science, nor the consentient belief of all mankind, nor the individual opinions of eminent philosophers, are permitted to confer immunity or paralyse criticism; and if criticism shows that the duty of rationalizing beliefs has so far been most imperfectly performed, remember that this conclusion is itself the work of reason (9)
An anecdote from the winter of 1909 also shows his rationalist mode of thought. He lectured in Edinburgh on "The Moral Values Which Unite the Nations."
Mr. Balfour was introduced in due time and went through with his lecture. It was just such a masterly presentation as anyone would have anticipated from that speaker of the different ties that bind together the peoples of the world, common knowledge, common commercial interests, the intercourse of diplomatic relationship, and the bonds of human friendship. The speaker sat down amid a great outburst of applause. After the applause had died down, in the moment of silence when, after the Scotch fashion, the presiding officer had arisen to make his own little address of appreciation, Professor Lang said he saw this Japanese student stand up and lean over the balcony. Before the chairman could open his lips, the Japanese student had spoken. But, Mr. Balfour, said he, "what about Jesus Christ?" Professor Lang said that one could have heard a pin drop in the hall. Everybody felt at once the justice of the rebuke. The leading statesman of the greatest Christian empire in the world had been dealing with the different ties that are to unite mankind and had omitted the one fundamental and essential bond. (10)
So we can see that between 1895 and 1915, there is a certain consistency in his beliefs, and there is not the slightest indication anywhere, either here or in his private papers that when he wanted the Zionists to settle in Palestine, it was because "he believed these things had to happen because the Bible supposedly said so", but rather because he saw the rationality of the Zionist cause, the argument presented to him by Weizmann, and this also coincided with what he saw as the best means of ensuring British interests in the area.
(2) Document number 242 from: EL Woodward and Rohan Butler, Documents on British Foreign Policy, 1919-1939. (London: HM Stationery Office, 1952), 340-348.
(3) Christabel Pankhurst: Fundamentalism and Feminism in Coalition, T Larsen, 2002
(4) Deity and Domination: Images of God and the State in the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Centuries, D. Nicolls, 1994
(5) Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour K.G., O.M. F.R.S., Etc. Volume: 1. Blanche E. C. Dugdale, 1937
(6) Could and Should America Have Made an Ottoman Republic in 1919?. Paul D. Carrington, William and Mary Law Review. Vol 49. Issue: 4., 2008
(7) The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. David W. Lesch, 1999.
(8) The Foundations of Belief, A.J. Balfour, 1895
(9) Theism and Humanism, A.J. Balfour, 1915
(10) Christianity and Modern Thought. ,Charles R Brown, 1924
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