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Balfour and Weizmann: The Zionist, the Zealot and the Emergence of Israel

Balfour and Weizmann: The Zionist, the Zealot and the Emergence of Israel.

by Geoffrey Lewis

Hambledon Continuum, 320Pages, ISBN978-1847250407 

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In a world troubled by Gaza, history asks whether two states in a divided Palestine were ever possible: was there a flaw in what the powers organised in the Near and Middle East when they won the First World War? This book is a first-class examination of the origins of the state of Israel: it considers whether it was possible to create from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire a state which could satisfy its Arab inhabitants and, simultaneously, Jews who felt persecuted in Europe and longed for a home of their own in their sacred land around Jerusalem. Many Jews thought the idea of a Jewish state mistaken: they were a religion, not a state, and so could be Jewish in Britain or France or the United States.

The book approaches the arguments by studying two leaders: the Gentile Zionist ex-prime minister of Britain for whom coping with persecuted Jewry was an urgent problem and the dedicated Jewish zealot who was a naturalised British chemist, outspoken on the need for a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

Arthur Balfour passionately believed that anti-Semitism was a curse and the cause of crime among the nations. Zionists, he was convinced, might cure the disease. He seemed almost blindly to believe that a Jewish state in Palestine could not possibly offend the Arabs because the Jews would bring with them education and science.

Chaim Weizmann was a man of strong conviction and skill in diplomacy. He did not understand those who pleaded the cause of the Arabs or those Jews who thought it wrong to make Jewry an independent state. Balfour was an upper-class Scot with a first-class education. Weizmann was one of 12 children born in the Pripet Marshes, now in Belarus, to a father who was a logger in the forests. The career which turned this Yiddishspeaking boy into a first-class chemist at a Western university is a dramatic moment in the book.

When the First World War came, Britain wished to smash the Ottoman Empire. As a consequence, its attitude to Palestine changed. In the summer of 1917, Zionists drafted for Balfour a declaration: “His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.” In the next months two vital clauses were added: not ‘the home’ but ‘a home’. And later was added: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. This became the Balfour Declaration of 31October 1917, greeted with ecstasy in places like Odessa and Cracow. Several English newspapers carried the headline, “Palestine for the Jews”. But Arabs felt that they were to be invaded by an unknown number of foreigners.

For Weizmann and the Zionists nothing was adequate unless the new state gave dominance to the Jews. For most British civil servants, all inhabitants must be given equal rights: “most”, because a few were convinced that westernised Jews were more likely than Arabs to create a workable state. Yet without Weizmann’s moderation, the continued backing of the Jewish case by non-Jews could hardly have continued.

Pogroms against Jews in Eastern Europe were a recurring reminder of the need for somewhere which Jews could call their sanctuary. Balfour was convinced that in the end all would come right. He died in 1930, so never saw the coming of Hitler and the deepening need for sanctuary and the other consequences with which we are now familiar.

This review by Owen Chadwick, formerly Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University was first published in The Tablet and is reprinted with permission.


Featured in Bible Lands magazine, Advent 2009