The Balfour and Cambon Declarations

Mazin Qumsiyeh
From: Sharing the Land of Canaan: Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Struggle (2004)

latuff_the_palestinian_right_to (400 x 305)

The events leading up to the support of Britain and France for Zionist aspirations have received little historical discussion. In examining historical documents of powerful nations like France and Britain, we find these nations issuing declarations to support the Zionist aspirations. This came in France first with a letter sent from Jules Cambon, Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry to Nahum Sokolow (at the time head of the political wing of the World Zionist Organization based in London) dated June 4, 1917:

“You were kind enough to inform me of your project regarding the expansion of the Jewish colonization of Palestine. You expressed to me that, if the circumstances were allowing for that, and if on another hand, the independency of the holy sites was guaranteed, it would then be a work of justice and retribution for the allied forces to help the renaissance of the Jewish nationality on the land from which the Jewish people was exiled so many centuries ago. The French Government, which entered this recent war to defend a people wrongly attacked, and which continues the struggle to assure victory of right over might, cannot but feel sympathy for your cause, the triumph of which is bound up with that of the Allies. I am happy to give you herewith such assurance.”

Some five months later, on November 2, 1917, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour conveyed to Lord Rothschild a similar declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations. It stated that:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.”

Palestinians and others in the Arab world were immediately alarmed. This declaration was issued when Britain had no jurisdiction over the area, and was done without consultation of the inhabitants of the land that was to become a “national home for the Jewish people.” The declaration also wanted to protect “rights and political status” of Jews who choose not to immigrate to Palestine. However, the native Palestinians are simply referred to as non-Jews and their political rights are not mentioned but only their “civic and religious rights.”

Lord Balfour wrote in a private memorandum sent to Lord Curzon, his successor at the Foreign Office (Curzon initially opposed Zionism) on 11 August 1919:

“For in Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants … The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, 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.”

The Jules and Balfour declarations are two documents that demonstrate the support made to the Zionist supranational entity that facilitated giving them control over a land that neither of the two governments had control of at the time Some British authors have provided explanations of this support based on a quid pro quo for Weizman’s contribution to the British war efforts through such efforts as the development of better chemicals for explosives. Some argued that it was related to Britain’s simple domestic situation with many Zionists both in the government and among the electorate. It could also be argued that Britain and France now had more reason had to benefit from a revival of their early 1840s desires to settle European Jews in Palestine as a way of a structural remodeling of Middle East geopolitics. Undermining the Ottoman Empire, which was now allied with Germany, provides only partial explanation and a poor one at best.

The Jewish population in Palestine at the time was miniscule and was hardly in any position to engage in resistance against the Ottoman Empire. By contrast, nationalistic Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula were willing to oppose the Ottoman Empire and eager to liberate their native lands from the grip of the Turks. England in fact promised to support their independence as a result of their convergent interests as supported by documents such as the British correspondence with Sharif Hussain of Arabia and in the memoirs of T. E. Lawrence “of Arabia”.

As historians do, there is much argument about the factors and their relative importance that led to the decisions made by the governments in question. Much is now written about how the US entered the war and the possible role of influential corporate interests and US Zionists in bringing the US media and government to support the war efforts.

The British had also made a promise of independence to the Arabs if they aided them in opposing the Ottoman Empire. This was one of many “promises” but it was the one that was to over-ride all others as concrete actions were to reveal in just a short period of time. It important to note that these governments declared their public support for Zionism, even while simultaneously making private assurances to Arabs. The British and French public support was later joined by the Americans.

With acquiescence by the ailing President Wilson and an American administration slowly sinking into isolationism, the British had a free hand to implement their plans in Palestine. Palestinians, both Christians and Muslims, rioted against the British forces on February 27, 1920 in Jerusalem. The British command in Palestine recommended that the Balfour Declaration be revoked. However, the British leadership in London did not share the views of their soldiers and commanders in Palestine.

As soon as Britain managed to secure the League of Nations mandate, it replaced its military governor there with a Zionist Jew: Sir Herbert Samuel as the first High Commissioner of Palestine (1920-25). It was Samuel who so effectively coached Weizmann during the Balfour negotiations. After Samuel became high commissioner, Jewish immigration greatly increased, and with it Palestinian resistance. Herbert Samuel and the Zionist leaning colonial offices in Palestine proceeded to set up the political, legal, and the economic underpinning for transforming the area to a Jewish country.

Britain, with the acquiescence of other great powers, acquired the powers needed for its colonial venture. At the World Zionist Organization meeting held in London in July 1920, a new financial arm was established named the Keren Hayesod. The British-drafted Palestine mandate referred to this economic imperial structure:

“An appropriate Jewish agency shall be recognised as a public body for the purpose of advising and co-operating with the Administration of Palestine in such economic, social and other matters as may affect the establishment of the Jewish national home and the interests of the Jewish population in Palestine, and, subject always to the control of the Administration to assist and take part in the development of the country. The Zionist organization, so long as its organization and constitution are in the opinion of the Mandatory appropriate, shall be recognised as such agency. It shall take steps in consultation with His Britannic Majesty’s Government to secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of the Jewish national home.”

The fund was registered on March 23, 1921, as a British limited company. The executive of the Zionist Organization chose the chairman of the board and its members Funds that were collected helped finance the two largest projects to industrialize Palestine in the late 1920s; the Electric Company and the Palestine Potash Company (PPC).

Moshe Novemiesky, a leading Zionist, founded the PPC. In 1929, the British Colonial Office gave a concession to develop mineral resources in the Dead Sea to the PPC. The PPC was instrumental in generating large amounts of money funneled to the Zionist program. In 1952, after the state of Israel was established, the company became an Israeli State nationalized agency called the Dead Sea Works.

Arthur Rogers described the contribution of this British Concession to financing the Zionist movement after 1929 in his 1948 book. In the book there is a description of the report by the colonial office in 1925 on the fabulous wealth to be derived from the Dead Sea minerals. There is also a report of a Zionist Conference in Australia in 1929 in which Zionists were ecstatic about the fact that Britain gave this concession to a committed Zionist by the name of Novomiesky.

As early as October 25, 1919 Winston Churchill predicted that Zionism implied the clearing of the indigenous population, he wrote: “there are the Jews, whom we are pledged to introduce into Palestine, and who take it for granted the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience.” In public, Churchill sought to assure the Arabs that Britain was pursuing a humane policy of limited Jewish immigration, that there is space without displacing native Arabs, and there is no need for Jewish State.

But British private cabinet meeting minutes of October 1941 speak differently:

“I may say at once that if Britain and the United States emerged victorious from the war, the creation of a great Jewish state in Palestine inhabited by millions of Jews will be one of the leading features of the peace conference discussions.”

This of course was contrary to the conclusion reached two years earlier by the British commission of inquiry at the end of the Palestinian uprising of 1936-1939. This Paper stated:

“The Royal Commission and previous commissions of Enquiry have drawn attention to the ambiguity of certain expressions in the Mandate, such as the expression `a national home for the Jewish people’, and they have found in this ambiguity and the resulting uncertainty as to the objectives of policy a fundamental cause of unrest and hostility between Arabs and Jews. … That Palestine was not to be converted into a Jewish State might be held to be implied in the passage from the Command Paper of 1922 which reads as follows “Unauthorized statements have been made to the effect that the purpose in view is to create a wholly Jewish Palestine. Phrases have been used such as that `Palestine is to become as Jewish as England is English.’ His Majesty’s Government regard any such expectation as impracticable and have no such aim in view. Nor have they at any time contemplated … The disappearance or the subordination of the Arabic population, language or culture in Palestine. They would draw attention to the fact that the terms of the (Balfour) Declaration referred to do not contemplate that Palestine as a whole should be converted into a Jewish National Home, but that such a Home should be founded IN PALESTINE.” (highlight in original)

But this statement has not removed doubts, and His Majesty’s Government therefore now declares unequivocally that it is not part of their policy that Palestine should become a Jewish State. They would indeed regard it as contrary to their obligations to the Arabs under the Mandate, as well as to the assurances which have been given to the Arab people in the past, that the Arab population of Palestine should be made the subjects of a Jewish State against their will.

It is clear from this candid paper that the British undertook obligations under vague (I would argue intentionally vague) wordings likely to give them flexibility in implementation. The events between 1918 and 1938 had caused them up to reconsider their position. However, by this point forces were in motion that made a change virtually impossible The Yishuv were already strong and well armed in Palestine, Britain entered World War II, and Hitler’s attacks on Jews made it less likely for the British to begin to enforce their curbs on Jewish immigration to Palestine proposed in the White Paper.

One of the first acts of the nascent state of Israel, in addition to instituting laws to prevent native Palestinians from returning to their homes and lands, was to repeal the White paper.

The Balfour Declaration Centenary Campaign was launched on 2nd November 2016 to hold the British and the French governments accountable for a century of destruction of Palestine.

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