Chaim Weizmann and the Balfour Declaration:
“A Unique Act of World Moral Conscience”

, February 27, 2017

Lord Balfour declaring the opening of Hebrew University, April 1, 1925.

Lord Balfour declaring the opening of Hebrew University, April 1, 1925. Chaim Weizmann sits behind him to the right. (Library of Congress)

As we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 2017, we must remember the magnificent political victory of Dr. Chaim Weizmann who paved the way for Jewish resettlement of Land of Israel under a British protectorate and with this accomplishment brought the Jewish people onto the stage of world politics. Some years later, the League of Nations Mandate of July 24, 1922, transformed the Balfour Declaration “from a policy position into an international legal obligation accepted by the international community as a whole.”1

Ninety-nine years have passed since the publication of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917. Although the famous declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, Dr. Chaim Weizmann was the face of Zionist movement and the architect of its diplomacy. In his autobiography, Trial and Error, Weizmann wrote that when Balfour, “asked me to whom the forthcoming declaration should be addressed, I suggested Lord Rothschild (Lionel Walter, the Second Lord Rothschild, 1868-1937) rather than myself, though I was President of the English Zionist Federation.”2

Chaim Weizmann was an accomplished scientist.3 He was also a strategic thinker who viewed history in terms of centuries and millennia, looking both to the past and to the future. Securing the Balfour Declaration was a major political achievement and one of the greatest victories of statecraft of all time. From his autobiography, we may learn how he viewed the opportunity which the British War Cabinet had made possible. Interestingly, he gave his personal assessment in the context of his bitter struggle with the assimilationist Jews of his time who tried to sabotage his efforts. The names of his adversaries have long since been forgotten, but Weizmann’s personal statement remains a valuable historical source:

…. Here was a people which had been divorced from its original homeland for some eighteen centuries, putting in a claim for restitution. The world was willing to listen, the case was being sympathetically received, and one of the great Powers was prepared to lead in the act of restitution, while the others had indicated their benevolent interest. And a well-to-do, contented and self-satisfied minority of the people in question rose in rebellion against the proposal and exerted itself with the utmost fury to prevent the act of restitution from being consummated. Itself in no need – or believing itself to be in no need – of the righting of the ancient historic wrong, this small minority struggled bitterly to deprive the vast majority of the benefits of a unique act of the world moral conscience; and it succeeded, if not in baulking the act of justice, at least in vitiating some of its application.4

Let us devote attention to Weizmann’s language and choice of words. He considered the Balfour Declaration to be an “act of restitution” and three times repeated the word, “restitution.” Using unambiguous language, he emphatically described the declaration as a “unique act of the world moral conscience.” Expressing his sense of occasion, he called this project “the righting of a historical wrong,” and an “act of justice.”

Writing in the sixties, Sir Isaiah Berlin, stated that, “His [Weizmann’s] name became indissolubly linked with this [the Balfour Declaration], the greatest event in Jewish history since the destruction of Judaea.”5

Further, Jacob, the fourth Lord Rothschild, now 80, and head of the family’s banking dynasty, said that the declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine “was the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years, a miracle….”6

Although the history of the Balfour Declaration is generally known, the major questions associated with this event retain their interest. Was the British cabinet motivated by idealism or expedience? It is true that the British War Cabinet was motivated by the pressing need to win the Great War at a time their forces were bogged down in the trenches. They saw the value of Jewish public opinion and hoped that a declaration of support for Jewish national aspirations would assure the support of the American Jewish community and facilitate American participation in the war.7

Dr. Weizmann, who was familiar with this discussion, explained that the British leaders were motivated by their religious beliefs. While this may have been the case, he clearly described the substantial geopolitical benefits which Great Britain gained as a result of its support for the Jewish national cause. From his statement, we may gather that Weizmann believed that by “doing the right thing,” the needs of idealism and interest of state could both be served. Thus, he explained how an idealistic decision resulted in a major geopolitical advantage for Britain:

….How was it that the decision was actually made, and why was the pledge [the Balfour Declaration] actually given? One factor, perhaps the decisive one, was the genuine appeal which the idea itself made to many of the leaders of Britain. One of the differences between that time and ours is in the approach to State problems. The so-called realism of modern politics is not realism at all, but pure opportunism, lack of moral stamina, lack of vision, and the principle of living from hand to mouth. Those British statesman of the old school, I have said, were genuinely religious. They understood as a reality the concept of the Return. It appealed to their tradition and their faith.8

Writing this statement in 1947, Weizmann took the opportunity to compare the spirit of the earlier generation of the British political class with the moral weakness which followed a few decades later. This assessment reflects Weizmann’s empirical outlook which may also have resulted from his background as a scientist and personal disposition.

Dr. Weizmann also explained that there was a “coincidence of the interest between Great Britain and a Jewish Palestine,” and that a Jewish Palestine would serve British interests:

We had long pointed out to the British, and I repeated it again in my interview with Lord Cecil, that a Jewish Palestine would be a safeguard to England, in particular in respect to the Suez Canal. Our foresight had larger bearings than we ourselves understood. It is proper to ask, after this interval of a quarter of a century, with the Second World War fresh in our memories, what the position would have been in the Near East, not for England alone, but for the world democratic cause, if we had not provided in Palestine a foothold for England; if instead of the bulwark thus constructed, Palestine had been as open as Syria and Iraq to a Nazi drive after the fall of France. It is, I think, permissible to say that there was something providential in our insistence on the arrangement which we put through, and the exertions by which we gave it effect.9

Although Weizmann’s language was circumspect, it is undeniable that the Arab world widely sympathized and collaborated with the Third Reich. In contrast, the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine contributed large numbers of volunteers and committed its industries and expertise to the Allied cause.10 Had Field Marshal Erwin Rommel conquered Cairo, the history of our region would have been much different.

With the publication of new historical studies, the issue of the Arab world’s sympathy for Nazi Germany, a subject which for many years had been minimized, is now receiving sustained attention.

The Balfour Declaration and World War II

On the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, November 2, 1943, Hajj Amin-al Husseini the former Mufti of Jerusalem and Chief of the Moslem Institute in Berlin addressed the world from Luftwaffe Hall. There, he pledged his unqualified support to the Germans, “who have definitely solved the Jewish problem.”11

On this festive occasion, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and the Leader of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, sent telegrams of support. Himmler wrote, “The National Socialist Party has inscribed on its flag ‘the extermination of world Jewry.’ Our party sympathizes with the fight of the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine, against the foreign Jew. Today, on this memorial day of the Balfour Declaration, I send my greetings and wishes for success in your fight.”12

In retrospect, it is clear that the Palestinian Arabs have been unfortunate in their choice of leaders and allies. Even Lord Passfield (Sydney Webb, 1859-1947), an enemy of Zionism, once observed, “The whole Arab-Jewish controversy was unfair because the Jews had Dr. Weizmann, and the Arabs did not.”13

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Notes

* The author thanks Mr. Lenny Ben David of the JCPA for providing the photo of the dedication of the Hebrew University and for his edits.

1 “Behind the Headlines: The Balfour Declaration and the Palestinian Rejection of the Right to a Jewish Homeland,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs paper, 1 November 2016.

2 Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949), 262.

3 Weizmann had developed a method of producing acetone by fermentation which was of vital importance to the production of munitions and to the British war effort.

4 Ibid., 252.

5 Sir Isaiah Berlin, “The Biographical Facts,” in Meyer W. Weisgal and Joel Carmichael, eds. Chaim Weizmann; A Biography of Several Hands (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962), 36.

6 Interview by Ambassador Daniel Taub, “Lord Rothschild discusses cousin’s crucial role in ‘miracle’ Balfour Declaration,” Times of Israel, February 8, 2017, http://jewishnews.timesofisrael.com/rothschild/.

7 For general background information on this subject see: Andrew Roberts, “The Historical Paths to the Balfour Declaration,” in the present issue of the JPSR as well as Martin Kramer, “The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration,” Mosaic, June 5, 2017, https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2017/06/the-forgotten-truth-about-the-balfour-declaration/.

8 Trial and Error, 226.

9 Ibid., 243.

10 For the support of the Yishuv to the Allied War effort during the Second World War, which was neither recognized nor rewarded, see: Pierre van Paasen, The Forgotten Ally (New York: Dial Press, 1943).

11 Maurice Pearlman, Mufti of Jerusalem: The Story of Haj Amin el Husseini (London: Gollancz, 1947), 49.

12 As quoted by Joel Fishman, “The Recent Discovery of Heinrich Himmler’s Telegram of November 2, 1943, the Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, to Amin al Husseini. Mufti of Jerusalem.” Jewish Political Studies Review, Vol. 27, Nos. 3 -4 (Fall 2016): 79.

13 Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Siege (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 284.

About Joel Fishman

Dr. Joel Fishman is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs and editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.  He served as the assistant editor of volumes X (July 1920-December 1921) and XI (January 1922-July 1923) of The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann (Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press, 1977).