In 1881, after Russian revolutionaries assassinated Tsar Alexander II, his son, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for his father’s death. He vowed to coerce one-third of Russian Jews to convert to Christianity, another third to leave his country and to force the last third to starve to death. A decade later, Jewish army Capt. Alfred Dreyfus was prosecuted for treason in France when overwhelming evidence pointed to his innocence.
Anti-Semitism was on the rise in the late 19th century, leaving many Jews to believe “true assimilation could never take place,” according to Jonathan Schneer, professor of history at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Schneer’s new book, “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” looks at the origins of the Zionist movement in that light.
Desiring a place to call their own — where their religious beliefs weren’t scorned but respected — some Jews cast their eyes southeast in search of a Jewish homeland, Schneer said.
“The Balfour Declaration” traces the Zionist movement from the rise of anti-Semitism to the systematic immigration of Jews to what would become the state of Israel. He depicts the movement’s clash with Arab nationalism and its effects on World War I, world Jewry, the Middle East and the 700,000 Arabs who lived in what was then called Palestine.
From Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist movement’s most influential advocate, to Feisal Ibn Hussein, Arabia’s hero who battled the Ottoman Empire for an independent Middle East, Schneer’s analysis details the two colliding points of interest and Great Britain’s double-dealings in meddling with the region.
The book takes readers through the codependent, strategic alliance formed between Great Britain and Arabian Emir Hussein Ibn Ali at the beginning of World War I: In desperate need to undermine the Central Powers’ Ottoman Empire, Britain sought and found an ally in the anti-Ottoman Arab movement for independence. Both agreed to use each other to meet their own ends.
“If the Arab nation assists England in this war … England will guarantee that no internal intervention takes place in Arabia and will give the Arabs every assistance against external foreign aggression,” British officer Lord Horatio Kitchener said, according to the book.
But while spouting support for an independent Middle East and paying lip service to President Woodrow Wilson’s “self-determinationism” ideals, British and French officials were divvying up chunks of land for victors’ spoils. They redrew the map and cut the region into “spheres of influence.” France wanted Syria and present-day Lebanon; the Britons hoped for the province of Egypt.
With Weizmann at the forefront, Zionists were also calling dibs on the barren wasteland of Palestine, “claiming an organic connection to the land,” Schneer wrote. In return for England’s support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Zionists promised to rally the Jews around the Allied Powers.
Despite the anti-Zionist efforts of Jewish assimilationist Lucien Wolf, Weizmann secured backing for Zionist plans from several powerful leaders. His lobbying resulted in the Balfour Declaration, Britain’s promise to oversee the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East.
Thousands of miles away, the British-backed Arab revolt was a success and crumbled the centuries-old, increasingly oppressive empire. But the Arabs didn’t receive the independent Arabia for which they fought. Following the war, France took power over Syria; Britain retained the Iraq province and gave Jews immigration preferences to settle in Palestine.
“Half-truths, exaggerations and downright lies were fresh and unquestioned in British minds,” Schneer wrote. He claimed England had no intention of fulfilling its promise to the Arabs.
Schneer said Jews represented about a ninth of Palestine’s population in 1914, but after the declaration, Zionists began funding “aliyas,” or ways of bringing immigrants to settle in the territory. Britain allowed wealthy benefactors in Europe to fund schools, build hospitals and roads, and purchase large plots of land for Jewish migrants. By 1940, the Arab-Jew ratio was 3-to-1.
“It was a brash and successful program,” Schneer wrote.
According to a memo from British diplomat Herbert Samuel, the goal was that “Jewish immigration [to Palestine] be given preference, so that in course of time the Jewish people grow into a majority and settled in the land, may be conceded such degree of self-government as the conditions of that day might justify.”
The book also details the struggle for power between Zionist Jews and anti-Zionist assimilationist Jews and outlines the diplomatic initiatives of the legendary Lt. Col. Thomas Edward Lawrence and U.S. involvement.
Schneer’s historical account shows how the personalities of important leaders and the interweaving of war, secret alliances and politics culminated in the perfect storm that soured attitudes and created the deeply riveted Arab-Israeli conflict.
“What did come [from the Balfour Declaration] was the product of forces and factors entirely unforeseen,” Schneer wrote. “Because it was unpredictable and characterized by contradictions, deceptions, misinterpretations and wishful thinking, the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration sowed dragon’s teeth. It produced a murderous harvest, and we go on harvesting even today.”