A British Letter to Change the World.
A Jewish National Home,
Designed to Keep the Russians in the War.
What About the Arabs?
Special to The Great War Project.
(2 November) Now a development in the Middle East that could change the world.
On November 2nd a century ago, Britain issues what will come to be known as the Balfour Declaration. It is a letter from the British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, to the British Lord Rothschild, the de facto leader of the Jewish community in Great Britain.
It expresses Britain’s support for “a National Home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
Although the letter has been issued with the purpose of keeping Russia, with its considerable Jewish population, in the war, the Declaration will electrify the Jewish population around the world, and especially in Europe, the United States, and in Russia.
One senior Foreign Office official writes at the time, “Information from every quarter shows the very important role the Jews are now playing in the Russian political situation. Almost every Jew in Russia is a Zionist, and if they can be made to realize that the success of Zionist aspirations depends on the support of the Allies and the expulsion of the Turks from Palestine, we shall enlist a most powerful element in our favor.”
The Balfour Declaration comes just as the war for Palestine begins to sharpen.
The British have twice attempted to seize Gaza at its southern border with Palestine. And twice they have failed to dislodge the Ottoman Turks’ control there.
This time, the British come up with an fascinating scheme – an operation that is truly clever.
According to historian Martin Gilbert, three weeks before the British planned attack on Gaza, “a British soldier rides up to a Turkish guard post, allows the Turks to chase him and just as he disappears from view, drops a haversack smeared with horses’ blood to give the impression he had been wounded.”
“Inside the haversack,” reports Gilbert, “were carefully prepared details, all spurious, of the next attack on Gaza, and a letter from the intelligence department advising of the impracticability of an attack on Beersheba, not far away.” In fact the main British attack was launched against Beersheba on October 31st, completely deceiving the Turks.
The British mount a 40,000-man assault force and capture Beersheba, not far away, with more than a thousand Turkish soldiers taken prisoner.
The British seize Gaza as well. Among the British forces is a specially recruited contingent of Jewish soldiers of the British Royal Fusiliers.
As for the Balfour Declaration, it is understood to provide British support for a Jewish state in Palestine.
But there is more: language in the letter, largely overlooked, that includes the rights of the other communities in Palestine, taken to mean the Arabs, living in Palestine.
In full it reads: “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, 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.
These few words have served to spark the conflict in the Middle East for the past hundred years.