On Nov. 2, 1917, the British cabinet promised to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." Today, we consider the Balfour Declaration, as that promise has been known ever since, to be the foundation stone of modern Israel. But the views and motives of the British politicians who approved the epochal document were hardly simple, let alone pure.
What British leaders wanted more than anything in November 1917 was to win World War I -- all other goals were secondary. Victory, however, seemed increasingly distant at the time. After three and a half terrible years of war, Britain's allies were shaky: French armies had mutinied, Italian armies had been catastrophically defeated, and the Russian Army stood upon the brink of total collapse. The United States had joined the conflict the previous June, but U.S. soldiers had not yet arrived in Europe in numbers sufficient to make much difference. Meanwhile, Germany was preparing to launch another great offensive on the Western Front.
In these circumstances, British leaders grasped at straws. They thought, for example, that they might bribe Germany's ally, Turkey, to leave the war. They offered territory and money. Turkey was interested but -- in the end, after numerous secret, back-channel meetings in Switzerland and elsewhere -- would not bite.
The British also sought new allies. In particular, they hoped to successfully attract to their side the one great power, as they mistakenly referred to it, that had remained on the sidelines: the forces of what they called "international Jewry." During the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration, Britain's leaders engaged in a sustained effort to woo Jewish support. With the declaration itself, they offered the engagement ring.
British leaders drew primarily on two anti-Semitic canards: that Jews simultaneously commanded the U.S. financial system and held the strings controlling Russian pacifism. In other words, they believed that American Jews could bring the United States into the war and that Russian Jews could keep their country from dropping out of it. They also believed that Jewish money could help finance the war effort. Moreover, they believed that all Jews were Zionists (which they weren't). That is why the bribe -- or rather, the engagement ring -- took the form of the Balfour Declaration.
One of the most influential true believers of these anti-Semitic misapprehensions was Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice, who had served before the war as a British dragoman, interpreting and translating Ottoman interests to his superiors at the consulate in what was then known as Constantinople. There he had formed the opinion that Jews and Dönmes -- or "crypto-Jews," whose ancestors had converted to Christianity, but who continued to practice the old faith in secret -- controlled the Turkish government. Their great goal, he thought, was to hand Palestine over to the Zionists. With the war on, Fitzmaurice had an epiphany: Britain should promise Palestine to the Jews right now. In return, the Dönmes would withdraw their support from the Turkish government, which would inevitably collapse.
Fitzmaurice, now attached to the intelligence division at the British Admiralty, lobbied Hugh James O'Bierne, an experienced and well-respected British diplomat. O'Beirne responded positively to the idea. On Feb. 28, 1916, he composed the first Foreign Office memo linking the fate of Palestine with both Jewish interests and British chances of victory in World War I.
"It has been suggested to me," he wrote to his colleagues, "that if we could offer the Jews an arrangement as to Palestine which would strongly appeal to them, we might conceivably be able to strike a bargain with them as to withdrawing their support from the Young Turk government which would then automatically collapse." O'Beirne went on to endorse this ridiculous plan.