By Eric Vandenbroeck
Today marks the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, a 67-word letter from Britain's then foreign secretary Arthur Balfour that threw London's backing behind a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. And while many demands that the UK government apologize for it, overlooked is the fact that the statement would not have been made without prior approval from the other Allied powers including the Vatican and a jostling with the USA. A closer look at the relevant documents reveals this.
Already during the initial Sykes-Picot discussions France and Russia were asked, or as British under-secretary Sir Arthur Nicolson put it:
It was clear that ‘we must […] consult our Allies – especially in view of the fact that we are discussing the future of Palestine at Petrograd’ [Sykes and Georges-Picot were in the Russian capital to negotiate the terms under which the Russian authorities were prepared to assent to the Sykes-Picot agreement]. He, therefore, proposed that ‘we might ask Paris and Petrograd whether they see any objection to the formula pointing out to both the advantages […] by securing a sympathetic attitude on the part of the Jews.'
Following the appointment of Sir Mark Sykes as one of the civil assistant secretaries for political affairs to the War Cabinet, Sykes at the end of January 1917 started to define the area in which the Jewish chartered company proposed by the Zionists could be active. The northern limit would be from Acre in a straight line to the Jordan, which meant that the Hauran and the greater part of Galilee were excluded. While the southern border ‘could be arranged with the British government’, Sir Mark also excluded the ‘islands’ of Jerusalem, Jaffa and ‘a belt from Jerusalem to the sea along the Jaffa railway […] because the Russian pilgrims came along this route’. However, the Zionists were appalled.
Thus the next day, the secretary general of the World Zionist Congress Nahum Sokolow, met with the French representative François Picot. In the course of their conversation, Sokolow observed that the Zionists desired that Palestine should become a British protectorate. Reluctant to grant Palestine to the British, Picot initially refused to be drawn and only mentioned that this was a question for the Entente to decide.
On 28 February 1917, Mark Sykes wrote to Picot that the ‘question of finding a (suzerain?) power or powers in this region is especially beset with difficulties. To propose it to be either British or French is to my mind only asking for trouble,’ while the alternative of an international regime would ‘inevitably drift into a condition of chaos and dissension’.
However, the Prime Minister Lloyd George, however, was emphatic ‘on the importance, if possible, of securing the addition of Palestine to the British area’.
After his arrival in Paris Mark Sykes thought it wise to try and temper expectations at home. He wrote to Sir Maurice Hankey Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence that he hoped the Prime Minister understood that ‘the French public think that Palestine is Syria, and do not realize how small a part of the coast-line it occupies’.1 The next day, Sykes also informed Balfour that ‘the French are most hostile to the idea of the USA being the patron of Palestine’, and that ‘the great mass of Frenchmen interested in Syria, mean Palestine when they say Syria’. Sykes also believed that when the French started ‘to recognise Jewish Nationalism and all that it carries with it as a Palestinian political factor [this] will tend to pave the way to Great Britain being the appointed Patron of Palestine’. 2
A first indication that the French started to change their mind was the outcome of a meeting that took place on 9 April between Sokolow, Paul Cambon, his brother Jules (secretary-general at the Quai d’Orsay), as well as Georges- Picot at the Quai d’Orsay. Sir Mark reported to Balfour the same day that ‘Zionist aspirations (had been) recognized as legitimate by the French’.3 In a separate telegram to Graham, Sykes noted that ‘at interview question of future suzerain power in Palestine was avoided’4 Naturally, the moment was ‘not ripe for such a proposal […] but provided things go well the situation should be more favourable to British suzerainty with a recognised Jewish voice in favour of it’.5 Sir Francis Bertie did not share Sykes’s optimism at all. He explained to Sir Ronald Graham that:
In dealing with the question of Syria and Palestine it must be remembered that the French uninformed general Public imagine that France has special prescriptive rights in Syria and Palestine. The influence of France is that of the Roman Catholic Church exercised through French Priests, and schools conducted by them […] Monsieur Ribot [French prime minister and minister of foreign affairs; R.H.L.] is of the French Protestant Faith which in the eyes of the French Catholics as a body is abhorred next unto the Jewish Faith. Even if M. Ribot were convinced of the justice of our pretensions in regard to Palestine, would he be willing to face the certain combined opposition of the French Chauvinists, the French uninformed general Public and the Roman Catholic Priests and their Flocks?6
Sykes admitted the difficulty with the ‘Syrian party in Paris’ in a letter to Graham of 15 April. He observed that ‘what is important is that this gang will work without let or hindrance in Picot’s absence […] The backing behind this is Political-Financial-Religious – a most sinister combination.’7
Jewish project enters the Vatican
After once more visiting Paris where he met Picot in April 1917, Sykes next traveled to Rome. As soon as he had arrived in Rome, Sykes sought an interview with a Vatican official who was of the same rank and influence as himself, someone not a cardinal who had the Pope's ear. He found his man in (the future Pope) Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican’s assistant under-secretary for foreign affairs. Sir Mark had gained the impression that ‘the idea of British patronage of the holy places was not distasteful to Vatican policy. The French I could see did not strike them as ideal in any way.’ Sykes had also ‘prepared the way for Zionism by explaining what the purpose and ideals of the Zionists were’. Naturally, ‘one could not expect the Vatican to be enthusiastic about this movement, but he was most interested and expressed a wish to see Sokolow when he should come to Rome’. Sykes, who had to leave for Egypt, had therefore left a letter for Sokolow in preparation of his conversations with the Vatican.8 Sir Mark explained that he had been:
Careful to impress that the main object of Zionism was to evolve a self-supporting Jewish community which should raise, not only the racial self-respect of the Jewish people but should also be a proof to the non-Jewish peoples of the world of the capacity of Jews to produce a virtuous and simple agrarian population, and that by achieving these two results, to strike at the roots of those material difficulties which have been productive of so much unhappiness in the past.
He had further ‘pointed out that Zionist aims in no way clashed with Christian desiderata in general and Catholic desiderata in particular’, and strongly advised Sokolow ‘if you see fit (to) have an audience with His Holiness’.9 Sokolow was granted an audience on 6 May, which went very satisfactorily. The Pope declared that he sympathized with ‘Jewish efforts of establishing national home in Palestine’, and that he saw ‘no obstacle whatever from the point of view of his religious interests’. He also spoke ‘most sympathetically of Great Britain’s intentions’. According to Sokolov the length of his audience and the ‘tenor of conversation’ revealed a ‘most favourable attitude’.10
A few days later, Sokolow had an interview with Italian prime minister Paolo Boselli, who indicated that Italy would not actively support a Zionist initiative in Palestine but also would not oppose it.11 At the end of the month, Sokolow returned to Paris and continued his conversations with the French authorities. He was received by Ribot and by Jules Cambon. On 4 June Cambon wrote to him that:
You consider that when circumstances permit and the independence of the holy places is secured, it would be an act of justice and reparation to assist with the renaissance, through the protection of the Allied Powers, of the Jewish nationality on that territory from which the Jewish people have been chased many centuries ago. The French government, who have entered the present war to defend a people unjustly attacked, and pursue the fight to ensure the triumph of right over might, cannot feel but sympathy for your cause the triumph of which is tied to that of the Allies.12
1. Sykes to Hankey, 7 April 1917, Cab 21/96.
2. Tel. Sykes to Balfour, no. 1, 8 April 1917, Sykes Papers, box 1.)
3. Sykes to Balfour, no. 2, 9 April 1917, ibid.
4. Sykes to Graham, no. 3, in tel. Bertie to Balfour, no. 334, 9 April 1917, Foreign Office (henceforth FO) 371/3045/73658.
5. Sykes to Balfour, no. 2, 9 April 1917, Sykes Papers, box 1.
6. Bertie to Graham, private and confidential, 12 April 1917, FO 371/3052/82982.
7. Sykes to Graham, no. 2, 15 April 1917, ibid.
8. Sykes to Graham, no. 3, 15 April 1917, FO 371/ 3052/82749.
9. Sykes to Sokolow, 14 April 1917, encl. in Sykes to Graham, no. 3, 15 April 1917, ibid.
10. Sokolow to Weizmann, in tel. Rodd to Balfour, 7 May 1917, FO 371/3053/92646.
11. Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration, 2011, pp. 217–18.
12. Cambon to Sokolow, 4 June 1917, FO 371/3058/ 123458.