Waters Flowing Eastward
The world war had entered its fourth year in the latter part of 1917, with no indication of a rapid settlement in sight. The complexity and variety of events, increasing with the years, had emphasized its universal character. Every country engaged—whether America, Germany, Russia, Greece, France, Italy, or England—found its entire interests, political, economic, and ethnic, involved in the issue. All these nations seemed gripped in a deadlock, and at the same time felt the pressing need of deliverance.
Before 1917, it had been thought that if the allies continued to hold the western front, the Russian "steam roller" would crash the central powers by sheer force of numbers. But the "steam roller" had itself exploded: there had been a revolution, and, by the end of July, Russian troops had withdrawn from Bessarabia and Moldavia, and between the Dniester and the Pruth, leaving the eastern front undefended. If this loss was somewhat offset by the fact that America, in spite of the President's reluctance, had finally joined the allies, it was still doubtful whether her forces would arrive in time and in sufficient numbers to be of real military value.
The scale on which the war was waged made all usual methods of reaching a settlement out of the question: no outside Power could be invoked as mediator; the Pope had issued a peace proposal on August 1, but the allies regarded it as inspired by Germany and turned a deaf ear.
Allied statesmen had cast about for some principle on which an honourable peace could be proposed, if a crushing defeat could not be inflicted on the enemy. The principle of nationalities, viz., the right of small nations to form their own government, had been advanced, and had met with general acceptance.
Thus America's object in entering the war, according to President Wilson, was "to deliver the peoples of the world from autocracy," "to make the world safe for democracy," and the like. But the application of this principle presented difficulties. That Germany and Austria should be broken up into Poland, Czecho-Slovakia, Hungary, Jugo-Slavia, etc., in the way that afterward occurred, was one matter; but the example of Russia, and the possibility of the principle being applied to England, then troubled by Irish agitators, and the other allies, led many to dread a completely dismembered Europe.
Nevertheless, the idea had acquired a large measure of popularity in cities where reaction against over-organization had created an intense desire for freedom.
In rough, this was the situation when the British government issued a note favouring a national home for the Jews: it took the form of a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild and signed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Arthur (later Lord) Balfour, and read:
Thus it was that the Jews, the "Chosen People," after centuries of ispersion, were to be established in a homeland. Here was poetic justice; it seemed as though nineteen centuries of wrongs were to be righted.
Six weeks later, the newspapers were full of the triumphal entry of General Allenby into Jerusalem, and the conquest of the Holy Land by the British army which included Jewish units: to the religious-minded, it was as though Providence had set the seal of approval on the Balfour declaration. Sceptics, on the other hand, remarked callously that Allenby's army had been loitering about Palestine inactive for the last four months; that Jerusalem offered no resistance and one week ought to have sufficed for staging his entry. His forces undoubtedly counted some Jews in the commissary department, as there are in all armies; but the credit for the conquest was almost wholly due to the assistance of the Arabs, over a hundred thousand strong, to whom the promise of autonomy had been made by England in 1915. The Balfour declaration was a direct violation of this promise. But for every miracle there are unbelievers!
More than a decade has passed, and, looking back, one is inclined to ask a few questions: Why was it that the British cabinet with a war on its hands resolved to set aside a national home for the Jews ? Had the cabinet proposed a home in the Near East to the Armenians first, and on the latter's refusal turned to the Jews ? Was it to be an asylum for cripples and orphans; or a religious centre; or a sort of Liberia, like African Liberia founded in 1822 for freed negroes? Or were all the Jews in the world supposed to migrate back to Palestine ? This last idea, though excellent in theory, would hardly be feasible.
Reading the declaration carefully, it becomes clear that certain Jews (the Zionist group), and not all the Jews, wanted a "national home": they may even have intimated their desire to some member of the cabinet. Sir Arthur was dining one evening at Lord Rothschild's country place and admiring his beautiful home, when, at the mention of that word, Lord Rothschild, turning away to hide a tear, said sadly that some of his friends "had no home [that is, no national home] where they could lay their heads." Sir Arthur was touched and said he would mention it to His Majesty and to his colleagues, and knew that they would express their sympathy for Lord Rothschild's friends in distress. Accordingly, the declaration of sympathy followed a few days later.
For those who are satisfied with the above explanation there is no need to read further; those, however, who desire a fuller account of things may be willing to discard popular fallacies and study things afresh. As a background, a general idea of the history and character of the Jews and their institutions is essential.
The longest path may be the shortest in the end.