Sir Herbert Samuel Takes on an Impossible Task

Jerusalem Journeys, (excerpt from Chapter 10)


Background Discussion - Taking Sides
When the British Government was discussing the question of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, there was a very difficult atmosphere in the Cabinet.

The majority of its top members had been "converted" to a belief in the desirability of the issuance of the Declaration by a number of different factors.

There were those for whom issues of imperial logic were decisive. For these, the Jews in a Jewish homeland in Palestine would prove extremely valuable allies in the future, and would help safeguard British interests in the region, especially bearing in mind the importance that the British attached to the Suez Canal in Egypt.

But there were other less interested factors at play here, too. There were many religious Christians in England who felt a genuine religious debt to the Jews, and who felt, moreover, that Christianity had dealt badly with the Jews over time. There were those who felt a profound attachment to the Land of the Bible, and who felt that a biblical justice would be served by the encouragement of Jews to return to their native land.

For all these reasons, the Zionist movement led by Chaim Weizmann felt fairly confident that now, with the British army on its way to Palestine, the time was right to receive a British commitment to the idea of a Jewish homeland in the land about to come under British control.

But Zionism had its opponents. Not everyone in England liked the idea of Zionism. There were those who believed that the Middle East was an Arab area, and that British interests would be served best by an exclusive alliance with the Arabs; such people were naturally opposed to Zionism.

There was, however, another very different group that worried the Zionists far more. This was a group in the heart of the English establishment that was desperately opposed to Zionism; these were people who were prepared to go to great lengths to discredit this idea of Jewish nationality in a historic homeland. These people were Jews. They were representatives of the Jewish aristocracy, composed of families, like the Samuels or the Montefiores, who had migrated to Britain generations previously, and had come to think of themselves as intensely English. Like most of the longer time Jews in England, they saw themselves, as Jews, as part of a religious group, but regarded their nationality as English. This group was passionately anti-Zionist; they viewed Zionism as something that distinctly threatened them. If support was gained for the opinion that Palestine was the land of the Jews, it could undermine all attempts by the group to convince their fellow-Englishmen that the Jews belonged to England as part of the English nation.

This group of Jews could severely threaten the Zionist cause. During the months that the issue was under consideration by the government, the Jewish anti-Zionists indeed ran a concerted campaign in the press to discredit Zionism in general, and the identification of British interests with Zionism, in particular.

One of the representatives of the group sat in the British cabinet. He was Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India. When the issue of the adoption of the Balfour Declaration came up for discussion in the Cabinet, he used every argument to persuade the government to abandon the idea. 'It would be an affront to the Jewish community of England and would embarrass them'. The implication was clear: to pass the Declaration was to make the accusation of dual nationality or, even worse, of being a nation within a nation, loyal to another homeland.

Montagu managed to prevent the Declaration from being endorsed at its first discussion. At a second debate in the forum of the War Cabinet, two weeks later, Montagu struck again. The story is told in the memoirs of Chaim Weizmann.

"When the Palestine item was laid before the War Cabinet, Edwin Montagu made a passionate speech against the proposed move... There was nothing new in what he had to say, but the vehemence with which he urged his views, the implacability of his opposition, astounded the Cabinet. I understand the man almost wept.

When he had ended, Balfour (the Foreign Minister) and Lloyd George (the Prime Minister) suggested that I be called in, and messengers were sent for me. They looked for me high and low [but did not find me]... I missed a great opportunity.. Perhaps, however, it was better so. I might, in that setting, with Montagu in front of me, have said something harsh or inappropriate. I might have made matters worse instead of better."

From Chaim Weizmann, "Trial and Error"

Activity - Considering Zionism

Suitable for older groups

We suggest the following exercise to examine the above issue.

- The group is divided into two. One half of the group should be asked to sit for ten minutes or so in pairs or trios, and find arguments to back the claim that the Jews are a religion only, rather than a nation, - and that, as such, they can be part of any other nation; (i.e., there are French or English or American Catholics, Protestants and Jews). The other half of the group have to find arguments to back the claim that the Jews are a separate nation.

- At the end of this time period, the two groups work separately to sum up their arguments, putting them into a coherent order according to the strength of the respective arguments.

- The entire group should then be told that they are being transported to a specific situation in another time period and that they are going to take part in a historic confrontation that never quite happened. Their task is to see how the confrontation would have been resolved.

- The educator should then give an introduction to the circumstances surrounding the lead-up to the Balfour Declaration. This should be done, if possible, in the form of an intelligence or police briefing, referring to "subject number one", "document number two", "personality number three", etc., etc.

* There should be slides of "exhibit A", etc., and of the different people mentioned.
* Participants should take notes.

This will need to be prepared carefully; there are many good sources such as Howard Sacher’s "History of Israel", Walter Laquer’s "History of Zionism", or Chaim Weizmann’s "Trial and Error". Among the points that should be emphasized are:
(Click for more details)

The Reasons for the British Interest in the Declaration
The Historic Link Between Britain and Zionism
The Situation of the Jews in England and the Progress of Jewish Emancipation there The Figures of Chaim Weizmann, Lord Arthur Balfour, David Lloyd George and Edwin Montagu  

- Participants should then be distributed the above piece by Chaim Weizmann, in which he talks of the near confrontation with Montagu in the War Cabinet.
* Those who were in the group that prepared arguments for the Jews being a religious group only, should be asked to continue in their small groups of two or three, with arguments they imagine that Montagu might bring forward to back his case. (They should concentrate only on the Jewish arguments, leaving out the strategic arguments.)
* Those in the other group should do the same for Weizmann.

- Now the whole group should be divided into pairs, consisting of one person from each side. They have ten minutes to debate the issue of whether the Jews of Britain at the time in question should side with Zionism or not.

- At this point stage a debate between Weizmann and Montagu (both well prepared beforehand) on the question. It should be a standard debate format with two speakers in role and the audience able to join in. It should end in a vote.

- Finally, there should be an open discussion (out of role) on the question of what was worrying Montagu, and the additional question of whose arguments seem to the group to be most valid in the argument between Weizmann and Montagu. Are Montagu's concerns valid today? (Perhaps make reference to the case of Jonathan Pollard in the United States.)



Share           PRINT   
26 Apr 2007 / 8 Iyar 5767 0