One hundred years ago today, the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration, a statement which supported “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Christadelphians who expected the Jews to be supported by the British in a return to the land of Israel immediately seized on it, particularly since the British were advancing against the Ottoman Empire through Palestine. They have continued to view it as important, though I’m not sure how much effect it had on the formation of the state of Israel.
Recently, I was reading a secular history of the British Empire (yes, I do read history for pleasure), and came across discussion of the Balfour Declaration. I had never particularly considered the British Mandate over Palestine part of the British Empire, though I guess it makes sense. But what really surprised me was that the motivations that the authors presented for the Balfour Declaration.
The text of the declaration
The declaration is short enough to quote in full. In a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, Foreign Secretary Balfour wrote:
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.
The traditional Christadelphian story
As I heard it talked about, many of those in important positions in the British Government were from Christian groups who saw the return of the Jews to their land as an important step towards Christ’s return. This made the Balfour Declaration an instance of God’s hand at work behind the scenes, making sure the right people were in power at the right time. That declaration had then led inevitably to the creation of a Jewish state 30 years later.
While religious views may have affected some individuals, secular history reveals other, more pressing concerns: Britain had a war to win. World War 1 was raging, and it was by no means certain in 1917 that Britain and her allies were winning. The Russian Revolution had increased the risk of Russia withdrawing from the alliance. The United States had declared war on Germany, but had not committed a significant number of troops.
The nightmare scenario was peace with Russia allowing the Germans to move troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front. This might allow them to break through the Anglo-French line before the Americans were significantly involved. This is in fact what happened in March 1918, though the advance had petered out by the end of April.
It was thought that supporting Zionism would gain support from Russian and American Jews, which might keep Russia in the war and bring American support more quickly. President Wilson in particularly had key Zionist associates, and Balfour had discussed the situation with them earlier in the year when he visited the US. There were also concerns that the Germans might get in first and support Zionism.
Members of the British government had been discussing with British Zionists for at least six months, and one version in June had been drafted by Zionists. So it is unsurprising that the final declaration seemed to support Zionism (though it had conservative escape clauses added by the government and by anti-Zionist British Jews).
A web of treaties
The Balfour Declaration was not the only agreement Britain made about the future of the Middle East. In the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, they promised to recognise Arab independence if the Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Empire. Though it is not clear whether this was meant to apply to Palestine, Palestine was not specifically excluded, and the Arabs felt betrayed by the Balfour Declaration.
In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French and the British drew a line to divide up most of the Middle East into areas of British and French influence (incidentally, long before they had conquered it). Much of Palestine was to be an international zone owing to its religious significance.
The British also had their own colonial possessions to protect, particularly India. Control of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the south of the Middle East protected their main route to India. And, in spite of the fact that France was an ally, they felt the need to check French imperialism. Whether or not these concerns specifically affected the Balfour Declaration, they probably influenced wider British ambitions in the Middle East.
The Australian connection
While the terms of the declaration were being negotiated, the Eastern Expeditionary Force was beginning to take control of Palestine. This group included Anzacs previously withdrawn from Gallipoli. Two days before the declaration, the 4th Australian Light Horse had charged to capture Beersheba, in what is known as “the last great cavalry charge”. I like this comment from military historian Jonathan King:
We’re obsessed with Gallipoli. Gallipoli was a British-led defeat. Beersheba was an Australian-led victory.
Our Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition have been over there for the hundredth anniversary, in a visit to remember past glories and to support the idea that we have a special relationship with the state of Israel.
The drying up of the Euphrates
The advance did not stop at Beersheba. In December they captured Jerusalem, giving the British a highly symbolic victory before Christmas. In 1918, they continued to advance north, capturing Damascus by the start of October.
This seemed to be the fulfilment of another Christadelphian expectation. For many years, the reference to the drying up of the Euphrates in Revelation 16:12 had been taken to refer to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Now it was finally happening!
To me, though, this prediction wasn’t very impressive: the history books show that sooner or later all empires shrink, collapse, or are taken over. Perhaps more of a surprise to Christadelphians was the subsequent contraction of the British Empire, which had been supposed to be the great maritime empire Tarshish.
However, Revelation 16 makes it clear that, whatever this event was, it was supposed to be paving the way for the final battle of Armageddon. I expect that the combination of the Balfour Declaration and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire led Christadelphians at the time to believe that the establishment of Israel and the return of Christ were both soon. However, no amount of excited expectation changes the fact that they were WRONG. One hundred years later Armageddon has frequently been considered imminent, but has never actually occurred. I see no reason to believe that is more likely now than it was then.
As it turns out, right now both the Tigris and Euphrates are literally drying up, stressed by drought and the water politics of the surrounding nations. Some Christian groups have now decided that the message in Revelation was not symbolic, but literal. I haven’t heard any Christadelphians suggesting it, but maybe it’s just a matter of time.
What happened to the declaration?
Within weeks, the Bolsheviks had released a copy of the formerly secret Sykes-Picot agreement. This prompted many discussions, and most of the Allies supported the idea of national self-determination. This made it more difficult to support a Jewish state in a country where the Jews were in the minority. The wording of the Declaration had been very careful, though: “national home” did not necessarily mean “independent nation”, “in Palestine” made it clear that it would not be all of Palestine, and the rights of “existing non-Jewish communities” had been preserved.
Immediately after the war, the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration tried to suppress the Declaration. However, when the British Mandate for Palestine was formed, the Declaration was included in its terms. Jewish immigration increased in the 1920s and 1930s, and the struggles between Jews and Arabs increased nearly to open war.
Partition into two states was proposed in 1936 and then rejected. Then, in a White Paper in 1939, the British limited Jewish immigration. It is thought that a major reason for the British support of the Arabs was their need of oil. But it was arguably consistent with the declaration’s careful wording preserving the rights of existing non-Jewish communities.
So, maybe the Balfour Declaration contributed to acceptance of the need for a separate Jewish state. But I’m not sure it has the importance that many Christadelphians give it. It was one of several agreements made for tactical reasons in the middle of a major war, and was deliberately vague about what it was promising. That vagueness was then seized upon by later administrators for political expediency, and ultimately it was left to the United Nations to sort out the mess. Far from viewing a Jewish national home with favour, Britain abstained on the key United Nations votes around the partition of Palestine, and did not even recognise the State of Israel until 1949.
The Christadelphian response
This month’s Christadelphian has a feature article on the declaration, and it’s more balanced than I expected. It quotes this response from The Christadelphian in 1917:
The Hope of Israel never shone more brightly than today. November 2 will be remembered in Israel both after the flesh and the spirit, for on that day Great Britain officially recognised Zionism and took up the position assigned by the prophets to the latter day Tarshish … this announcement sent a thrill of joy throughout the brotherhood.
Obviously 100 years on I have the benefit of hindsight, but I am struck once again by the disconnect between Christadelphian pronouncements and the reality. Yes, the state of Israel was formed (a mere 30 years later), but it was arguably formed in spite of Britain rather than because of it. In 1917, the imperial “Tarshish” was still close to its Victorian zenith. In 1948, the British Empire was being rapidly dismantled: Even the British Raj, the jewel in the crown, had been divided into the independent nations of India and Pakistan.
The article from 2017 starts with the tag line “A landmark in the purpose of God with Israel”. It does sometimes slant the history towards Bible prophecy more than the secular histories I’ve seen, but at least it mentions the historical context and the competing agreements over the future of the Middle East. They are not things that I remember hearing discussed in Christadelphian circles.
It also acknowledges some of the issues I’ve highlighted with Christadelphian expectations in 1917:
Those who rejoiced in 1917 could not have foreseen how their hopes and those of the Jews would work out and what further twists and turns in the purpose of God would follow. They would probably be surprised that the Lord Jesus has not yet returned to “reign over the house of Israel for ever”, as promised by the Angel Gabriel to Mary at his birth. They would be disappointed that the policy of British governments after the War eventually turned to trying to stop Jewish migration to Palestine.
But at the same time it doubles down on the Balfour Declaration being a fulfilment of prophecy, and calls on Christadelphians to renew their faith and keep waiting:
So on this 100th anniversary we need to marvel once more at the fulfilment of prophecy in 1917 and afterwards, renew our dedication to the Hope of Israel and sing the songs of Zion whilst we watch and pray for the peace of Jerusalem, knowing that without it there can be no peace for our sad and storm-tossed world.
It is an interesting area of history, but I think most Christadelphians are unable to appreciate it because of the prophecy-tinted glasses they are looking through. It is hard to truly appreciate the struggles and confusion leading to the state of Israel today if you view the end result as a divine inevitability.
Right now, that Christadelphian position leads many to view the land as Israel’s by divine right. All other historical claims are deemed null and void. Any attempt to reach peace through a two state solution is considered to be the nations defying God, and another possible precursor to Armageddon and the return of Christ.
I think it’s fair to say that the main thing the Balfour Declaration did for the Christadelphians was to mislead a generation into believing the return of Christ was near, in the same way as the establishment of the State of Israel and the Six Day War did for later generations. As I wrote earlier this year about the Six Day War, believers have been expecting the soon return of Christ for nearly 2,000 years, and everyone so far has been wrong. This does not prove that he will never return, but that’s where the evidence to date is pointing.