[The Balfour] Declaration was made (a) by a European power, (b) about a non-European territory, (c) in a flat disregard of both the presence and the wishes of the native majority resident in that territory, and (d) it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group so that this foreign group might quite literally make this territory a national home for the Jewish people…. Balfour’s statements in the declaration take for granted the higher right of a colonial power to dispose of a territory as it saw fit.
– Edward Said
Overview of the whether “Britain created Israel”
It is incorrect to say that Britain created Israel. Instead, Britain spent years actively working to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state. What confuses people is that Britain changed tack. In Zionism’s early years Britain looked favourably upon the creation of a Jewish National. This stance changed once they became the sovereign power in British Mandatory Palestine.
Britain’s positive position reached its peak in 1917 when the British government issued a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild. The letter, now known as the “Balfour Declaration”, instructed Baron Rothschild to inform the Zionist Federation that the British Government “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. At that the time of the declaration the number of Jews living in Israel was between 80,000 and 90,000. What most people don’t know is that these Jews had already established a de facto Jewish National Home.
The Jews, some of whom had lived in the land for centuries, had established this de facto state without the assistance of any colonial or imperialist powers. Instead, they relied on their own hard work, building infrastructure and cultivating land they’d legally purchased.
The Balfour Declaration did not establish a Jewish state. It was an endorsement by the British government of a Jewish protectorate. An endorsement they abandoned upon taking control of the land. They then began doing everything they could to prevent the establishment of a Jewish State.
A timeline of British opposition to a Jewish state
- 1903 – Britain proposes the Jews establish a British protectorate in Kenya. Herzl had proposed a settlement in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Lord Cromer counter proposed with Kenya, this was rejected by the Zionists as unlike the Egyptian suggestion (which was once part of King David’s Israel) as the Jews had no ancestral claim to Kenya.
- 1917 – Britain drafts the Balfour Declaration, recognising the right of the Jews to a “National Home” in their ancestral land. The language of the declaration inferred a British protectorate, rather than a Jewish State, which they would only support if the Jews outgrew the Arab population. Something the British consistently tried to prevent.
- 1920 – After defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I the region lacked a sovereign power. The Sans Remo conference awarded the British control of the land on the condition they honour the Balfour Declaration and create a Jewish National Home.
- 1920– Col. Waters-Taylor, British Field-marshal Allenby’s Chief of Staff, met with Palestinian leader Haj Amin al-Husseinu a few weeks before Easter. He told Al-Husseini “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world…that Zionism was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols [Chief Administrator in Palestine, 1919-20] and General Allenby [Commander of Egyptian Force, 1917-19, then High Commissioner of Egypt] would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home.”
- 1921 – Britain reneges on the San Remo deal and gives converts three quarters of Mandatory Palestine to the Arab emirate of Transjordan. Transjordan was then to remain under auspices of the British.
- 1921 – Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, former head of British military intelligence in Cairo, and later Chief Political Officer for Palestine and Syria, wrote in his diary that British officials “incline towards the exclusion of Zionism in Palestine.”
- 1922 – Britain is granted Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations, until such time as the inhabitants of the land are able to stand alone. The awarding of the land was always on the condition they create a Jewish State. The “Jewish National Home” is not created, instead some Jews are granted permission to apply for citizenship of Mandatory Palestine.
- 1937 – The British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden ferociously campaigns to block Jewish sovereignty, on 26 November 1937 he told the British Ambassador in Washington he was looking for a solution “which would not give Jews any territory exclusively for their use.”
- 1938 – The British government declares that its proposal (in the Peel and Woodhead Commission) to divide Mandatory Palestine into two states is untenable.
- 1939 – While unfettered Arab immigration swells, made possible by Britain’s unrestricted immigration policy for Arabs to Mandatory Palestine. Britain issue the White Paper, a policy paper which severely restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. At the time this paper was issued Jews were being subject to Nazi persecution in Europe (Britain kept these quotas in place throughout the holocaust. If they had lifted them millions of Jews could have potentially found refuge there).
- 1946 – Britain creates internment camps in Cyprus to imprison Jews attempting enter Mandatory Palestine. Over 53,000 Jews are held captive and 400 die, many of whom had just escaped the Nazi death camps.
- 1946 – Britain puts the entire city of Tel Aviv, 200,00 Jewish residents, under house arrest.
- 1946 – British antisemitism is rife. The then British Palestine Commander, Lt. General Evelyn Barker, issued an order banning British troops from socialising with Jews. He went on to say, “[We] will be punishing the Jews in a way the race dislikes as much as any, by striking at their pockets and showing our contempt of them”.1 In a letter to a lover he wrote “Yes I loathe the lot – whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them. Its time this damned race knew what we think of them – loathsome people” 2
- 1947 – The British government requests France and Italy prevent Jews from embarking for Palestine.
- 1947 – The British ask the American government to ban fundraising for Israel, the Truman administration capitulates.
- 1947 – In a United Nations vote on the partition of Mandatory Palestine, 72% voted for the creation of Jewish and Arab states. Britain was one of two Western nations that refused to vote.
- 1948/9 – After Israel had been established. Britain again refused to vote in favour of admitting Israel to the United Nations (on both occasions Israel sought admission).
It should be noted that not all Britons were against the Zionist ideal. People like Orde Wingate, Winston Churchill, Lord Balfour, Herbert Samuel and many other pro-Zionist individuals contributed to laying the foundations that Jewish Statehood was later built upon. This British support was short lived. In the early 1920’s oil was discovered in the British Mandate of Iraq. The lure of oil money was too strong and British foreign policy took a u-turn, shifting their allegiances from supporting a Jewish State to Arab nationalism.
Jewish protectorate in Kenya – the Uganda Plan
In October 1902 British Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain met with Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl. Herzl had approach Chamberlain in the hope he could help establish a Jewish State. At that time Israel was under Ottoman rule, while Egypt was a protectorate of Britain. This gave Herzl the opportunity to request Britain support a Jewish settlement in the Sinai peninsula near the border of modern day Israel. Chamberlain entertained the idea, but when he brought to the British government they rejected outright. This was the first time Britain actively prevented a Jewish State.
A year later over one hundred Jews were slaughtered in the Kishinev massacre. Upon hearing of the massacre Chamberlain suggested the Jews use a 5,000 square mile area to establish a British protectorate in an isolated part of Kenya. This became known as the Uganda Plan. Desperate to create a refuge for Jews fleeing antisemitism (such as the Kishinev massacre), the Zionist Congress sent a delegation to Kenya to review its suitability. The Uganda Plan was considered as an interim solution that would stand until the Jews had reestablish their homeland in Israel. However, the delegation returned from Kenya with a negative report and the proposal was rejected.
The Balfour Declaration
In 1906 Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met with Lord Arthur Balfour. At that time Balfour was the leader of the opposition, a year earlier he had been Prime Minister of Britain and had he authorised the Uganda Plan. Balfour asked why Weizmann had turned down a Jewish homeland in Kenya in favour of Palestine. Weizmann explained that Jews yearned to return to their ancestral land and escape thousands of years of persecution. These words stuck with Balfour and the two struck up a close relationship.3
As Europe was plunged into the horrors of World War I, the question of a Jewish homeland arose again. Two months after Britain declared war on the Ottoman Empire, British politician and secular Jew, Herbert Samuel suggested in a governmental memorandum that if Palestine were conquered Britain should establish a home for the Jewish people under British rule.4
In May 1916 the governments of the United Kingdom, France and Russia signed the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which defined how Western Asia should be divided if the Ottoman Empire were defeated. As Samuel had proposed the agreement placed Palestine under British rule.
The following year, influenced by Herbert Samuel’s memorandum and his own encounters with Chaim Weizmann, Balfour wrote a letter to the Zionist Federation (via Baron Rothschild) stating that Britain viewed favourably a “Jewish National Home” in Palestine. This letter became known as the Balfour declaration.
One thing to note was that the declaration didn’t describe a Jewish state but “a national home for the Jewish people” – this wording was intentional. While some within the British Cabinet supported the Zionist program (Chamberlain, Samuel, et al), there were others who were strongly opposed to it. To opposing faction, the idea of Britain renouncing sovereignty over Palestine was intolerable.
Leopold Amery, one of the Secretaries to the British War Cabinet of 1917–18 testified under oath that “The phrase ‘the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people’ was intended and understood by all concerned to mean at the time of the Balfour Declaration that Palestine would ultimately become a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ or a ‘Jewish State’, if only Jews came and settled there in sufficient numbers.“. 5
This condition of only supporting a Jewish State if they achieved sufficient numbers shaped British immigration policy. During its Mandate, Britain actively prevented Jews from settling in Israel and forming a majority population (including allowing unrestricted Arab immigration to the land).
As World War I came to a close, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire seemed imminent. In preparation of this, President Woodrow Wilson famously declared that self-determination should govern any postwar reorganisation of Ottoman territory. This meant that the different national groups living in that region would have the potential to achieve statehood. One such group was the ancient Jewish community of Palestine.
By the 1920’s a de facto Jewish State already existed in parts of Palestine. On the 24 July 1922 the international recognised their right to self-determination when the fifty one member states of the League of Nations granted Britain the Mandate of Palestine.
They were awarded the Mandate on the condition they fulfill their commitment in the Balfour Declaration to re-establish a Jewish National Home in that region. In plain English, this meant were awarded it on the condition Britain created Israel in its place when they left.
… Whereas the Principal Allied Powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the [Balfour Declaration] and adopted by the said Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing should be done which might 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; and
Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country;
Article 7: The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.
The Mandate stopped short of granting Jews sovereignty over the land, as it was understood that sovereignty would only be granted if the Jews reached majority.5 The only chance Britain had of denying sovereignty would be if they prevented the Jews from reaching a majority population. For this reason, while many civil functions were placed under the autonomy of the Jews; immigration policy was not and Article 7 of the Mandate placed it firmly in the hands of the British.
Creation of Jordan
Shortly after the mandate, in September 1922, the League of Nations and Great Britain went back on their word. They decided that the provision of setting up a Jewish National Home would not apply to the area east of the Jordan River (which constituted three quarters of the territory included in the Mandate). This region would be awarded to the Arabs and later became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
The original Mandate made no mention of an Arab National Home, but as 90% of the population of Mandatory Palestine (Israel, Jordan and the disputed territories) were Arab 6, it came as no surprise when the Arabs were awarded 75% of the land.
For the next 15 years Arab hostility to a Jewish National Home increased. Hundreds of Jews and Brits were murdered by Arab Nationalists. Faced with mounting violence, the British commissioned two enquiries (Peel and Woodhead) and both of them suggested further land partitions. A Jewish State and another Arab State. The Jews were willingly to negotiate the borders of both proposals, but the Arabs rejected them outright. Refusing to accept even the tiniest of Jewish states in the region.
The British in-turn declared that none of the partition plans were tenable.
Jewish immigration restrictions to Palestine and British hostility to Zionism
Having given away most of the land to the Arabs and unable or unwilling to establish a Jewish National Home. The British entered a period of extreme hostility towards Zionism.
In 1939, a year after rejecting the commission’s partition plans, Britain introduced one of its most brutal policies. At this time Jews across Europe were being murdered and interned in ghettos by the Nazis. It was at this moment that Britain released a White Paper which severely limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine.7
In 1942 British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, famously confirmed in Parliament that the Nazis were exterminating Europe’s Jews. He went on to add that Britain could do nothing to thwart the genocide other than winning the war. The very next year, at the height of the Holocaust, Eden personally blocked a request from the Bulgarian authorities to allow part of its Jewish population passage to British controlled Palestine. After his refusal these Jews were transported to their deaths in Nazi extermination camps.
While Arab immigration to Palestine swelled, Jewish immigration was at virtual standstill. With no restrictions on Arab immigration, large numbers of them arrived, attracted by the economic opportunities that Zionist and British investment created. In contrast, Jewish immigration was miniscule and those that attempted entry were locked in detention centres. Understandably this provoked a strong reaction and Zionist paramilitary groups began using force to try and change British immigration policy.
In one infamous attack the Irgun bombed the British military headquarters which was stationed in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Several warning calls were placed – but ignored by the British. When the bomb exploded 91 people lost their lives (including 41 Arabs, 28 Britons and 17 Jews).8
As more Jews attempted to migrate to Mandatory Palestine, the British Government interned more and more of them in camps in Cyprus. The majority of these refugees were weak and disheveled having just escaped the Nazi death camps of Europe. In a cruel twist of fate, they now found themselves imprisoned behind the wire fences of another European superpower. Hundreds died and 53,000 refugees were held captive.9
In another instance three Jews smuggling arms into Israel (for defense against Arab attacks) were sentenced to death by the British. In retaliation, the Irgun kidnapped two British sergeants and warned if the Jews were executed the British soldiers would meet the same fate. The three Jews were executed on 29 July, and two days later the bodies of the soldiers were discovered hanged – their bodies booby-trapped. This provoked a wave of anti-Jewish rioting throughout Britain and one London synagogue was burned to the ground.
As the violence spiraled out of control Britain was unable to contain the chaos they’d created. In an act of desperation they handed the problem over to the United Nations, relinquishing their control and responsibility over the region.
Refusing to vote for the creation of Israel
If there was one moment in history that definitively established Britain’s position on Jewish sovereignty, it was the 1947 United Nations partition vote. 72% of the nations taking part voted for the creation of Jewish and Arab states. Greece and Britain were only Western nations that chose not to vote for the creation of Israel.
Summary of “Is it true that Britain created Israel”?
It is factually wrong to say Britain created Israel, they certainly played a part in the it’s creation, but the Jewish State was created by Zionists who purchased and settled the land. It is also incorrect to say the UN create Israel, they simply agreed to recognise it as a state.
At times Britain went to great lengths to prevent a sovereign Jewish state.
- Britain reneged on the San Remo agreement. Instead of creating a Jewish State they gave away the vast majority of Mandatory Palestine to the Arabs, creating the Emirate of Transjordan.
- Britain went to huge lengths to prevent Jews from settling in their ancestral homeland, while opening the gates to unfettered Arab migrants.
- Britain refused to vote in the UN for the creation of a Jewish state.
- There were some British governments and politicians that were favourable to Zionism (such as those involved in the Balfour declaration). The purpose of this article is to document the efforts Britain made to block the Jewish state, which primarily evolved in the late 30s and 40s.
Learn more about how Israel as created:
- Did Israel get all of the good land?
- Did America create Israel?
- Is it true that Israel stole Palestinian land?
- Was there ever a Palestinian people?
- Was there ever a country called Palestine?
- Was the Zionist movement a plot to colonise the Middle East?
- Were the Jews unwilling to share Palestine?
- Was the UN Partition Plan unfair to the Palestinian majority?
- Are Israel’s borders expanding?
- Is it true that Britain created Israel?
- Why should the Palestinians pay for Europe's wrongs during the Holocaust?
1. “Conservative Party attitudes to Jews, 1900-1950”, Harry Defries p194
2. Israel State Archive, Section 123, P 867/2. 27 April 1947
3. Trial and Error, Chaim Weizmann, p111
4. The Future of Palestine, Herbert Samuel, 1915
5. The Palestine Yearbook of International Law 1984, Martinus Nijhoff