“I KNOW NOT whether the men, who at present contrive the foreign policy of Britain, entertain the idea of assuming the sovereignty of the Holy Land, and of promoting its colonization by the Jews; their present intentions, however, are of no importance one way or the other; because they will be compelled, by events soon to happen, to do what, under existing circumstances, heaven and earth combined could not move them to attempt.”

These well-known words from Elpis Israel[1] were penned by Brother John Thomas in 1849. At that time the eastern Mediterranean held little interest for Britain. Construction of the Suez Canal in the 1860s and the opening of a more direct sea route to India and Australasia changed that. The United Kingdom first purchased a share in the Suez Canal, and then, in 1882, occupied Egypt to ensure trade was not disrupted. Britain’s move into the Middle East in the 1880s excited Bible students of the day, who, on the strength of Brother Thomas’ prognostication, had expected some such development.

The excitement of the Brotherhood in the 1880s was manifested on a much grander scale in 1917 when the British Government issued the Balfour Declaration. This statement of support for the “establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” and the subsequent granting to Britain of a League of Nations mandate to administer Palestine—a mandate which recognised the commitments made in the Balfour Declaration—appeared to match Brother Thomas’ expectation that Britain one day would promote the territory’s “colonisation by the Jews.” Not surprisingly, therefore, when the Balfour Declaration was made public it captured the imagination of Christadelphians around the world. More than six pages of the December 1917 issue of the Christadelphian were devoted to discussion about the document and its implications; several further articles were published in the magazine during 1918.

Britain’s administration of Mandatory Palestine was plagued with difficulties. It was not long before the government pulled back from even its qualified commitment to a Jewish homeland as provided for in the Balfour Declaration. Notwithstanding these problems, the Brotherhood took a keen interest in the Declaration and in the limited Jewish migration which was permitted under the mandate. The Balfour Declaration is a seminal document in the history of Zionism and the modern Middle East. For more than ninety years since its publication it has been quoted by countless Christadelphians in the context of preaching about the return of the Jews to the Land of Israel as a sign of Christ’s coming. Probably no other extra-Biblical document has been quoted so frequently by Christadelphian speakers and writers.

Our community’s long-standing interest in the Balfour Declaration means that many will enjoy this recent book on the subject by Jonathan Schneer, an American historian at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Entitled The Balfour Declaration—The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, the book’s 376 pages of text chronicle the background to the issue of this important document and the initial response to its publication. Well documented (there are twenty-nine pages of end notes), it is a comprehensive overview of its subject from the perspective of all stakeholders. Publication of this book confirms that the Balfour Declaration remains relevant to understanding events as they are unfolding in the Middle East today.

Schneer opens with a glossary of names in much the same way as a play commences with a dramatis personae. This seems appropriate given the colourful nature of many of the key players and the remarkable (open and clandestine) internecine negotiations in relation to the Middle East in which Britain and her allies engaged during World War I. Without compromising historical rigour or accuracy, Jonathan Schneer has produced a highly readable work, which at times reads more like an espionage novel than an historical textbook. Such was the nature of the material with which he was working.

The quote from Brother Thomas with which this review commences is followed immediately by the following sentence: “The present decisions of ‘statesmen’ are destitute of stability. A shooting star in the political firmament is sufficient to disturb all the forces of their system; and to stultify all the theories of their political astronomy.” When written these sentences referred to the disinterest of current politicians in the Middle East. These words could, however, also be a description of the self-contradictory concurrent diplomatic manoeuvrings in which the British Government engaged when it was negotiating with the representatives of the Zionist movement.

The Balfour Declaration, drafted at Whittingehame, August 1917

Having issued deliberately vague promises to Arab leaders in 1915 about Ottoman possessions east of the Mediterranean in an attempt to encourage them to launch a revolt against their Turkish overlords, the British proceeded in 1916 to agree with France and then Russia a strategy for dividing up the same territory between themselves, except for a portion of Palestine which was to be administered by an international consortium.

Later, at about the time in 1917 when it was promising to support a national home for the Jews in Palestine, Britain engaged in secret, informal peace negotiations with representatives of the Ottoman Empire which, had they been successful, would have resulted in a separate peace treaty with Turkey which would have left the Turks in at least nominal control of their Middle Eastern territory. Britain even paid Turkish leader Enver Pasha a sizeable bribe in December 1917 in a bid to progress these secret talks, which continued into early 1918, some months after publication of the Balfour Declaration! Enver Pasha repaid the bribe when the negotiations fell through.

Given this background, Schneer concludes, not unreasonably, on page 370 that, “Because it was unpredictable and characterised by contradictions, deceptions, misinterpretations, and wishful thinking, the lead up to the Balfour Declaration sowed dragon’s teeth. It produced a murderous harvest, and we go on harvesting even today.” Primarily this was because the United Kingdom promised, or at least offered, control of Palestine to four mutually exclusive authorities: the Zionists, the Arabs, the Turks and an international consortium.

There are many intriguing insights and quotations in the book that will interest students of prophecy. For instance, the author:

quotes Jewish sources in Britain who in 1915 recognised that the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine would bring reproach upon Jews and Judaism
quotes Muslim authorities who likewise warned that offering Zionists control of Jerusalem and parts of Palestine would inevitably lead to tension
reproduces official French government written confirmation of its support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine some six months prior to the issue of the Balfour Declaration
reproduces formal advice provided to the British Cabinet when considering the Declaration that Arab residents of Palestine would be unsupportive and uncooperative were it to proceed
shows that one of the primary reasons Britain issued the Declaration, in spite of the reservations of many of its own advisers, and even some ministers, was an erroneous perception that Germany was well advanced in courting the Zionist lobby with similar promises, in spite of the fact that it should have been clear that Germany’s alliance with the Turks would make it impossible
shows that Britain’s key objective in issuing the Declaration (encouragement of Jews to support the allied war effort) was not achieved, largely because a week after the issue of the Declaration the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and withdrew from the war. Of particular interest to students of prophecy, however, is the following extract, which is in harmony with the terms of the sixth vial (Revelation 16:12-16):
“He [Sir Mark Sykes] hated the Young Turks, however, whom he accused of diluting the admirable ancient Ottoman conventions with a half-baked and half-understood Western ideology based upon the principles of the French Revolution” (p. 246).

Later, on page 306, the author notes that Zionism was likewise inspired by the struggle for national self-determination of peoples in Eastern Europe, who themselves were inspired by the French Revolution. Thus it was that the frog-like spirits conspired to ensure that the Middle East became a centre of tension and instability at the time of the end. This book tells part of the story of how that instability and conflict was promoted.

As they read this book, students of prophecy will detect evidence of the angels of God manipulating the work of a host of diplomats and bureaucrats in London, Paris, Cairo, Constantinople, Moscow, Basle and other places. Frustrating or facilitating their efforts as necessary to ensure events developed in accordance with God’s prophetic plan, these divine messengers had a busy time during World War I!

Captivating and intriguing, The Balfour Declaration rewards Bible students with rich insights into some of the origins of current tensions in the Middle East, which is, of course, at the centre of God’s plan. It is commended as an excellent overview of the background to one of the most remarkable documents ever produced.


[1] 15th edition, p. 475.