IN August 1897, Theodor Herzl, a Viennese journalist, convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. ‘Zion’ is one of the ancient Biblical names for Jerusalem. On September 3, Herzl wrote: “At Basel, I founded the Jewish state. If I said this out loud today, I would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in 50 years, everyone will perceive it.” He was expressing his community’s dream of establishing a homeland after their ‘exile’ in the 8th century BCE.
The march towards establishing the ‘homeland’ was not easy. On October 15, 1898, Herzl visited Istanbul to plead with the visiting German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, to recommend to the Turkish sultan to “seriously consider the proposals of the Zionists”. Jerusalem was then under the Ottoman rule. When Kaiser asked him what he should tell the sultan, he replied: “A franchise company (that will accept Eretz Israel) with German backing.” Kaiser mentioned this twice to the sultan, who would not agree.
Herzl would not give up. On October 28, he followed the Kaiser to Jerusalem when he heard that the latter was visiting the holy land. He thought he would generate global publicity for the proposal to establish a Jewish homeland. He met Wilhelm twice, once at Mikveh Israel, a Rothschild-funded agricultural settlement, and later at Kaiser’s tent camp at the ‘Streets of the Prophets’ outside the Damascus Gate. On both occasions, the Kaiser was non-committal.
Having failed to persuade the German emperor or the Ottoman sultan, Herzl turned his attention to Britain. He met Lord Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who suggested East Africa (Uganda) as a potential location. At that time, nearly seven million, half of the world’s Jews, were languishing in the Russian empire. In the words of Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan, they “were piled on top of one another like grasshoppers in a ditch” in the unhealthy “pale of Settlement” corresponding to the present Belarus, Ukraine and eastern Poland.
On August 13, 1903, a memorandum of understanding was issued by the British government to grant land to the ‘Jewish Colonial Trust Limited’ to establish a Jewish settlement in East Africa to enable members “to observe their national customs”. Following this, the Zionist Congress on August 26, 1903, decided to send an investigatory commission to examine this proposal. However, this caused almost a vertical split in the Zionist unity and the 1905 congress rejected the ‘Ugandan’ proposal.
This enabled other leaders to take over the reins of the World Zionist Congress. Chaim Weizmann, a British research scientist who later became the first President of Israel, was one of them. It was he who started canvassing for Palestine, which was then ‘a small backward province of the Ottoman Empire’. Originally from Russia, Weizmann had established himself as an assistant professor in biochemistry in Manchester University. Weizmann’s expertise in producing acetone came as a trump card for demanding a Jewish state.
Weizmann was considered the ‘father of industrial fermentation’ using maize starch. He had developed the acetone-butanol-ethanol fermentation process to produce acetone, which was of great use for making cordite explosive propellants during World War I. That was how he had met Lloyd George, who was Munitions Minister and later UK PM (1916-1922). He had already met Lord Arthur Balfour in 1906, who later became Foreign Secretary.
In 1914, Britain was in desperate need of large amounts of acetone to ‘pre-treat’ the gunpowder to prevent abrasions to the barrels which usually released smoke after firing, thereby allowing enemies to identify the location of the guns. Also, in those days, Germany, Russia and Finland had near monopoly of producing acetone, which Britain could not access because of the war.
Weizmann wanted nothing for himself as reward, but merely British ‘support’ for the Zionist cause in Palestine. Margaret MacMillan quotes Lloyd George as saying in his memoirs that this was “the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for the Jews in Palestine”. He was referring to the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), which was in a letter from Foreign Secretary Balfour to Lionel Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild, stating that Britain viewed “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”.
Strangely, the Rothschild Archive exposes the Machiavellian motive behind this letter: According to this, Britain hoped, in exchange for its support of Zionism, that the Jews would help finance the growing expenses of World War I, “which was becoming increasingly burdensome”. Further, the British Foreign Office hoped that the Jews could be “prevailed upon to persuade the US to join the war”. Lastly, the declaration deliberately used vague language: “The term ‘national home’ was chosen in order to minimise the Zionist dream, to make Palestine a Jewish state.”
Also, Balfour’s letter was addressed to Lord Rothschild, and not to Weizmann, who was president of the British Zionist Federation in 1917. This was also a British ploy. To understand why, we should study a document in the Rothschild Archive, ‘Rothschild and gold’, describing the occasions on which the Rothschild family had financially rescued the British government from the Napoleonic Wars onwards. Also, in 1875 the Rothschilds had advanced a loan of £4 million to the Disraeli government for purchasing Suez Canal shares.
In fairness to Balfour, the letter also contains the following conditionalities: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre mentioned in O Jerusalem (1971), an international bestseller, that Israeli rulers ignored Weizmann’s warning in 1925: “Palestine is not Rhodesia, and 6,00,000 Arabs live there who… have exactly the same rights to their homes as we have to our National Home.” The authors also lamented that the Arabs’ claim to their lands was not recognised even by Herzl anywhere. The perennial Israel-Palestinian problem is as simple as that.
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