The Balfour Declaration is only sixty-seven words long. Few documents of such brevity written in the early years of the last century can still be causing so much trouble. The reasons for this strife lie in the duplicity that marked its origins and the ambiguous phrasing that was used to reconcile incompatible promises made to various parties by the British government. The story has often been told before and the volume of scholarly research on the declaration would fill a small library, but Jonathan Schneer’s lively new account is very much a tale for our times. It begins not with Zionism, but with the development of Arab nationalism and Muslim dreams of reviving the Caliphate. The early chapters, set against the background of the First World War, detail British efforts to entice the Arabs into revolt against the Ottoman Empire. With utter cynicism they promised Arab self-rule in territory that included Syria, a pledge they had little intention of keeping since they planned to divide the carcass of the empire with the French. As in a more recent case, the prospect of liberation served as a cover for invasion and occupation.
Schneer’s version stands out from a crowded field for other reasons. He challenges the tendency in many studies to describe the progress of Zionism as almost inevitable. Typically these narratives move from Theodor Herzl, creator of the Zionist movement, via Chaim Weizmann, the consummate diplomat who used British