How a curious love triangle spurred UK’s cabinet to pass the Balfour Declaration
'Palestine will become the world’s ghetto'

How a curious love triangle spurred UK’s cabinet to pass the Balfour Declaration

Back in 1917, Jewish Cabinet minister Edwin Montagu furiously blocked declaring Palestine a Jewish homeland, but his marriage to a former PM’s fatal attraction shifted the scales

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Edwin Montagu/ Lord Balfour's writing desk, at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv (Ziko/Wikipedia)
Edwin Montagu/ Lord Balfour's writing desk, at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, Tel Aviv (Ziko/Wikipedia)

LONDON — There was only one Jewish member among the British Cabinet when it debated Chaim Weizmann’s request that it back the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine during the summer and autumn of 1917.

But Edwin Montagu, who was born 140 years ago this month, was not, as might have been expected, the strongest advocate of what soon became known as the Balfour Declaration. Actually, he was its most bitter adversary.

He railed against the “mischievous political creed” of Zionism, attacked the very notion that Jews were a nation, and ridiculed the idea that, in such a state, Jews “drawn from all quarters of the globe” would even be capable of communicating with one another.

In an angry memo to his fellow Cabinet members in August 1917 he went so far as to declare that the proposal before the government would be “anti-Semitic in result [and] will prove a rallying ground for anti-Semites in every country in the world.”

As the historian Jonathan Schneer wrote: “Ironically, a Jew represented the greatest remaining obstacle to Cabinet acceptance of the Balfour Declaration.”

Inadvertently, however, Montagu would play a possibly critical part in the realization of the Zionists’ dreams. That role had nothing to do with high politics or great principles. Rather, it resulted from the fallout of a bizarre love affair involving Montagu’s political mentor, prime minister Henry Herbert Asquith, and his future wife, Venetia Stanley.

The scion of a wealthy banker turned Liberal politician, Montagu was a decidedly average, unimpressive student. However, he emerged from Cambridge University with a powerful, life-changing political connection, having struck up a friendship with Asquith’s son, Raymond. A leading figure in the Liberal party, Asquith took Montagu under his wing and, within four years, the young man had been elected to parliament.

Former British prime minister Henry Herbert Asquith. (Wikimedia Commons)

Asquith immediately proceeded to give Montagu another heft up the political greasy pole by picking him as his parliamentary aide. With Asquith serving as chancellor of the exchequer (treasurer) in the newly elected Liberal government, it was a choice political appointment.

More were to come: after Asquith became prime minister in 1908 he took Montagu with him into Downing Street, promoting him two years later into the government as a junior minister. By 1915, at the age of only 36, he was a member of the Cabinet. Montagu’s youth, radical politics and closeness to the prime minister marked him out as a rising star.

The two men also saw eye to eye on the question of Zionism. The Jewish community in Britain was split on the issue — sometimes even within families. Thus, when in the spring of 1915, Herbert Samuel, a Jewish Cabinet minister, began lobbying inside government on behalf of the Zionist cause, he did so without the support of his cousin, Montagu.

Weizmann, who had met with Samuel and David Lloyd George, Asquith’s powerful replacement as chancellor, some months before, was pleasantly surprised to find the two men “favorably disposed” to his arguments.

Lloyd George urged Weizmann to make contact with the prime minister and also Arthur Balfour, a former prime minister and leader of the opposition Conservative party. Lloyd George’s advice was fortuitous: within months Balfour returned to the Cabinet when a wartime coalition was formed and eventually became foreign secretary at a critical moment in December 1916.

Asquith, however, proved an intransigent opponent of any notion of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. When Samuel presented him with a paper on the subject in January 1915, the prime minister swiftly rejected it.

A few weeks later, however, Asquith allowed Samuel to bring a much watered-down proposal to Cabinet. The prime minister, however, privately showed an utter lack of sympathy for even the faintest hint of Zionism.

Samuel’s “dithyrambic memorandum,” he noted privately, advocated that “the scattered Jews would in time swarm back from all quarters of the globe and in due course obtain Home Rule.” In Cabinet, only Lloyd George forcefully backed Samuel.

Edwin Montagu (left). (Wikimedia Commons)

Asquith’s stance, moreover, was no doubt strengthened by the vehemence with which his closest Jewish colleague, Montagu, expressed his opposition to it.

“I cannot see any Jews I know tending olive trees or herding sheep,” Montagu wrote to the prime minister. There was, he went on, “no Jewish race now as a homogenous whole,” and a Jewish homeland would simply constitute “a polyglot, many-colored, heterogeneous collection of people of different civilizations and differed ordinances and different traditions.”

His greatest fear, however, was that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine would lead to Jews being driven from their home countries.

The Zionists may have lost this round, but, as Schneer has suggested, Samuel’s memorandum “and its rejection by his own cousin demonstrated conclusively to Cabinet ministers that the British Jewish community had split.”

Moreover, although they were utterly unaware of it and played no part in it, Weizmann and his fellow Zionists would receive a significant boost thanks to the actions of Montagu.

In 1912, two years before Europe was engulfed in the bloody conflict which now roiled it, Asquith’s family had holidayed in Sicily. Montagu, practically a member of the family, tagged along. The prime minister’s daughter, Violet, invited her 25 year-old friend, Venetia Stanley.

Stanley, the daughter of a Liberal peer, was already part of what the prime minister’s wife, Margot, referred to as her husband’s “little harem.” But after the holiday, the prime minister wrote to Venetia, “the scales dropped from my eyes … and I dimly felt that I had come to a turning point in my life.”

Both Asquith and his protégé now developed a fatal attraction for Venetia. While Asquith — a formidable womanizer — did not take Venetia as a mistress, he became utterly obsessed with her.

Venetia Stanley. (Public domain)

In his biography of Asquith, the former Labour Cabinet minister Roy Jenkins, calculates that, during the first three months of 1915, the besotted prime minister wrote to Stanley on 141 separate occasions. On one day in March 1915, he fired off four letters, with a combined length of 3,000 words.

The content of what has been described as “this epistolary love affair” was utterly indiscreet, as Asquith shared with the young woman, among other things, his thoughts on the likelihood of war in 1914; the maneuverings involved with the formation of the coalition government a year later; and, as he scribbled away to her during Cabinet meetings, his low regard for some of his ministers. Venetia, Asquith told her in May 1915, had become “the pole-star and the lode-star of my life.”

But Montagu, too, had fallen in love with Venetia in Sicily. His love was unrequited. She accepted, then turned down, his proposal of marriage made a number of months later, not least because Montagu’s inheritance was dependent on him not marrying out and thus would have required her conversion to Judaism.

Asquith, aware of Venetia’s rejection of Montagu, was thus utterly taken by surprise when he learned in May 1915 that she had finally agreed to take the young Cabinet minister’s hand. Three months later, shortly after completing her conversion, the couple were married. The marriage was not a happy one and Montagu had to contend with his wife’s countless infidelities, her high-spending habits, and the probable knowledge that she never truly loved him and that their child was not likely his.

The reaction of the prime minister’s family to the news was laced with unpleasant anti-Semitic undertones. Violet wrote of his “physical repulsiveness,” suggesting: “He is not only very unlike [any] Englishman — or indeed a European — but also extraordinarily unlike a man… He has no robustness, virility, courage, physical competency.”

She conceded, however, that Montagu had “ambition, fire in his stomach (my favorite quality!) and real generosity and powers of devotion. A better friend than lover I should say.”

Asquith shared his daughter’s apparent incomprehension that Venetia could have chosen to carry Montagu, similarly alluding to him being a Jew.

I won’t say anything about race and religion though they are not quite negligible factors

“Anything but this!” he wrote to Venetia’s sister. “It is not merely the prohibitive physical side (bad as that is) — I won’t say anything about race and religion though they are not quite negligible factors. But he is not a man: a shamble of words and nerves and symptoms, intensely self absorbed, and — but I won’t go on with the dismal catalogue.”

The news, Asquith admitted, was “a death-blow to me,” with Jenkins describing the crushing news as “almost indescribable” in its impact on the prime minister.

Still, Asquith remained in office for another 18 months. His fall in December 1916 was by no means simply the result of his devastation at Venetia’s marriage. Political weakness, the death of his son, Raymond, in the war, and the conspiring of his enemies in the government and the press eventually led to his resignation and his replacement by Lloyd George. But there is also no denying that the loss of Venetia removed a critical emotional crutch.

The impact on the fate of Zionist aspirations was soon felt. As Harold Wilson, a postwar prime minister and ardent supporter of Israel, wrote in his history of Britain’s role in the founding of the Jewish state: “By his opposition [Montagu] certainly succeeded in delaying the Declaration. [His] marriage to Venetia Stanley had the opposite effect. Asquith was no longer capable of acting as a wartime prime minister. Had he remained, it is arguable that no Cabinet power-grouping could have carried the Balfour Declaration. The combination of Lloyd George and Balfour saw it through.”

From left, Lords Edmund Allenby, Arthur Balfour and Sir Herbert Samuel, at Hebrew University in 1925. (Library of Congress)

Montagu, who quit the Cabinet with Asquith’s resignation but then soon accepted an offer from Lloyd George to return to government, certainly put up a fight.

As Schneer has described, the government had already chipped away at the draft declaration that the Zionists had prepared at Balfour’s request. Gone, for instance, were the references to Palestine as “the National Home of the Jewish people” to be replaced by “a National Home for the Jewish people.” Caveats safeguarding the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” were also added.

But none of this placated Montagu, by now the sole Jewish member of the Cabinet, with the departure of Samuel in 1916.

He threw himself into the fight against the government’s emerging plans. At the end of August, Montagu, who had recently been promoted to secretary of state for India, prepared a long, passionate memorandum — “The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government” — which laid out his case for his colleagues. He viewed them as both principled and practical.

He lambasted Zionism as “a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.” And, despite his professed liberalism, suggested adopting a heavy-handed approach toward its adherents. “I would willingly disenfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organization as illegal and against the national interest,” he wrote.

Montagu also denied the existence of a cohesive Jewish nation. “It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation,” he said, while also denying the notion that Palestine was any more religiously or historically connected to Judaism than it was to Islam or Christianity.

Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, pictured in 1949. (Photo: Hugo Mendelson / Wikipedia)

Montagu’s overriding concern, however, was that “when the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens.”

“Palestine,” he argued, will “become the world’s Ghetto… Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine.”

Montagu also hinted that the Zionists had become the unwitting tools of anti-Semites at home.

This concern required practical considerations. “There are three times as many Jews in the world as could possibly get into Palestine if you drove out all the population that remains there now,” he warned. “So that only one-third will get back at the most, and what will happen to the remainder.”

Montagu also made his argument directly to the prime minister, making a highly personal appeal. He appreciated, Montagu wrote to Lloyd George, his “generosity and desire to take up the cudgels for the oppressed.”

But, he argued, “if you make a statement about Palestine as the national home for Jews, every anti-Semitic organization and newspaper will ask what right a Jewish Englishman, with the status at best of a naturalized foreigner, has to take a foremost part of the Government of the British Empire.”

“The country for which I have worked ever since I left the University — England — the country for which my family have fought, tells me that my national home, if I desire to go there … is Palestine,” he concluded.

But Montagu’s relationship with Lloyd George was nowhere near as close as that with Asquith, and his views thus held far less sway where it counted.

Still, in early September, Montagu was allowed to attend the War Cabinet to argue his case. His opposition succeeded in postponing a decision, leading Weizmann to appeal to his supporters in America to persuade president Woodrow Wilson to weigh in with the British government on behalf of their cause. Montagu managed to stall the War Cabinet at a second meeting a month later.

He would not, however, succeed a third time. Indeed, when — with the Americans now giving the nod — the War Cabinet made its historic decision to issue the Balfour Declaration on October 31, Montagu had already departed for India. Possibly to placate their absent colleague, a further caveat – backing the “rights and political status enjoyed by Jews” beyond Palestine – was added.

However misguided, Montagu’s hurt at the Cabinet’s behavior was entirely genuine.

“It seems strange to be a member of a government which goes out of its way, as I think, for no conceivable purpose that I can see, to deal this blow at a colleague that is doing his best to be loyal to them despite his opposition,” he wrote in his diary. “The government has dealt an irreparable blow at Jewish Britons, and they have endeavored to set up a people which does not exist.”

Perhaps, had he remained in office, the perceived imperatives of war and the Cabinet’s apparent belief in the potential global “power and unity of Jewry” in helping it to win it, would have dictated that Asquith drop his opposition to Zionism. Moreover, given Britain’s betrayals under the Mandate, the Balfour Declaration hardly settled the case for a Jewish state in the land of Israel. However, had Montagu and Asquith had their way, the moral obligation Britain entered into in the autumn of 1917 might never have been undertaken.

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