The Anonymous Figure Behind the Balfour Declaration

While many of those associated with the Balfour Declaration, which was published one hundred years ago, have been given their due recognition, with heaped accolades, one name remains absent from the list. I refer to South African General Jan Smuts, a highly intelligent, articulate and complicated personality as well as a Zionist.

Letter to the New York Times 19 February 1984

The the Editor: In his review of “The High Walls of Jerusalem,” Paul Johnson named all but one of the actors in the drama of the Balfour Declaration. He was Gen. Jan Smuts of South Africa. As the authors Leonard Stein (“The Balfour Declaration”) and Richard P. Stevens (“Weizmann & Smuts: A Study in Zionist South African Cooperation”) point out, General Smuts was an integral, albeit anonymous, figure in the creation of the Balfour Declaration and later diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel by various nations. RABBI JOSHUA DAVID KREINDLER Editor, Journal of the American Institute of the Study of Middle Eastern Civilization

Kew Gardens, N.Y

Early Life

Smuts, one of six children born on a farm in the Cape Colony, started his formal schooling at the age of twelve, matriculating with distinction four years later. By the age of twenty one hr found himself at Christ’s College, Cambridge, on a scholarship to study law following a highly successful four year study period at Stellenbosch University in Cape Colony. His studies in Stellenbosch ended in 1891 when he earned double first class honours in the diverse subjects of Literature and science.
Smuts graduated with a double First from Christ’s College in 1893 after receiving numerous academic prizes and accolades which included the prestigious George Long Prize for Roman Law and Jurisprudence. Professor Maitland, a tutor at Christ’s College, described Smuts as the most brilliant student he had ever met. Lord Alexander Todd, 1957 Nobel Chemistry Prize winner and Master of Christ’s College from 1963 to 1978 said that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present,three had been truly outstanding, John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts”. Illustrious company indeed! During 1894 Smuts wrote the Honours Examination of the Inns of Court, in Smuts’ own words “perhaps the hardest Law examination in the world. Of the 20 or 30 candidates who appeared I alone obtained the Honours Certificate.” He relates that he was awarded a prize of 50 Guineas for distinction in Constitutional Law and History and Legal History.

The Anglo Boer War

After his admission to the London Bar, Smuts returned to the Cape Colony where he entered legal practice, while politically he became a supporter of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. The Jameson Raid, led by Rhodes’ protégé, Leander Starr Jameson, infuriated and alienated Smuts, who saw the incursion into the Transvaal as an act of betrayal by Rhodes. The result was that Smuts left the Cape and went to the Transvaal, where he served as State Secretary under Paul Kruger, President of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (South African Republic). He became an implacable enemy of the British, eventually rising to the rank of General, commanding a military force that made incursions into the Cape Colony. Here he tweaked the British nose by taking control of a 300 mile swathe of British territory after Lord Roberts had occupied the Z.A.R. capital of Pretoria. He later attended the Peace Conferencepin Vereeniging that resulted in the peace treaty signed on 31 May 1902, establishing British control over the whole of South Africa.

Having made his peace with Britain, Smuts now dedicated himself to establishing a Union, under British Rule, between the four territories which made up South Africa – The Cape, Natal, The Orange Free State and the Transvaal. His creation, the Union of South Africa, under the aegis of the British Empire, came into being on 31 May 1910. Having embraced Britain as the rulers of South Africa, Smuts offered his loyalty to the British Empire and supported a Declaration of War against Germany in support of Great Britain by the Union of South Africa in 1914. Smuts commanded the South African forces that defeated the German army in South West Africa and then took command of the battle against the German forces in East Africa. Following his military successes, he was offered the command of all Allied forces in Palestine, an offer he refused, after which he was appointed as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet under Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

International Statesman

Although an excellent military tactician and astute politician, Smuts was also a scientist and botanist who had identified many new species of flora in South Africa. He shared the belief of many early Afrikaaners who viewed themselves as modern Israelites under a British yoke, making him an ardent Christian Zionist. This, combined with his scientific background, made him an ideal friend and confidante of Zionist leader, Dr Chaim Weizmann. After Smuts and Weizmann had met in London during the First World War, the two began a close friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives and greatly influenced events in Palestine. As Richard P. Stevens says in his essay on Smuts and Weizmann “perhaps few personal friendships have so influenced the course of political events during the twentieth century as the relationship between General Jan Christiaan Smuts, South Africa’s celebrated prime minister, and Chaim Weizmann, Zionist leader and Israel’s first president.”

British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, had a great admiration for Smuts and valued his opinion on matters pertaining to the British conduct of the war, as well as international politics. Smuts played a great backroom role in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration, providing Weizmann with a direct conduit to the War Cabinet. In common with Smuts, Lloyd George and Balfour who had both had a Christian Evangelical background as children, were ardent Christian Zionists, the spiritual aspect of Zionism holding great appeal for both politicians. The precise role played by Smuts has not come to the fore, but in almost every history of that momentous period, the name Smuts flits in and out, almost like that of an eminence grise exercising an influence that has never been fully defined.

That this was the way in which Smuts operated is borne out by the introductory lines to the chapter on Smuts in the book The Boer War Generals by Peter Trew. The opening line of the chapter reads:

Smuts’ contribution ran like a thread through the Boer War – he played a significant part in the events leading up to it, in its conduct and in the final peace negotiations”. A similar description could be given to the part played by Smuts in the Balfour Declaration. Here too he played a significant part in the events leading up to it, through his close association with Weizmann and the Zionist group on the one hand, and as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet on the other hand, he was party to its final wording and approval. He was present at the Versailles Peace Conference as well as the later San Remo Conference, where he was responsible for the Smuts Resolution regarding the establishment of the various Mandates and one of the authors of the San Remo Declaration. He could in many ways be said to have had a dual loyalty, to Weizmann and the Zionist cause, while at the same to Great Britain and British interests, with these loyalties coinciding in the Balfour Declaration.

Smuts and Zionism

Ashley Perry, editor of the Middle East Information project writes in an essay that General Smuts, a member of the Imperial War Cabinet when the Declaration was published, stated in 1919 that “he could see in generations to come, a great Jewish state rising there once more.” Prophetic words indeed.

Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan which was founded in 1932 was named in honour of Jan Smuts, Yohanan being the Hebrew translation for the Afrikaans Jan or English John, in recognition of his unstinting efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. I believe that the naming of Ramat Yohanan was at Weizmann’s prompting in recognition of the Smuts contribution to the Balfour Declaration. Smuts Boulevard in Tel Aviv was also named in honour of this remarkable individual, in this case in gratitude for his early recognition of the State of Israel as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa

Smuts and the South African Zionist Federation

Below is an excerpt from a book by Marcia Gitlin (1950), The Vision Amazing, the Story of South African Zionism:- In January 1917 it (The South African Zionist Federation) had requested Nathan Levi, a Zionist who was known to be a friend of Smuts, to “use any personal influence and any opportunities” to obtain Smuts’ support for a SAZF resolution. The resolution dealt with ensuring that the Peace Conference after the end of the Great War would ensure the establishment of a Homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. (My synopsis of a lengthy resolution).
Gitlin further quotes from a speech delivered by Smuts at a banquet honouring him two years after the publication of the Balfour Declaration when he said “I was ill in my house, and the resolutions passed by the Zionist Federation were brought to me there. I gave my assurance that whenever I would have the chance, I would help Zionism”. Later in the speech he related how he had been offered command of the military forces in Palestine by Lloyd George, an offer he refused, after which he became a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. He continued “I was really at the centre of things. And then began the movement in favour of a Declaration on behalf of Palestine as the future home of the Jewish race ……..Dr. Weizmann, who was a friend of mine, approached me and pressed me very strongly, and I told him of the promise I had made on my sick bed in Irene (his home village), and that I had to carry out my promise – and I did my best to carry it out……”

Recognition with Regard to the Balfour Declaration

There can be no doubt that General Jan Smuts, a South African born farmer’s son who rose to bestride the world stage like a colossus in the first half of the twentieth century, played an active and important role in the events leading up to the publication of the Balfour Declaration. Due recognition should be given to this truly amazing international statesman and friend of the Jewish people.

Peter Bailey