What If There Had Been No Balfour Declaration? Another ‘Cleopatra’s Nose’ Counterfactual

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has no shortage of counterfactuals – mostly “missed opportunities” that imagine ways in which the two nations might have avoided the errors that originally brought them into conflict (and have kept them there ever since). 

Nathan Brun’s short ESSAY in Ha’aretz provides a tantalizing scenario how it might have been – at least temporarily – avoided.

Like Blaise Pascal, who famously claimed that if “the nose of Cleopatra’s had been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed,” Brun argues that if British Prime Minister Henry Herbert Asquith had not fallen hopelessly in love with a young twenty-eight year old British woman, Venetia Stanley, the Balfour Declaration would never have been proclaimed. 

The reason?  When Asquith, then 63 years of age, learned from Stanley that she could no longer continue their extra-marital affair and was going to marry the Jewish government minister Edwin Samuel Montagu, Asquith was “stunned” and decided to resign.  

The consequences were major.  As Brun puts it: “If Henry Herbert Asquith had remained in power, that seminal document of Zionist history would probably not have come into being.”  That he did not, leads Brun to conclude that “a love triangle” was responsible for “chang[ing] the course of Zionism.”

At first glance, claim certainly seems plausible.  It would not be the first time that a woman’s beauty had political consequences.

Consider the origins of the “Cleopatra’s Nose Counterfactual.”  It derives its meaning from the legend that Cleopatra’s beauty led her lover, Roman General Marc Antony, into a doomed military alliance that ensured Augustus Caesar’s rise to power.  At a theoretical level, the counterfactual obtains its rhetorical force from our fascination with the fact that minor causes can have major effects. 

It certainly seems that if Asquith had stayed in power, his indifference to Zionism – not to mention the hostility to Zionism of his cabinet minister, Montagu – might have forestalled the issuing of the Balfour Declaration.  The fact that Asquith’s resignation also contributed to Montagu’s loss of political status, cleared away two potential roadblocks to the Declaration’s later approval. 

That said, it is far from clear from this particular article that Asquith’s decision to resign was solely due to Venetia Stanley’s ending of their romantic affair.  It may have been a contributing -- or “necessary” -- factor, but it hardly seems sufficient.  To be convincing, Brun would have to show that other considerations were not involved in Asquith’s decision. 

What about the possibility that some equivalent of the Declaration might have been proclaimed by a subsequent British government after 1917?  This prospect seems doubtful given the fact that the Declaration was issued in the panicked conditions of World War I (with Britain hoping to get international Jewish aid to bolster its war effort).  With the arrival of peace in 1918, these conditions would have vanished and, with it, any impulse to grant the promise of a Jewish state in Palestine.  Perhaps another window of opportunity would have opened up later on.  But Brun may be on to something in focusing on Asquith’s resignation paving the way for David Lloyd George and the eventual Declaration.

By the way, Brun’s claim is reminiscent of Jack Beatty’s contention in his book, The Lost History of 1914, that Austria-Hungary went to war that same year, in part, because its War Minister, Conrad von Hötzendorff, wanted to impress his mistress, Gina von Reinigenhaus, and imagined that “if he led the army to victory, a bedazzled Gina,…would sue [her husband] for divorce, while a grateful Emperor would persuade the Vatican to let them marry in the church.”

How many misfortunes might have been prevented had various men not conducted extra-marital affairs?  This counterfactual has yet to be systematically explored.

Dissertation topics, anyone?