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Balfour Declaration

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Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration was a letter from Lord Arthur James Balfour, British Foreign Secretary to Lord Rothschild, head of the British Zionist movement, sent November 2, 1917. The text: 

The Balfour Declaration

Foreign Office

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"His Majesty's Government view 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, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

Some of the background of this document is given in The Balfour Declaration.

The Balfour Declaration was given at the request of Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist chemist who had emigrated to England. Weizmann had contributed to the British war effort by providing a practical method for producing acetone cheaply and in large quantities. Weizmann had met Arthur Balfour and impressed him with the idea of a Jewish national home. Weizmann's ideas were also brought to the attention of Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel by C.P. Scott, the influential liberal and pro-Zionist editor of the Manchester Guardian. Lloyd George had become Prime Minister and Arthur James Balfour had become Foreign Secretary of Great Britain.

It is not possible to objectively single out "a reason" for the granting of the Balfour Declaration, and it may have been the result of the confluence of several causes, while other "reasons" are certainly spurious. Some of the reasons advanced for the granting of the Balfour declaration:

As a reward for Weizmann's war work - This is hardly a justifiable or credible  motivation in itself, but it did give Chaim Weizmann a modicum of respect and standing with British officials.

Because of British Zionism - British sympathy for restoration of the Jewish people was rooted deeply in the Puritan tradition and found numerous adherents in Great Britain (see British Support for Jewish Restoration). During the 19th century, when it became apparent that the Ottoman Empire was becoming unviable, it was often assumed, both in Great Britain and the United States, that "Palestine" would be become the site of a restored Jewish "commonwealth." General Kitchener had even speculated, in the 1880s, on the awkwardness that might be entailed by having to rebuild the Jewish temple and institute animal sacrifice. Certainly Lord Balfour was an ardent Zionist by 1919, but it is not known whether this reflected religious convictions, the influence of Chaim Weizmann  or his own involvement in the Balfour declaration (See  Introduction to Zionism)

To guard the Suez Canal - The British saw the Suez Canal as a vital strategic asset. During the first world war, it was the artery for transporting troops and strategic raw materials from India and it was an essential highway for maintaining the British empire in the east.

To pre-empt the Germans - The Germans had been contemplating issuing a declaration in favor of a Jewish state as early as 1915. Anti-Semitic fears of the influence and power of "international Jewry" prompted some to support the British declaration in order to pre-empt the Germans.

To block the French - The French had their own plans for the territories released from Ottoman rule. In particular, they claimed all of "Syria" - an ill-defined area at the time, which included modern Lebanon and most of what later became Palestine. The declaration that Palestine would be a Jewish national home to be administered by the British gave them a potent argument for detaching this area from French rule, especially as the United States was believed to support the Jewish national home as well.

A capitalist "Jewish Conspiracy" - Anti-Semites have claimed that "Jewish financiers" caused the United States to enter World War I in return for the Balfour declaration. However, many of the same people claim that the financiers caused US entry in order to recoup their loans. The theory also ignores the fact, often cited by anti-Zionists as well, that most Jews, in particular rich American Jews, were indifferent or hostile to Zionism

From the start of the war in 1914, United States sympathy for the allied cause was hardly a secret. U.S. neutrality was maintained, but it was not very "pure." The Balfour declaration was issued in November 1917.  The United States had already entered the war on April 6, 1917. U.S. entry into the war was due to renewal of submarine warfare. After the sinking of the Lusitania and the Sussex, the US had warned the Germans that continued submarine warfare would cause a break in diplomatic relations. The Germans desisted. In 1917, the Germans announced a renewal of submarine warfare. An intercepted telegram from Ambassador Alfred Zimmerman showed that the Germans were trying to get Japan and Mexico to attack the United States. (See US Enters WW I). The Balfour declaration was not proposed until the summer of 1917, well after the US had entered the war. If Britain had indeed promised a Jewish national home as part of a plot engineered by mythical "Elders of Zion," the Balfour declaration would not have had to go through a tortuous process of revision. In any case, by November of 1917 the United States was certainly committed to the war, and the non-issuance of a supposedly promised declaration would not have made any difference. 

A Communist Jewish Conspiracy - As opposed to the capitalist Jewish conspiracy theory, the communist theory posits that all or most Jews were communists and supported Zionism as well. According to this theory, the Zionists promised the support of Jewish communists to keep Russia in the war if the British would give Palestine to the Jews. This theory ignores the fact that the social-democratic Kerensky government  was already committed to keeping Russia in the war. The Bolsheviks, who took power in November 1917, could not have been a factor influencing the Balfour Declaration. Britain had not foreseen a Bolshevik takeover. Jewish communists were egregiously anti-Zionist and nobody who had any acquaintance with communist ideology could imagine that the majority of  Jewish Communists would favor a Jewish state, since their object was to make all national distinctions disappear, and they were anxious not to call attention to their own nationality.

Different persons in the British government probably supported the Balfour Declaration for different reasons. The most potent among them seem to have been guarding the Suez Canal, blocking French ambitions and personal commitment to restoration of Jews both as a religiously motivated policy and because the cause was thought to be popular in Britain. It is therefore fair to say that in part, the Balfour Declaration was an instrument of British imperialist policy. However the Zionists, while they sold the declaration to the British in that way, and used the word "colonial" in their institutions, especially prior to World War II, certainly did not see themselves as "colonialists" in the ordinary European sense of foreign "white persons" seeking to exploit a native population, or as instruments of British colonialism.

The Balfour Declaration  was not a formal and binding commitment in any sense. It did not even promise that there would be a Jewish national home. It only stated that the British government "view with favor" such a home and would use their "best endeavours to facilitate it."

Palestine did not exist as a political entity at that time. It was not an administrative division of the Ottoman empire. The area that later became "Palestine" was divided into several Ottoman districts which ran into what are now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, and Jerusalem had its own special status. The Ottoman center of administration was in Damascus. The British government was giving away an undefined area of land that did not belong to it, ruled by the Ottoman Empire, to a people who were a minority in that land, without consulting the wishes of the inhabitants. This consideration might or might not be balanced by the recognized historic claims of the Jewish people to the land. It might also be balanced by the fact that the Arab majority was in part a reflection of active opposition by Arabs to Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine, and an active policy of the Ottoman Empire which had transferred Muslims from other parts of the empire to Palestine in the 19th century. The Zionists also promised to develop the land and to improve the lot of the Arab inhabitants.

Several changes in wording from the original proposed text of the declaration were incorporated in the final version. These changes were not due primarily to British strategic thinking or to appease the Arabs, but rather to agitation of anti-Zionist British Jews,  and in particular Sir Edwin Montagu (see: Edwin Montagu: Opposition to the Balfour declaration). The most important of these changes were:

1) Instead of granting Palestine as a national home for the Jews, the Balfour Declaration in its final form granted a national home in Palestine. This was later used as a rationale for removing Transjordan, 78% of the League Mandate, from the mandate territory, and establishing a separate Arab state.

2) These phrases were added:

...nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

The wording about rights and political status of Jews was most obviously intended to assuage the complaint of Edwin Montagu, who asserted that the Jewish national home would be the basis for accusations of double loyalty against Jews, and would inspire legislation to force Jewish emigration to Palestine. The phrase about civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities was likewise directed at anti-Zionist insistence that the Arabs of Palestine would be persecuted by the Jews. It has been deliberately misinterpreted by some in two ways:

1) to claim that the declaration guaranteed national rights (as opposed to civil and religious rights) for the Arabs of Palestine, and that therefore they should have gotten majority representation in Palestine based on their numbers.

2) to claim that the Balfour Declaration by its original intent was equally meant to support both a Jewish national home and an Arab Palestinian state.

There is no basis for these claims in the wording or in the historical record. Churchill considered that the national rights of the Arabs were satisfied by the creation of Transjordan.

The Balfour Declaration was not a statute of international law. When however, the declaration was incorporated in the League of Nations British Mandate for Palestine it seemed as though the Zionist Movement had achieved what it had set out to accomplish in 1897: to attain for the Jews a national home in Palestine, secured in public law, because League of Nations resolutions and mandates were articles of international law. (see also British Mandate for Palestine

The initial Arab reaction to the Balfour declaration was largely favorable or restrained, to the extent that Arabs supported British war aims. The Arabs of Palestine were primarily sympathetic to the Ottoman cause, and while the peninsular Arabs had allied themselves with the British, large numbers of Arabs had served willingly in the Turkish army as loyal subjects of the empire. About half the troops in Gallipoli were Arabs.

The Zionist organization was itself divided divided. The German Zionists supported

King Feisal of Saudi Arabia, promised an Arab state by the British, met with Zionist leaders  and recorded his agreement to a Jewish national home on more than one occasion (see Feisal-Weizmann Agreement and Feisal - Frankfurter Correspondence. However, when the British reneged on their promises to Feisal and gave Syria to the French, Arab opposition to the Balfour declaration and the Jewish National Home policy crystallized. The Arabs of Palestine were organized and objected most strenuously to the declaration beginning in 1920. They first tried to merge with the promised Syrian state, but when it became clear that that would be a French controlled territory they demanded their own state in Palestine. 

Ami Isseroff

August, 2008


Synonyms and alternate spellings: 

Further Information: See The Balfour Declaration


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