Balfour Declaration

views updated Jun 08 2018


BALFOUR DECLARATION , official statement which Arthur James *Balfour, the British foreign secretary, addressed to Lionel Walter Rothschild (2nd Baron Rothschild) on November, 2, 1917. It conveyed a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations. The British government viewed with "favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

The Declaration was a deliberate act of the British cabinet and part of its general foreign policy. It was a national policy in the sense that it represented the views of the three British political parties. It had acquired international status since the principal Allies – Russia, France, Italy, and the United States – had given it their prior approval. It was subsequently endorsed by the League of Nations and incorporated into the *Mandate.

The Balfour Declaration recognized the collective right of world Jewry to Palestine and the "Jewish People" became an entity in the context of international law. Recognition of Zionism was in line with the principle of self-determination and with the struggle of small nationalities for freedom and independence.

There were many hands, both Jewish and non-Jewish, which shaped the policy which led to the Declaration, but it was Chaim *Weizmann who emerged as the central figure in the struggle. His scientific achievements early in the war enabled him to render important services to the British government which brought him to the notice of David *Lloyd George, minister of munitions. The latter's personal admiration for Weizmann proved invaluable to the cause of Zionism when Lloyd George was serving as prime minister. Weizmann had met Arthur James Balfour for the first time in Manchester, in 1905. British statesmen, public men, and officials listened readily to Weizmann because he was able to show that he could influence Jewish opinion and that Zionism was advantageous to Britain.

C.P. Scott, the celebrated editor of the Manchester Guardian, was one of the leading public men whom Weizmann converted to Zionism. It was Scott who cemented Weizmann's relationship with Lloyd George and introduced him to Herbert *Samuel, then president of the Local Government Board, at that time the only Jewish member of the cabinet. Like Weizmann, Samuel realized that Turkey's entry into the war on November 5, 1914, opened up great possibilities. He went further than Weizmann and envisaged that, with the probable disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the foundation of a Jewish state in Palestine could be laid. He confided his views first to Sir Edward Grey, the foreign minister, and found him favorably disposed towards the idea. Lloyd George was also keen to see the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine; his interest predated Grey's.

However, several weeks later, Samuel concluded that, since the number of Jews in Palestine did not exceed one-sixth of the total population, the time was not ripe for the establishment of an independent and autonomous Jewish state. In a memorandum circulated in January 1915 (and in a revised version in March 1915), he advocated the annexation of Palestine to the British Empire, as only under British rule would Jewish colonization prosper and immigration be encouraged, so that in course of time when the Jews would become a majority they would be conceded "such a degree of self-government as the conditions of that day may justify."

On February 5, 1915, when Samuel met Grey again, he found him still anxious to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine but very doubtful of the possibility or desirability of the establishment of a British Protectorate. Neither Samuel nor Weizmann gave sufficient weight to the fact that Britain was disinclined to undertake new imperial responsibilities and that the wishes of the French in that region were to be respected. The inter-departmental committee, better known as the De Bunsen Committee, appointed in April 1915, recommended that maintenance of an independent Ottoman Empire, but with a decentralized system of administration, would serve British interests best. With regard to Palestine the committee suggested that it should be neutralized and placed under an international regime. This concept ran counter to Samuel's and Weizmann's wishes. It was not until early in 1917 that their doctrine began to appear relevant to British strategic interests. But during 1915–16 it was still condemned to the sidelines. Weizmann and Nahum *Sokolow, a member of the World Zionist Executive who arrived in England in December 1914, pursued their activity in a low key, and it was only in 1916 that a collection of essays, edited by Harry *Sacher, entitled Zionism and the Jewish Future, was published with the intention of enlightening public opinion on the essence of Zionism.

If the British government's interest in Zionism persisted, it was not in order to establish a claim to Palestine, as was manifested a year later, but in order to win over American Jewry, whose influence was thought to be considerable in the press, in finance, and in politics. Wooed by both belligerent camps, the attitude of the Jews in the United States was governed by the czarist government's hostile treatment of their kin in Russia. The British government regretted Russia's conduct but felt powerless to influence her. It was Horace *Kallen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and an ardent Zionist, who first put to the Foreign Office (November 1915) an alternative method of winning over the American Jews to the Entente: should the Allies issue a statement similar to German promises in favor of Jewish national rights in Palestine, it would, he was convinced, counter German moves and elicit pro-British and pro-French sympathies among the Jewish masses.

Independently, a month later, Lucien *Wolf, a journalist and a historian, then secretary of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, made a similar proposal. Wolf was not a Zionist and deplored the Jewish national movement. But he was too much of a realist to ignore the shift in the balance of power which had taken place since the outbreak of the war. In America, he conceded, Zionism had captured Jewish opinion, and in view of the forthcoming American Jewish Congress he thought it important that "in any bid for Jewish sympathies … very serious account must be taken of the Zionist movement … This is the moment for the Allies to declare their policy in regard to Palestine." On March 3, 1916, he suggested a formula as a basis for a public pronouncement.

The Foreign Office was favorably disposed to the idea but had reservations about Wolf 's eligibility to be the recipient of such a proclamation. Moreover, doubts later developed as to whether his suggested formula would make a strong enough appeal to Jewish communities all over the world.

While the matter was being considered, a rival proposition came from an unexpected quarter. Its author was Edgar Suarès, a prominent businessman and head of the Jewish community in Alexandria. Should the British government give concrete assurances on the Palestine question, he told Sir Henry McMahon, the High Commissioner in Egypt, it would "convert the indifference, if not hostility of American and other Jews into enthusiastic support." Suarès' scheme followed the familiar Zionist pattern but what made an impact on the Foreign Office, and particularly on Grey, was the allusion to the prospect of a German protectorate in Palestine.

On March 11, 1916, Lord Crewe, who was deputizing for Grey, drafted a cable to the British ambassadors in Paris and Petrograd asking them to sound out the French and the Russian governments about making a joint declaration with regard to Palestine which would satisfy Jewish aspirations. He quoted Wolf 's formula but suggested instead a scheme which he thought would be far more attractive to the majority of Jews. It consisted of creating conditions which would enable Jewish settlers in Palestine to grow strong enough to cope with the Arab population and lay the foundation for Jewish self-government. Neither McMahon nor Grey, nor any other member of the Foreign Office, saw any inconsistency between this scheme and the British promise made to Sharif Hussein of Mecca at that time to recognize Arab independence. It was understood that, like Lebanon, Palestine was excluded from the deal.

Against all expectations, Sazonow, the Russian foreign minister, approved of Grey's aide-mémoire but Briand, the French premier and foreign minister, gave it its coup de grâce. The British gave the French arguments little credence but did not want to irritate their ally at a time when mutual trust was of supreme importance. The idea of a joint declaration was shelved but the need for it did not decrease, especially since German propaganda in the United States was gaining the upper hand. The situation was all the more critical since growing estrangement from England stood in a direct ratio to her increasing financial dependence on the United States. At this juncture, Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, the British ambassador to Washington, remarked: "The Zionist movement is growing in importance and we can well sympathize with it. Perhaps here would be a basis of common action."

With Lloyd George's accession to the premiership in December 1916, British policy in the Middle East altered radically. One of his primary objectives was the acquisition of Palestine. He had advocated its annexation since the outbreak of the war, and to him British and Jewish Palestine were almost synonymous. He had a long-standing interest in Zionism and Samuel's memorandum made a strong appeal to him. It also fitted in well with his strategic and political concepts. He had had no hand in making the *Sykes-Picot Agreement, which he regarded as an inconvenient legacy. The longer the war lasted, the stronger became his determination that Palestine, if recaptured, must be "one and indivisible."

However, the broader aim of Lloyd George's policy was to forestall the possibility of Turco-German predominance in Palestine. Herein lay the raison dêtre of the alliance with British Zionism. It provided a way to outmaneuver the French without breaking faith, and a useful card at the future peace conference to play against any German move to rally the German-oriented and Turcophile Jews to buttress her claim.

Late in 1916 the British began to suspect that Germany was bent on an aggressive course in the East. Events lent support to this suspicion. The resounding defeat of Serbia by the German army and Bulgaria's adherence to the Central Powers virtually opened the road from Hamburg to Baghdad. A German foothold on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal would have placed British imperial communications in grave jeopardy. In these circumstances destruction of the Ottoman Empire became an unavoidable necessity. It was also essential that Palestine come under sole British control. Samuel's thesis, expounded in his memoranda of January and March 1915, was now fully vindicated.

However, British strategic requirements clashed with the principle of non-annexation enunciated by President *Wilson and upheld by the Provisional Government in Russia. It constituted the most serious threat to British war aims. Henceforth, one of the greatest dilemmas of British diplomacy was how to achieve its desiderata without giving offense to its allies. This could be done only by marriage with the principle of self-determination. It was here that the importance of Zionism, as far as Palestine was concerned, came in. It provided a cloak under which Britain could appear free from any annexationist taint. The anti-Turkish crusade was essentially negative in nature, and as such could hardly commend itself to American and Russian opinion; but, when clothed in the ideological garb of struggle for the liberation of small nationalities, it acquired a different aspect.

The first step, which was to lead to a compact with Zionism, was taken by Sir Mark *Sykes, a leading expert on the East and a signatory to the Agreement with his French opposite number, François-Georges Picot. His conversion to Zionism was of particular importance. In January 1917 Lloyd George promoted him to the key position of assistant secretary to the war cabinet and delegated authority in Middle Eastern affairs to him. With his status enhanced he was in a position to play a major role in shaping British policy in that part of the world. His crucial meeting with the Zionist leaders, which included Rabbi Moses *Gaster, Lord Rothschild, Herbert Samuel, Harry Sacher, as well as Sokolow and Weizmann, took place on February 7, 1917. He heard from them what he had expected. The common denominator in the spectrum of their views was the desire for a British protectorate of Palestine. This played directly into his hands. He remained silent about the agreement reached with Picot and Sazonow in Petrograd in March 1916, but pointed to possible difficulties from France. He thought it would be useful if the Zionists appointed a representative to discuss the matter with them. The representative chosen to put the Zionist point of view to Picot, then in London, and subsequently to the Quai d'Orsay, was Sokolow. In the meantime, quite independently, the French government had changed its policy drastically and, when Sokolow arrived in Paris, he was told that France took a sympathetic interest in Jewish national aspirations, which, however, could be sanctioned only if France had a rightful share in the administration of Palestine. Nonetheless, Sykes considered it a step in the right direction. Thereafter, Sykes paved the way for Sokolow's visit to the Vatican. On May 1, he was received by Cardinal Gasparri, the papal secretary of state, who reassured him that the Zionists need fear no opposition from the Church. "On the contrary, you may count on our sympathy." Pope Benedict xv expressed himself in even warmer terms. "The return of the Jews to Palestine is a miraculous event. It is providential; God has willed it … I believe that we shall be good neighbors."

Sokolow's success did not go unnoticed by the Italian government and on May 8, Di Martino, the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, handed Sokolow an official declaration of sympathy with Zionist aspirations. Nor did the French government remain a passive onlooker. On June 4 Jules Cambom, the secretary-general of the French Foreign Ministry, gave Sokolow a letter which for the Zionists constituted a political victory of the highest order. The Italian and French declarations enabled the British to follow suit. Had the French government objected, as it did in 1916, there would have been no Balfour Declaration.

Another factor that told strongly in the Zionists' favor was the situation in Russia. Since April there were growing indications that Russia was drifting out of the war. Particularly disturbing was the demand by the Council of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies for the early conclusion of peace. Russia's collapse or the conclusion of peace would have transformed the whole strategic situation and the moral effect would have been devastating. Propaganda therefore was badly needed but the British were handicapped in getting their message through. Anglophobia was deep-seated under the czarist regime. Nor did the March Revolution improve the situation. The Russians had an ingrained dislike of outside interference and Lloyd George's message to Prince Lvov enjoining the Russian people to strengthen their resolve in preventing the war failed to achieve the desired effect. This helps explain why the Zionists were personae gratae at the Foreign Office. In return for meeting their wishes, they could produce in Russia and elsewhere an army of voluntary propagandists, all the more effective since they had the obvious advantage of being citizens of their respective countries. Russian Jews disliked the war. It was not of their choosing and they had nothing to gain from its continuation. Both for political and economic reasons they were inclined more towards Germany than to England, but recognition of their rights in Palestine might make all the difference. Not only would it immunize them against German-inspired pacifist propaganda but their influence in the press and public life could be brought to bear. The military campaign in Palestine would be presented as an act of liberation and Britain's presence there linked to the principle of self-determination. Moreover, having a close interest in the success of Allied arms, they would be all the more eager to support the moderate element in the Provisional Government against the extremists and, considering the precarious balance of power within the coalition, this was not without significance.

After the March Revolution the position of Russian Jews, 5,000,000 strong, was transformed. The abolition of civic disabilities released tremendous sources of vitality which became manifest in all fields of cultural and political activity. Although they comprised only four percent of the total population, their influence far exceeded their numerical strength.

The most influential party in post-revolutionary Russia was the Zionist party. Its rise was spectacular. The number of enrolled members, which before the war amounted to 25,000, rose steeply in the spring of 1917 to 140,000. By the beginning of 1918 there were 1,200 registered local Zionist societies all over the country with 300,000 active members. The elections to an All-Jewish Congress held in Southern Russia showed that the Zionist movement enjoyed overwhelming support within the Russian Jewish community. These figures say nothing of those outside the movement, who by tradition and sentiment were attached to Palestine. British Military Intelligence estimated that "the great mass of the 6,000,000 Jews in Russia have been more or less in sympathy with the Zionist cause." Jehiel *Tschlenow was not exaggerating when, in his inaugural address to the Zionist Conference in Petrograd on June 6, 1917, he stated that Zionism had become a mass movement and as such, in a free country, was a formidable political factor.

In the United States, too, the Zionist movement had made much headway. Louis D. *Brandeis' leadership transformed it from a parochial organization into a significant force in Jewish communal life. One of its greatest assets was Woodrow Wilson, the president of the United States, who had come to believe that the Zionist program would help solve the Jewish question and had promised to lend his support to implement it.

In April 1917, when Balfour visited the United States, he thought it important to meet Brandeis, Palestinian policy being one of the subjects on which Balfour intended to explore American feeling. The broader aim of Balfour's mission was to prepare the ground for full Anglo-American co-operation and stimulate goodwill. He was fully aware that Brandeis' position in the President's Council might well facilitate friendship between the two countries. His meetings with Brandeis, both private and official (May 1), were rewarding. He gave Brandeis firm assurances of support for the Zionist cause but thought that the moment was not ripe to make a public pronouncement as Brandeis wished him to do.

International complexities apart, there was another difficulty that hindered Balfour from issuing an official statement. Aware of the strong opposition to Zionism among influential Jews, he was wary of antagonizing them. It was not before the controversy was resolved in the Zionists' favor at a meeting of the Board of Deputies on June 17 and the dissolution of the Conjoint Foreign Committee that the British government could move freely on the road to a public declaration.

The episode became a cause célèbre in Anglo-Jewish history. It resulted from mutual misunderstanding. The assimilationists feared that the recognition of Jews as a separate nationality would cause their alienation in the lands of their domicile and would play into the hands of antisemites. It was based on an erroneous assumption and was caused by misreading the term "nationality," mistaking conformity for civic loyalty.

On the other hand, the Zionists were guilty of indiscretions which tended to magnify their opponents' suspicions. Sensible enough to restrict the application of the concept of Jewish nationality to Palestine, they blundered in not making those most concerned aware of their thinking. A timely gesture might well have averted the crisis. With their diplomatic status in the spring of 1917 elevated, they chose to go it alone in their dealings with the British government. But since the agreement between the Conjoint Committee and the Foreign Office was still in force, such tactics could not lead them far. It is indeed doubtful whether the British government would have ventured to issue a declaration of sympathy with Zionism before consulting all sections of the Anglo-Jewish community.

By June it became clear that a public statement by the British government could no longer be delayed. For some time the German press, ranging from the Conservative Reichsbote to the Liberal Frankfurter Zeitung, had been urging the Reich government to show a more accommodating attitude to the Zionist movement. On June 12 Weizmann called on Sir Ronald Graham, the under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, and told him that he had received some disquieting information. For Zionism to fall under German influence would have been a serious blow to his efforts to anchor the movement firmly to Britain, particularly at a time when it was emerging as a leading force in the Jewish world. He insisted that it was essential for the British government to counter German moves and give public expression of its sympathy and support.

On June 19, Balfour invited Lord Rothschild and Weizmann to submit a draft proposal for a declaration of support. However, a month elapsed before they were able to forward a text to Balfour. Members of the Political Committee were remarkably modest in their claims. They refrained from using the words "Jewish state," on which some radical members like Harry Sacher insisted, and hit upon the more moderate "Jewish National Home." It originated in the Heimstaette of the Basle Program to which in November 1916 Sokolow prefixed the word "national." It was this word that infuriated leading British Jews so much. A term "home" or even "state" would have been less objectionable since such an entity would in no way have interfered with the loyalty of Jews outside Palestine.

After the dissolution of the Conjoint Foreign Committee, the attack was led by Edwin Montagu, a leading Jewish anti-Zionist who was secretary of state for India. The Zionist draft proposal filled him with horror. His memorandum, "The Antisemitism of the Present Government (August 23, 1917)," was the first in his campaign to suppress the proposed declaration. None of his memoranda convinced the cabinet. Ronald MacNeill, MP, subsequently under-secretary of state for foreign affairs, dismissed his views as unrepresentative and erroneous. However, in order to still his opposition and speed up the publication of the declaration, Leopold Amery (a member of the war cabinet secretariat) inserted (on October 3, 1917) two provisos. The first was to safeguard the rights of the native Moslem and Christian communities and protect them against possible dispossession; the word "in" (the national home was to be established "in Palestine") was the operative word intended to insure against the imposition of Jewish domination on other inhabitants of Palestine. The purpose of the second proviso was to dispel the misconception that Jews qua Jews, irrespective of their convictions and place of domicile, "belonged to Palestine" and owed allegiance to the National Home. The provisos, however, as Amery recorded, "gave away nothing that was not self-evident," and were not meant to impair the substance of the proposed declaration.

Brandeis was instrumental in convincing President Wilson to approve the proposed draft, whereas Sir Mark Sykes demolished Lord Curzon's contention that Zionism was "a dream incapable of realization." He pointed to the success of the Zionist colonization and felt certain that, given the proper conditions, the population in Palestine could be doubled within seven years without dispossessing anyone.

Sykes drew his information from Aaron *Aaronsohn, who, on October 1, had arrived in London. Both the War Office and the Foreign Office had a high opinion of his contribution to Military Intelligence and his presence weighed heavily in the Zionists' favor. Sykes did not flatter him unduly when acknowledging his share in Allenby's victory.

By October the news that the German government had begun to consider Zionism seriously instilled a sense of urgency in the Foreign Office and the cabinet. The British press was also clamoring for action. With the anti-Zionists' arguments defeated, Balfour was able, on October 31, to wind up the debate in the war cabinet, which had lasted for two months. None of the members present (Montagu was away in India) contested his motives for publishing the declaration in favor of the establishment of the Jewish National Home in Palestine. Nor did anyone disagree with his interpretation of its meaning. On November 2, 1917 a letter signed by Balfour was sent to Lord Rothschild but was made public only on November 9 so that it could be first published in the Jewish Chronicle.

The Balfour Declaration

"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."

The enthusiastic response to the Balfour Declaration among Jewish communities all over the world, especially in Russia, made the Foreign Office staff regret that the document had not been published earlier. Sir Ronald Graham, who throughout the latter part of 1917, had pressed unremittingly for an early statement, minuted: "It is a misfortune that our declaration was so long delayed." Belated as it was, London was still to reap some notable advantages from it. Zionism helped to legitimize Britain's position in Palestine, which otherwise would have been based solely on military conquest. Britain acquired a friendly base in Palestine and massive popularity among Jews everywhere.


The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, vol. 8, Series A (1977); Ch. Weizmann, Trial and Error (1977); L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration (1961); M. Vereté, "The Balfour Declaration and Its Makers," in: Middle Eastern Studies (Jan. 1970); I. Friedman, The Question of Palestine, 1914–1918. British-Jewish-Arab Relations (1973, 19922).

[Isaiah Friedman (2nd ed.)]

Balfour Declaration (1917)

views updated May 23 2018


A British declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Few documents had such far-reaching consequences in the modern history of Middle East as did the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917. It was drafted by Zionist leaders, revised and approved by the British war cabinet, and forwarded by Lord Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a Zionist philanthropist and one of its drafters. It consisted of a single sixty-seven-word paragraph:

"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 understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." (Hurewitz, 1979)

This was one of a number of contradictory promises Britain made during World War I. Needing Arab support against the Ottoman Empire, Britain promised in the HusaynMcMahon Correspondence (19151916) to support the establishment of an independent Arab nation, which Arabs understood to include Palestine (which Britain later denied); and needing French and Russian support, it promised in the SykesPicot Agreement (1916) to rule the region, including Palestine, with its allies. The cabinet issued the declaration for a number of reasons, both immediate and long term. It hoped to enlist American and Russian Jews help to bring America into the World War I and to keep Russia from abandoning it. In addition, the cabinet sought to preempt a similar German pro-Zionist declaration and needed Jewish money for Britain's own war effort.

The climate of opinion in England favored Zionist goals for Palestine. Fundamentalist Christians, some of whom were antisemites, considered it their duty to assist Jews to go to Palestine so that biblical prophesy could be fulfilled. Liberals such as Balfour and Prime Minister David Lloyd George believed that the West had committed a historical injustice against the Jewish people, one that must be atoned for. To this intellectual climate can be added the sociopolitical factor: Jewish contributions to British society were disproportionate to their numbers and were recognized and admired. Sir Herbert Louis Samuel, who later became the first high commissioner of Palestine, was a philosopher and a statesman who served in several cabinets; and Chaim Weizmann was a chemistry professor who assisted the British munitions industry. Both were persuasive advocates of a Jewish state. By 1917, the war cabinet accepted the view that postwar strategic advantages could be derived from a Jewish state or commonwealth allied to Great Britain.

The phraseology of the declaration was carefully chosen; even its ambiguity was deliberate. The phrase "national home" was new, with no precedence in international law; it was used in the declaration to pacify anti-Zionist Jews, who feared that creation of a state would jeopardize the rights of Jews in the diaspora. In private, however, British officials were clear about the objective. Lord Balfour and David Lloyd George explained to Weizmann in 1921 "that by Declaration they always meant an eventual Jewish State" (Ingrams, 1973).

Little thought was given to the indigenous Palestinian population, in large part because Europeans considered them inferior. The declaration referred to these Palestinians, who in 1917 constituted 90 percent of the population, as the "non-Jewish communities in Palestine," a phrase that conceals the identity of the majority. Yet the declaration contained a promise to guarantee the civil and religious rights of the "non-Jews," a promise that the British attempted to enforce even at the expense of Jewish religious rights. At the Wailing, or Western, Wall (in Hebrew, ha-Kotel ha-Maʿravi), the British, in order to protect Muslim property and religious rights to the wall, allowed the Palestinians to restrict Jewish visitation and prayer, even though the wall was the holiest shrine of Judaism.

But British political support for a Jewish national home worked against Palestinian national interests. The Balfour policy, which was incorporated in the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, was backed by the European powers and by the British military. It gave the Yishuv (Jewish community) time to grow through immigration, from about 50,000 in 1917 to more than 600,000 by 1947, and time to develop quasigovernmental and military institutions. Palestinians, fearing domination or expulsion, protested and resisted through political violencein 1920, 1921, 1929, and 1933that was put down by the British military. The Palestine Arab revolt of 1936 through 1939 was suppressed by both British and Zionist forces. The Palestinians were a weak, underdeveloped society, no match for the British and, after 1939, for the Zionists. Ultimately, the 1917 Balfour policy paved the way for the establishment in 1948 of the state of Israel and the exodus of some 726,000 Palestinians who left out of fear and panic or were expelled by the Israel Defense Force. The refugees were not allowed to return to their homes and their properties were confiscated.

see also diaspora; husaynmcmahon correspondence (19151916); israel; lloyd george, david; samuel, herbert louis; sykespicot agreement (1916); weizmann, chaim; western wall; yishuv.


Hurewitz, J. C. The Middle East and North Africa in World Politics: A Documentary Record, 2d edition, revised and enlarged, Vol. 2: British-French Supremacy, 19141945. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979.

Hurewitz, J. C. The Struggle for Palestine. New York: Green-wood Press, 1968.

Ingrams, Doreen. Palestine Papers, 19171922: Seeds of Conflict. New York: George Braziller, 1973.

Jeffries, Joseph Mary Nagle. Palestine: The Reality. New York: Longmans, Green, 1939.

Khalidi, Walid, ed. From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem until 1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1971.

Monroe, Elizabeth. Britain's Moment in the Middle East, 19141971. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1981.

Stein, Leonard. The Balfour Declaration. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961.

Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error. New York: Harper, 1949.

Philip Mattar

Balfour Declaration

views updated May 17 2018



On 2 November 1917, Arthur J. Balfour, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote to Lord Rothschild, a leading figure in Anglo-Jewry, and declared that the British government viewed "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."

The reasons behind the Balfour Declaration have been hotly debated by historians since its publication. For many years, it was claimed that the declaration derived from a genuine sympathy for the aims of the Zionist movement, which stemmed from a long British tradition of Christian Zionism and philo-Semitism. Following the publication of official documents in the 1960s, however, historians have argued that there were clear political motives behind the government's Zionist policy, though there have been disagreements as to which were of greater significance.

Arguably, the primary purpose of the Balfour Declaration was to foster pro-British sentiment among world Jewry, particularly in the United States and Russia. With so much depending on the financial and military support of the United States, following its entry into the war on 2 April 1917, the British wished to ensure that American society was fully mobilized behind the war effort. In Russia, British officials were desperately trying to fight the pacifism and socialism that had spread since the revolution of February 1917. Due to an erroneous belief in Jewish influence and the misplaced notion that Jews were predominantly Zionist, views that were encouraged by Zionists in London, British policy makers were convinced that a pro-Zionist declaration would help further British objectives in both the United States and Russia. By October the sense of urgency within the government regarding a pro-Zionist statement gathered apace, following incorrect reports that Germany was about to issue its own declaration. Despite some opposition from within the War Cabinet by Lord Curzon, Lord President of the Council, and Edwin Montagu, the Secretary of State for India, the decision was taken on 31 October to issue a declaration. In response to their objections, however, a caveat was included in the text to protect the religious and civil rights of the indigenous population. The Balfour Declaration thus held a dual obligation to support Jewish national aspirations and to protect the interests of the Palestinian Arabs.

Though the propaganda motive was the driving force behind the Balfour Declaration, there was another key reason for publicly supporting Zionism, particularly for Lloyd George. So as to secure the Suez Canal and the path to India after the war, Lloyd George considered it essential that Britain gain control of Palestine. However, the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 had stipulated that the Holy Land would be under international control after the war. In addition, Woodrow Wilson, the president of the increasingly powerful United States, had asserted that he would not accept any annexations at the postwar peace settlement, due to his support for the cause of national self-determination. As a solution, it was considered by Lloyd George and Sir Mark Sykes, the influential war cabinet advisor on the Middle East, that British support for Zionism would help to secure a British protectorate in Palestine after the war. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that a number of those behind the declaration, including Balfour and other members of the Foreign Office, were not interested in using Zionism to this end. Throughout the development of Britain's Zionist policy, the government was heavily influenced by Zionist activists in London, such as Vladimir Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, and Nahum Sokolow. Though some historians have questioned the impact of the Zionists, and the role of Weizmann has been exaggerated, their efforts were of critical significance in prompting and driving British policy.

The effects of the Balfour Declaration were far reaching. By the end of the war, Britain had occupied the entirety of Palestine and was assigned the League of Nations Mandate at the San Remo conference on 24 April 1920. Zionist support for British control of the Holy Land helped to justify the Mandate. As a result, the terms of the Mandate, which were finally confirmed by the League of Nations on 24 July 1922, incorporated the text of the declaration. This commitment to supporting the creation of a Jewish national home remained a key plank of British policy in Palestine for much of the Mandate. Despite tensions between the Zionist leadership and the British authorities, the institutions for eventual Jewish statehood were created during the mandatory period. In this sense, the promise of the declaration was more than fulfilled, and its effects went well beyond the intentions of its makers. However, the attempt to ensure the peaceful coexistence between the Jewish nationalists and Palestinian Arab population failed spectacularly. Almost from the publication of the Balfour Declaration, the Arab leadership feared that the emboldened Zionists were seeking to take the whole country for themselves. That fear never subsided. The Mandate was punctuated with Arab-Jewish violence, culminating in the Arab revolt of 1936–1939, and ultimately war, following the declaration of Israeli independence on 14 May 1948.

See alsoIsrael; Palestine; Zionism.


Friedman, Isaiah. The Question of Palestine, 1914–1918: British-Jewish-Arab Relations. Princeton, N.J., 1973. Emphasizes importance of securing British control of Palestine after the war.

Levene, Mark. "The Balfour Declaration: A Case of Mistaken Identity." English Historical Review 422 (1992): 54–77. Argues anti-Semitism lay behind the British belief in Jewish power and the Balfour Declaration.

Stein, Leonard. The Balfour Declaration. Jerusalem and London, 1961. Classic study of the history of the Balfour Declaration, written before the release of official documents.

Vereté, Mayir. "The Balfour Declaration and Its Makers." Middle Eastern Studies 6 (1970): 48–76. Discounts the role of the Zionists in the making of the Balfour Declaration and argues the declaration was to secure a British Palestine.

Vital, David. Zionism: The Crucial Phase. Oxford, U.K., 1987. Like Vereté, questions the role of the Zionists and highlights the importance of both imperial and propaganda objectives behind the declaration.

James Renton

Balfour Declaration

views updated Jun 08 2018


A letter dated 2 November 1917, the Balfour Declaration was sent by Lord Arthur Balfour, British minister of foreign affairs, to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a Zionist philanthropist and one of the drafters of the declaration, following its revision and approval by the British war cabinet. It stated: "It is my great pleasure to express to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy for the Jewish Zionists' aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet—'His Majesty's Government looks favorably on the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people, and will apply all its efforts towards facilitating the realization of this objective, with it being clearly understood that nothing should be done that will prejudice either the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities existing in Palestine, or the rights and political status that Jews are accorded in other countries.'—I would be thankful to you for bringing this declaration to the attention of the Zionist Federation."

The Balfour Declaration was motivated by a number of factors. The British cabinet hoped to win the support of British and American Jews, thereby gaining Jewish money for Britain's war effort and benefiting from Jewish pressure on the United States to enter the war. In addition, Liberals like Balfour believed that the West had allowed historical injustices against the Jews and should now assist them, and prominent Jewish intellectuals in Britain were advocating for a Jewish State. The Balfour policy had long-term consequences, particularly for the Palestinians, who in 1917 formed 90 percent of the population but were mentioned only as "non-Jewish communities" in the declaration. British political support allowed the rapid growth of Jewish immigration to Palestine (from a Jewish population of 50,000 in 1917 to over 600,000 in 1947) and ultimately paved the way for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the departure of about 726,000 Palestinians.

SEE ALSO Balfour, Arthur James;British Mandate;Diaspora.

Balfour declaration

views updated Jun 11 2018

Balfour declaration. Partly with a view to securing the support of world Jewry for the allied war effort, Lloyd George's government authorized Foreign Secretary A. J. Balfour to send a letter (2 November 1917) to Lord Rothschild (lay leader of Anglo-Jewry) pledging the support of the British government for the establishment, in Palestine, of a ‘National Home’ for the Jewish people, but safeguarding the rights of Palestine's non-Jewish inhabitants. The terms of this declaration were incorporated into the mandate for Palestine granted to Britain by the League of Nations, on the basis of which considerable Jewish settlement there was permitted between the two world wars. Growing Arab resentment and violence led to the abrogation of the declaration by Neville Chamberlain's government in 1939.

Geoffrey Alderman

Balfour Declaration

views updated May 29 2018

Balfour Declaration (1917) Letter written by British foreign minister Arthur Balfour to the British Zionist Federation pledging support for the settlement of Jews in Palestine. Jews were admitted to the area when it became a British mandated territory after World War I. See also Zionism

Balfour Declaration

views updated May 29 2018

Balfour Declaration. British declaration of sympathy with Zionism. It was made in a letter of 2 Nov. 1917, from the British Foreign Secretary (i.e. Balfour) to Lord Rothschild. The declaration was endorsed in 1920 by the allies at the San Remo Conference. It was, however, in apparent conflict with the McMahon correspondence, which made commitments to the Arabs.