The Balfour Declaration (dated 2 November 1917) was a letter from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Rothschild (Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild), a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.
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.
Arthur James Balfour
The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on 9 November 1917. The “Balfour Declaration” was later incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with Turkey and the Mandate for Palestine. The original document is kept at the British Library.
In 1914, war broke out in Europe between Britain with allies and Germany, Austria-Hungary and later that year, the Ottoman Empire. The war on the Western Front developed into a stalemate. Jonathan Schneer writes:
Thus the view from Whitehall early in 1916: If defeat was not imminent, neither was victory; and the outcome of the war of attrition on the Western Front could not be predicted. The colossal forces in a death-grip across Europe and in Eurasia appeared to have canceled each other out. Only the addition of significant new forces on one side or the other seemed likely to tip the scale. Britain’s willingness, beginning early in 1916, to explore seriously some kind of arrangement with “world Jewry” or “Great Jewry” must be understood in this context.
In 1896, Theodor Herzl, a Jewish journalist living in Austria-Hungary, published Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State”), in which he asserted that the only solution to the “Jewish Question” in Europe, including growing antisemitism, was through the establishment of a Jewish State. Political Zionism had just been born. A year later, Herzl founded the Zionist Organization (ZO), which at its first congress, “called for the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law”. Serviceable means to attain that goal included the promotion of Jewish settlement there, the organization of Jews in the diaspora, the strengthening of Jewish feeling and consciousness, and preparatory steps to attain those necessary governmental grants.
During the first meeting between Weizmann and Balfour in 1906, Balfour asked what Weizmann’s objections were to the idea of a Jewish homeland in Uganda, (the Uganda Protectorate in East Africa in the British Uganda Programme), rather than in Palestine. According to Weizmann’s memoir, the conversation went as follows:
- “Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” He sat up, looked at me, and answered: “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” “That is true,” I said, “but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.” He … said two things which I remember vividly. The first was: “Are there many Jews who think like you?” I answered: “I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves.” … To this he said: “If that is so you will one day be a force.”
Two months after Britain’s declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, Zionist British cabinet member Herbert Samuel circulated a memorandum entitled The Future of Palestine to his cabinet colleagues. The memorandum stated that “I am assured that the solution of the problem of Palestine which would be much the most welcome to the leaders and supporters of the Zionist movement throughout the world would be the annexation of the country to the British Empire”.
James Gelvin, a Middle East history professor, cites at least three reasons for why the British government chose to support Zionist aspirations. Issuing the Balfour Declaration would appeal to Woodrow Wilson’s two closest advisors, who were avid Zionists.
“The British did not know quite what to make of President Woodrow Wilson and his conviction (before America’s entrance into the war) that the way to end hostilities was for both sides to accept “peace without victory.” Two of Wilson’s closest advisors, Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter, were avid Zionists. How better to shore up an uncertain ally than by endorsing Zionist aims? The British adopted similar thinking when it came to the Russians, who were in the midst of their revolution. Several of the most prominent revolutionaries, including Leon Trotsky, were of Jewish descent. Why not see if they could be persuaded to keep Russia in the war by appealing to their latent Jewishness and giving them another reason to continue the fight?” … These include not only those already mentioned but also Britain’s desire to attract Jewish financial resources.
At that time the British were busy making promises. At a War Cabinet meeting, held on 31 October 1917, Balfour suggested that a declaration favorable to Zionist aspirations would allow Great Britain “to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America”
The cabinet believed that expressing support would appeal to Jews in Germany and America, and help the war effort.
One of the main proponents of a Jewish homeland in Palestine was Chaim Weizmann, the leading spokesperson for organized Zionism in Britain. Weizmann was a chemist who had developed a process to synthesize acetone via fermentation. Acetone is required for the production of cordite, a powerful propellant explosive needed to fire ammunition without generating tell-tale smoke. Germany had cornered supplies of calcium acetate, a major source of acetone. Other pre-war processes in Britain were inadequate to meet the increased demand in World War I, and a shortage of cordite would have severely hampered Britain’s war effort. Lloyd-George, then minister for munitions, was grateful to Weizmann and so supported his Zionist aspirations. In his War Memoirs, Lloyd-George wrote of meeting Weizmann in 1916 that Weizmann:
- … explained his aspirations as to the repatriation of the Jews to the sacred land they had made famous. That was the fount and origin of the famous declaration about the National Home for the Jews in Palestine …. As soon as I became Prime Minister I talked the whole matter over with Mr Balfour, who was then Foreign Secretary.
However, this version of the story of the declaration’s origins has been described as “fanciful”, a fair assessment considering that discussions between Weizmann and Balfour had begun at least a decade earlier. In late 1905 Balfour had requested of Charles Dreyfus, his Jewish constituency representative, that he arrange a meeting with Weizmann, during which Weizmann asked for official British support for Zionism; they were to meet again on this issue in 1914.
The Arabs expressed disapproval in November 1918 at the parade marking the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. The Muslim-Christian Association protested the carrying of new “white and blue banners with two inverted triangles in the middle”. They drew the attention of the authorities to the serious consequences of any political implications in raising the banners.
Later that month, on the first anniversary of the occupation of Jaffa by the British, the Muslim-Christian Association sent a lengthy memorandum and petition to the military governor protesting once more any formation of a Jewish state.
On November 1918 the large group of Palestinian Arab dignitaries and representatives of political associations addressed a petition to the British authorities in which they denounced the declaration. The document stated:
…we always sympathized profoundly with the persecuted Jews and their misfortunes in other countries… but there is wide difference between such sympathy and the acceptance of such a nation…ruling over us and disposing of our affairs.
Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, the principal Zionist leaders based in London, had asked for the reconstitution of Palestine as “the” Jewish national home. As such, the declaration fell short of Zionist expectations.
British public and government opinion became increasingly less favorable to the commitment that had been made to Zionist policy. In February 1922, Winston Churchill telegraphed Herbert Samuel asking for cuts in expenditure and noting:
In both Houses of Parliament there is growing movement of hostility, against Zionist policy in Palestine, which will be stimulated by recent Northcliffe articles. I do not attach undue importance to this movement, but it is increasingly difficult to meet the argument that it is unfair to ask the British taxpayer, already overwhelmed with taxation, to bear the cost of imposing on Palestine an unpopular policy.
German and Ottoman reaction
Immediately following the publication of the declaration Germany entered negotiations with Turkey to put forward counter proposals. A German-Jewish Society was formed: Vereinigung jüdischer Organisationen Deutschlands zur Wahrung der Rechte der Juden des Ostens (V.J.O.D.) and in January 1918 the Turkish Grand Vizier, Talaat, issued a statement which promised legislation by which “all justifiable wishes of the Jews in Palestine would be able to find their fulfilment”.