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Copyright © 2019 The American Israel Public Affairs Committee

The Balfour Declaration: Harbinger of the State of Israel

Lord Arthur Balfour and the Balfour Declaration (Wikimedia commons)

Addressing the United Nations in September of last year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that the British Government apologize for the Balfour Declaration, issued on Nov. 2, 1917. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s aptly replied that the declaration is: “one of the most important letters in history. It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride.”

Indeed, the British people can be proud of how the actions of their nation a century ago helped the State of Israel emerge. So can the Jewish people, whose contemporary representatives worked tirelessly with the British government to produce the historic declaration, named after Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour.

Brief, but Historic

At a mere 67 words contained in one sentence, the Balfour Declaration was even shorter than President Abraham Lincoln’s famously brief Gettysburg Address. It stated:

"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."

This was the first time in nearly 2,000 years that a great power officially supported the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in its ancient homeland, for which Jews had yearned ever since the Roman Empire exiled them in the first and second centuries CE. The declaration was more than a unilateral British pronouncement. The British government issued it only after securing the approval of its main World War I allies in the war against Germany—the United States and France—as well as the Vatican.

Palestine, 1917

In 1917, Palestine—the name imposed by the Roman Empire on the Land of Israel after the expulsion of its Jewish population—was a barren, poverty-stricken province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had neglected and misruled it during the four centuries since it conquered the country. Only about 700,000 people inhabited the land in 1917, whereas an estimated 2.5 million people lived in the ancient Kingdom of Israel 2,000 years earlier and nearly 13 million people live in what is today Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Soon after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined Germany in the war against the British-led Allied Powers. Whereas in 1914-1916, the Allies focused their war effort against the Ottoman Empire on the Dardanelles Straits between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and on Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq), in early 1917 their attention shifted to Palestine. The British had two main reasons: Despite Palestine’s desolation, proximity to the British-controlled Suez Canal endowed it with extraordinary strategic importance; and its status as the Holy Land was deeply meaningful to the Christian leaders of Britain and its allies.  

Zionism Makes an Appearance

Meanwhile, a new actor had appeared on the world stage. Zionism—the national movement of the Jewish people—was officially inaugurated in 1897 at the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland. The founder of Zionism, Austrian Jewish journalist Theodor Herzl, was both a visionary—he predicted in 1897 that the Jewish state would he established 50 years later—and a talented organizer. Prior to his death in 1904, he organized and presided over the first six annual Zionist Congresses.

The First Zionist Congress formulated the Zionist platform. It stated, “Zionism seeks for the Jewish people a publicly recognized, legally secured homeland in Palestine” through the promotion of Jewish settlement, the organization of Jews in the diaspora, and the strengthening of Jewish feeling and consciousness. The Congress also inaugurated the Zionist Organization (later renamed World Zionist Organization), which, 120 years later, still serves as the umbrella organization for the Zionist movement.

Zionist-British Discussions

During World War I, top Zionist leaders, headed by brilliant chemist Chaim Weizmann (who later became the first president of Israel) and prominent author and journalist Nahum Sokolow, promoted the Zionist cause in intensive discussions with senior British officials. These deliberations led to the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration—an official British Government statement authorized by Prime Minister David Lloyd George in the form of a letter from Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour to British Jewish community leader Lord Walter Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. A week later—on November 9, 1917—the declaration was made public.

Without detracting from Weizmann and Sokolow’s superb persuasion skills and Lloyd George and Balfour’s personal affection for the Zionist cause, the British Government’s public decision to support Zionism was anchored in its perception of British national interests. During the first half of 1917, the war was going badly for the Allies both on the European front against Germany and on the eastern front against the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s participation in the war as an Allied Power was becoming increasingly tenuous under a provisional government established after the toppling of Czar Nicholas II in March; and the United States, which had recently joined the Allies, had yet to send a substantial number of troops. Lloyd George was hoping that the declaration would sway the large Jewish community in Russia to help persuade the Russian government to stay in the war, and the even larger Jewish community in the United States to help shore up the Anglo-American alliance. The British government, furthermore, expected that its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine would strengthen its case in any postwar arrangement for serving as the protector of the local Jewish community in that strategically crucial part of the world.

The Balfour Declaration Goes International

The Balfour Declaration had an international component even before it was issued, having gained prior approval from the United States, France and the Vatican. The declaration’s internationalization continued apace in the aftermath of World War I.

The Treaty of Sevres, signed between the victorious Allied Powers and Turkey in August 1920, incorporated the Balfour Declaration in its entirety (Art. 95); so did the U.S. Congress in a June 1922 joint resolution, signed by President Harding in September. On July 24, 1922, the League of Nations—the United Nations’ predecessor—formally awarded Britain the Mandate for Palestine. The League not only required Britain to put the Balfour Declaration into effect, but also to “facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and… encourage… close settlement by Jews on the land” (Art. 6).

Since the United States was not a League of Nations member, the U.S. administration decided to separately endorse the Mandate, including the Balfour Declaration. This was accomplished through the 1924 Anglo-American Convention, which did so explicitly and in detail.   

Uneven Implementation

Much has been written about the British failure to implement the Balfour Declaration during the decades of holding the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. The most glaring illustration of this failure was the British White Paper of May 1939, which limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 over the next five years, after which it would depend on Arab consent (i.e., zero Jewish immigration). The paper also restricted the rights of Jews to buy land from Arabs.

The White Paper may have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of European Jews. In 1939, the Nazis still sought to expel the more than 200,000 Jewish inhabitants of Germany, the nearly 60,000 Jews living in German-occupied Austria, and the approximately 100,000 Jews living in German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Had the British government allowed their immigration to Palestine, their lives might have been saved.

Yet during the two decades prior to the White Paper, the British implementation of the Balfour Declaration—uneven as it was—helped enable the State of Israel’s emergence. In 1936-1939, British troops forcefully suppressed the “Arab Rebellion,” saving countless Jewish lives. The British Mandate created an environment that enabled Palestine’s Jewish community to develop the self-defense, political, economic and cultural institutions of a state in the making. Up until May 1939, the British permitted no fewer than 450,000 Jews—including 60,000 from Germany —to immigrate to Palestine. They comprised the majority of the 650,000 Jewish residents who defeated both the Palestinian irregular forces and the regular Arab armies that sought to destroy Israel in 1947-1948.

Conclusion: From National Home to Sovereign State

Israelis have long recognized the Balfour Declaration’s important role in the re-emergence of the Jewish homeland. Every major city in Israel has a Balfour Street, and there’s even a small town in Israel named Balfouria.

Four historic documents marked Zionism’s progression from a distant vision to the reality of Jewish statehood. The vision received its first partial articulation in the Zionist platform adopted by the 1897 First Zionist Congress; the Zionist vision gained international backing from the 1917 Balfour Declaration; it won explicit, worldwide international endorsement in the 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution; and it finally won concrete expression in Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence.

Each of these documents was enormously significant. But it was the actions of the Jewish people that converted the Zionist idea into a vibrant reality. There would not have been a Jewish state if tens of thousands of Jews had not immigrated to the country following the First Zionist Congress, and hundreds of thousands—who created a viable Jewish economy and effective pre-state institutions—in the aftermath of the Balfour Declaration and the consequent British Mandate. And even after these stunning successes, the Zionist enterprise would have collapsed had the Jewish community failed to defeat the Palestinian onslaught after the U.N. Partition Resolution and the Arab invasion following the Declaration of Independence.

Nonetheless, the 100-year-old, 67-word Balfour Declaration will forever be marked in the annals of history as a pivotal milestone on the bumpy road to the emergence of the modern State of Israel. 

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