On November 2, 1917, the Foreign Minister of the British Government, Lord Arthur Balfour, sent the following letter to Lord Rothschild, a major British Jewish leader:
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 Balfour Declaration was the first open, official declaration of Great Power support for the Zionist cause since the founding of the movement in 1897. While the Declaration was vague in its wording with phrases like ‘views with favour’ and ‘facilitate’, Zionists and Zionist sympathizers around the world cheered at the news of the Declaration. Many compared it to the Declaration of Persian King Cyrus, allowing the Jews in Babylonian exile to return to their homeland, thousands of years before. As Britain became the master of the country shortly afterward, the likelihood of the Zionist dream becoming a reality became stronger by the day. It was truly a cause for celebration for supporters of Zionism.
Why Did the British Do It?
“If there had been no Zionists, the British would have had to invent them” – Mayer Vereté
Like most major political decisions, the motives for the Balfour Declaration were complex. Any attempt to isolate any one reason for it does not do justice to the myriad interests and personae involved in supporting, drafting and passing the decision by cabinet vote. Appealing as a simple answer is, it would still be wrong.
One thing scholars know for sure, though – the Balfour Declaration was almost entirely a British Government initiative. It was they, not the Zionists, who proposed it, endorsed it and made the big push to allow it. While Zionists did go along with the initiative and were involved in the negotiations, it was the British who drove the bus.
The main reason the Zionists avoided the issue of public political support at the time was simple: World War One was raging. It was unclear for many years who would win, and there were substantial Jewish communities on both sides of the trenches. Besides, the ruler of the land of Israel at the time, the Ottoman Empire, was an enemy of Britain. To advocate or try to gain open support from any one side would endanger the communities on the other and cause disaffection with Zionism among those communities.
All of which brings us back to the British. There were two primary motives for the Balfour Declaration: religious/moral and coldly political. The main endorsers of the Declaration – Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour were both deeply religious and fond of the Jews. They believed that the world, and especially Europe, had done the Jews a great disservice by denying them the right to their country and oppressing them for so long. The Declaration allowing Jews to build a National Home in their old country was seen by them as an act of restorative justice.
The political motivation for the declaration stemmed from two focal points – one of which had to do directly with the Jews. The first focal point was the desire to seize the land of Israel to serve as a strategic ‘buffer zone’ protecting the Suez Canal, which was the British Empire’s lifeline to India and her East Asian empire. Taking the land of Israel ostensibly for the sake of the Jewish people helped mask the cold strategic motive.
The second focal point was propaganda. Britain was desperate to get America in the war and keep Russia in it. British politicians believed that the Jews had a great deal more influence on both countries than they in reality, so they believed the Balfour Declaration would spur both Jewish communities to support the Allies.
The Balfour Declaration was authorized by the League of Nations, the precursor to the UN, in the San Remo Conference of 1920 and the Sevres agreement of 1923. This granted the Balfour Declaration the status of a binding international legal contract, and helped ensure the growth of the Jewish community in the land of Israel (called the British Mandate for Palestine) from a small community of under 60,000 in 1917 to a robust National Home of over 600,000 in 1947.