The Balfour Declaration

November 2, 1917

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Origins of the Balfour Declaration


The Balfour Declaration was issued in the form of a  letter from the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild. It was delivered to Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist activist, expressing British support for a Jewish "national home" in Palestine.

There are different theories about why the British agreed to issue the Balfour declaration when they issued it. Some of these "theories," such as the claim that "Jewish money interests" were being courted to help float a loan for Britain or bring the United States into the war are racist inventions. Nonetheless the exact circumstances of the declaration are unclear. One possibility is that the declaration was deliberately contrived to allow the British to renege on earlier promises to France and the Arabs regarding Palestine. Lloyd George reportedly said that British control over Palestine would prevent it from falling into the hands of the agnostic atheistic French.

British Zionism and the Balfour Declaration

However, the declaration did not fall as a bolt from the blue, but was rather the culmination of a long tradition in Britain that supported restoration of the Jews to their own land for philosophical, religious and imperialistic motives. In his introduction to Nahum Sokolow's History of Zionism, Balfour makes it clear that he supported the project of a "national home" for the Jewish people because he believed it was just. He had previously supported the scheme of Jews settlement in Uganda.

An important factor that may have influenced the foreign office was the information supplied to Britain by the NILI underground and Aaron Aaronsohn, which was to prove useful in driving the Turks out of Palestine. Using Palestine to guard the Suez canal may have been yet another motivation.

The Zionist movement had been founded to create a national home for the Jews, secured by international law. That purpose was embodied in the resolutions of the first Zionist congress. Theodor Herzl had tried to secure a Jewish homeland in Palestine with the consent of the Ottoman Empire and the German Kaiser. He was rebuffed in both cases, and turned his efforts to securing a temporary home for the Jews in Uganda or Argentina or anywhere, a program that was controversial and eventually abandoned by the Zionist organization. The Zionists for a time developed several schools of thought. One school of "political" Zionists believed in securing a homeland through the efforts of rich and powerful leaders, who would petition potentates for a charter to create a homeland. The other school of practical Zionists believed that a Jewish national home could only be secured by settlement and creation of a Jewish community. The political recognition would only follow upon the facts. Events were to prove that both were necessary. The instrument of obtaining the long-sought charter, ironically enough, was not a political Zionist, but Haim (or Chaim) Weizmann, a self-proclaimed practical Zionist, who believed that agricultural settlement must form the basis of the new Jewish community.

Chaim Weizmann and the Balfour Declaration

Weizmann, a Russian Zionist, settled in England in 1904 to pursue his career in chemistry.  In 1906 his employer introduced him to Lord Balfour, who was anxious to convince Weizmann that the Zionist movement should accept Uganda, rather than Palestine, as a national home. Instead, Weizmann began the process of convincing Balfour that Palestine ought to be the Jewish national home. The British Zionist movement began actively lobbying the British government in their cause, and during the early years of the war found a sympathetic advocate in Mark Sykes, who professed an interest to liberate the 'downtrodden people of the world' including the Armenians, Arabs and Jews. Weizmann also befriended CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian and a sympathizer with the cause of Jewish restoration in Palestine. In 1914, Scott introduced him to Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister during the war. Later, Scott was an active member of the British Palestine Committee in Manchester, which produced the magazine Palestine, and lobbied for the mandate and Jewish rights in Palestine.

During World War I, Weizmann's influence with the British government was increased by the fact that he lent his talents to producing the solvent acetone, needed for the war effort, by a fermentation process. Weizmann began drafting a proposal for a Jewish Homeland in Palestine, under British suzerainty. In the context of British designs in the Middle East, this improbable idea, similar to ideas proposed to the Turks and Germans previously, became a possibility. It was supported by several factions in the British government. It received some support because the British envisioned Palestine as an effective post for guarding the Suez canal. It  received support for sentimental reasons, because beginning in the 19th century a number of leading figures in Britain had become interested in the idea of restoring the Jews to Palestine. Paradoxically, the idea of a Jewish state was also supported for anti-Semitic reasons. Several members of the foreign service were convinced that the Jews had enormous influence on world affairs, and could use that influence to help either the allies or Germany. A rumor that the the Germans were about to grant a similar document to the Jews hastened the issuance of the Balfour declaration.

British Promises

The British were busy making promises. Henry McMahon had exchanged letters with Hussein ibn Ali, Sheriff of Mecca in 1915, in which he had promised the Arabs control of the Arab lands, exclusive of the Mediterranean coast. The extent of the coastal exclusion is not clear. Hussein protested that the Arabs of Beirut would greatly oppose isolation from the Arab state or states, but did not it seems, bring up the matter of the area Jerusalem, which included a good part of Palestine. This suggests either that the area of Jerusalem and Palestine was not part of the inclusion and was promised to the Arabs, as shown in some maps, and is believed by pro-Arab historians, or that Palestine was included, but that Hussein did not protest. The latter version is supported by Dr. Chaim Weizmann in his autobiographical book Trial and Error, and that interpretation was convenient to the British also, and supported explicitly by the British government in the White Paper of 1922.

In 1916, Mark Sykes had concluded a secret draft treaty with France which made a contradictory division of the lands to be won from Turkey. The secret was known to  Weizmann, who was astounded to learn of it from Zionist sources in Paris:

What we did not know in the early stages of our practical negotiations was that a secret tentative agreement, which was later revealed as the 'Sykes-Picot Treaty,' already existed between France and England! And the most curious part of the history is this: although Sir Mark Sykes, of the British Foreign Office, had himself negotiated this treaty with M. Georges Picot of the French Foreign Office, Sir Mark entered into negotiations with us, and gave us his fullest support, without even telling us of the existence of the tentative agreement! He was in effect, modifying his stand in our favour, seeking to revise the agreement so that our claims in Palestine might be given room. But it was not from him that we learned of the existence of the agreement, and months passed- months during which we carried on our negotiations with the British and other authorities- before we understood what it was that blocked our progress. (Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, 1949, page 238).

I learned of its [ the Sykes Picot Agreement] existence on April 16, 1917, from Mr Scott [C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian and member of the British Palestine Committee] who had obtained the information in Paris. Haim Weizmann, Trial and Error, 1949, page 241).

Thus, the existence of the Sykes Picot Agreement as a tentative draft treaty was known during the negotiations for the Balfour declaration, and the later publication of its content did not shock the ZIonist movement.

Having made promises to the Arabs and the French,  the British government was now to make a third contradictory declaration to the leading Zionists of Great Britain. During the negotiations with the Zionists, Sykes gave great support to the idea of a Jewish state and never mentioned the existence of the contradictory Sykes-Picot agreement with the French. Likewise, the Zionist leaders met George Picot, and he did not raise any objections based on that agreement, which gave the French control of much of Palestine. Weizmann notes that the treaty was never mentioned.

Jewish opposition to the Balfour Declaration

As the proposal took shape and began to be known, it invited intense opposition from a small group of rich and influential assimilated Jews, who felt threatened by the possible implications of double loyalty. In particular, the idea was opposed by Edwin Montagu , who made a bitter attack against the Balfour declaration. He claimed that the declaration would cause Jews to be expelled from every country, and that given the new found freedom of Russian Jews, there was no reason for the declaration. He attributed persecution of Jews to clannishness and biological differences. The original text of the declaration had read "Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people." After Montagu's attack, the text was changed to read "the establishment in Palestine of a Home for the Jewish people." A clause was also added protecting the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine and more curiously, to meet Montagu's objections, a clause was added protecting the rights of Jewish communities outside Palestine.

In his memoirs, Lloyd George wrote:

The Balfour Declaration represented the convinced policy of all parties in our country and also in America, but the launching of it in 1917 was due, as I have said, to propagandist reasons. (David Lloyd George, Memoirs, page 724)

In other words, the policy was backed because of the traditional support of many Britons for Jewish restoration, a support echoed by several US Presidents as well. However, there were specific reasons for issuing the declaration in 1917. That is, as noted, the British believed, without much foundation, that "the Jews" were influential in Bolshevik Russia and likewise that Jewish financiers controlled untold wealth that could be put at the disposal of the allies or the Central powers depending on which government would support a Jewish state or national home in Palestine. In his memoirs, Lloyd George continued to exaggerate the power of the Jews and the help that they rendered:

The Germans were equally alive to the fact that the Jews of Russia wielded considerable influence in Bolshevik circles. The Zionist Movement was exceptionally strong in Russia and America. The Germans were, therefore, engaged actively in courting favour with that Movement all over the world. A friendly Russia would mean not only more food and raw material for Germany and Austria, but fewer German and Austrian troops on the Eastern front and, therefore, more available for the West. These considerations were brought to our notice by the Foreign Office, and reported to the War Cabinet.

The support of the Zionists for the cause of the Entente would mean a great deal as a war measure. Quite naturally Jewish sympathies were to a great extent anti-Russian, and therefore in favour of the Central Powers. No ally of Russia, in fact, could escape sharing that immediate and inevitable penalty for the long and savage Russian persecution of the Jewish race. In addition to this, the German General Staff, with their wide outlook on possibilities, urged, early in 1916, the advantages of promising Jewish restoration to Palestine under an arrangement to be made between Zionists and Turkey, backed by a German guarantee. The practical difficulties were considerable; the subject was perhaps dangerous to German relations with Turkey; and the German Government acted cautiously. But the scheme was by no means rejected or even shelved, and at any moment the Allies might have been forestalled in offering this supreme bid. In fact in September, 1917, the German Government were making very serious efforts to capture the Zionist Movement.

Another most cogent reason for the adoption by the Allies of the policy of the declaration lay in the state of Russia herself. Russian Jews had been secretly active on behalf of the Central Powers from the first; they had become the chief agents of German pacifist propaganda in Russia; by 1917 they had done much in preparing for that general disintegration of Russian society, later recognised as the Revolution. It was believed that if Great Britain declared for the fulfilment of Zionist aspirations in Palestine under her own pledge, one effect would be to bring Russian Jewry to the cause of the Entente.

It was believed, also, that such a declaration would have a potent influence upon world Jewry outside Russia, and secure for the Entente the aid of Jewish financial interests. In America, their aid in this respect would have a special value when the Allies had almost exhausted the gold and marketable securities available for American purchases. Such were the chief considerations which, in 1917, impelled the British Government towards making a contract with Jewry. (pp 725 - 726).

In fact, the Jewish Bolsheviks were anti-Zionists,  the Zionists were completely without influence in the Bolshevik movement, and the Bolsheviks cared not a fig for British war aims, as later events proved most definitely. As for money, while the majority of Jews may have supported the Zionist movement, rich and influential Jews like Henry Morgenthau in the US and Edwin Montagu in Britain were more or less opposed to the project.  Lloyd George himself quoted Balfour as saying, "this movement, though opposed by a number of wealthy Jews in this country, had behind it the support of a majority of Jews, at all events in Russia and America, and possibly in other countries. " (page 734).  It is probable that a majority of Jews supported Zionism, but not the richest and most influential as a rule.

Chaim Weizmann wrote:

Mrs Dugdale records further: 'as late as January, 1918, our Ambassador in Washington reported, on the authority of Mr. Justice Brandeis himself, that the Zionists were violently opposed by the great capitalists, for different reasons,' and she adds in passing 'this in itself shows how baseless was the idea, once very prevalent, that the Balfour Declaration was in part a bargain with American financiers.' (Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, 1949, page 245).

The support of the Rothschild family for the Zionist project could lend verisimilitude to the claim that the declaration was published to get the help of rich Jews. However,  in fact, British and American Jews would and did help the Entente, and German Jews would and did help the Central Powers, with or without the Balfour declaration, just as non-Jews helped their own countries. Chaim Weizmann had busied himself during the war years in producing acetone for the British war effort and was embarrassed by attempts of the Zionist movement to demonstrate neutrality by moving to Copenhagen.

As for the Russian Jews, those who claimed Jewish identity had no money and less power. Bolshevik Jews repudiated nationalist sentiments as a matter principle, and British intelligence should have had no problem learning that this was so. Marx had written that the advent of socialism would do away with the Jews entirely, and nationalism was contrary to international workers solidarity. The idea that Jewish Bolsheviks like Kaganovich and Trotsky would be interested in a Jewish state in Palestine, supported by imperialist Britain, is certainly absurd. The Kerensky government did keep Russia in the war with disastrous consequences for itself, but the Bolsheviks, among whom the Jews were so supposedly so influential, promptly concluded a separate peace with the Germans. The new Soviet government began negotiations for the treaty of Brest Litovsk about a month after the Balfour declaration was issued, on December 17. The negotiations were conducted by the Bolshevik war commissar, Leon Trotsky, a Jew.

Ex-Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, who carried some weight with the Wilson administration, has been implicated by antisemites and anti-Zionists in nefarious schemes to inveigle the US into World War I in return for British support for a Jewish state. However, America joined the war before the Balfour declaration was issued. Morgenthau himself initiated a US mission, which he eventually aborted,  that was to have tried to  get Turkey out of the war by promising that it could keep Armenia, Palestine and other territories if it left the Central Powers alliance. 

It is not clear if Lloyd George really believed in the mythological powers of "international Jewry" or whether he, like the Zionists, tended to deliberately encourage such beliefs in order to advance the cause of Jewish restoration in Palestine.

Some attention has been paid to the phrase "national home for the Jewish People" because it has been subject to various interpretations. In 1922, Churchill tried to hint broadly that a "national home" was not necessarily a state. According to Lloyd George, however, the meaning was clear:

There has been a good deal of discussion as to the meaning of the words "Jewish National Home" and whether it involved the setting up of a Jewish National State in Palestine. I have already quoted the words actually used by Mr. Balfour when he submitted the declaration to the Cabinet for its approval. They were not challenged at the time by any member present, and there could be no doubt as to what the Cabinet then had in their minds. It was not their idea that a Jewish State should be set up immediately by the Peace Treaty without reference to the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants. On the other hand, it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth. The notion that Jewish immigration would have to be artificially restricted in order to ensure that the Jews should be a permanent minority never entered into the heads of anyone engaged in  framing the policy. That would have been regarded as unjust and as a fraud on the people to whom we were appealing. (Memoirs, pp 736-7) 

If there is any further doubt in the matter, Balfour himself told a Jewish gathering on February 7,1918:

My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish state. It is up to them now; we have given them their great opportunity. " (Sanders, Ronald. The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate for Palestine. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983)

The final decision of the cabinet was made known in the form of a letter by Arthur James Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild. It was believed that the Arab nationalists would not oppose Jewish aims in Palestine, provided that the Jews helped the Arabs to achieve their own aims. This hope was born out to an extent, in Feisal's letters to Weizmann and to the American Zionist, justice Frankfurter. However, as it became apparent that the British would not honor all their commitments to the Arabs, bitterness grew that the Balfour declaration had been made over the heads of the residents of Palestine, and that the League of Nations Mandate which grew out of it, was the only mandate that ignored the right of the "native" population to self-government.

It may not make sense to speak of the original intentions of the "the British Government" in making the declaration, which reflects a great deal of what has been called "constructive ambiguity," or in other words, double talk. Very probably there were some, including Lloyd George and Balfour, who intended the declaration as the Zionist interpreted it, as an intention to create a Jewish State or British -protected Jewish entity in all or part of Palestine. Certainly, the Arabs had this view as well. Others may have had less ambitious ideas, while many in the government may have seen it as an ambiguously worded document that could be used to give Britain a claim on Palestine to use against France, and could be used to garner support of the mythical power brokers of "world Jewry."

As the document evolved, it was altered, mostly owing to the pressure of Mr Edwin Montagu, an anti-Zionist Jew who had been appointed Secretary of State for India.  Montagu tried to block the declaration entirely, and when that failed, succeeded in inserting significant changes. The following wording appeared in a telegram from Weizmann to Justice Brandeis as approved by the Foreign office and Prime Minister:

1. His Majesty's Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people.

2. His Majesty's Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods with the Zionist Organization.

(Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, 1949, p 257)

According to Weizmann, all the opposition to the declaration came from Jews. Two major changes  were made. The first one changed the declaration to call for a national home in Palestine, rather than making all Palestine a national home. The single word "in" was used  subsequently to justify removing all of Transjordan from the British Mandate that resulted from the Balfour Declaration.

The second change added the following wording:

  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 wording was at least in part, a reflection of Edwin Montagu's conviction, shared by other influential British Jews,  that the very existence of a Jewish state would call into question the loyalties of Jews living in other countries and be a source of antisemitic persecution. The clause concerning the rights of existing non-Jewish communities was used in the Churchill White paper and more particularly in the Passfield White Paper of 1930 to justify limitations on Jewish immigration, which, it was claimed, was threatening the economic rights of the Arabs by causing unemployment and dispossession. The unemployment rate among Palestinian Arabs in the depression year of 1930 was 4%. The Passfield White Paper seemed to adopt  the principle that Jewish development required equal development in Arab communities to protect the position of the existing inhabitants. The British government even considered that this clause might obligate a Jewish state to subsidize an Arab state! (see 1938: Disposition of the Peel and Woodhead reports ).

However, it is likely that even if the Balfour declaration had not contained that wording, the League Mandate would had added some clause to protect the rights of existing minorities because the purpose of mandates under the League Charter  was, after all, to prepare existing inhabitants for self determination. In any case, the protection of rights of existing inhabitants was expanded under the provisions of the Mandate.

The declaration spoke of a "national home" for the Jewish people, which might be construed as a British protectorate where Jews could live, an autonomous Jewish region, or a Jewish state. Haim Weizmann jumped the gun a bit by referring to a "Jewish Commonwealth" and thereby incurred the ire of the British. It was not until 1942, in the Biltmore Program that the Zionist movement clearly declared their express intention of forming a Jewish state in Palestine, with or without British agreement. 

As Palestinian sources point out, the Balfour declaration was not an internationally approved document. It was not even an official promise of the British government, but only a letter expressing intent, and at most a promise that the British government

will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object

It was neither more nor less in status than the exchange of letters with Prince Feisal. On the other hand, the British used the promise of a Jewish national home to extract from the League of Nations, with Zionist help, a large territory for the  Mandate, creating a new territorial entity called "Palestine," that had no status except in Christian holy books before 1917.  The League Mandate incorporated the provisions of the Balfour declaration and expanded upon them. It was an explicit commitment, not just just promise, and it was approved and accepted by the League of Nations, the recognized international authority.

As the declaration and the terms of the mandate became inconvenient for the British government, they altered or abrogated its terms in a series of White Papers, beginning with the Churchill White paper of 1922.

Ami Isseroff

History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel

Balfour declaration

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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

This document is part of the historical documents collection at the Zionism and Israel Information Center

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