The Balfour Declaration: A Jewish Homeland in Palestine

by JoHarrington

In November 1917, the British government announced to the world that it supported the Zionist creation of Israel; and it was willing to locate this homeland in Palestine.

Europe's battlefields were entrenched in a 'war of attrition', and both sides were looking for more reinforcements to break it.

The Great War could be won by whoever enticed in America, Russia or another people who could potentially 'one day be a force'. Like the Zionists. Germany had already distracted Russia by shipping in Lenin to start a revolution.

What could Britain do to match that? And what could possibly go wrong?

This is What the Balfour Declaration Looked Like

Image: The Balfour Declaration
Image: The Balfour Declaration

The Letter Which Created Israel and Condemned Palestine

Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour spoke on behalf of the British Cabinet in giving the go ahead for modern Israel.

Image: British Mandate of PalestineWhat you see above is the Balfour Declaration in its entirety, alongside the man whose signature sits at the bottom.

Arthur James Balfour held the office of Foreign Secretary in the government of David Lloyd-George. Its recipient was Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community.  The declaration was the conclusion of many years of talks between the British government and the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sent on November 2nd 1917, the letter laid the foundations for making a Zionist dream a reality. It was effectively the green light on creating the modern state of Israel. 

Of course, such considerations weren't up to the British at all.  The international Zionist Federation could have negotiated to create a Jewish nation anywhere in the world.  The fact that they were dealing with Balfour meant that they had made their choice.

They wanted the ancient land of Israel back.  Unfortunately that was now Palestine, and that country was part of the British Empire.

Westminster was not known for giving colonies away, not without an almighty conflict forcing it to; and losing bits of Empire was not a vote winner amongst the Edwardian electorate.  Nor was the Zionist cause particularly popular in the country at the time.

If anyone knew about it or cared at all, it was to say 'no' - except, of course, from its small pocket of supporters. Even the vast majority of the British Jewish community didn't subscribe to the notion of their own homeland.  Of 300,000 Jews living in Britain, only 8,000 had signed up to the Zionist Federation by 1913.

But in being so seemingly generous, the British government saw a way in which to win the First World War; and that is why Balfour was instructed to do it.

Books about the Balfour Declaration

Learn more about the historical context and implications of the British agreement to form a Jewish national home in Palestine.

"If that is so you will one day be a force."

It may have been a throwaway line, designed to flatter a member of the public during an election campaign. But Balfour recalled it again later.

Image: Dr Chaim Azriel Weizmann

In history, it's a bit arbitrary to choose any moment and call it the beginning.

But that meeting between Dr Chaim Azriel Weizmann and Lord Balfour, in 1906, is as good a place as any.  After all, one signed the declaration and the other became Israel's first president.

Dr Weizmann (pictured) was a useful man to have in Britain. Born in Belarus, he studied in Germany and Switzerland, before moving to Britain as a chemistry lecturer. If he had played no part in politics, he would have been known only in the scientific world as the Father of Industrial Fermentation.

Or, even better from the point of view of Britain, as someone who'd worked out an efficient way of producing acetone.  As this is the main ingredient in cordite, this was later a tremendous contribution to the Allied war effort.

Back in 1906, Dr Weizmann was conducting his experiments and lecturing chemistry students at the University of Manchester.  Lord Balfour was the local Member of Parliament, as well as the Prime Minister, hence it was to him that the chemist turned with his dreams for the future.

Nobody could deny that the Jews had suffered centuries of anti-Semitic persecution, throughout the world and particularly in Europe.  Balfour didn't even try.  Dr Weizmann's point was that this was possible because there was no Jewish state to defend them.  As a community marginalized in every country on Earth, it was easy to become scapegoats for each nation's ills.

Lord Balfour listened politely.  He was on a campaign trail for re-election. Just like any politician, he'd listen to anyone and anything, as long as it would gain him a vote.

Yet Balfour did have a suggestion.  Britain also owned Uganda and this wasn't the first time that a Zionist had tried to make a case for a homeland. In 1903, the Ugandan Colony Secretary Joseph Chamberlain had already offered a substantial area of it to be used as a Jewish state. 

The Zionists had turned him down; as Dr Weizmann did with Balfour mentioning the same now. They wanted the promised land of Israel and nowhere else would do.

"Mr. Balfour, supposing I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" Dr Weizmann recalled the conversation in his memoirs. 

He said that Lord Balfour sat a little straighter in his chair, as he pointed out, quite reasonably, "But Dr. Weizmann, we have London."

"That is true, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh."

Britons are used to being the ones with all of the history, so this obviously struck a chord. Lord Balfour asked, "Are there many Jews who think like you?"

"I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews," Dr Weizmann spoke earnestly, "whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves."

With a politician's eternal assessment, Lord Balfour concluded, "If that is so you will one day be a force."

Then promptly did nothing about it at all.  If promises were made, then they were vague enough to ignore. Especially since Balfour's Conservative party promptly lost that general election.

Books about Arthur, Lord Balfour and Dr Chaim Weizmann

Buy these biographies and histories to understand more about the men who came to such an agreement.

The Great War of Attrition in Europe

Both sides were equally matched. The First World War was at stalemate. Something had to give or something had to be added, or they'd be there forever.

Image: First World WarBy the time Arthur James Balfour, 1st Earl of Balfour, returned to power, Britain was at war. 

No longer leader of the Conservative Party, he was nevertheless awarded Cabinet positions in two successive coalition governments. It was as Foreign Secretary in the latter, under the leadership of Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, that the Zionist proposal surfaced again.

It didn't come out of the blue. Even with a war raging, there had been occasional discussions, meetings and even Parliamentary debates touching upon it.  In 1914, a Cabinet minister named Herbert Samuel had even distributed a memorandum urging that Palestine be offered to the Zionist Federation.

But the British High Commissioner in Egypt Sir Henry McMahon was also reassuring the Arab Ottomans that they had his country's support.  While the British and French were simultaneously signing the Sykes-Picot Agreement to divvy up the Arabic lands of the Ottoman Empire between them.

In short, everyone was playing everyone else off against each other.  This was the Great War after all.

Back in Europe, the sheer scale and carnage of the war was unprecedented. Never before had hostilities been fought on an industrial level, with weapons that could devastate in quite this way. It was also at stalemate.  Thousands would die to gain a tiny stretch of land; only to lose it again in the returning offensive the next day.

Dr Weizmann's acetone discovery was proving to be very handy.

By 1917, what Britain really wanted was for Russia to stay in the war, despite Germany arranging for Lenin to return to his homeland with enough funding and support to spark a revolution.  He had already promised the Germans that, if successful, he would pull Russia out of external hostilities.

The second game breaker would be the entrance, onto the Allied side in the Great War, of the United States of America.  President Woodrow Wilson did not appear willing.  He talked of persuading the nations involved to negotiate for 'peace without victory', which didn't sound promising at all.

But Lord Balfour had a plan.

Books about the World at the Time of the Balfour Declaration

These histories will provide a lot of context to the thinking behind Britain's support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Britain Created Israel to Win the First World War

By making Zionist dreams come true, it was possible to make two superpowers dance to Britain's tune.

Image: Flag of IsraelLord Balfour had taken seriously the impression left, by that 1906 conversation with Dr Weizmann, that there was a Jewish force out in the world, just waiting to acquire allies.  If there was one thing that Britain needed in 1917, it was allies.

Fresh in his mind was a warning, given by Dr Weizmann, that the Germans had started 'courting' the Jews. That was to persuade the 'Great Jewry' to fight for them instead.

Balfour had also noted something else about the majority of British Zionists.  They tended to be immigrants, or second generation; and it was popular amongst those who'd fled the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia during the late 19th century.  Home-grown Jews were more likely to consider themselves British. They had no interest in an Israeli nation state.

During a War Cabinet meeting, on October 31st 1917, the conversation turned to the Zionist dream of Israel.   Lord Balfour shared his opinion, "If we could make a declaration favorable to such an ideal we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America."

The largest Jewish population in the world was in Russia.  Amongst its prominent and most influential figures was Leon Trotsky.  Over 450,000 Jews were already fighting, in the Russian military, in the Great War.  Winning their hearts and minds was key.  So much so that Vladimir Lenin gave speeches himself, notably in March 1919, designed to gain even more Jewish support for the Bolshevik cause.  His party already boasted a large percentage of them.

If Britain could signal to the Jews in Russia that Israel was the prize, then they might be inclined to ensure that the Allies won the war.  There would have been much domestic pressure brought to bear upon Lenin - who had just risen to power at the head of the October Revolution - to keep Russia fighting in the Great War.

Moreover, it had not gone unnoticed amongst the higher echelons of British policy-makers that two of President Woodrow Wilson's advisers were Zionists.

Felix Frankfurter was special assistant to the US Secretary of War, as well as Judge Advocate General.  Louis Dembitz Brandeis had formed the central issues, upon which the 1912 presidential election had been fought.  When Woodrow Wilson was duly elected, he returned the favor by nominating Brandeis to the Supreme Court.

As expected, both men eventually put pressure upon President Wilson to support the Balfour Declaration.  It might not have been what brought the United States into the Great War, but it certainly provided that incentive to two very influential American politicians.

The Balfour Declaration of November 2nd 1917

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.

Discussions and Drafts of the Balfour Declaration

The letter was written after careful planning as to its precise wording.  From previous drafts and the records of meetings, we can see what led to the final version.

'...that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people' was the earliest wording. It was changed so not to commit the entire country, thus giving some wriggle room when dealing with the Ottoman Arabs.

After all, Britain did need their help with the Turks, and it didn't want trouble in Egypt.

The words 'national home' instead of 'nation state' were used, so that anti-Zionist members of the Cabinet would agree to it.

Origins of the Israel Palestinian Conflict

British and French interests started a whole chain reaction in this area of the Middle East. This is an excellent summary of what happened next.

The Latest News about Israel and Palestine

Nearly a century on, this is the situation that developed from the initial green light by the Balfour Declaration.
US restricts travel for employees in Israel amid fears of Iran attack  BBCWill Iran attack Israel? How a war could escalate  The TelegraphIranian c...
Israel’s war on Gaza live: At least 63 killed in Gaza in last 24 hours | Israel War on Gaza News  Al Jazeera English
Hamas leader repeats Gaza ceasefire call after sons and grandchildren killed  The Guardian
Jeremy Bowen: Israel denies famine looms in Gaza, but evidence is overwhelming  BBC

Books about the Conflict in Israel and Palestine

I've taken great care to choose titles which aim for objectivity in this highly emotive war. The majority of them tend to take sides.

And finally, Mark Thomas...

... as a Briton walking along the Wall now separating Israel and Palestine, Mark constantly had the Balfour Declaration thrown in his face.
Israel calls it security. The rest of the world calls it a land grab and civil rights issue. Comedian Mark Thomas walks the controversial wall.
Updated: 03/16/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 01/15/2014

I'm going to be completely honest and say that it's the early hours of the morning for me, hence I'm too tired to get into the ins and outs of Zionism, Israel and that whole history.

I've scanned your comments for appropriate language. Thank you for not sinking back into profanities. You have surprised me coming here rather than here: But otherwise I'll pick this back up tomorrow, if I have time.

Busy day. Slightly too busy to deal with pseudo-historians. But well done on finally doing some research and coming close to discovering that my BA dissertation was on the Porajmos. I'll leave you to look that one up.

john thames on 01/15/2014

Since Miss Harrington took her BA in Holohoax Studies I will begin with the following salient points. The Arabs were not responsible for the "gas chamber" hoax; the fact that Haj Amin al-Husseini engaged in minor collaboration with the Nazis does not rebut the point. The Palestinians have no responsibility for what the Germans supposedly did.

Next point. Miss Harrington knows nothing about the Holohoax. The German records of the Auschwitz concentration/labor camp, where four million Jews were supposedly murdered by the Nazis, suffered 150,000 deaths during the war from disease and typhus, plus a few shootings and hangings. No records speak of "gassings". Secret intercepts taken by British cryptographers in codes the SS though secure make no mention of the gassings supposedly taking place. Four or more forensic tests of the so-called "gas chambers" show that they were nothing more than morgues for storing typhus diseased bodies until they could be safely burned. The buildings were never properly sealed or heated to function as "gas chambers". They contain no "Prussian Blue" stain on the walls as they surely would had "gassing" actually been taking place. The forensic tests, then, and the suppressed German records buried in the Soviet archives and not presented to the kangaroo Nuremberg Court, are both telling the same story.

Nuremberg was a kangaroo court run by Jews behind the scenes. Of 3000 total personnel at the trials, 2400 were Jews. It was the Zionist Jew, David "Mickey" Marcus, who chose all the personnel for the trial. Another major Jewish player was the Wall Street investment banker, Ernst Englander. The Prussian Jew, Robert Kempner, was a prominent prosecutor. Miss Harrington thinks she "knows something" about the Holohoax. Everything she thinks she knows is wrong.

john thames on 01/15/2014

The basic idea behind Zionism was the incompatibility of Jew and gentile. Chaim Weizmann once stated that 'whenever the number of Jews exceeded the saturation point in any country, "that country inevitably reacted against them. It was a universal law of history that could not be confused with anti-Semitism in the ordinary and vulgar sense." The Zionist movement grew up side by side with the Communist movement in the Czarist empire. The basic division in ranks was: Jewish Communism in Russia or Jewish Communism in Palestine.

The early Jewish Zionists in Palestine were Labor Socialist Marxists, many of them members of Dov Ber Borochov's Poale-Zion Party. One of the many motivations of His Majesty's Government in issuing the Balfour Declaration was to wean the Jews away from Marxist agitation by promising them a home in Palestine. These facts are today generally forgotten because conservative sell-outs to the Zionists wish to pretend that Israel is an expression of western values, something it most assuredly is not.

john thames on 01/15/2014

Although Palestine never had an independent political existence, the claim that the Palestinans were merely immigrants from other lands or immigrants from Egypt in the mid-19th century, is nonsense. It is standard Zionist propaganda. The farmers of Palestine were exporting grain to France in the 17th and 18th centuries to avert starvation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Palestinian cotton was a principal Palestinian export crop. When American cotton was cut off from England during the American Civil War, the British got their cotton from Arab Palestine. Please note that the first Zionist colony in Palestine, Petakh Nivah, the Gate of Hope, was not established until 1878 when it was abandoned and then restarted following the assassination of Czar Alexander Two.

The ancient Jews were only one of many peoples in Palestine and were never the sole nor exclusive occupants of the land. The Greeks, Romans and others were also in Palestine - and were there even longer than the Jews. Although mainstream Zionist historians will deny it, Russian Jewry is in act descended from Khazars and Slavs converted to Judaism from 740 to 969 A.D. They have no right to "return" to a land they were never in. Besides, ancient history does not give title in the modern world. The Arabs are not entitled to an Arab state in Spain because of the Moorish occupation.

Zionism is nonsense - and the only reason anyone pays attention to it is because all the politicians are owned by Jewish money.

JoHarrington on 04/03/2013

I think it's beautifully presented with some great points, but it's also heavily weighted towards a pro-Israeli point of view. It begins by saying 'don't blame one side or the other', then promptly does so.

T on 04/03/2013

This video clears up some of the common misconceptions regarding the Palestinian- Israeli conflict. I suggest that everyone watch this and share it. I saw it today on Facebook and decided to share it with you. Please tell me what you think.

JoHarrington on 12/01/2012

That's the thing with history, the reverberations go on and on. This is where the true butterfly effect takes place, though in this case it was a little more than insect flapping its wings.

Thank you for your take on this.

JoHarrington on 11/24/2012

You're very welcome. :)

kate on 11/24/2012

this is a great intro to the troubles, thank you

JoHarrington on 11/22/2012

Part 2

3, I'm totally with you in all that you've said here. If the Jews had accepted Uganda at the time, then the same situation could well be playing out with Ugandans instead of Arabs on the other side of it. It was a proposal which was intensely debated in the Zionist Federation, at the beginning of the 20th century, but ultimately turned down. I can understand why, for all of the reasons that you've already outlined.

I should declare something here, which probably hasn't cropped up in conversation before. I'm British and usually concerned with British history, but that isn't to say that I'm brand new to these issues.

My BA dissertation was about the Holocaust. For many years, I organized Holocaust Memorial Day at the local University. It was my job to arrange special guests and speakers, book the hall and produce the marketing, as well as sell tickets. On the evening, I would meet our main speaker, who was always a survivor of a death camp, then take them out for dinner.

I've seen those terrible tattoos first hand and heard stories which never made it into the history books. I'm not anti-Jewish.

I also had a Palestinian friend, who grew up on the West Bank. I was with her during the Battle of Jenin. Though she was safely out of there now, her grandmother was in the middle of it. She was terrified, not knowing if her Nan was alive or dead. I've heard stories from her which never made it into the newspapers. I've not anti-Palestinian.

I can see the point of view on both sides of the equation; and I'll condemn human rights abuses on whichever side that they are committed. The only country for which I'll cut no slack is my own.

The British acted appallingly in all of this; and it's not like the Lloyd-George government didn't know the likely outcome. We've had Ulster demonstrating quite bloodily for the past 400 years.

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