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History of the Balfour Declaration

Lord Balfour
Lord Rothschild

Who Gets the Credit?
Nahum Sokolow’s Diplomacy
Palestine is Divided
International Recognition

On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild. The contents of this letter became known as the Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.

Why did Britain issue the declaration?

The answer is the subject to debate. One argument is that the British wanted to reward the Zionist leader most active in lobbying for a declaration, Chaim Weizmann, because of his invention of a process for producing acetone, which was used in the manufacture of explosives critical to the Allied war effort in World War I.

A second explanation is that the British desperately needed the United States to enter the war and some officials had an essentially anti-Semitic view that American Jews had a great deal of influence with the government and would rally support for England. They calculated that support for a Jewish home would make those Jews happy and encourage them to lobby the government to join the war against Germany and its allies. Some also feared that Germany would act first and make its own pro-Zionist declaration. Historian Tom Segev suggested that Weizmann might have exploited this attitude: “For once, the anti-Semitic image of the Jews proved useful – they were believed to be so maliciously dangerous that one would do best to acquire them as allies rather than as enemies.”

Segev suggests a third reason for British sympathy toward Zionism. He argues that, as religious Christians, Britain’s leaders, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Lord Balfour, admired the Jews and believed the Holy Land was their spiritual home. “Modern Zionism, they believed, would fulfill a divine promise and resettle the Jews in the land of their ancient fathers.”

A fourth reason Britain may have embraced Zionism was to justify its entitlement to Palestine when it came time to divide the spoils of war. By positioning themselves as the promotors of a Jewish homeland they could rationalize the superiority of their claim to Palestine over the French.

According to historian Benny Morris, Balfour said “he had been motivated by a desire to do something for the Jews, because they had suffered greatly at the hands of the Christian world during the previous 1,900 years and because of the values and norms, including monotheism and the notions of social justice, that they had bestowed on humankind through the Old Testament.”

Who Gets the Credit?

Ze’ev Jabotinsky was among those who credited Weizmann for his role:

The declaration is the personal achievement of one man alone: Dr. Chaim Weizmann. Four years of patient and calculated work established the link between us and each one of the statesmen in this country. The important people of England speak openly of his personal charm as one of the most effective factors in Zionist propaganda in England. The endorsement of Zionism by most of the Rothschilds in London is also due to his influence. . .. In our history, the declaration will remain linked to the name of Weizmann.

As early as 1914, Weizmann had concluded the Allies would win the war and hoped that Palestine would fall within England’s sphere of influence because the British were more likely to support the Zionists and Jewish settlement there. Weizmann met with Prime Minister Lloyd George and Herbert Samuel and told the editor of the Manchester Guardian that Samuel had spoken about a plan to establish a Jewish community in Palestine under the British protectorate.

Nahum Sokolow’s Diplomacy

Historian Martin Kramer argues that another Zionist leader, Nahum Sokolow, may deserve more credit than Weizmann. “He accomplished what many thought impossible,” according to Kramer. “During the spring of 1917, he secured the explicit or tacit assent of the French and Italian governments, and even of the Catholic pope, to a Jewish ‘national home’ under British auspices.”

Kramer also answers the question as to why the Zionists focused their lobbying on Britain. He said they were convinced their best hope for support came from the British because it was the only country in Europe where they had significant influence among key officials. Britain was also the only country that had the “mix of strategic interests, military power, and political will to enforce its writ in Palestine.”

In 1916, however, the Zionists had a problem, though they did not know it. The British and French had already planned to divide up Palestine in the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Zionists got a break, however, when David Lloyd George became prime minister of Britain and decided the deal should be revised to give Britain control over more of Palestine. Sir Mark Sykes subsequently met with leaders of the Zionist movement, including Sokolow and Weizmann, and told them Britain might offer some form of recognition if they could overcome French opposition to a foothold in Palestine. Sokolow was chosen to represent the Zionists in a meeting with François Georges-Picot.

Sokolow held a series of talks with Picot in London and other officials in Paris, including Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot. Sokolow tried various arguments, suggesting the Zionists preferred British protection and that backing the Zionist cause would win support from Jews in Russia and the United States. After the French expressed sympathy, Sokolow asked for a statement in writing. On June 4, 1917, Jules Cambon, secretary-general of the foreign ministry wrote a letter to Sokolow that stated:

You were good enough to present the project to which you are devoting your efforts, which has for its object the development of Jewish colonization in Palestine. You consider that, circumstances permitting, and the independence of the Holy Places being safeguarded on the other hand, it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality [nationalité juive] in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.
The French government, which entered this present war to defend a people wrongly attacked, and which continues the struggle to assure the victory of right over might, can but feel sympathy for your cause, the triumph of which is bound up with that of the Allies.
I am happy to give you herewith such assurance.

The language in this letter is stronger than what Balfour later wrote as it speaks of the “justice” of the Zionist cause and acknowledges the historical Jewish connection to the land. It also omitted any mention to the rights of non-Jews. By obtaining French support, Sokolow had made it difficult for the British to do any less.

The French also urged Sokolow to seek the support of the Catholic Church. This was a seemingly hopeless idea since Pope Pius X had told Theodor Herzl in 1904 that “the Jews have not recognized our Lord, therefore we cannot recognize the Jewish people.” Pope Benedict XV, however, told Sokolow the return of the Jews to Palestine was “providential; God has willed it.” They exchanged vows to respect the rights of Jews and Catholics to their holy places eliminating a possible major source of opposition to the Zionist enterprise. The Italian government added its support, allowing Sokolow to return to London with the unexpected backing of two of Britain’s war allies.

Sokolow had also cultivated a key ally in the United States, Louis Brandeis, who lobbied for support of the draft of the Balfour Declaration. Despite widespread hostility toward Zionism, President Woodrow Wilson decided in October 1917 he would endorse the language though he did make his views public until August 1918 in a letter to Stephen Wise.

Without the support of the French and Americans it is unlikely the opposition of British anti-Zionists to any expression of support for a Jewish homeland could have been surmounted. Once the Balfour Declaration was announced, Sokolow and his colleagues succeeded in securing endorsements from France, Italy, Japan, China, Siam and the United States.

The decisive cabinet meeting to discuss the future of post-Ottoman Palestine was held on October 31, 1917. Weizmann, and the head of the NILI Jewish intelligence organization, Aaron Aaronsohn, were invited to be present in the anteroom. When Sykes emerged from the meeting, he announced, “It’s a boy,” and Weizmann and Aaronsohn were invited to shake hands with Prime Minister George, Foreign Minister Balfour, and other cabinet ministers.

Palestine is Divided

Zionist celebrations following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration proved premature. In 1921, Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill severed nearly four-fifths of Palestine — some 35,000 square miles — to create a brand new Arab entity, Transjordan. This was a betrayal of Balfour as acknowledged by the Peel Commission, appointed by the British Government to investigate the cause of the 1936 Arab riots. The commission wrote that the field in which the Jewish National Home was to be established was understood, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, to be the whole of historic Palestine, including Transjordan. The Zionists had no recourse and had to focus their attention on ensuring the international community would endorse the concept of a Jewish national home.

In 1921, the British also convened meetings in Cairo and Jerusalem to resolve the conflicting policies defined in the Hussein-McMahon letters (1915), the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) and the Balfour Declaration (1917). During the conference, it was agreed that Lebanon and Syria should remain under French control and that Britain should maintain the mandate over Palestine and continue to support the establishment of a Jewish Homeland there. The British also made the crowning of Abdullah bin Hussein as ruler of Transjordan conditional on his acceptance of a Jewish national home within western Palestine and rejected his demand for control over Palestine. T.E. Lawrence, then an advisor to Churchill, also secured a pledge from Abdullah’s brother Faisal that “all necessary measures” would be taken “to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.”

Churchill also met with an Arab delegation that protested the Balfour Declaration, the appointment of a Jew (Herbert Samuel) as High Commissioner for Palestine and the draft Mandate for Palestine. Churchill responded that the Balfour Declaration had been ratified by the Allied Powers and was an established fact. He added, the national home for the Jews would be “good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire ... good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine.” He said that Palestine would remain the home of people beside Jews and that Britain had no intention of setting up a Jewish government to dominate the Arabs. Churchill also defended the appointment of Samuel, which he said was based on his training and experience.

International Recognition

The British had no right to determine the future of Palestine; however, the League of Nations gave the Balfour Declaration international legitimacy when it was incorporated in the Mandate for Palestine, which specifically referred to the historical connections of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the moral validity of reconstituting their National Home in that country. The term reconstituting shows recognition of the fact that Palestine had been the Jews’ home. Furthermore, the British were instructed to use their best endeavors to facilitate Jewish immigration, to encourage settlement on the land and to secure the Jewish National Home. The word Arab does not appear in the Mandatory award. The Mandate was formalized by the 52 governments at the League of Nations on July 24, 1922.

The United States was not a member of the League; however, the U.S. Congress adopted a resolution endorsing the Balfour Declaration on September 21, 1922, which was signed by President Warren Harding. President Herbert Hoover reiterated America’s support in 1932 as did President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937.

In April 2017, the British government rejected a Palestinian request to apologize for the Balfour Declaration:

The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel…. The Declaration was written in a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the First World War and in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. In that context, establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.

Kramer summarizes the importance of the Balfour Declaration:

The Balfour Declaration was not the isolated act of one nation. It was approved in advance by the Allied powers whose consensus then constituted the only source of international legitimacy. Before Balfour signed his declaration, leaders and statesmen of other democratic nations signed their names on similar letters and assurances. The Balfour Declaration anticipated a world regulated by a consortium of principal powers—the same world that, 30 years later, would pass a UN resolution legitimating the establishment of a Jewish state….The poetic simplicity of the Balfour Declaration resides in its presumption that a home for the Jews in their land needs no justification.

Sources: Martin Kramer, “The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration,” Mosaic, (June 5, 2017);
“British government rejects Palestinian request to apologize for Balfour Declaration,” JTA, (April 25, 2017).
Tom Segev, “‘View With Favor,’” New York Times, (August, 20, 2010);
Azriel Bermant, “Chaim Weizmann, the Guardian and the Balfour Declaration,” Fathom, (Summer 2017);
Efraim Halevy, “‘Mack’: Aaron Aaronsohn, the NILI intelligence network and the Balfour Declaration,” Fathom, (Sumer 2017);
“Cairo Conference (1921), Wikipedia;
Benny Morris, “The War on History,” Jewish Review of Books, (Spring 2020).