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November 02, 2002

November 2, 1917 - Balfour Declaration Day

"The establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People"

The complete text of the Balfour Declaration is as follows:

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.

Brief notes on the background to the Balfour Declaration

When the foreign minister of a major imperial power issues a major declaration, you can assume that preceding the declaration were endless disputes, discussions and considerations. The Balfour Declaration of Novermber 2, 1917, was no different.

An almost-comprehensive list of the British considerations that led to the Balfour Declaration is given in an essay posted by Ronald Stockton, Professor of Political Science, University of Michigan-Dearborn, from which the following quotation is extracted:
In America, President Wilson was reelected in 1916 on the slogan "He kept us out of war." Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was an outspoken pacifist. American public opinion opposed entry into the war. The British wanted America in the war and were convinced that Jewish influence could make a difference.
In February 1917 the Russian Revolution occurred and the new government threatened to take Russia out of the war. (This was the first of two revolutions. The Second Revolution in November brought Communists to power). Russian neutrality would have allowed Germany to concentrate its armies on the Western Front, a disaster for the Allies. Many British leaders were convinced the Russian revolutionary government of Alexander Kerensky was run by Jews (Kerensky himself was Jewish) and that by appealing to them as Jews they could keep Russia in the war. They also feared Germany was about to declare support for a Jewish state.

In 1916, Britain began negotiating a deal with Zionists: British support for a Jewish homeland in exchange for Zionist support for the war. The Balfour Declaration was issued in November, 1917, pledging Britain to support a Jewish "homeland" in Palestine. What the word "homeland" meant was unclear since Britain also committed itself to protect the rights of non-Jewish inhabitants, including their "civil" rights, a term that implied the right to participate in political decisions.
Surely, considerations associated with WW I, which in 1917 was going very badly for the Allies, was the overriding consideration. But the picture is much more complicated, as detailed by David Fromkin in his book,

David Fromkin. A Peace to End All Peace. New York: Avon Books, 1989.

As told by Fromkin, there was a group among the British policy-makers who had genuine sympathy for the Jewish people and genuine empathy with the long history of suffering that the nations of the world inflicted on the Jews. Having become acquainted with the Zionist enterprise in Palestine, these policy-makers were impressed by its achievements and practitioners, a conspicuous example of a Jewish Palestinian Zionist being Aaron Aaronsohn: scientist, farmer and organizer of a spy-ring for the British.

This viewpoint of genuine sympathy gains credibility from the writings of Richard Meinertzhagen, a British intelligence officer on the staff of General Allenby, and later a London desk-officer with the British government (and a Christian of Danish origin).

As a public servant in the War Office, Meinertzhagen considered it his duty to execute the official British policy. At a meeting on February 7, 1918, he therefore queried Lord Balfour, the foreign minister, as to the meaning of the Balfour Declaration, which was issued only three months earlier. Meinhertzhagen recorded Balfour’s response and the subsequent discussion:

“[Balfour:] ‘Both the Prime Minister [David Lloyd George] and myself have been influenced by a desire to give the Jews their rightful place in the world; a great nation without a home is not right.' I said I was glad to hear that. I then asked, 'At the back of your mind do you regard this declaration as a charter for ultimate Jewish sovereignty in Palestine or are you trying to graft a Jewish population on to an Arab Palestine?' Balfour waited some time before he replied, choosing his words carefully. '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’.
[Quoted from p. 9 of:

Meinertzhagen, Colonel Richard. Middle East Diaries, 1917-1956. London: Crescent Press,1959.]

I emphasize this point because in the cynical world in which we live, not enough attention is paid to the small rivulets of genuine goodwill and support for the Zionist enterprise on the part of non-Jews. If channelled, these rivulets may amount to a mighty river.

No discussion of the Balfour Declaration, regardless of how brief, can conclude without reference to the anti-Zionist sentiments and obstruction on the part of certain segments of the Jewish population. Fromkin, p. 294, states:

[T]he proposal that Balfour should issue his pro-Zionist declaration suddenly encountered opposition that brought it to a halt. The opposition came from leading figures in the British Jewish community. Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, led the opposition group within the Cabinet. He, along with his cousin, Herbert Samuel, and Rufus Isaacs (Lord Reading) had broken new ground for their co-religionists: they had been the first Jews to sit in a British Cabinet. The second son of a successful financier who had been ennobled, Montagu saw Zionism as a threat to the position in British society that he and his family had so recently, and with so much exertion, attained. Judaism, he argued, was a religion, not a nationality, and to say otherwise was to say that he was less than 100 percent British... It bothered Montagu that, despite his lack of religious faith, he could not avoid being categorized as a Jew. He was the millionaire son of an English lord, but was driven to lament that "I have been striving all my life to escape from the Ghetto.”

The evidence suggested that in his non-Zionism, Montagu was speaking for a majority of Jews. As of 1913, the last date for which there were figures, only about one percent of the world's Jews had signified their adherence to Zionism.
Eventually, Montagu’s opposition was overcome, but with a greatly watered-down version of the originally-drafted Declaration.

Nonetheless, the Balfour Declaration is a milestone in the process of the Jewish people rebuilding their nationhood. The Declaration was approved by the US government as well as by the governments of other principal countries. This meant that the movement of Jewish national revival was recognized internationally at the Paris Peace Talks, leading the way to the British Mandate over Palestine, and to the next phase of large-scale Jewish immigration to Palestine.

May Israel fourish.

Contributed by Joseph Alexander Norland