By Ron D. Hart, Ph.D.
The Balfour Declaration was promulgated one hundred years ago on November 2, 1917, and it was the first time that a major European power publicly supported the creation of a modern independent Jewish state in its homeland. It was an important factor in changing 2,000 years of Jewish history, leading to the creation of the modern state of Israel.
The Balfour Declaration has its roots in the Zionist movement that had been spreading across Europe from the late 1800s, supporting the return of Jews to Zion, and the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state. The Zionist movement was supported by groups ranging from Socialists to religious Jews. Throughout the years of the Diaspora after the Roman destruction, Jews had remained in the lands of Israel under both Christian and Muslim rule, but in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s there was an increased migration of Jews returning to Zion.
The Austrian journalist Theodore Herzl (1860-1904) started the movement encouraging Jews from all over the world to migrate to Palestine. Anti-Semitic events such as the Dreyfus Affair and a new round of anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia fueled the conviction that Jews would only be safe in their own homeland. For decades, most European Jewish migrants had gone to the United States, but in 1924 that changed when the US drastically restricted migration, essentially cutting off that route. As a result, European Jewish migration increasingly turned toward Israel.
In Britain, the Zionist movement was led by Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew living in Manchester, who was active in gaining support for the movement in the U.K. In 1917, Britain and France were mired in a stalemate with Germany on the battlefield, and efforts to defeat the Ottoman Empire had failed. Concurrently, the Czarist government was collapsing, and the British were focused upon the key roles that Jews were playing in that process and in the shaping of a new government.
The motivations influencing the British government to come out publicly in support of a Jewish national homeland have been debated. They range from a belief in the moral correctness of the Zionist movement to the hope that a policy favoring the movement would gain Jewish support for the British war effort from countries with large Jewish populations, such as the United States and Russia.
Furthermore, Britain and France came to an understanding that they would divide spheres of influence in the lands of the Ottoman Empire after its defeat. The British Prime Minister Lloyd George wanted control of the region around the Suez Canal, including Palestine and Egypt to secure the Canal and the communication route to India. Creating a Western-oriented Jewish state under the control of the British along with their presence in Egypt would secure the region for them.
The policy to create a Jewish state was debated within the government, and its opposition was led by the Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, who was Jewish. He argued out of concern for protecting existing Jewish populations. He stated that such a policy could lead to opposition movements in countries that had large Jewish communities from the Middle East, and that it might endanger Jewish lives.
He was correct about the opposition among Arabs to this policy and the conflicts that it engendered with Jews living in the region. Montagu’s argument was overruled by Lloyd George, who subsequently got commitments of support from France, the United States, Italy, and the Vatican. Everything was in place for the announcement of the new policy.
The Balfour Declaration
On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour wrote to Baron Lionel Rothschild, a prominent British citizen, who was a Zionist and a friend of Chaim Weizmann, to commit the British government’s support for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine.
In the letter Balfour said, “His Majesty’s Government view 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.”
The statement was vague and short on details, but it was a statement of support for a Jewish homeland. Five days later, on November 7, the Bolsheviks took over the government of Russia and eventually withdrew from the war. Almost exactly one year later, on November 11, 1918, the war ended.
The Effect on Jewish Life
The Balfour Declaration, combined with the growing anti-Semitism in post-war Europe and the closing of Jewish immigration by the United States, strengthened the Zionist movement and migration to Palestine. The population grew from 80,000 to 650,000 between 1914 and 1948. Founded in 1909, Tel Aviv grew quickly to 15,000 in 1922, 40,000 in 1931 and 200,000 by 1948.
The declaration had the effect of creating a path that eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel, but it was also an element contributing to the conflict between Arabs and Jews. With the British support for a Jewish homeland, Arabs assumed that it was an anti-Arab policy, and, in contrast, many Zionists saw it as Divine intervention that would return Jews to the Promised Land.
Along with the Balfour Declaration, the British supported the creation of many new states in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel. Although Arab nationalists supported the establishment of their own individual countries, most were opposed to a separate country for Israel saying that Jews had always lived with Arabs in a pluralistic society, and there was no need for a separate Jewish homeland. Israel was the last of the new states to be created in the region.
The British Mandate and the Implementation of the Balfour Declaration
After World War I ended, the Allied powers (Britain, France, Italy, Greece, Japan, and Belgium) met in San Remo, Italy in April, 1920. The Ottoman Empire was being replaced by a new nationalist government of Turkey, which essentially gave up claim to its Middle Eastern territories. The Allies carved up those lands, granting Great Britain the mandate over what is today Israel and Jordan, and authorized it to implement the Balfour Declaration. The League of Nations confirmed the British Mandate for Palestine.
As Montagu had predicted, Arab protests began in Jerusalem within days of the decision at San Remo conference to implement the Balfour Declaration. Throughout the next twenty years, Palestinians, led by Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and others, fought against Jews. In 1921, 1924, and from 1926-28, a series of violent confrontations left hundreds dead.
In the Hebron Massacre of 1929, Jewish-Palestinian tensions reached a boiling point as Arabs attacked Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses, killing sixty-seven and driving the rest of the Jews out of Hebron, leaving the city without Jews for the first time in centuries. Between 1936 and 1938, a major Palestinian revolt left thousands of Arabs and Jews dead in three years of intense fighting.
After the Nazis came into power in Germany, some Arab leaders wanted the anti-Jewish programs of the Nazis to be extended to the Middle East. Haj Amin al-Husseini traveled to Germany and met with Adolf Hitler in a bid for Nazi assistance against the Jews in Palestine, but Hitler did not favor getting involved in the region.
Creating the Jewish National Homeland
The Balfour Declaration came to fruition when the United Nations voted in 1947 to create the state of Israel, partitioning the land between a Jewish state along the coast and an Arab state along the West Bank of the Jordan River. Arab groups refused to accept the partition.
The quick British decision to withdraw from Palestine by 1948 without having a workable solution between the new Jewish and Arab states left the two groups to fight among themselves over the division of land, starting the conflict still alive decades later.
With the establishment of the state of Israel, a number of Arab countries, including Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and others, expelled their Jewish populations or created hostile environments that forced Jews to leave. These expulsions on short notice meant that Jewish families lost businesses, homes, and other properties. This began an emigration of one million Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from Arab lands to Israel, Europe, and the Americas.
The Balfour Declaration was one of the mileposts on the road to the creation of the modern state of Israel. Like many political declarations, the reasons behind it were complex, and some were self-serving, but it was a key political anchor that set in motion a process that would lead to the British Mandate and eventually to the creation of the state of Israel.