Balfour Declaration

100 Years Ago: Great Britain promises Palestinians’ Land to Jews

On November 2, 1917, in the middle of World War I, the British government announced, after months of deliberation and public controversies: “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.”

This is the major message of the Balfour Declaration, termed after the then Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930).

Great Britain’s Motives Behind the Balfour Declaration

Relevant motives may have been: (1) Defence against immigrants, (2) England’s imperial policy, (3) defence against bolshevism, and (4) Anglican Zionism.

  1. Defence against immigrants: After more than 100,000 Jewish immigrants from the Czarist empire had come to Great Britain since 1880, the nationalistic British Brothers’ League was formed in 1902 (»England for the English!«) achieving a restrictive immigration law in 1905 and that, already in 1903, the British government, for redirecting immigration, offered a stretch of land in Kenia to Herzl’s Zionist movement as a Jewish national home (“Uganda plan”). This was rejected by the Zionist movement after some considerations. What remained to Jews from the Czarist empire as their goal of immigration was America, particularly the U.S.A.: About 2 millions of European Jews, most of them from the Czarist empire, immigrated there between 1880 and 1914. With this tide becoming interrupted by World War I, Great Britain had to worry about again becoming the goal of a wave of refugees from the revolutionary Russian empire, afflicted with civil war and pogroms.
  2. Imperial policy: Great Britain’s wealth depended on its colonies, and above all on huge India. The trade route to India ran through the Mediterranean, via the British posts Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus, then through the Suez Canal. Egypt already was Britain’s half-colony. Securing also the Canal’s Eastern hinterland was on the agenda. This was Palestine, belonging to the Ottoman empire. Smashing this empire was one of Great Britain’s major aims in World War I. This aim was detailed in collusion with France by the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, and sealed after the war by the League of Nations.
  3. Defence against bolshevism: Winston Churchill wrote in a journal essay in 1920: Having given the world its best, Christianity, Jewry is about to give it its worst, too: bolshevism. As he wrote, this danger had to be tackled by replacing the Jews’ inclination to socialism with healthy nationalism: Zionism. This view was widespread among British conservative politicians.
  4. Anglican Zionism: In the reformed Anglican church, the “evangelical” notion was widespread that Jews would convert to Christianity when having “returned” to “their” country and that then Jesus Christ would return (cf. Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Land of Israel, 2013). David Lloyd George, prime minister 1916-1922 and driving force behind the Balfour Declaration, had grown up as a religious evangelical.

After the World War had ended, Great Britain, in accord with the Declaration, made the League of Nations provide a mandate in 1922 for administrating this region of the Ottoman empire, encompassing today’s Israel, the Jordan’s West Bank, and the Gaza strip, in order to build the Jewish national home. This became decisive for establishing the state of Israel on part of this area in 1948.

Jews’ contributions to the Balfour Declaration
By far not all Jews were then in favour of the Declaration. Yet the proponents made an impact in England. The Declaration was addressed to the Zionist movement, which had become an organised movement among Jews in the Czarist empire since 1881 and had found its political form in 1897 as World Zionist Organization by the bustling and networking Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl. The Zionist organization’s representative in England was Chaim Weizmann, a professor of chemistry born in the Czarist empire. The way for the declaration was paved by Herbert Samuel, Jewish member of the British government 1909-1916. Already in 1914, he devised the memorandum The Future of Palestine: A Jewish state was to arise in areas of the Ottoman empire. Yet, since the Muslim majority could not be ruled by a Jewish minority, British governance would make sense until Jews would have immigrated in such numbers that they could become autonomous rulers. In 1922, Samuel became Great Britain’s first High Commissioner of the mandate area.

Opponents to the Declaration were the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, David Lindo Alexander, and the founder of reform Judaism in Great Britain and of the World Union of Progressive Jews, Claude Montefiore. In a common letter to the London Times in May 1917, they rejected political Zionism and warned against giving privileges to Jewish settlers in Palestine over the Arab population. This article was disapproved by a narrow majority of the Board of Deputies, making Alexander resign from his post. But also Edwin Montagu, a cousin of Herbert Samuel’s and member of the British government since July 1917, was a decisive and passionate opponent of the Declaration because, as he argued, the “national home Palestine” would make Jews becoming foreigners in their proper home countries, would lead to disadvantages and expulsion of non-Jewish people living in Palestine, and would promote blinkered, self-referential tendencies within Judaism.
Due to his intervention, the Balfour Declaration was phrased to say 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 consequences
Unfortunately, these stipulations proved inefficient in the long term. Rather, many things happened that “prejudiced the rights” of the Arab population in Palestine. Likewise, many things happened that “prejudiced the rights and status of Jews in any other country”: Large parts of European Jewry were annihilated. While this was not due to the Balfour Declaration, the existence of the Jewish national home in an Arab population’s home country did not provide sufficient protection against that annihilation either, above all because the indigenous population’s resistance against Jewish immigration, perceived as colonialist hostile takeover, forced the British mandate power to massively restrict that immigration, exactly in the era of 1933 to 1945 when the need for a safe haven was most urgent.
A sad climax in direct consequence of the Balfour Declaration was the Naqba 1947/48 which was the expulsion and expropriation of about 750,000 people when the British mandate rule ended.

Suggested further information
A book published in German a few weeks ago deals with these events and their background in Czarist empire: Rolf Verleger: 100 Jahre Heimatland? Judentum und Israel zwischen Nächstenliebe und Nationalismus (Westend, Frankfurt/M, 2017).

The British “Independent Jewish Voices” have filmed a contemporary critical evaluation of the Balfour Declaration. A trailer may be seen here, and an evaluation was published by Mondoweiss.

The present Earl of Balfour, great-grandson of A.J. Balfour’s brother, wrote a letter to the New York Times in February 2017 where he states (incorrectly) that humanistic motives had been the major reason of the Balfour Declaration but also (quite rightly) points to the urgent need from a humanistic point of view for changing the situation created by the Declaration.