On This Day: Balfour Declaration

Lord Balfour's desk, in the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv
Lord Balfour's desk, in the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv

1917: The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government during World War I announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a minority Jewish population. It read:

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.

The declaration was contained in a letter dated 2 November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The text of the declaration was published in the press on 9 November 1917.

The British War Cabinet began to consider the future of Palestine immediately following their declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914. During the lead up to the declaration, the wider war had reached a stalemate, with two of Britain’s Allies and Associated Powers not fully engaged: the United States had yet to suffer a casualty, and the Russians were distracted by internal upheaval. The first high level negotiation between the British and the Zionists can be dated to a conference on 7 February 1917 that included Sir Mark Sykes and the Zionist leadership. Subsequent discussions led to Balfour’s request, on 19 June, that Rothschild and Chaim Weizmann submit a draft of a public declaration. Further drafts were discussed by the British Cabinet during September and October, with input from Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews but with no representation from the local population in Palestine. The release of the final declaration was authorised by 31 October; the preceding Cabinet discussion had referenced perceived propaganda benefits amongst the worldwide Jewish community for the Allied war effort.

The opening words of the declaration represented the first expression of public support for Zionism by a major political power. The term “national home” had no precedent in international law, and was intentionally vague as to whether a Jewish state was contemplated. The intended boundaries of Palestine were not specified, and the British government later confirmed that the words “in Palestine” meant that the Jewish national home was not intended to cover all of Palestine. The second half of the declaration was added to satisfy opponents of the policy, who had claimed that it would otherwise prejudice the position of the local population of Palestine and encourage antisemitism against Jews worldwide. Whilst the declaration called for political rights in Palestine for Jews, rights for the Palestinian Arabs, who comprised the vast majority of the local population, were limited to the civil and religious spheres. The British government acknowledged in 1939 that the local population’s views should have been taken into account, and recognized in 2017 that the declaration should have called for protection of the Palestinian Arabs’ political rights.

The declaration had many long-lasting consequences. It greatly increased popular support for Zionism, and led to the creation of Mandatory Palestine, which later became Israel and the Palestinian territories. As a result it is considered to have caused the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict, often described as the world’s most intractable conflict. Controversy remains over a number of areas, such as whether the declaration contradicted earlier promises the British made to the Sharif of Mecca in the McMahon–Hussein correspondence.

War Life