It is no exaggeration that the history of Israel/Palestine for the last hundred years has turned on the seminal Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Loved and loathed in equal measure, this was the letter that changed the future.
The following extract from the ‘Companion Guide’ to the Balfour Project film, ‘Britain in Palestine, 1917-1948’ highlights the pivotal event. Concise, but thoroughly documented, the article explains its origins, and why members of the War Cabinet were predominantly disposed to make a commitment to a ‘Jewish National Home in Palestine’, despite opposition from many Jews. What was the role of Chaim Weizmann? What were the lesser-known ‘safeguarding clauses’ of the declaration, and why were they included? How did the writers of the declaration view the Arab majority living in the land in question?
Here is one essential first step to comprehending the deep-seated strife between Israelis and Palestinians.
This is just one of the many topics covered in the Companion Guide so do buy a copy.
The Balfour Declaration
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 the fruit of twelve months’ negotiations between a group of British Zionist leaders and British government officials, the latter guided by a remarkable mixture of imperial Realpolitik and ‘Restorationist’ feelings. By 1914, the persuasive, Russian-born president of the English Zionist Federation, Chaim Weizmann, was on familiar terms with half the British cabinet. But it was only after David Lloyd George became Prime Minister at the end of 1916 that the Zionist cause made real headway.
In addition to Lloyd George, some other cabinet members supported the Zionist vision, including Balfour (Foreign Secretary), Lord Milner (former imperial consul in Africa) – as well as a large group of Foreign Office officials and government advisors which included Sir Mark Sykes. They saw substantial advantages in the creation of a pro-British Jewish Palestine in a post-war Empire.
Underpinning their strategic concerns was a romantic/biblical appeal of the return of the Jews to Zion, part of their evangelical Victorian upbringing, although many of them were agnostic. They had an exaggerated view of the wealth and influence of World Jewry and hoped that Britain’s official adoption of Zionism would increase support for the Allied cause in the USA and Russia. However America had already joined the war in April 1917 and the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in October 1917 in effect meant Russia was no longer a useful ally.
Cabinet members Lord Curzon and Edwin Montagu (Secretary of State for India and a non-Zionist Jew) opposed the Declaration, but were out-voted. The House of Commons was not consulted.