Balfour Declaration

Balfour Declaration effect
Balfour Declaration effect

The Balfour Declaration was a statement by the British government regarding Zionist aspirations for the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine. The statement took the form of a public letter from Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British foreign secretary, to Lord Rothschild, a prominent British Zionist and member of the renowned banking family.

After many preliminary drafts the final statement, issued on November 2, 1917, read that His Majesty's government viewed "with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."

It went on to say that the British government would use its "best endeavours" to achieve that goal and that nothing should be done to prejudice "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews" in other nations.

Chaim Weizmann, a leading figure in the World Zionist Organization and a skillful diplomat, had been instrumental in securing British support for a Jewish state. Weizmann was a personal friend of Balfour's and had met with many key British officials to gain their sympathy for a Jewish state.

There were many motivations for the British to issue the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Some Christian Zionists supported a Jewish state for religious and moral reasons. But most government officials supported the declaration for political and wartime reasons.

It was hoped that the declaration would encourage Russia to stay in the war in spite of the revolutionary upheaval at the time. Some also thought the statement would prod the United States, where some key Zionists, especially Louis Brandeis of the Supreme Court, had important positions, to enter the war.

However, the arguments that a Jewish state would support Britain in the Middle East and help to protect the vital Suez Canal were probably paramount in convincing many in the British cabinet to support the declaration.

Because most people in the West knew little or nothing about Palestine, many assumed that there were only a few non-Jews in Palestine and that their civil and religious (but not political) rights should be protected.

However, in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was issued, Palestinian Arabs, a mix of Muslims and Christians, made up over 80 percent of the population in Palestine. It was a predominantly agricultural society, and most people lived in settled villages. Palestinian Arabs and Arab nationalists, especially Sherif Husayn, immediately expressed their opposition to the Balfour Declaration.

Sherif Husayn also argued that the statement contradicted the earlier Sherif Husayn– McMahon correspondence regarding the creation of an Arab state. But the Balfour Declaration did not mention the Palestinian Arab population by name, and they remained largely invisible to the Western world.

Interestingly, some Jews also opposed the statement. Sir Edwin Montagu, a British Jew and secretary of state for India, opposed the creation of a Jewish state on the grounds that it would raise problems of dual nationality and might actually increase anti-Semitism.

The Balfour Declaration was a major step forward in the Zionist struggle to create a Jewish state in Palestine. At the Paris Peace Conference after the war, Weizmann used the Balfour Declaration to justify the creation of a Jewish state.

However, neither Arab nor Jewish national aspirations would be realized after the war because the British and French implemented the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which essentially divided the Arab world between the two imperial powers. The division was formalized in the San Remo Treaty, and Britain made key decisions on how to rule its newly gained Arab territories, including Palestine, at the Cairo Conference in 1921.