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*Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment in the most recent series of articles from Jewish Press Online contributor, Alex Grobman, PhD  

The “broad lines of the struggle over Palestine” occurred during World War I, when the Western Allies, believing the Ottoman Empire would be conquered and ultimately dismantled, focused on the future of its non-Turkish territories. The French and the British were vying for Palestine. [1] In the autumn of 1917, the British anxiously wanted Russian Jews to urge their government to revive Russia’s deteriorating war effort, and believed a future Jewish Palestine would be a compelling incentive for them to act. On October 24, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour told the War Cabinet: “The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.” It did inspire American Jews, especially those born in Russia, to volunteer to fight in Palestine against the Turks as part of the British Army. [2]


The Balfour Declaration

On November 2, 1917, the Balfour Declaration, sent by Lord Arthur Balfour in a letter to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, 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.” [3]

On October 31, 1917, Balfour explained to the British War Cabinet that although the words “national home….did not necessarily involve the early establishment of an independent Jewish State,” such a State “was a matter for gradual development in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution.” [4]

How these laws were to be understood was clarified in a British Foreign Office memorandum of December 19, 1917 by British historians Arnold Toynbee and Lewis Namier, who wrote: “The objection raised against the Jews being given exclusive political rights in Palestine on a basis that would be undemocratic with regard to the local Christian and Mohammedan population,’ they wrote, ‘is certainly the most important which the anti-Zionists have hitherto raised, but the difficulty is imaginary. Palestine might be held in trust by Great Britain or America until there was a sufficient population in the country fit to govern it on European lines. Then no undemocratic restrictions of the kind indicated in the memorandum would be required any longer.” [5]

The government chose to address the declaration to Rothschild, who held no official position in the English Zionist Federation or in the World Zionist Organization, rather than to the leading Zionist Jewish leaders in Britain, because he had the most “potent name In Jewry.” [6]

In his response, Lord Rothschild thanked Balfour on November 4, 1917 that “I can assure you that the gratitude of ten millions of people will be yours, for the British government has opened up, by their message, a prospect of safety and comfort to large masses of people who are in need of it. I dare say,” he added, “that you have been informed that already in many parts of Russia renewed persecution has broken out.” [7]

Though the Balfour Declaration had been approved by the US, France and Italy, Britain alone had granted the declaration, and the British Government would decide whether the national home would be the means to establish a Jewish state. [8]

The French and the British were vying for Palestine. By the third week of September 1919, British Prime Minister Lloyd George had persuaded his colleagues, and the French Government to agree to the principle of a British Mandate for Palestine, and British Mandates for Transjordan and Iraq. France would acquire total control of Lebanon and ultimately control over Syria. Liberal politician Herbert A. L. Fisher, Minister of Education, explained the PM’s views when he wrote in his diary: “The PM very vehement about our keeping Palestine. The Biblical associations. Immense prestige attaching to Jerusalem. We have conquered it. The French did practically nothing….” [9]

On September 20, 1918, Balfour explained the unique nature of Zionism: “Zionism differs in kind from ordinary philanthropic efforts and that it appeals to different motives. If it succeeds, it will do a great spiritual and material work for the Jews, but not for them alone….It is, among other things, a serious endeavor to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb. Surely, for this if for no other reason, it should receive our support.” [10]

On June 22, 1921, Canadian Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, asked Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, what did the British Government have in mind when it stated giving the Jews “control of the Government?” To which Churchill replied, “If, in the course of many years, they become a majority in the country, they naturally would take it over.” [11]

“The ultimate end,” of British support, as Lord L.S. Amery, a leading Conservative politician and Cabinet Minister recorded in his diary in July 1928, “is to make Palestine the centre of a western influence, using Jews as we have used the Scots, to carry English ideal through the Middle East and not merely to make an artificial oriental Hebrew enclave in oriental country. Secondly that we wish Palestine in some way or other to remain within the framework of the British Empire….” [12]

Having linked the future of Zionism to British rule and prejudice, the Zionists had to take the lead to ensure their numbers would increase and their efforts would succeed. Arthur Ruppin, director of the Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization in Jaffa, where he organized Zionist immigration to Palestine, feared the Jews were relying too much on the Balfour Declaration, when he said: “The declaration will not be worth the paper it is written on if we do not infuse it with life and strength by practical accomplishments in Palestine.” [13]


[1] William Roger Louis and Robert W. Stookey, Eds. The End of the Palestine Mandate (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press,1986), vii; Martin Gilbert, Exile and Return The Struggle for a Jewish Homeland Return (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1978).

[2] Martin Gilbert, “Article by Sir Martin Gilbert to Commemorate the 94th Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration Which Was Given to the Zionist Federation (November 10, 2011), http: //; Gilbert, Exile and Return op.cit. 83; Viscount Samuel, MEMOIRS: Viscount Samuel (London: The Cresset Press, 1945),83.), 83, 102, 123.

[3]; Gilbert, Exile and Return op.cit.92-108; Viscount Samuel, MEMOIRS: Viscount Samuel (London: The Cresset Press, 1945), 147-148.

[4] Martin Gilbert, “An Overwhelmingly Jewish State” – From the Balfour Declaration to the Palestine Mandate,” in Israel’s Rights as a Nation-State in International Diplomacy, Alan Baker, Ed. (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs), 23.

[5] Ibid. 24.

[6] Leonard Stein, The Balfour Declaration (London: Valentine Mitchell, 1961), 548.

[7] Gilbert, Exile and Return, op.cit. 108-109.

[8] Gilbert, Exile and Return op.cit. 109; J. C. Hurewitz, The Struggle for Palestine (New York: Greenwood Press, 1968), 19.

[9] Ibid. 123.

[10] INTRODUCTION to The History of Zionism by Nahum Sokolow Longmans, By the Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour, M. P. (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969) LVI; Isaiah Friedman, Palestine: A Twice-Promised

Land? The British, the Arabs & Zionism, 1915-1920 (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 2000); Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version: And Other Middle Eastern Studies (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England 1984), 55.

[11] Gilbert, “An Overwhelmingly Jewish State,” op.cit. 28, 30.

[12] John Barnes and David Nicholson, Eds. Leo Amery Diaries Volume I: 1896-1929, (London, Hutchinson, 1980), 559.

[13] Gilbert, Exile and Return op.cit. 133-134.

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.