On November 2, 1917, during the height of World War I, a letter was delivered to 148 Piccadilly, the London home of Lord Walter Rothschild, scion of the English branch of the famed banking dynasty. The letter was from Britain’s Foreign Minister, Lord Arthur James Balfour, and it read as follows:
November 2nd, 1917
Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.
His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour
The Balfour Declaration, as it became known, was the first political recognition by a world power of the Zionist dream to build a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. One hundred years later historians and political analysts are still debating the importance of the declaration – and what, exactly, was promised.
The Cast of Characters
As with any good drama – and the backstory to the declaration is a rousing tale of political intrigue – it’s often helpful to first know something about the characters involved. Here is a shortlist of the principal players:
Lord Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930): Upper-class and well-connected, Balfour began his political career as private secretary to his uncle, the Marquess of Salisbury, who was foreign secretary in the government headed by Benjamin Disraeli. After an unsuccessful stint as prime minister in the early 1900s, Balfour became foreign secretary in the government formed by David Lloyd George. Both men were idealistic Christian Zionists – and both men disliked Jews as a “race.” Thus, while Balfour was sympathetic to the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Eretz Yisrael, while he was prime minister he advocated for the passage of the 1905 Aliens Act, whose purpose was to limit immigration of Eastern European Jews to Britain. As Balfour told Chaim Weizmann a few years before the Balfour Declaration was penned, in his opinion the Jews had only two options: assimilate or create their own society in the Land of Israel. Remaining “a people apart” in Europe was not an option.
Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952): Born in Russia and educated in Germany and Switzerland, Weizmann arrived in Britain in 1904, having been hired by the University of Manchester to teach biochemistry. He soon became one of the leaders of British Zionism – and just as quickly ran up against the anti-Zionist stance of much of established British Jewry, including that of Edwin Montagu, the only Jewish member of Lloyd George’s cabinet. Montagu would later explain his opposition to the Balfour Declaration by saying that as a British citizen he had no wish to return to a “Jewish ghetto.” As for Weizmann, he would spend more than a decade engaged in “backroom diplomacy” while he tried to drum up support for a Jewish homeland; the Balfour Declaration was the successful result of those labors. Among his many other achievements, he became the State of Israel’s first president in 1948.
Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936): Born in Eastern Europe, Sokolow moved to London in 1914, after the outbreak of World War I. An ardent Zionist, Sokolow translated into Hebrew Theodor Herzl’s utopian novel Altnueland, which he called Tel Aviv (the city was named after the book’s title). While Chaim Weizmann usually gets most of the credit for the adoption of the Balfour Declaration, Sokolow’s pivotal role is also today acknowledged, thanks to historian Martin Kramer. According to Kramer, “He accomplished what many thought impossible. During the spring of 1917, he secured the explicit or tacit assent of the French and Italian governments, and even of the Catholic pope, to a Jewish ‘national home’ under British auspices.”
Leopold Amery (1873-1955): The Balfour Declaration wasn’t written by Balfour. While there were many drafts, the final version was penned by Leopold Amery, who was political secretary to the War Cabinet in October 1917 – and a “secret Jew.” It’s not clear why British-born Amery felt he had to hide his Jewish identity, since Jews were holding political office and other positions of prestige and power in Britain by this time. But unlike many who distanced themselves from Jewish causes after assuming a non-Jewish identity, Amery was an enthusiastic Zionist. In addition to championing the Balfour Declaration, Amery helped establish the Jewish Legion, a forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces.
Why the Jews?
The story of the Balfour Declaration takes place against the backdrop of World War I and the declining years of the British Empire.
By the fall of 1917, Britain had been at war with Germany for three long years and there was no end in sight to the brutal conflict. But with an entire empire to worry about, why was the British government concerned about the longing of the Jewish people for a homeland of their own? The answer can be summed up in three words: desperation and anti-Semitism.
The desperation was due to the fact that in 1917 Britain’s allies were falling apart. Russia, which had changed governments after the revolution that took place in the spring of that year, was threatening to pull out of the war. French soldiers, disheartened by their severe losses, had begun to mutiny. The United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, but they hadn’t yet sent any troops. Somehow, Britain had to convince Russia to keep fighting and convince the United States to begin to do so. At a meeting of the War Cabinet on October 31, Balfour claimed to have found a solution to the problem:
“The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable of 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.”
In other words, Balfour believed the old anti-Semitic canard that Jews dominated the world: wealthy Jewish American financiers controlled their government just as Jewish Russian Bolsheviks now controlled theirs. Give the Jews a promise of a homeland, Balfour argued, and they would repay the favor by helping Britain with its war effort.
Yet another reason had to do with Britain’s quest for more direct access to India. If it could wrest Eretz Yisrael from the Ottoman Empire – Turkey had sided with Germany in the war – and create a Jewish homeland under British supervision, Britain could achieve this aim. It would also make the Suez Canal, then under British rule, more secure.
Lloyd George would later give another reason for the Balfour Declaration. In his autobiography, the former prime minister wrote that it was given to Weizmann as a reward for his work during the war; Weizmann had developed a process for producing acetone on a large scale, which was used to make explosives. Weizmann, however, disagreed. In his autobiography, Trial and Error, he wrote: “I almost wish it had been as simple as that, and that I had never known the heartbreak, the drudgery which preceded the Declaration. But history does not deal in Aladdin’s lamps.”
Why the Heartbreak?
Part of the reason for Weizmann’s heartbreak and drudgery was because the Allies, confident of victory at the outset of the war, had already divvied up the vast lands controlled by the Ottoman Empire.
In March 1915, Britain signed a secret agreement with Russia, in which Russia received Constantinople and retained control of the Dardanelles. Britain, which was most interested in the areas where oil had recently been discovered, got much of the rest of the Ottoman Empire’s lands as well as central Persia.
What did the French get? A year later, in yet another secret agreement, this time between Britain and France, the French received modern-day Syria and Lebanon, while Britain received modern-day Iraq and Jordan; in some areas the two European countries would have direct control, while in others they would only supervise the local Arab chieftains. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after the agreement’s two negotiators, neither country claimed central Palestine, which included Jerusalem. Instead, the land was to be ruled by an international administration; this was to appease Russia and other Christian countries with an interest in the Holy Land.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in the Sultanate of Egypt, was making a deal with Hussein ibn Ali, Sharif of Mecca. Hussein asked for an Arab Caliphate of Islam, and McMahon assured him that his assistance in Britain’s fight against the Turks would be rewarded by an Arab empire stretching from Egypt to Persia, with the exception of British possessions and interests in Kuwait, Aden, and the Syrian coast.
Where did the Jews and the Zionist dream fit into all this political intrigue? In the fall of 1916, nowhere. But in December 1916 Lloyd George became Britain’s prime minister and he was unhappy. Specifically, he thought Britain should rule over Palestine. To establish “facts on the ground,” in June 1917 he gave Edmund Allenby, Britain’s new commander in Egypt, his marching orders: “Jerusalem by Christmas.” Allenby captured Jerusalem in December 1917.
Russia had no problem with this change in British foreign policy, as long as it still received Constantinople. But the French were not amused, and Britain couldn’t risk offending its wartime ally by going it alone. Nor did Britain have any desire to offend the rest of the Christian world, including the Americans, whose troops were badly needed. Thus, in early 1917, Sir Mark Sykes, co-author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was given his diplomatic marching orders: convince the world that Britain deserved the lion’s share of Palestine. Practically overnight, Sykes became a Zionist.
Sykes met with several prominent British Zionist leaders, including Lord Walter Rothschild, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. He informed them that Britain might grant the Zionist cause some recognition if they could put the “Jewish views” before the French and convince them to assent to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, along with a British protectorate over the area. Nahum Sokolow was selected to do the job.
Sokolow worked closely with Sykes and in June 1917 they got their assent from France. In an almost-forgotten letter issued by Jules Cambon, the secretary-general of France’s foreign ministry, wrote:
You were good enough to present the project to which you are devoting your efforts, which has for its object the development of Jewish colonization in Palestine. You consider that, circumstances permitting, and the independence of the Holy Places being safeguarded on the other hand, it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.
The French government, which entered this present war to defend a people wrongly attacked, and which continues the struggle to assure the victory of right over might, can but feel sympathy for your cause, the triumph of which is bound up with that of the Allies.
I am happy to give you herewith such assurance.
The Chambon letter, with its references to “justice” and the Jewish people’s historic claim to the Land of Israel, was stronger than the Balfour Declaration, which followed six months later. Sokolow even received an enthusiastic response from Pope Benedict XV, who told him, “Yes, yes, I believe we will be good neighbors!”
Sokolow next turned his attention to the United States, where policy makers were totally opposed to Zionism. He recruited Louis D. Brandeis to the cause. Brandeis had been appointed to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916, and he used his influence to garner support for the Balfour Declaration. In mid-October 1917, Wilson secretly agreed to support the British – secretly, because while the British were informed of his decision, Wilson’s own secretary of state was not.
Soon afterward, Italy and Japan also endorsed the declaration. Thus, while on the surface the Balfour Declaration might look like a unilateral step taken by the British, it actually had the support of most of the major world powers of that era. A few years later, the newly-established League of Nations recognized the legitimacy of the Balfour Declaration when it established the Mandate in Palestine. The Mandate was formalized by the League’s 52-member governments on July 24, 1922.
But while the Balfour Declaration was an important step in securing international recognition of the Jews’ right to establish a homeland, it was only a partial victory for the Jewish people. Whereas the declaration had referred to all of pre-World War I Palestine, in 1921 four-fifths of the land was lopped off by the British and given to the Arabs as a separate state, present-day Jordan. And it was the British who appointed Haj Amin al-Husseini as grand mufti of Jerusalem. A rabid anti-Semite, Husseini promoted the use of violence to expel the Jews from the land.
By the outbreak of World War II, the British were more concerned with appeasing the Arabs than giving the Jews a homeland, and in 1939 they imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration. Thus, while the Balfour Declaration had carefully refrained from promising the Jews a “state,” just 27 years later the British government was also denying European Jews trying to escape from Nazi Germany a “home.”
We did get our state in 1948, but not thanks to the British. While historians are still debating the sincerity of Balfour, Lloyd George and other British politicians involved with the Balfour Declaration one hundred years later, it is the words of another declaration that still ring true: “Don’t rely on princes, in mortal man there is no salvation” (Tehillim 146:3).
“History of the Balfour Declaration,” Jewish Virtual Library.
“How Ant-Semitism Helped Create Israel,” Jonathan Schneer, Foreign Affairs, September 8, 2010.
“The Balfour Betrayal: How the British Empire Failed Zionism,” Eli Kavon, Jerusalem Post, November 2, 2013.
The Balfour Project: “Chaim Weizmann,” Mary Grey, April 25, 2012; “Lloyd George,” January 26, 2013; “The Other Arthur Balfour ‘Protector of the Jews,’” Brian Klug, July 8, 2013; “The Secret of Leopold Amery,” William D. Rubinstein, November 11, 2012.
“The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration,” Martin Kramer, Mosaic, June 5, 2017.