What were Lord Balfour’s motivations for his 1917 Declaration?

, April 2, 2017

Arthur Balfour had many motivations for his declaration. It was a multi causal phenomenon. The first was his idealism. He was a Zionist.

He, who from his earliest days, believed in the concept of the national homeland for the Jews. He was somebody who read his Bible, who knew it back to front. A highly intelligent man, a philosopher and a friend to the Jews, so that was the first one, but of course that would never have been anything other than a vague aspiration of the British government if it hadn’t been for the First World War, and we were not doing well – we as the British – were not doing well in that period between June and November 1917.

Between the first part of the discussions over the Declaration in the British cabinet and the actual Declaration on the second of November. The Battle of Passchendaele had been an incredibly bloody slaughter and basically nobody had won.

There was real danger that in Russia, the first of February revolution, and then the one that’s called the October Revolution that actually broke out in November, was going to destabilize the whole of Russia and maybe create a situation where dozens of divisions were going to be able to be moved by the Germans from the Eastern Front onto the Western Front, and it was hoped that if we made a major declaration in favor of a national homeland for the Jews then Jews across Europe and also in America might look more positively towards the whole of the Allied cause really.

You also had a great debate within the cabinet about whether or not the Jews were going to be able to turn this arid land in the Levant into something that was going to thrive and prosper, and Lord Curzon didn’t think that was going to be possible, and in fact, one of the few Jewish members of the cabinet, Herbert Samuel, didn’t either.

 But the real belief that the Prime Minister David Lloyd George and the Munitions Secretary Winston Churchill, who of course also were Zionists had, was, along with Arthur Balfour, that in fact enormous amounts of Jewish capital and intelligence and know-how and individuals would of course flood in to the Holy Land and actually make it a viable state.

They didn’t give a time reference for this, the declaration itself is notoriously vague of course. Borders are not mentioned, for example, and the actual form of government isn’t even mentioned at all, but everybody, apart from Herbert Samuel and Lord Curzon in that cabinet believed that it was going to be a good thing for the British to actually make a bold statement and of course at that stage they didn’t really care what the Palestinian Arabs thought because they were on the other side; they were the enemy and so there was a right of conquest concept as well.

About Prof. Andrew Roberts

Prof. Andrew Roberts read modern history at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, from where he is an honorary senior scholar and PhD. He has written twelve books. He is a founding member of the Friends of Israel Initiative. In 2016 he won the Bradley Prize.