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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Historical Paths to the Balfour Declaration

Filed under: Europe and Israel, International Law, Israel
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 28, Numbers 1–2

“For long I have been a convinced Zionist,” said Lord Balfour on July 12, 1920 at a meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in London held by the English Zionist Federation under the chairmanship of Lord Rothschild to celebrate the conferment of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine on Great Britain, and the incorporation of the Balfour Declaration into the San Remo Declaration in April. The latter formed part of the Treaty of Sèvres signed with Turkey in August 1920. “Who would have thought five or six years ago that a speaker at the Albert Hall would be able to recount as an established fact that the Great Powers of the world had elected to accept the Declaration … had consented to give a Mandate to the country which at all events is in the forefront among those who desire to see this policy brought to a successful issue. … These are happy results, these are results on which we may all congratulate ourselves.”

While the achievement of the Balfour Declaration is acknowledged today, one hundred years later, it is important to review the extraordinary concatenation of events and pressures, high idealism and low manouevre, hopes and fears and dreams that brought about this accomplishment. Indeed, a British foreign secretary in the midst of a world war gave expression to the sixty-seven words that breathed life into a Zionist sentiments which he shared with several of his Cabinet colleagues. In almost any other circumstance such aspirations would have remained vague and unstated rather than emerge as the official and immediate policy of His Majesty’s Government.

In the speech quoted above, Lord Balfour spoke eloquently of the central importance of idealism to the Zionist cause, yet it took far more than just that to create the Declaration. The Zionists in the Cabinet, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, were able to prevail over those such as Lord Curzon and Edwin Montagu who opposed the Declaration and asserted that the arid lands of the Levant could not sustain large-scale immigration. However, it took far more than Zionist aspirations to get the policy adopted. “I am convinced that none but pedants or people who are prejudiced by religious or racial bigotry,” Balfour stated, “would deny for one instant that the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional and must be treated by exceptional methods.” The Foreign Secretary might think that, but there were many in the British Foreign Office – now as then – who did not agree.

By the summer and autumn of 1917, while the Declaration was debated in the Cabinet, Britain was by no means certain of victory. The Battle of Passchendaele (late July 1917) was ending in a bloody stalemate; German U-boat warfare continued its devastating effects; and the Austrians had severely defeated the Italians at Caporetto in October. Russia was in ferment after the

February Revolution and the November Revolution was at hand, and with it, the terrifying prospect of a separate Russo-German peace which would enable the entry of dozens of German divisions onto an exhausted Western front. According to some British statesmen, the Balfour Declaration offered an appeal to Russian Jews, who were considered influential in both the Kerensky and the Bolshevik governments, and possibly to German and Austro-Hungarian Jews as well. American Jews also were a prospective target for the Declaration. Political manoeuvre was certainly not entirely absent in the thinking of British decision-makers in late 1917.

It is important not to impose our views of current political concepts on the actions of the Lloyd George Cabinet of 1917, particularly regarding the national self-determination of the Arab peoples. The fact that Arabs made up the majority of the population of Palestine in 1917 was not considered grounds for objecting to a national home for the Jews because, at the time, different peoples, languages and ethnic and racial groups were expected to coexist under the protection of the Ottoman, German, British, French and Austro-Hungarian empires. Accordingly, the Palestinian Arabs under the Ottomans were regarded like the Ruthenians, Sudeten Germans, Rumanians in Hungary and Hungarians in Rumania, or any other group that had their own ethnicity but not their own nation-state or even nascent sense of nationhood, let alone an established national identity.

Furthermore, British imperialist thought supported the idea of development and did not pay attention to democratic principles such as one-man-one-vote. British statesmen assumed that Jews would develop the Holy Land in the productive and impressive way that people of British origin had done in East Africa, South Africa, Malaya, Australia & New Zealand. The word “settler” was not a pejorative term, as it is in Leftist parlance today. In fact, it was widely recognized that native populations would benefit most from the work of “settlers,” as far as shared communications, irrigation projects, employment, transport infrastructure, and increased food production were concerned. Lord Balfour rightly assumed that the Jews would make the desert bloom and that the local Arabs would benefit from such efforts. Indeed, the entire Mandate system of the League of Nations included ideas of development in addition to concepts of grand strategy or empire.

At the time of the Declaration, Britain was encouraging nationalist movements throughout the Middle East. In the speech quoted above, Lord Balfour referred to the Turks in a pejorative manner, stating that Britain “has freed them, the Arab race, from the tyranny of their brutal conqueror, who has kept them under his heel for these many centuries. I hope they remember it is we who established the independent Arab sovereignty of the Hejaz.” The Arab revolt against the Turks in 1917 was nationalistic and it was expected that Zionism would be part of it and not opposed to it. Unlike Beduin nationalism, however, which was an established fact by 1917, the local Arabs had shown no propensity to rise up against their Ottoman rulers. Indeed, the only time in history that they have acted aggressively was against the Jews.

Lord Balfour reminded the Arabs that nation states were about to be created for them in Transjordan and Iraq. He remarked: “I hope that, remembering all that, that they will not grudge that small notch – for it is no more geographically, whatever it may be historically – that small notch in what are now Arab territories being given to the people who have for all these hundreds of years been separated from it but surely have a title to develop on their own lines in the land of their forefathers.”

He was wrong, however, since Palestine was not an Arab territory in any legal sense, as it had passed from the Ottomans, who held it since 1517, to the League of Nations in 1920. Three centuries is long enough to establish legal title. He also was not correct in saying that, for centuries, the Jews had been separated from Palestine, because Jews had lived there in varying numbers and in different places continuously throughout the entire period. The Jewish claim to the Land of Israel [Palestine] was actually stronger than that of the Arabs. It was even stronger than Lord Balfour’s assertion.

At present, Tobias Elwood, a British Foreign Office official,1 has absurdly tried to rewrite the Declaration according to current sensibilities. He contends that Lord Balfour should have inserted a reference to Palestinian “political” rights alongside the civil and religious rights that modern Israel recognizes, far better than any surrounding Arab state does for any non-Arab or non-Muslim community. Yet there was no such entity called Palestine on any Ottoman administrative or political map and there as was no distinct Palestinian national identity at the time of the Balfour Declaration. Therefore, Mr. Elwood’s attempts are intellectual and historical nonsense and gratuitously offensive to the State of Israel in this the centenary year of the Declaration.

In his evidence to the Palestine Royal Commission chaired by Lord Peel in March 1937, Winston Churchill, – who was responsible for establishing Transjordan and Iraq after the Cairo Conference in 1921, – emphatically stated that back in 1917, “the conception undoubtedly was that, if the absorptive capacity over a number of years and the breeding over a number of years, all guided by the British Government, gave an increasing Jewish population, that population should not in any way be restricted from reaching a majority position. Certainly not. On the contrary, I think in the main that would be the spirit of the Balfour Declaration. As to what arrangement would be made to safeguard the rights of the new minority, that obviously remains open, but certainly we committed ourselves to the idea that someday, somehow, far off in the future, subject to justice and economic convenience, there might well be a great Jewish State there, numbered by millions, far exceeding the present inhabitants of the country, and to cut them off from that would be a wrong.”

Churchill went on: “Naturally all the Jews in the world would not go and live there, but if it is a centre which will attract Jews from outside and if the attraction can be kept within the limits of the economic absorptive capacity … there are no limits assigned at all. If more Jews rally to this Home, the Home will become all Palestine eventually, provided that at each stage there is no harsh injustice done to the other residents. Why is there harsh injustice done if people come in and make a livelihood for more and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves? Why is it injustice because there is more work and wealth for everybody? There is no injustice. The injustice is when those who live in the country leave it to be a desert for thousands of years.”

When one of the Commission members, Sir Horace Rumbold, called the Jews a foreign race to Palestine, Churchill retorted: “A foreign race? Not at all. … In the time of Christ the population of Palestine was much greater, when it was a Roman province. When the Mohammedan upset occurred in world history and the great hordes of Islam swept over these places, they broke it all up, smashed it all up. You have seen the terraces on the hills which used to be cultivated, which under Arab rule have remained a desert. I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a long time. I do not admit that right.”

Churchill ultimately asserted the right of Jews to a National Home in Palestine to something even more politically incorrect than Tobias Ellwood could ever imagine – the right of conquest. As he told the Peel Commission: “These Arabs were a poor people, conquered, living under the Turks fairly well … They lived fairly easily in a flat squalor typical of pre-war Turkish Empire provinces, and then when the war came they became our enemies and they filled the armies against us and fired their rifles and shot our men. … But our armies advanced and they were conquered. It is not a question of a slow creeping conquest. They were beaten then and at our disposition. Mercy may impose many restraints. The question is how you give back to them in accordance with the new facts which have emerged in the great struggle some of the positions which they held. They were defeated in the open field. It is not a question of creeping conquest. They were beaten out of the place. Not a dog could bark. And then we decided in the process of the conquest of these people to make certain pledges to the Jews.”2

Now, contrast that Turkish military service undertaken by the Palestinian Arabs to the work that Chaim Weizmann did for the British Admiralty in his role as a scientific advisor during the First World War. The Weizmann Process for making the acetone so vital for munitions production was described by Lloyd George as having been of great importance to the British war effort. So when, on June 13, 1917, Weizmann emphasized to Balfour the importance of having a strategic friend so close to the Suez Canal – Britain’s lifeline to her Indian Empire – he was talking to someone who was already grateful for his support, and thus lent a willing ear. Supporting friends who help you over enemies who oppose you was something that Western powers used to do in those days.

However unpalatable it may be to modern sensibilities, it is the same right of conquest that allowed the Ottomans to rule over the Holy Land for three centuries and the Americans to rule over the central part of their continent for two. The Russians have ruled in Moscow since the Muscovites turned back the Tartars. Christians rule in Spain today because the Muslims were cleared out in the late Fifteenth Century and Austrians rule in Vienna today because Muslims were turned back from the city in 1683. In the mid-Twentieth Century, the eastern borders of Poland were moved 200 miles to the west because of Russia’s victory over Germany. There are dozens of other examples globally, and many, even more recently. History’s losers might not like it, but eventually all of them have come to lump it, all except the Palestinian Arabs, who have been encouraged by the UN, the EU, the Foreign Office, the Arab League and their own myopic leaders that there can somehow be a fundamental revision to this right of conquest, even after seventy years of the State of Israel and now 100 years since the Balfour Declaration.

Lloyd George claimed to know the story of the Jewish people as well or better than that of his native Welsh. “When Dr. Weizmann was talking of Palestine,” he wrote, “he kept bringing up place names which were more familiar to me than those on the Western Front.” The role of Chaim Weizmann was central to Balfour’s understanding that nowhere but Palestine would do as a National Home for the Jews, and of course the work done by Theodore Herzl and the Zionist movement must never be underestimated. But ultimately the Balfour Declaration has a complex multi-causal explanation, coming about as the result of an historically unique set of personal, political and geostrategic circumstances which in their linkage and almost perfect timing almost defy belief. Indeed some see it as a cause for belief. But however you see it, ultimately it cannot be separated from the idealism of Arthur Balfour himself, and his belief that “the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional, and must be treated by exceptional methods.”

At the end of his life, Arthur Balfour told his niece, Lady Rayleigh, that the Declaration was the thing that he had done in a long career of public service that made him most proud. I think, looking at what it has led to after 100 years that we can all agree with him.

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Sources consulted

Israel Cohen, ed., Arthur Balfour: Speeches on Zionism, (London: Arrowsmith, 1928); Biographies of Balfour by Max Egremont and R. J. Adams, ed., Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume, V, Part III, The Coming of War 1936-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1982),597-616; Evidence given to the Peel Commission, and: Palestine Royal Commission, Report presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, July, 1937. (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1937);

Leslie Turnberg, Beyond the Balfour Declaration (forthcoming);

Davis Lewin’s unpublished university thesis [email protected], A Case of Convergence: Personalities and Strategic Circumstances as the Background to the Balfour Declaration.

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1 Tobias Martin Ellwood MP PC (born 12 August 1966) is a British Conservative Party politician and author.

2 Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Companion Volume, V, Part III, The Coming of War 1936-1939 (London: Heinemann, 1982), 605.