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The Balfour Declaration pledged that the British government would support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. But it also insisted that this could not be at the expense of the rights of non-Jews living in the land. Here, GAVIN GROSS of the Zionist Federation reflects on the significance of Balfour’s controversial letter to Lord Rothschild.
“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…”
So wrote British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour on 2 November 1917 in a letter that famously became known as the “Balfour Declaration.” It set in motion a process that, with many advances and setbacks, led eventually to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This week, the Zionist Federation is commemorating the 90th anniversary of this historic moment in Jewish history with an event at the Foreign Office featuring British historian Sir Martin Gilbert and Lord Rothschild.
Dr Chaim Weizmann, who became president of the English Zionist Federation in February 1917 and later served as Israel’s first president, played a vital role in the Balfour discussions. It may seem startling to today’s readers, but Weizmann was greatly assisted in his efforts by CP Scott, the non-Jewish, Zionism-supporting editor of the Manchester Guardian (now merely The Guardian), who set up high-level government meetings for Weizmann.
Scott first met Weizmann at a tea party in Manchester in September 1914 and was captivated by him, writing: “What struck me in his view was first the perfectly clear conception of a Jewish nationalism… and secondly his demand for a country, a homeland, which for him, and for anyone sharing his view of Jewish nationality, could only be the ancient home of his race.”
Why did the British government issue its public support for Zionism in 1917? Part of the reason is that Britain was in the middle of fighting World War I and felt that its actions could help rally Jewish support for the cause, notably amongst Russian and American Jewry, whose countries were reluctant participants. As well, the British dropped Balfour Declaration leaflets in Yiddish over Germany to sway German Jewish soldiers. The Zionists, a minority within a minority Jewish population, were able to bluff their importance.
Much of the controversy surrounding the Balfour Declaration was that it made contradictory pledges to both Jews and Arabs. After promising its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine, the Balfour letter concluded by saying: “… it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
The Arab side took this as a pledge of protection for its own interests.
While there were periods under the British Mandate from 1917-48 that Jewish immigration grew rapidly, at other times, due to pressure from the Arab community, Jewish immigration was greatly curtailed. For instance, as the Nazis grew in strength and the gates of Europe were closing, Britain’s 1939 White Paper said that only 75,000 Jews were to be admitted to Palestine over the next five years, a pitifully low number, and after March 1944, further Jewish immigration was to be allowed only with Arab permission. The Jewish Agency for Palestine issued the following mournful statement: “It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deliver the Jews of their last hope, and to close the road back to their homeland.”
After the war, the British government announced its intention to terminate its rule in Palestine and turn the Mandate over to the United Nations. On 29 November 1947, the UN approved the partition plan for a Jewish state and an Arab state, and at midnight on Friday 14 May 1948 the British left Palestine.
Earlier that day, before Shabbat began, David Ben-Gurion declared the independence of the State of Israel.
The continuing importance of the Balfour Declaration is that, at a crucial time in history, Britain gave a significant boost to Jewish hopes for a return to sovereignty in Eretz Yisrael.
Today, when our enemies try to delegitimise the State of Israel and call its creation a mistake, it is essential that we remember the great achievement of the Zionist project in 1917 and continue to reaffirm the eternal Jewish connection to the land.
• Gavin Gross is the Director of Public Affairs at the Zionist Federation.90th Anniversary Of Balfour Declaration by TJ Reporter