Britain Issues the Balfour Declaration
Foreign Office, 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 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."
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour1
Arabs and anti-Zionists could not help noting the totally pro-Zionist content of the declaration. It failed to mention Christians or Muslims, Arabs or Palestinians, even though they remained by far the majority population in Palestine. At the time, there were about 55,000 Jews and 600,000 Palestinians in Palestine.2 The declaration spoke of a homeland, but that was widely understood to mean a Jewish state. And it pledged actively to help Jews while merely promising to protect the rights of "the non-Jewish communities."
Arabs far beyond Palestine were alarmed and disappointed. It was clear to them that British wartime promises of Arab independence were being ignored by London. The campaign to chase the Turks from Palestine was being concluded in late 1917 with Arab help. British forces stood at the gates of Jerusalem and soon they would clear the area and Palestine would pass from the Ottoman to the British Empire. But Arab aspirations for independence were being ignored.
Opposition came not only from Arabs and Muslims but within England as well. The only Jew in the Cabinet, Edwin Montague, the secretary of state for India, had opposed the original idea. He supported his position by enlisting the views of one of the greatest Arabists of the time, Gertrude Bell, a colleague of T.E. Lawrence and currently involved in British intelligence in Cairo. She wrote the Cabinet that "two considerations rule out the conception of an independent Jewish Palestine from practical politics. The first is that the province as we know it is not Jewish, and that neither Mohammedan nor Arab would accept Jewish authority; the second that the capital, Jerusalem, is equally sacred to three faiths, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, and should never, if it can be avoided, be put under the exclusive control of any one location, no matter how carefully the rights of the other two may be safeguarded."3
"The province as we know it is not Jewish."
Another dissent came from the Middle East from A.P. Albina, a Levantine Catholic merchant from Jerusalem who enjoyed good relations with top British officials. He wrote that it was contradictory for the Western powers to grant freedom to small nationalities while at the same time planning to give Palestine to the Jews. He described the Zionists as:
A foreign and hated race, a motley crowd of Poles, Russians, Romanians, Spaniards, Yemenites, etc., who can claim absolutely no right over the country, except that of sentiment and the fact that their forefathers inhabited it over two thousand years ago[.] The introduction into Palestine of Jewish rule, or even Jewish predominance, will mean the spoliation of the Arab inhabitants of their hereditary rights and the upsetting of the principles of nationalities....Politically, a Jewish State in Palestine will mean a permanent danger to a lasting peace in the Near East.4
Despite such concerns, and the opposition of the entire Arab and Islamic worlds, there were a number of reasons favoring the Zionist campaign to gain official British sanction. Foremost among these was the favorable attitude toward a Jewish homeland shared by both Foreign Secretary Balfour and Britain's prime minister, David Lloyd George. Welshman Lloyd George was a firm believer in the Old Testament's claim to the right of the Jews to Palestine.5 Balfour had been prime minister in the early 1900s at the time of the British offer of "Uganda" as a Jewish homeland and, although not Jewish, he considered himself a Zionist.6
Beyond these sentimental and religious reasons, however, there were other motivations having to do with Britain's interests, among them a common concern for gaining U.S. support for Britain's post-war goals in dividing up the tottering Ottoman Empire, including Britain's ambition of taking over Palestine. In this, they were advised by the British embassy in Washington that Britain could be helped in achieving U.S. backing by finding favor with Jewish Americans. Reported the embassy: "They are far better organized than the Irish and far more formidable. We should be in a position to get into their good graces."7
One obvious way to do this was to follow the natural inclinations of Lloyd George and Balfour and support Zionist ambitions in Palestine, if only London could be sure President Woodrow Wilson agreed with such a path. In this they were immeasurably helped, as well as goaded, by a persistent and persuasive Russian-born Jewish chemist by the name of Chaim Weizmann. In 1917 he was head of the Zionist movement in Britain and a tireless worker in that cause. His achievements were so great that eventually he would be head of the World Zionist Organization and Israel's first president.
Aware of Lloyd George's and Balfour's desire for U.S. support, Weizmann sought a backdoor past the anti-Zionist State Department to the White House via America's foremost Zionist, Louis B. Brandeis, an intimate of President Wilson, who had appointed Brandeis in 1916 to the Supreme Court. On April 8, 1917, Weizmann cabled Brandeis, advising that "an expression of opinion coming from yourself and perhaps other gentlemen connected with the Government in favor of a Jewish Palestine under a British protectorate would greatly strengthen our hands."8 A month later, following America's entry into the war, Brandeis had a 45-minute meeting with Wilson. As a son of a Presbyterian clergyman and a daily reader of the Bible, Wilson shared with a number of Christians support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Indeed, Brandeis found the president's views of Palestine "entirely sympathetic to the aims of the Zionist Movement" and, moreover, was able to encourage the British by adding that Wilson favored a British protectorate in Palestine. 9
However, Wilson did not want to make a public declaration because of his concern with French ambitions toward the region and a futile hope that Turkey still could be persuaded to quit the war. Thus, when Britain sought Wilson's endorsement in September 1917 of a draft declaration, he responded that the time was "not opportune" for him to go public. In desperation, Weizmann cabled Brandeis that it "would greatly help if President Wilson and yourself would support the text. Matter most urgent. Please telegraph."10 Brandeis was able to use his access to the White House to meet with a Jewish adviser to Wilson, Colonel Edward Mandell House, and together they assured Weizmann that
From talks I have had with President and from expressions of opinion given to closest advisers I feel I can answer you in that he is [in] entire sympathy with declaration quoted in yours of nineteenth as approved by the foreign office and the Prime Minister. I of course heartily agree."11
When the British sent a revised draft of the statement for Wilson's examination in early October, he turned it over to Brandeis for his comments. The Justice and his aides redrafted it in slightly stronger and cleaner language, substituting "the Jewish people" for "the Jewish race"—thereby muting the vexing question of who's-a-Jew—and making the final clause read that there would be no prejudice to the "rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."12
Colonel House sent the revision on to Wilson. But, in the midst of world war, he felt no urgency about the matter. It was not until Oct. 13 that he sent a memo to House saying:
I find in my pocket the memorandum you gave me about the Zionist Movement. I am afraid I did not say to you that I concurred in the formula suggested by the other side. I do, and would be obliged if you would let them know it.13
So casual was Wilson about this momentous decision that he never did inform his secretary of state, or publicly announce his decision.14 Nonetheless, his private assurance to Britain of his support was enough for Lloyd George's Cabinet to adopt the declaration. In the corridors of power, it was well known that the president of the United States quietly supported the Balfour Declaration.
Thus, in the most off-handed way possible, Wilson lent his enormous weight to supporting the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine. It was a decision that was to have a profound effect on Middle East history and U.S. foreign policy, and especially on the daily lives of Palestinians and the world Jewish community.
Grose, Peter, Israel in the Mind of America, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.
Mallison, Thomas and Sally V., The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order, London, Longman Group Ltd., 1986.
Murphy, Bruce Allen, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection: The Secret Political Activities of Two Supreme Court Justices, Garden City, New York, Anchor Press/Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1983.
Neff, Donald, Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy Towards Palestine and Israel Since 1945, Washington, DC, Institute for Palestine Studies, 1995.
Sanders, Ronald, The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate for Palestine , New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
Tessler, Mark, History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1994.
1 Sanders, The High Walls of Jerusalem, pp. 612-13. The text of the early and the final drafts of the declaration are also in Mallison and Mallison, The Palestine Problem in International Law and World Order, pp. 427-29.
2 Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, p. 145.
3 Sanders, The High Walls of Jerusalem, p. 585.
4 Ibid., p. 586.
5 Ibid., pp. 119-20.
6 Grose, Israel in the Mind of America, p. 64.
7 Ibid., p. 63.
8 Murphy, The Brandeis/Frankfurter Connection, p. 57.
9 Ibid., p. 57; Neff, Fallen Pillars, p. 11.
10 Murphy, p. 58.
12 Ibid., p. 60; Sanders, p. 598.
13 Sanders, p. 598.
14 Grose, p. 64.