One hundred years ago a bombshell was dropped on the international community by the British government. It was the Balfour Declaration, a public “letter” which would have greatly cheered Theodor Herzl, the great proponent and leader of the Zionist movement, had he not succumbed to a heart attack in the previous decade. The import of this document was the backing of the British Empire, still a major global force, albeit a declining one, for the Jewish peoples’ legitimacy to rebuild their national home in their homeland, the Land of Israel.
Who could then foresee the incredible success of the Jews’ return home, joining the remnant who had remained in the Land, or returned to it in previous centuries? Never before in world history had a people regained control of its homeland, revived its ancient tongue, and become such an economic, military, moral and scientific powerhouse. The Balfour Declaration was a significant catalyst in enabling the Jews’ age-old dream of a return to Zion.
Herzl had labored mightily to convince world leaders, including monarchs, to grant the Jews space in the homeland to rebuild their nation. There were enough Jews (from downtrodden to wealthy) for this enterprise. Herzl set the task for himself to provide the place and the spirit to move the Jews from the Diaspora to the Promised Land on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean.
Britain’s Christian Zionists, namely Lord Balfour, stepped up, penning his declaration in the form of a letter dated 2 November 1917 to Lord Walter Rothschild.
The Balfour Declaration declares: “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.”
Note that non-Jews were not accorded the “national rights” which pertain to Jews in the area designated for the one and only Jewish state.
The Declaration was adopted in full by the League of Nations and later, by its successor, the United Nations. As it made clear, Jews enjoy national, civil, and religious rights in their national home, the State of Israel, while non-Jewish citizens enjoy civil and religious rights, but not national ones, unless they are Israeli citizens. This wording guaranteed that Israel will always remain a Jewish state in a region of 23 Arab states. It is still relevant today, when many advocate a “Greater Israel,” aka the 1-state solution.
An enlarged Israel could include Palestinian Arabs as candidates for Israeli citizenship and/or as permanent residents with national voting rights elsewhere, such as in Jordan, which is a Palestinian Arab majority nation. Permanent residency status is a feature of all EU countries and many others.
With the League of Nation’s adoption of the Balfour Declaration and its inclusion in the British Mandate for Palestine, the Jews had an opportunity to regain sovereignty in part, if not all, of their ancient homeland. The challenge was to quickly take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity before it vanished, a victim of pragmatic politicking by the Arabist stream of the diplomatic corps. Arabists, statesmen who favored the much more numerous Arabs, the largest providers of indispensable oil, were soon able to modify the tenets of the Balfour Declaration, weakening the cause of the Jews. I,e. the creation of Transjordan in three-quarters of Palestine.
This tendency to hobble Jewish rights has continued until the present, especially in the halls of the United Nations, enabling the Arabs to thwart Israeli claims to the most ancient and sacred Jewish sites. The unintended consequence of challenging Jewish rights has been the hardening of Israelis’ resolve to persevere in claiming what is theirs by dint of divine promise, history, law, or warfare (choose one or more reasons).
Without the opportunity that the Balfour Declaration provided, it’s doubtful that the Jews would have been able to create a foothold in the Land. That foothold, which evolved within several decades into a hard-earned State of the Jews, enabled millions of refugees from post-WW1/WW2 European and Arab lands to find much needed refuge. For that reason alone, we Jews have to thank the sympathetic British Christian Zionists for pushing forward the Balfour Declaration at the very time that Ottoman Turk control over the Eastern Mediterranean lands was disintegrating.
Jews have always had a compulsion to build and populate the Land of Israel. Zionism, which is the nationalist foundation of the State of Israel, became a political reality in the latter half of the 19th century, at the same time as other nationalist movements were developing. Jews had never abandoned their land throughout the millennia following Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, though the Jewish population there wasn’t dominant.
Growing numbers of Jews from the Diaspora returned to Palestine (the Roman 1st century name to replace Eretz Yisrael-Land of Israel) in the mid-19th century, for mostly religious reasons. The widespread rise of nationalist movements in Europe inspired others to make Aliyah (immigration to Zion) in the same period. The Dreyfus Affair in France (1894-1906) lit a fire under the assimilated European Jewish journalist, Theodor Herzl, whose fiery columns inspired the nascent Zionist movement to take action.
At the same time, the Christian Zionists, especially British ones, were placed in high governmental positions allowing them to take action. The influential Lord Balfour followed a venerable tradition favoring Jewish restitution to the Land.
Here are just a few examples of this European direction in the Enlightenment period:
“In 1799, Napoleon issued a proclamation promising to restore Palestine to the Jews, as he was camped outside Acre….
Lord Shaftesbury, President of the British and Foreign Bible Society, the first British politician to propose restoring the Jews to Palestine, lobbied Prime Minister Palmerston [mid-19th century] and his successors in the government and was instrumental in the considerable assistance and protection against oppression that Britain henceforth extended to the Jews already living in Palestine….
In her novel, ‘Daniel Deronda’ (1876), George Eliot advocated, ‘the restoration of a Jewish state planted in the old ground as a center of a national feeling, a source of dignifying protection, a special channel for special energies and an added voice in the councils of the world.’” (www.mideastweb.org)
The great Zionist, Chaim Weizmann, prodded the British to support the Zionist cause in Palestine. After the death of Herzl, Weizmann was a prominent leader of the Zionist movement in addition to being an outstanding, venerated scientist. (Weizmann invented a fermentation process that allowed the British to manufacture their own liquid acetone, which was essential to British efforts during WWI.)
Weizmann’s scientific achievements first brought him to the attention of David Lloyd George, Minister of Ammunitions, and First Lord of the Admiralty Lord Balfour, the former British prime minister. In 1916, after Lloyd George became prime minister and Balfour was Foreign Secretary. Weizmann and other prominent Zionists influenced the sympathetic British leaders to promulgate a Zionist program for the British in post-war Palestine.
However, in 1915 the British Commissioner in Cairo promised an Arab caliphate within the area then controlled by the Ottoman Empire to the Hashemite ruler, Sharif Husayn of Mecca. The Hashemites were the former rulers of the Hejaz (Mecca and Medina) who had been deposed by the Saudis. Consequently, several years after the end of WWI, upon receiving the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the British severed the area east of the Jordan River (78% of Palestine), and gave it to the Hashemites, who proclaimed their prize to be “Transjordan” and who rule it (now called Jordan) until today.(jewishvirtuallibrary.com)
This division of Palestine left only the much smaller area west of the Jordan River for the Jews to build their national home. Despite the fact that Jews were allowed “close [dense] settlement” of the land, the now-Arabist leaning British government did all it could to discourage this by prohibiting Jewish purchase of land in certain areas, limiting Jewish immigration, and allowing unfettered immigration of Arabs and non-Jews from around the region. Consequently, entire areas of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee were unable to be “closely settled” by Jews.
What were the pragmatic reasons for Britain to promulgate the Balfour Declaration? The Allies were struggling with a war that had gone on far longer than the British had envisioned. Reinforcements were desperately needed to defeat the Central powers, predominantly Germany.
“Alhough Balfour, himself, was in favor of a Jewish state, Great Britain particularly favored the declaration as an act of policy. Britain wanted the United States to join World War I and the British hoped that by supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine, world Jewry would be able to sway the U.S. to join the war. The final version of the Balfour Declaration was issued on November 2, 1917, in [the form of] a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, president of the British Zionist Federation. The main body of the letter quoted the decision of the October 31, 1917 British Cabinet meeting. This declaration was accepted by the League of Nations on July 24, 1922 and embodied in the mandate that gave Great Britain temporary administrative control of Palestine.” (https://www.thoughtco.com/balfour-declaration-1778163)
There was also a Russian connection to the Declaration: “…the British believed, without much foundation, that, ‘the Jews’ were influential in Bolshevik Russia and likewise that Jewish financiers controlled untold wealth that could be put at the disposal of the Allies [Britain] or the Central powers [Germany], depending on which government would support a Jewish state or national home in Palestine. In his memoirs, [1916-1922 British Prime Minister] Lloyd George continued to exaggerate the power of the Jews and the help that they rendered:
[Britain must act quickly because] the Germans were equally alive to the fact that the Jews of Russia wielded considerable influence in Bolshevik circles. The Zionist Movement was exceptionally strong in Russia and America. The Germans were, therefore, engaged actively in courting favour with that Movement all over the world. (http://zionism-israel.com)
The major repercussion of the Balfour Declaration is NOT as the basis for the legality of the State of Israel, nor is the 1948 acceptance of the State of Israel into the United Nations the basis for Israel’s legitimacy. After all, many nations were founded long before the existence of the United Nations.
One hundred years later, we are thankful for the Balfour Declaration because it was a catalyst for preparing a successful political blueprint for the Zionists. However, our happiness is mitigated by the continuous delegitimization of Israel by the Palestinian Arabs, fellow-travelers among Jews, and anti-Semites. Even so, Israel looks forward to continued success, buoyed by the fact that our population is the youngest and most prolific among Western nations and our people are counted among the world’s most satisfied, healthy, and ingenious populations. The Jewish People Live!