Michael Jackson

The Balfour Declaration Revisited

The Balfour Declaration was in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain.  It was sent on November 2nd, 1917, just a few days before the British army under Allenby captured Gaza and a month or so before they captured Jerusalem.

It was a short letter:

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.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour

I know that endless books and articles have been written about the meaning and reasons for the Balfour Declaration.  I am not getting into the reasons for the declaration but I want to consider its meaning, I think Arthur Koestler’s summary is correct: “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”  In 1914, the estimated Palestinian populations were 94,000 Jews, 70,000 Christians, and 525,000 Muslims.  Jews were about 14% or 1 in 7 of the population.  The “non-Jewish” population, to use the Balfour Declaration’s terminology was about 85% or 6 out of 7.

One can argue that a “national home” is not necessarily a country.  Texans do not have the national home of Texas, Catalonians do not have the national home of Catalonia, and it is questionable to state that Scots have the national home in Scotland (since the nation is the UK).  But I think “national home” implies a majority of the “home’s” population is of that national group.  The idea of a national home was common in Europe in 1917 as many peoples, e.g. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, etc. were striving for a national home, i.e. a state of their own.  The protection of “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” implies that the Jews would control the to-be-established Jewish “national home” since its political control would neither be British nor non-Jewish Palestinians. 

The British government, and Balfour in particular, favored a certain people, i.e. Jews, over less favored people, i.e. Arabs.  This argument is strengthened by the phrase, ‘or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”, i.e., the UK, France, USA, etc.  Jews living outside their to-be-established national home would be protected.

One can argue that the British, as a colonial power, had no right to make such a declaration.  Also, it could be argued that British governance in Palestine over the next 30 years at times violated the spirit of the declaration.  One can say that the Jewish right to the land did not depend on this declaration, but was biblical or historical in its justification.   However, the declaration must have tempered British attitudes towards Jewish settlement during some of the time that Britain ruled Palestine.

About the Author
Born in London in 1949. Studied Maths at Warwick University. Came to Israel (WUJS program at Arad) in 1971. I became a citizen and served in the army in 1973. Returned to the UK in 1974. Worked in Information Systems. Married an American Orthodox woman in 1977 and moved to America. For a few years I have led a retiree philosophy class.
Related Topics
Related Posts