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The Balfour Declaration - The British Promise of a Jewish Homeland

Mitchell Stein |01/11/2021|45
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On November 2nd, 1917, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, sent a letter to the famed Zionist leader Baron de Rothschild, stating support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”. Since the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the British Empire had been considering the future of then Ottoman-controlled Palestine should they successfully see to the end of the Ottoman Empire through war. After many years of lobbying by the Zionist Congress, initially led by Theodor Herzl, the Balfour Declaration was ultimately the first official recognition of the legitimacy of Zionism by the British.

The Balfour Declaration is intentionally vague in its language, and therefore has become a topic of lasting debate. The contents of the letter, still certainly debated and scrutinized today, reads:

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. Lord Arthur Balfour, The Balfour Declaration, 1917

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The Balfour Declaration (courtesy of the British Library)

Despite the fact that the letter by Balfour was the first time the British government formally recognized Zionism, the true intentions of the British continue to be enigmatic. A matter of contention remains whether the British had truly intended to help solve the issues of national identity and provide a homeland to various groups in Palestine - or whether they had simply issued this declaration for the purpose of political gain, perhaps to muster allied support from global Jewry, or to lure the French from controlling the region by claiming their only intention in the region was to solve the nationalistic conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

Certainly, The Balfour Declaration has become a contested topic in the history of the region and the founding of the State of Israel. One of its primary criticisms state that the letter by Lord Balfour contradicts promises previously made by the British Lieutenant Sir Henry McMahon to Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, in which McMahon promised to recognize Arab independence in exchange for an allied revolt against the Ottoman Empire. However, McMahon famously did not explicitly mention Palestine, yet, it had not been explicitly excluded as other regions has been, such as “portions of Syria” and those “lying to the west of "the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo.” (McMahon, October 24th, 1915). The British appeared to have been promising the same land to two parties, and after thirty-one years in the region, had unfulfilled either of these such promises.

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Allenby entering Jerusalem and heading to the Tower of David, 1917. (Tower of David Museum collection)

On December 11th, 1917, one month after the writing of the Balfour Declaration and with the new British victory over the region, General Edmund Allenby marched through Jerusalem, walking by foot from the Jaffa Gate to the Tower of David, in a ceremony intended to signal a new era for Palestine. The British would continue to control the region until their departure in 1948, leaving many of the region’s issues still unsolved, and with little attempt to fulfill the promise of the Balfour Declaration.

Support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, as referred to in the Balfour Declaration, was later ratified by the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations (UN), in 1922. This ratification would later encourage the newly-founded UN to create the UN Partition Plan in 1947, dividing Palestine into separate Arab and Jewish states. The departure of the British would leave the Jewish and Arab populations to solve the issues for themselves, resulting in the 1947-1948 War of Independence, and the foundation of the State of Israel.

The Balfour Declaration remains a significant moment in the history of the region, and marked a turning point for the Zionist movement and in part, conflict in the region. However, its vague language forever ensured its place in history as a source of great controversy and speculation. Today, The Balfour Declaration represents a complex history and in some ways, the foundation of modern issues at the heart of the State of Israel. Whether the British Empire, in pursuing their own interests in the region, had truly intended to solve the issues of Palestine, the Balfour Declaration continues to be an integral part of understanding the history of the State of Israel and the history of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

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1917 postcard designed by Bezalel Arts Academy in Jerusalem (Shmuel Ben David, National Photo Collection, Israel Government Press Office)

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