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The Balfour Declaration dissected: 67 words that changed the world

A century later, the British government's support for a Jewish homeland still stokes controversy. Here's why
Members of the al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades demonstrate on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in Rafah, Gaza on 2 November 2015 (AFP)

It is typed on a single sheet of paper. It is less than 70 words long. Its language is unemotional and could hardly be called poetic.

But the Balfour Declaration, issued by the British government 100 years ago this week, changed the course of history for Jews, Arabs and the rest of the world.

Arthur Balfour and the Balfour Declaration, now held at the British Library (creative commons)

Behind the short statement - buried in a letter of 112 words - is a promise to Zionists of a homeland for the Jewish people. It was a promise borne out of London's drive to win the war, Biblical romanticism on the part of establishment Christians and, in the words of Avi Shlaim, an Israeli scholar, the “cold calculation of British imperial interests".

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Understanding how the declaration came about is key to understanding how, even a century later, it remains a source of intense controversy that is celebrated by many Jews but also loathed by many Arabs. (Key words in the analysis below have been highlighted.)

A time of war

It is autumn 1917, three years into the First World War. British troops are almost at the gates of the city of Jerusalem in Palestine. The territory, along with much of the Middle East, has been under the control of the Turkish Ottoman empire which, along with Germany, is fighting against Britain.

To help win the war, the British have encouraged the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans in return for a pan-Arab homeland.

But in 1916 the British and the French secretly sign the Sykes-Picot agreement, which carves up the Middle East between the two European powers.

The British have encouraged the Arabs to revolt against the Ottomans in return for a pan-Arab homeland

Now, in a second betrayal of Arab political aspirations, Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, writes to Lord Walter Rothschild, a prominent member of the British Jewish community, on 2 November. The declaration is the culmination of several drafts, which have been pored over by members of the government.

Rothschild, a financier, is a member of one of the richest families in Europe. He is also the first Jew to sit in the House of Lords and a leading member of the Zionist movement, which has been campaigning to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine - even though its population at the time is more than 90 percent Arab.

UK backs the Zionist cause

 Jews have been immigrating to Palestine for the past few decades, driven by anti-semitic pogroms in the Russian empire during the late 1880s.

It is not until 1897 and the founding of the Zionist Organisation in Switzerland by Theodore Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, that the aspirations of political Zionism - a home for the Jewish people in Palestine - really start to take shape.

In the coming years, political Zionists begin to push for further migration to Palestine in the hope that the Great Powers - including the UK, France and the United States - will support their campaign. But while some in the British establishment are sympathetic to the Zionist cause, the UK passes a law in 1905 restricting the entry of Jews to the country.

British prime Minister David Lloyd George, who Israeli academic Avi Shlaim describes as “the driving force” behind the declaration, is of Welsh Evangelical Christian stock. He is one among a group of devout Christian politicians who regard the establishment of a Jewish homeland as fulfilling a biblical prophecy: that a long-persecuted people will be able to return from exile to their homeland.

'The motives were not religious but hard-headed imperialism. Their religion was the British Empire before it was ever Zionism'

- John Bond, the Balfour Project

Shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann makes contact with Rothschild and also begins to lobby members of the British government. In January 1915, the British cabinet discusses for the first time the idea of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine.

John Bond of the Balfour Project says that discussions among British politicians focused less on religion and more on geopolitical security: “The motives were not religious but hard-headed imperialism. Their religion was the British Empire before it was ever Zionism.”

Britain sees the strategic benefit of creating what Ronald Storrs, a future governor of Jerusalem, would later describe as a “loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism”. Palestine, London realises, is essential to protecting its interests in the region, especially the Suez Canal and its lines of communication with India, the jewel in Britain’s Imperial crown at the time.

But France, which is fighting alongside Britain, is also trying to gain influence in the region. Britain also does not want to lose out to Germany, which shows signs of wanting to back the growing Zionist movement. Lloyd George has an exaggerated idea of Jewish influence and thinks that bringing European Jewry onside could help turn the tide against the Germans. 

What of the Palestinians?

In 1917, the 700,000 population of Palestine is dominated by Arabs - part of the "existing non-Jewish communities" as the declaration puts it. Most of these communities are Muslim, although some are Christians. There are also a small number of Palestinian Jews, who have been living in Palestine for centuries and who share cultural and linguistic ties with other Palestinians.

The Palestinians have been ruled by the Ottoman empire for four centuries - but by the First World War, support for the Turks has plummeted. A new Turkish nationalist regime is now in charge of the empire and, with British help, Arab political aspirations seem more attainable than ever.

'We Arabs fear that the new settler will expel the indigenous and we will have to leave our country en masse'

- Abdullah Mukhlis, 1910

During the war, Britain and her allies pursue the Ottoman Turk’s territories. But tensions begin to mount in Palestine as waves of mostly European Jews continue to arrive, purchase land and revive the Hebrew language, all with the aim of creating a national home. They also build settlements: one is called Tel Aviv. The Palestinian leaders fear a takeover and complain to the Ottoman authorities. 

Arab writer Abdullah Mukhlis sums up the fears of many Palestinians when he writes presciently in 1910: “Establishing a Jewish state after thousands of years of decline … we [Arabs] fear that the new settler will expel the indigenous and we will have to leave our country en masse." 

Before the declaration there is disunity among Zionists outside the Middle East. In the UK, for example, only 8,000 of the country's 300,000 Jews belong to a Zionist organisation prior to the Balfour Declaration. 

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, says: “The Jews certainly weren’t united. There were many who thought it would have a negative impact. By no means had Zionism captured the imagination of the Jewish communities.”

How the declaration was received

When it becomes public, the Balfour Declaration marks a turning point for the campaign among Jews.

In Britain, the campaign is led by the Zionist Federation, an umbrella group which pushes the idea that the main goal of Zionism is "aliyah" or immigration to Palestine. A celebration takes place in the Royal Opera House, where prominent Zionist leaders and senior members of the government deliver speeches. 

Membership of Zionist organisations also increase dramatically in the United States. However, some orthodox Jews still oppose the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine on religious grounds.

Weizmann continues to lobby ministers, diplomats and officials. He attends the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, which sets peace terms for the defeated powers and where Weizmann tries to hold Britain to its promise.

Herbert Samuel, a Zionist MP who started discussions in the cabinet about a Palestine homeland for Jews, is appointed civil governor of Palestine in 1920. 

The next 100 years

Palestinian Arab leaders are incensed when news of the declaration emerges in the coming weeks. From 1920 onwards, Palestinian Arabs will mark the anniversary of the declaration with protests that sometimes turn violent.

In 1922, Palestine comes under a British mandate, which is supposed to prepare its inhabitants for eventual self-determination. But the mandate document leaves out the word “Arab”. Instead it enshrines the Balfour Declaration into an international legal framework. 

For his part, Arthur Balfour himself never seems to have any regrets

The declaration leads in 1947 to the realisation of the Zionist dream of a homeland for Jews, when the newly founded United Nations agrees to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories.

But this generates further hostility among Israel's Arab neighbours. When Israel declares independence in 1948 war breaks out. Israel is victorious but its inhabitants will live under the threat of conflict during the coming decades.

In 1948 Palestinians endure the nakba - or catastrophe - as thousands are violently uprooted from their homes and forced to live under occupation or outside Palestine.

Zionists, meanwhile celebrate Balfour. Streets in major cities including Jerusalem take his name. Balfouria, a settlement south of Nazareth, is founded in his honour in 1922. His desk sits in the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Balfour Day is celebrated on 2 November every year. 

For his part, Balfour himself never seems to have any regrets. In 1919 he tells his successor George Curzon, who disagreed with him about British policy towards Palestine, that “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present needs, in future hopes of far profounder importance than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land."

The letter itself is now in the British Library.

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