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What Is the Balfour Declaration?

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What Is the Balfour Declaration?

An image of the letter containing the Balfour Declaration, as preserved at the British Library.

Question: What Is the Balfour Declaration?
Few documents in Middle Eastern history have had as consequential and controversial an influence as the Balfour Declaration of 1917. But who was it named for, and what was the meaning of the declaration, and does it remain such a contentious chapter in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Answer: The Balfour Declaration was actually a 67-word statement contained within a brief letter attributed to Lord Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, dated Nov. 2, 1917. The declaration recognized the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It statement read as follows:
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.
Balfour addressed the letter to Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a British banker, zoologist and Zionist activist who, along with Zionists Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow, helped draft the declaration much as lobbyists today draft bills for legislators to submit. As such, the declaration was in line with European Zionist leaders' hopes and designs for a homeland in Palestine, Rothschild and others believed would be realized through intense immigration of Jews around the world to Palestine.

Liberal Britain’s Sympathy for Zionism

Balfour was part of the liberal government of Prime Minister David Lloyd George. British liberal public opinion believed that Jews had suffered historical injustices, that the West was to blame, and that, therefore, the West had a responsibility to enable a Jewish homeland.

The push for a Jewish homeland was aided, in Britain and elsewhere, by an ironic, if bigoted, twist. Fundamentalist Christians, from whose ranks European anti-Semitism drew its inspiration, encouraged the emigration of Jews as one way to accomplish two goals: depopulate Europe of Jews, and fulfill Biblical prophesy (Christians believe that the return of Christ must be preceded by a Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land).

The Declaration’s Controversies and Contradictions

The Declaration was controversial from the start, and chiefly due to its own imprecise and contradictory wording. The imprecision and contradictions were, however, deliberate—an indication of the wiliness of Lloyd George’s government, which did not want to be on the hook for the fate of Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

The Declaration did not refer to Palestine as the site of the Jewish homeland, but that of a Jewish homeland. That left Britain's commitment to an independent Jewish nation very much open to question. That opening was exploited by subsequent interpreters of the Declaration, who claimed that it was never intended as an endorsement of a uniquely Jewish state. Rather, that Jews would establish a homeland in Palestine alongside Palestinians and other Arabs established there for almost two millennia.

The second part of the Declaration — that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities” — could be and has been read by Arabs as an endorsement of Arab autonomy and rights, an endorsement as valid as that proffered on behalf of Jews. Britain would, in fact, exercise its League of Nations mandate over Palestine to protect Arab rights, at times at the expense of Jewish rights. But Britain’s role never ceased to be fundamentally contradictory.

Demographics in Palestine Before and After Balfour

At the time of the Declaration in 1917, Palestinians—the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”—constituted 90 percent of the population there. Jews numbered about 50,000. By 1947, on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence, Jews numbered 600,000. By then Jews were developing extensive quasi governmental institutions while provoking increasing resistance from Palestinians.

Palestinians staged small uprisings in 1920, 1921, 1929 and 1933, and a major uprising, called the Palestine Arab Revolt, from 1936 to 1939. They were all quashed by a combination of British and, beginning in the 1930s, Jewish forces.

On May 15, 1948, Israel declared its independence. Thirty-one years earlier, the Balfour Declaration had been, willed by the British government or not, Israel’s foundation.

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