David Lawrence-Young – Celebrating the Balfour Declaration 100 Years Later
The first two weeks of November 1917 were a very important time in world history. The British army was fighting the Turks in Gaza; the Canadians beat the Germans at Passchendaele, Belgium; the Russian Revolution broke out in Petrograd; and women won the right to vote in New York.
But for the Jewish people, the most significant event of this period was the issuing of the Balfour Delaration by the British government on 2 November 1917. In this declaration – which was really part of a letter written by the Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Lionel Walter de Rothschild, the head of the Zionist Federation – Balfour publicly stated three important principles:
”His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”
on condition that:
“…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”
in addition to not acting against:
“…the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The importance of this 67-word declaration is that it was the first time a major international power had come out in public support of the Zionist movement’s aims to set up a Jewish homeland in Eretz Israel.
A question often asked today is: Why did the British government issue this declaration? The answer is that there are probably several factors ranging from close personal contacts, traditional goodwill and mutual interests.
Prime Minister Lloyd George, his Foreign Minister, Balfour, and other cabinet ministers including Herbert Samuel were all in close contact. They were Christian (or Jewish) Zionists and were friendly with Chaim Weizmann, one of Britain’s leading Zionists. Weizmann’s friend, C.P. Scott, the influential editor of the Manchester Guardian, also helped him gain access to the above policy-makers. Another personal reason for Balfour to write this letter was that perhaps after becoming friendly with Weizmann, the Foreign Secretary wanted to make amends for the time when he had been Prime Minister earlier in 1908 and had passed the Aliens Act. This piece of legislation had caused many problems for Russian and other Jews wishing to immigrate to Britain and seek asylum there.
In addition, the British government felt a debt of gratitude to Weizmann for his scientific breakthrough in the production of much needed acetone (for explosives) for the British army.
It has also been suggested that if the British government were to “view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” then the Jews in the USA would push their own government to support the British war effort much more. In other words, Britain and the Zionists were natural allies. The realpolitik of the time meant that if the Jews settled in Palestine with Britain’s blessing, this would counter the Turkish presence there and guarantee a British sphere of influence.
On a personal note, I was very fortunate recently to be able to attend three centenary celebrations of this important document. The first was held near Tel Aviv at the British ambassador’s official residence. Here in the pleasant gardens, together with wine and petite-fours, the ambassador, David Quarrey, made a speech briefly summing up the positive side of Anglo-Israel relations. The second event included an evening of talks given in the Weizmann Hall in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, held incidentally in the same hall where Weizmann was sworn in as Israel’s first president. The key speaker was Lord Turnberg.
The third centennial meeting was held in the Knesset parliament building. Speeches about the Declaration’s importance were made by historians such as Prof. Simon Schama of Columbia Univ., Dr. Martin Kramer, Shalem College and Prof. Efraim Karsh of the Begin-Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies. This fascinating day was rounded off with a keynote address given by the current Lord Rothschild in which he spoke about “Personal and Historical Reflections” relating to his ancestor who was the recipient of the Balfour declaration, 100 years ago.
Today, Rehov Balfour is one of the post popular street names in the country. In Jerusalem, the prime minister’s residence is fittingly situated in the capital’s Balfour Street. In addition, a nature reserve – Balfouria – is also named after him
Final pedantic note: It is often stated that A.J. Balfour, as Lord Balfour was responsible for writing this Declaration in 1917. Not true. He was not raised to the peerage until May 1922.