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Why Did the British Support ‘The Establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People’?

The Balfour Declaration, November 2, 1917

The Balfour Declaration, sent by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour in a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, on November 2,1917 read: “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.”

The government chose to address the declaration to Rothschild, who held no official position in the English Zionist Federation or in the World Zionist Organization, rather than to the leading Zionist Jewish leaders in Britain, because he had the most “potent name in Jewry,” according to Leonard Stein, a lawyer and prominent member of the community (“The Balfour Declaration” by Leonard Stein, London: Valentine Mitchell, 1961, Page 548). In his response, Lord Rothschild thanked Balfour on November 4: “I can assure you that the gratitude of ten millions of people will be yours, for the British government has opened up, by their message, a prospect of safety and comfort to large masses of people who are in need of it. I dare say you have been informed that already in many parts of Russia renewed persecution has broken out.”

Why Did the British Government Issue the Balfour Declaration?

Why did the British support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”? Historian Mart Gilbert explained: “The British War Cabinet in the autumn of 1917 frantically wanted Russian Jews to urge their government to revive Russia’s deteriorating war effort and believed a future Jewish Palestine would be a compelling incentive and impetus for Russian Jewry.” On October 24, 1917, Balfour told the War Cabinet: “The vast majority of Jews in Russia and America, as, indeed, all over the world, now appeared to be favourable to Zionism. If we could make a declaration favourable to such an ideal, we should be able to carry on extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and America.” Though the declaration was released too late to affect the outcome of the Bolshevik Revolution, it did inspire American Jews, especially those born in Russia, to volunteer to fight in Palestine against the Turks as part of the British Army.

Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow wrote that on September 20, 1918, Balfour explained the unique nature of Zionism: “Zionism differs in kind from ordinary philanthropic efforts… it appeals to different motives. If it succeeds, it will do a great spiritual and material work for the Jews, but not for them alone. … It is, among other things, a serious endeavor to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence in its midst of a body which it too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb. Surely, for this if for no other reason, it should receive our support.”

“The ultimate end,” of British support, as Lord L.S. Amery, a leading Conservative politician and cabinet minister, recorded in his diary in July 1928, “is to make Palestine the centre of a western influence, using Jews as we have used the Scots, to carry English ideal through the Middle East and not merely to make an artificial oriental Hebrew enclave in an oriental country. Secondly that we wish Palestine in some way or other to remain within the framework of the British Empire …”

Though the Balfour Declaration had been approved by the U.S., France and Italy, Sir Martin Gilbert said, “Britain alone had granted the declaration and the British Government would decide how it would be implemented. Whether the national home would be the means to establish a Jewish state, an end or at some point be viewed as the national home was not clear.”

On July 24, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George accepted a British Mandate for Palestine, Gilbert noted. He informed the Conference that the responsibility of governing Palestine “would not be rendered less difficult by the fact that it was to be the national home of the Jews, who were an intelligent race but not easy to govern.” Recognition had thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with the land of Israel and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home there.

No Mention of Rights of Arabs Who Live in Palestine

Eli Hertz (president, Myths and Facts) asserts that the Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate for Palestine deliberately make no mention of recognizing Palestinian Arabs as a separate and distinct people with their own national rights. The indigenous people were regarded as residents whose political identity was connected to the larger Arab nation that was divided between 1920 and 1924 by the League of Nations into several states controlled by superpowers: Iraq and Transjordan were under the British, Lebanon and Syria under French rule, and Saudi Arabia was as a separate, autonomous entity.

The British were quite clear, Hertz said. The post-World War I settlement created a new British jurisdiction called The Palestine Mandate, which consisted of Transjordan (Eastern Palestine) and a national home for the Jewish people (Western Palestine). Palestine was not a state, but the name of a geographical area.

When the First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations met in Jerusalem in February 1919 to select Palestinian Arab representatives for the Paris Peace Conference, they adopted the following resolution: “We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic, and geographical bonds (Ibid; Meinertzhagen, op.cit.75.) Historian Rohan Butler said, “Syria will never agree to handling over this integral part of their country [Palestine] to Jews,” Emir Feisal, who was King of the Arab Kingdom of Syria or Greater Syria in 1920, informed Field Marshal Viscount Edmund Allenby, who served as High Commissioner for Egypt and the Sudan in 1920.

This declaration is not surprising. Historian Daniel Pipes observed that although the concept of nationalism fascinated people in Middle East as much as it captivated others in Europe and elsewhere, the idea of a Palestinian nation had not resonated with any Arab writer or political leader, and justifiably so. Palestine had always been a Jewish and Christian idea, one that was completely alien to the Muslims. Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) and Terra Sancta have no equivalent in Islam. Muslims direct their attention to the Islamic holy cities of Medina and Mecca, not Palestine. Moreover, Muslims have never ruled over an independent state in Palestine. These states were created and governed either by Jews or Christians.

The decision by the British and French to separate Palestine from Syria at San Remo to control both areas, Pipes added, triggered protests throughout Palestine. Demands were made for independence of a united Syria stretching from Turkey to the Sinai.

Although the Balfour Declaration had endorsed Jewish rights to reestablishing their national home in Palestine, the British steadily reneged on many of the original rights resulting in an adversarial relationship with London. Richard Meinertzhagen, General Edmund Allenby’s chief political officer, involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate, wrote in his diary in 1944 that the Balfour Declaration “is a compromise, giving with one hand and taking away with the other. … Since 1919, Zionism has been continually sabotaged and whittled down until today… ”

One pointed example was the 1939 British White Paper, which significantly restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine, declared Gilbert. By limiting Jewish immigration, the British sought to obtain the loyalty of India and the Arab Mideast, since there were many millions of Muslims in British India. In explaining his rationale to the British Cabinet on January 27, 1939, Malcolm MacDonald, British Secretary of State for the Colonies, said he was “satisfied that we could not afford to forfeit the confidence and friendship of a large part of the Moslem world. If we lost that now we would lose it for a long time, whereas if we reached a settlement in Palestine along the lines proposed, Jewish criticism in America would not have any permanent effect on Anglo-American relations.”

A Final Note

In 1917-1922, Abba Eban explained, no one had to debate the aboriginal rights of Zionism. It was a given that there was a unique connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They are forever linked with its name. The International leaders, who were overwhelmingly Christian, grew up knowing about the Holy Land as the Jewish homeland through Jesus, the bible and Christian missionaries. In the British war cabinet of 1917, historian Norman Rose pointed out that three of the five members were sympathetic to Zionism—Lloyd George, Alfred Milner and Jan Smuts. Lord Arthur James Balfour served as foreign secretary, Sir Mark Sykes and Leopold Amery were assistant secretaries to the cabinet.


Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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