Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine

The British government, in a letter sent to Lionel Walter Rothschild, announced its support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Summary of Event

The story of the Balfour Declaration’s role in Zionism, the Jewish independence movement, began more than two thousand years ago with the loss of Jewish independence. After the Roman conquest of ancient Israel in 63 b.c.e. and the unsuccessful Jewish revolts in the century that followed, most of the surviving Jews were expelled from their land. So began the exile of the Jewish people and the loss of their political rights. Balfour Declaration
Jews;homeland in Palestine
[kw]Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine (Nov. 2, 1917)
[kw]Jewish Homeland in Palestine, Balfour Declaration Supports a (Nov. 2, 1917)
[kw]Homeland in Palestine, Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish (Nov. 2, 1917)
[kw]Palestine, Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in (Nov. 2, 1917)
Balfour Declaration
Jews;homeland in Palestine
[g]England;Nov. 2, 1917: Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine[04370]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 2, 1917: Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine[04370]
[c]Human rights;Nov. 2, 1917: Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine[04370]
Balfour, Arthur
Weizmann, Chaim
Rothschild, Lionel Walter
Montagu, Edwin Samuel

The Jews’ desire for the reestablishment of political independence is a relatively new phenomenon, but religious attachment of Jews to Israel had never abated. Jews trickled back to Palestine throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for reasons of piety, often combined with necessity. The Spanish Inquisition, for example, sent a wave of Jews back to their ancient home.

Arthur Balfour.


Not until the American and French revolutions did Jews come to be considered citizens in their adopted lands, and then only in countries experimenting with new freedoms. With the rise of nationalism and the refinement of civil rights in the West, Jewish nationalism became problematic. How could a Jew be loyal to France while maintaining the centuries-old belief that the Jews’ sojourn in foreign lands was temporary and would be followed by a return to Palestine?

For some, the answer came from the imperfect realization of citizenship. Prejudice and persecution continued despite legal equality. Pogroms in Eastern Europe emphasized the frailty of Jewish rights, and early Zionists such as Leo Pinsker and Theodor Herzl argued that Jewish life would continue to be endangered unless Jews lived in a Jewish land. The rise of nationalism in nineteenth century Europe inspired Jews to change religious sentiments about Zion into political reality. In 1897, the first World Zionist Congress was held. Participants and their supporters urged the return of Jews to Palestine, and about twenty-five thousand Jews emigrated between 1902 and 1903.

Britain recognized an opportunity in Zionist aspirations. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain entertained the notion of using the Jewish desire for a homeland as a tool of British imperial policy. The Zionist movement rejected offers of settling Jews in British East Africa, Cyprus, and the Sinai.

During World War I, Jews resided in countries that were at war with each other. The Jews of Palestine were in a particularly precarious position because of persecution by the Ottomans. Some Jews in Palestine wanted to join the Turkish army in opposition to czarist Russia; others, including those deported by the Ottomans, supported the British. The Zionists’ aim was to choose the side that was most likely to help Jews achieve independence in Palestine.

The British government’s interests were in winning the war and in maintaining control over the Holy Land after the war. Getting the support of the populace in an area controlled by the Ottomans was an important part of Britain’s strategy, which it accomplished by making promises to both the Arabs and the Jews. Raw calculations of power were not the only motivations for this policy, however. The British government was influenced as well by the romantic and religious pro-Zionist ideals of some of its members. Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, was among those who came to have an emotional attachment to the idea of a Jewish national home. His Christian upbringing led him to believe in a special role for the Jews in the Holy Land. Similar views were held by Prime Minister David Lloyd George. On the practical side, British leaders hoped this policy would win support for the British war effort from Jews all over the world.

The connection between British war interests and Jewish interests in a national home was actively pursued by Zionist leader and scientist Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to England in 1904. Weizmann had done a great service to the British by developing a synthetic substitute for a key component in an essential explosive. He became friends with many prominent British leaders, and he used his personal warmth and persuasiveness to convey the message of Zionism to them.

One member of the British cabinet, Edwin Samuel Montagu, strongly opposed British support for a Jewish homeland. Montagu was secretary of state for India and the only Jew in the cabinet. His opposition illustrated the tension within the Jewish community over loyalty to one’s country versus loyalty to Zion. Montagu believed that the establishment of a Jewish national home would lead people to question the loyalty of British Jews and would create problems with India’s Muslim population.

The government, however, came to the decision that support for Zionist aspirations would be to Great Britain’s advantage. Government representatives and Zionist leaders negotiated the text of the letter that came to be known as the Balfour Declaration. The Zionists wanted the government to support Palestine as the Jewish homeland. The government, sensitive to the Arab population that might also serve as a bulwark against the Ottoman Turks, chose a milder phrase supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

The Balfour Declaration took the form of a brief letter, dated November 2, 1917, from Arthur Balfour to Lionel Walter Rothschild, president of the British Zionist Federation. It was a simple communiqué, but it brought widespread rejoicing in Jewish communities. Britain had hoped that in the Allied countries the Balfour Declaration would mobilize Jews to deepen the commitment of their governments to the Allied cause and that in the Central Powers, British support for a Jewish homeland would end Jews’ support of their own governments. The strategy was partially successful. The Jews had no influence in the newly formed Soviet Union, but in England, the United States, and (to a lesser degree) France, most Jews rededicated themselves to supporting the Allied war effort. Most German Jews were not swayed to the British and Zionist causes, but in Palestine, the vast majority of Jewish inhabitants gave their allegiance to the Allies.

After the war, further support for the declaration came from the Jews of many other countries. At the end of the war, the Western governments included the text of the Balfour Declaration in the document granting Great Britain control of Palestine.

Zionists read the declaration in the most inclusive of terms, assuming that the British were committed to unlimited immigration of Jews to Palestine. In 1922, these hopes were reined in because the Arabs feared that Jews were taking over their land. The Churchill White Paper Churchill White Paper limited Jewish settlement to the area of Palestine west of the Jordan River. To the Arabs, the Balfour Declaration was not sufficient to guarantee Arab rights. To the Zionists, the Churchill White Paper’s restrictions were a necessary evil.

Violence continued intermittently between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. By 1939, the severity of the situation prompted the British government to, in effect, rescind its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. The White Paper of May, 1939, White Paper of 1939 stated that Great Britain would create a state of Palestine, one that was neither exclusively Arab nor exclusively Jewish, within ten years. More important, the White Paper announced the prohibition of the sale of land in Palestine to Jews and the elimination in five years of all Jewish immigration to Palestine. In essence, the White Paper of 1939 repudiated the Balfour Declaration on the eve of the Nazi Holocaust. The new British policy restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine had the effect of contributing to the deaths of many Jews who could not find asylum from the horrors of Hitler’s Europe.

The Zionists continued their planning for a Jewish national home. In 1942, they decided to advocate an independent Jewish state. In 1947, the newly formed United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. In 1948, Zionist leaders announced the independence of Israel. Israel, establishment


The Balfour Declaration affected two groups of people, Jews and Arabs. Neither group enjoyed the rights that sovereignty confers, and both groups suffered persecution. For the Arabs of Palestine, the Balfour Declaration came to symbolize British abandonment of Arab independence goals. At first, there was no Arab consensus about whether Zionism was good or bad for Arabs. Many Arab leaders initially ignored Zionism, and some saw common interests between Jews and Arabs. The British had promised independence to Arabs, and Weizmann and the Hashemite representative, Emir Feisal, held some cordial discussions of joint aims. When the Zionists failed to work independently of the British to oppose French control of Syria, however, their talks broke down.

Other Arab leaders had argued from the beginning that Jewish independence was inimical to Arab nationalist aims. Cooperation for independence between Arabs and Zionists ended in 1919. As a result of the Balfour Declaration and increased immigration of Jews to Palestine, antagonism between the two groups increased. Instead of complementing each other, the two independence movements began to view themselves as being in opposition. Violence between the communities in Palestine spread and intensified.

For the Jews, the Balfour Declaration gave Zionism the official recognition and support of a Great Power. Before the Balfour Declaration, Zionism met resistance from those Jews who wanted to enjoy their newly granted citizenship in modern countries. They wanted to be Jewish—to have the right to believe and worship as Jews—but they wanted to be citizens of modern states, with all the political freedoms that these countries afforded. They did not want their loyalty to be questioned. Zionists, however, pushed for the Balfour Declaration because they correctly believed that official recognition of Zionist aims by a world power would provide an imprimatur of legitimacy to their movement. Not only would this recognition convince the nations of the world that a Jewish homeland was both right and possible, but it would also convince Jews that a Jewish national home in Palestine was desirable.

The tangible effects of the declaration included the founding of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a resurgence of interest in emigration to Palestine. After the declaration, more Jews settled in Palestine. Prior to World War I, there were an estimated eighty-five thousand Jews in Palestine. Many died from the war or from the famine that came with it, and the Jewish population declined to fifty-five thousand. British documents recorded authorized immigration to Palestine of more than five thousand in 1920. The highest level of immigration prior to the release of the White Paper of 1939 came in 1935, when more than sixty thousand Jews moved to Palestine.

Although the Balfour Declaration did not explicitly support the establishment of an independent Jewish state, the prospect that it raised of a Jewish national home recognized by the Western powers vitalized the Zionist movement. In this way, the Balfour Declaration helped make the creation of a Jewish state possible. Despite the serious problems afflicting the state of Israel, it remains a Jewish national home. Balfour Declaration
Jews;homeland in Palestine

Further Reading

  • Dugdale, Blanche E. C. Arthur James Balfour: First Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., 1906-1930. 1936. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1970. The second volume of a biography written by Balfour’s niece. The chapter on Balfour and Jewry reveals the complexity of the foreign minister’s attachment to Zionist principles. Discusses how important Zionism was to Balfour the man as well as to Balfour the foreign minister.
  • Khalidi, Walid, ed. From Haven to Conquest: Readings in Zionism and the Palestine Problem Until 1948. Beirut, Lebanon: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1987. Articles and excerpts from Zionist, neutral, and anti-Zionist sources make the anti-Zionist case. Quality is uneven. The excerpt by J. M. N. Jeffries on the Balfour Declaration is too vitriolic to contribute to sober analysis. Other selections, including Montagu’s memorandum opposing the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and Frank E. Manuel’s analysis of the role of U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis D. Brandeis in the formulation of the Balfour Declaration, are more useful.
  • Khouri, Fred J. The Arab-Israeli Dilemma. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1985. Focuses on the relationship between the state of Israel and its Arab neighbors after 1948. The author, an American-born political scientist, maintains an objective tone.
  • Morris, Benny. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. Comprehensive history of the long struggle over Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Chapter 3 addresses the era of World War I and the Balfour Declaration. Includes maps, select bibliography, and index.
  • O’Brien, Conor Cruise. The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. Engaging and empathetic account by an Irishman who has been a diplomat, academic, and journalist. Accepts the legitimacy of the existence of a Jewish state but attempts to give voice to all sides’ opinions. Includes extensive bibliography and helpful chronological table and glossary.
  • Sachar, Howard M. A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. 2d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. A comprehensive and detailed work, free of jargon. The author’s pro-Zionist beliefs are apparent, but the discussion is balanced. An entire chapter devoted to the Balfour Declaration carefully interprets the roles of power politics and moral concerns in the formulation of British policy.
  • Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. 1949. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972. Memoir by the individual who was preeminent among Zionist leaders in his push for official British recognition of Jewish aims in Palestine. Provides a readable account of the interplay of personalities behind the modern history of Zionism and the Jewish state.

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