On Nov. 2, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, a proclamation which stated British intentions to support a Jewish national home in Palestine. Controversial from the start, the declaration was a product of many factors, and ultimately served to form the basis for the state of Israel.
The ideology of Zionism, the belief in the creation of a Jewish national home, began in the late 19th century. Theodore Herzl, a Jewish journalist from the Austro-Hungarian empire, had initially believed that the best thing for Jews to do in Europe was assimilate as completely as they could into their nations. Covering France's Dreyfus Affair in the 1890s, however, convinced him otherwise. During that episode France's latent anti-Semitism was exposed, leading Herzl to believe that if the most liberal nation in Europe could allow such injustice, Jews must leave Europe and found a new homeland.
Many Jews in Europe continued to push for assimilation, and believed that the international nature of the Zionist movement threatened their national loyalties. Those calling for further assimilation feared that many Christian Europeans would view Jews as a whole as disloyal at a time when European nationalism was on the rise and would soon be a major contributor to the outbreak of World War I.
The connections between Great Britain and Jews seeking a national home went back even further. As early as the 1860s the government of Lord Palmerston looked favorably on a scheme to resettle Jews in Palestine, and in 1902 the possibility of settling Jews on the Sinai Peninsula was considered. Finding the plan impracticable, the British government, then under the leadership of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, offered land in British East Africa to the Jews. The open hostility of British settlers in the region and the long-held desire of the Jews to settle Palestine ensured that this scheme too came to nothing.
Despite the these offers of help and encouragement for the Jews, the Balfour government was also responsible for the 1905 Alien Act, which tightly controlled Jewish immigration to Britain.
The principle Zionist leader in Britain during World War I and the man most instrumental in the creation of the Balfour Declaration was the gifted chemist and passionate idealist Chaim Weizmann. Weizmann, who eventually became the first president of Israel in 1948, was born in southern Russia in 1874. Having studied chemistry in Switzerland and Germany, he eventually settled in England where he obtained a position at the University of Manchester.
In his book “Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann,” Weizmann wrote that he considered Zionism “a force for life and creativity residing in the Jewish masses. It was not simply the blind need of an exiled people for a home of [their] own.” Though many other Zionists like Aaron Aaronsohn, Nahum Sokolow and Lord Rothschild all worked tirelessly for their goal of a Jewish national home, Weizmann's determined efforts were seen as the chief force behind the movement that led to the declaration.
Weizmann and Balfour met during the early discussions of British help for the Jews, and each had impressed the other. Several years would pass, however, before their relationship bore fruit.
By the outbreak of World War I, however, Zionism appeared to have hit a wall. According to Leonard Stein in his book “The Balfour Declaration,” Britain contained only 8,000 known Zionists out of a Jewish population of around 300,000. In America, with its 3 million Jews, only 12,000 claimed to be Zionists. In France and Germany many Jewish organizations were staunchly anti-Zionist. Additionally, Weizmann believed that if more Jews were not already living and working in Palestine the prospect of receiving a charter from a European power would be futile. In 1914 only around 85,000 Jews were living in the region compared with over 600,000 Arabs.
The Ottoman government, which controlled the territory of Palestine, had offered incentives to Jews to settle in the region for economic reasons, but as Jews were expected to adopt Ottoman citizenship, few took the Turks up on the offer.
The outbreak of World War I gave the Zionist cause a new breath of life. On Nov. 5, 1914, Britain declared war upon the Ottoman empire. Four thousand British troops, having recently sailed from India, landed at Fao in southern Iraq on Nov. 7. The war between the British and the Ottoman empires, which would ultimately determine the fate of Palestine, had begun. Dismemberment of the Ottoman empire became a major British war aim.
Largely thanks to the war, Weizmann came to the attention of British leaders. Given his extensive background in chemistry, Weizmann was soon made a technical adviser to the Admiralty supervising the production of acetone, an essential chemical for the manufacture of high explosives. During a 1914 meeting, Weizmann found Balfour (at this time out of power) very sympathetic to the Zionist cause. No common politician, Balfour had written two serious works of philosophy and gave the Jews tremendous credit for their part in the rise of Christian civilization and was deeply concerned over the treatment of Jews in Europe.
Stein quoted Balfour's sentiments regarding the Jews: “The Jews are the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the Greeks of the fifth century. They have been exiled, scattered, and oppressed. If we can find them an asylum, a state home, in their native land, then the full flowering of their genius will burst forth and propagate. ... The submerged Jews of the ghettos of Eastern Europe will in Palestine find a new life and will develop a new and powerful identity. And the educated Jew from all over the world will render the University of Jerusalem a center of intellectual life and a radiant nurse of science and the arts.”
In addition to Balfour, who after December of 1916 held the post of foreign minister, the Zionists also found allies in Mark Sykes, a young Foreign Office official who sympathized with their aims, and David Lloyd George, Britain's new Prime Minister.
Lloyd George's reasons for supporting Weizmann and the Zionists were rooted less in idealism than in practical politics and war strategy. Stein quotes Lloyd George, who years later stated his reasons for supporting the Zionists:
“There we were ... with your people (the Jews) in every country in the world, very powerful. You may say you have been oppressed and persecuted — that has been your power. You have been hammered into fine steel ... and therefore we wanted your help. We thought it would be very useful.”
As British forces approached Jerusalem over the course of 1917, several factors, real and imagined, made support for the Zionists seem attractive. If Britain declared full support for Zionism, Weizmann told Britain's War Cabinet, then Jews the world over would rally to the Allied cause. Lloyd George believed that with support for the Zionists American Jews would get fully behind the war effort. Also, Britain's ally Russia suffered from an unstable government after the collapse of the Czarist regime earlier in the year, and he believed support for Zionism would ensure Russian Jews supported continued Russian participation in the war against Germany.
Weizmann also suggested, with absolutely no evidence, that the German government was considering a similar offer of support to the Zionists. If the Germans beat Britain in extending a formal offer of support, all of the Jewish goodwill the world over that Lloyd George hoped to exploit would lean toward Berlin.
Several debates took place in the War Cabinet, with Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu opposing support for the Zionists. Montagu, himself Jewish, felt that support for a Jewish national home implied that Jews could not fully assimilate into British society, and was therefore anti-Semitic. Additionally, he did not want to offend the Muslim population of India, to which he would soon travel to take up his position.
Montagu, together with Lord Curzon, also feared that logistically resettling Jews in the region would be impossible given the tremendous numbers of Arabs already there. Montagu referred to Weizmann in a letter to Lloyd George: “You are being misled by a foreigner, a dreamer and an idealist, who sweeps aside all practical difficulties.”
At a meeting of the War Cabinet on Oct. 31, the issue was finally decided. A message had arrived from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stating that he would support a declaration by the British in favor of Zionist aims, but his position was not be made public, as the United States and Turkey were not yet at war. With Montagu bound for India, Curzon remained the only voice of dissent in the cabinet. Balfour reiterated his belief that a declaration supporting a Jewish national home in Palestine would curry favor both with Jews in the USA and Russia. Curzon then grudgingly gave his consent for the measure.
Weizmann, waiting anxiously outside the cabinet meeting, was thrilled when Sykes appeared waving a piece a of paper and declared “Dr. Weizmann, it's a boy!”
The Balfour Declaration of support for Zionism took the form of a letter from Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a major leader in Britain's Jewish community. It read:
“His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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 advent of Lenin in Russia and the deteriorating military situation at Passchendaele and in Italy soon eclipsed the declaration in the headlines, however.
The Balfour Declaration enjoyed no force of law; it was simply a statement that a great power intended to help create a Jewish national home in Palestine. Both the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and the League of Nations in 1922 recognized and approved the declaration, and it became the foundation for the subsequent British mandate in Palestine, and allowed for the eventual creation of the state of Israel.
The world is still dealing with the practical problems that Montagu and Curzon feared.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: email@example.com