This week in history: The Balfour Declaration supported the Zionist cause
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.
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