Today, November 2, the Balfour Declaration is 91 years old. It was the crucial first official recognition of Jewish national aspirations.
Although the declaration itself had little legal status, it was later incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with Turkey and the Mandate for Palestine, adopted unanimously by the League of Nations in the San Remo Resolution of 1920. This lent Zionism a legitimacy enjoyed by few national movements before or since.
Perhaps most astonishing today, the leader of the Arab movement, King Faisal, supported the declaration when it was referred to in the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement of 1919.
Although many have since attempted to deny the central nature of the document and its relationship to the Mandate, that’s not how its British drafters saw things. In fact, as stated in the 1937 Royal Commission Report, “the primary purpose of the Mandate, as expressed in its preamble and its articles, is to promote the establishment of the Jewish National Home.”
The initial drafts of the Balfour Declaration spoke of the desire “that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people.” Clearly, Palestine as a whole was to become this Jewish national home.
The final draft was altered to contain the proviso, “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 FINAL declaration was altered at the behest of Edwin Samuel Montagu, an influential anti-Zionist Jew and secretary of state for India, who was concerned that the declaration as it stood could result in increased anti-Semitism. Montagu was also concerned that the declaration would make it harder for him to deal with Indian Muslims.
Many have argued that the term “Jewish national home” falls short of Zionist aspirations, and suggest that the declaration never meant to encourage the creation of a state. This interpretation fails because the major players in the drafting of the agreement thought otherwise.
It would have been diplomatically impossible for the British government to promise a state at that time, primarily because the territory was not even in its hands. The term national home was used as a first step on the path to statehood. Lloyd George, who was prime minister at the time, laid the onus for the transforming of a national home to a state on the Jews themselves:
“It was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunities afforded them by the idea of a national home, and had become a definite majority… then Palestine would thus become a Jewish commonwealth.”
General Smuts, a member of the Imperial War Cabinet when the declaration was published, said in 1919 that he could see “in generations to come, a great Jewish state rising there once more.” Influential figures like Lord Robert Cecil in 1917, Sir Herbert Samuel in 1919 and Winston Churchill in 1920 also spoke about the resulting Jewish state.
Churchill also told the Royal Commission regarding the Palestine White Paper of 1922, for which he had been responsible, that those who felt the Balfour Declaration or the Palestine Mandate precluded a Jewish state were mistaken. “There is nothing in it,” the commission found, “to prohibit the ultimate establishment of a Jewish state, and Mr. Churchill himself has told us in evidence that no such prohibition was intended.”
There are also those who look at the language of the declaration and the Mandate to claim that they give equal weight to Jewish national aspirations and the rights of various non-Jewish communities. This is erroneous simply because the main purpose of both the declaration and the Mandate, as expressed above, was to “promote the establishment of the Jewish National Home.”
Nonetheless, during the early days of the Mandate there were voices in the British government which felt an equal obligation to the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Many politicians wished to ensure that the Arab population was placated. This was rebutted by those who felt that not only was this incorrect, but that the text of the Mandate made Britain “responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home.”
The wording clearly points to active intervention on the part of Britain.
“Merely to sit still,” wrote Churchill, “and avoid friction with the Arabs and safeguard their civil and religious rights and to abandon the positive exertion for the establishment of the Jewish National Home would not be a faithful interpretation of the Mandate.”
Possibly the greatest argument is the fact that the text describing the rights of “non-Jewish communities in Palestine” appeared only in the preamble of the British Mandate; the actual text was replete with references to actions that would be taken to ensure the rise of a Jewish national home. The British administration was required to “facilitate” Jewish immigration, and “encourage” the settlement of Jews on the land.
There can be no denying that the Balfour Declaration was unique, not only in Jewish history, but possibly in the history of national movements. For a short period, all the major powers, the leader of the Arab world and most interested parties created a mechanism to fulfill the Zionist dream.
This should not be overlooked or understated as Zionism fights an enduring battle for legitimacy. Few national movements in the world have such a legal declaration in their arsenal.
The writer is an editor at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs for the Middle East Strategic Information project.