The Balfour Declaration: 67 Words that Changed the World

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In a bizarre twist of history, the humble chestnut played a big role in the ultimate creation of the State of Israel. To understand why, Noam Weissman examines the curious origins of the Balfour Declaration and asks why the 67-word letter from a British foreign minister continues to get people riled up more than 100 years after it was published.

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Episode Transcript

November 2nd, 1917. Might not stand out to you, but if you’ve studied Israeli or really world history, it’s a pretty important day. It’s the day of the famous Balfour Declaration. Honestly, so much has been written about this event that when preparing for this podcast, it was easy to get lost in the sea of information. So, I really wanna help us stay focused here. This declaration was a huge moment in the history of the Jewish people and also the Arab world. It is part of the foundation of the disputes that never seem to go away in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Basically, THE WAY I SEE IT, if you want to understand Middle Eastern politics, this episode covers a pretty important topic.

This quote about the declaration I came across says it better than anything else.

“Seldom has a single sentence constituting an international engagement provoked so much controversy and so much partisan writing as this brief letter.”

Even today, there are serious disputes about this document. In fact, on its centennial anniversary in 2017 [MAYBE ANNIVERSARY IS REDUNDANT), there were celebrations, protests and even lawsuits all connected to the Balfour Declaration. Bibi Netanyahu, Israel’s PM flew to England to have a dinner party with then prime minister of the UK Theresa May to celebrate it. Protesters in the UK and West Bank were NOTTTT SO HAPPY ABOUT THIS. Telling the Brits to “atone” for the Balfour Declaration, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said “The Balfour declaration is not something to be celebrated…The physical act of the signing of the Balfour declaration is in the past — it is not something that can be changed. But it is something that can be made right.”

DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVES, EY? So why does everyone care so much?

The question for the episode is this:

How did a 67 word letter from a British foreign secretary empower THE JEWISH PEOPLE to return to their homeland after 2000 years of exile, and what were the reactions to it?

Let’s start with some background. In November 1917. The world is in the thick of the Great War, or as it’s now known, World War I. A brief recap of the teams in play here. Representing the Central powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Teaming up to form the Allied Powers were Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States . Anyway, so the British were doing everything they could to defeat the Germans and their Ottoman allies. Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour sat down to write an important letter to one of Britain’s most illustrious Jewish citizens, Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild. He happened to be the President of the British Zionist Federation. He also was a friend of Chaim Weizmann, who was a leader in the Zionist world and a world renowned chemist. THAT’S NOT JUST A NON-SEQUITOR. IT’S AN IMPORTANT FACT AND SOMETHING WE’LL COME BACK TO. Foreign Secretary Balfour’s letter said this:

“His Majesty’s Government views 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 the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

That’s it. That’s the letter. Short and sweet, maybe even simple sounding. But it is not. I already have a few questions:
Why is Britain dishing out land to people?
Aren’t there people who live there?
And most curiously, why in the world did he choose to pen this document?

So here’s a little history for ya.

In 1915, towards the beginning of the war, the Brits were really feeling the pressure to defeat the Ottomans. They wanted to enlist the support of the Arabs against the Ottomans who were in control of much of the Middle East. The Arab leadership was against the modernizing, secular Ottomans.

Enter Sharif Husayn bin Ali of Mecca. Sharif is Arabic for “noble” and describes the descendants of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson al-Hassan ibn Ali. Basically, he was a primary leader in the Arab world. He had a need — to get rid of the Ottomans. The Brits had the same need — so like any good OL’ fashioned transactional relationship, the Arabs and Brits started talking. “I scratch your back. You scratch mine” sort of thing. In 1915, he began correspondence with Colonel Sir Henry Mcmahon, and essentially made a deal: if the Arabs joined the fight against the Ottomans, the Brits would recognize Arab independence in specific areas, which would include the region of Palestine. These would later be called the M-H correspondence.

Then, in May of 1916, the British and French started dividing up the Middle East like it was a game of fantasy football or something. It was called the Sykes-Picot agreement and it was TOP SECRET (until it wasn’t).

Representing the UK, coming in at 5’10 (I MADE UP THAT HEIGHT) was Mark Sykes, and repping team France was Francois Georges-Picot. As they divvied up the Middle East, they decided that Palestine (remember, that’s what the region was called then – NOT A STATE BUT THE REGION) would be under “international administration.”

And then, the following year, the Balfour Declaration was composed, which gave official British support for a “Jewish national home in Palestine.”

So, you know when you’re dating someone and then you find out they’re kind of dating a few other people? (pause)…hopefully not but if you do or if you can imagine it,, that’s basically what the United Kingdom was doing at the time.

Some people look back at Britain’s negotiations as deceitful… and humorously, or maybe not so humorously, – refer to the Land of Israel as “the much too promised land” or the “twice promised” land, AS OPPOSED TO THE PROMISED LAND.

So, why did the Brits lend their support to Zionism? Why did they get into this mess?

There is lots of historiography out there. But essentially it was like a game of chess. Or maybe more like Risk. Low key fact about me. I’ve never played a full game.

First of all, the British needed help from the Russians in their war efforts, and thinking that many leaders of the Russian revolution were Jewish, they hoped it would push Russia to be more favorable towards the British. OK, INTERESTING.

And secondly, the British hoped that supporting Zionism would help bring the Americans into the war as well. America’s policy was mostly isolationist at the time and the American Jewish community seemed to be against the idea of going to war, so the British thought that writing the declaration and supporting the notion of a Jewish state to Lord Rothschild, who was well connected with Jewish leaders in New York, could have an effect on American involvement.

Well, the Brits wayyyy overestimated the power of Jewish influence. Funny enough, Britain actually did not even get what it hoped to by supporting the Zionists. The Russians still pulled out of the war, and American Jews did not actually have the influence on American politics like the Brits dreamed up. SORRY MEL GIBSON, PROFESSOR GRIFF AND LOUIS FARRAKHAN, Turns out Jews don’t actually control the world. Go figure…

Something I find super interesting, and a misconception that is certainly important to clarify, is that at the time of the declaration, there were actually many British Jewish leaders who were opposed to the idea of a Jewish national homeland for fear this would spark more antisemitism.

Edwin Montagu, for instance, was the British secretary [Secretary of State] for India. He led the opposition in the House of Commons and was the son of Sir Samuel Montagu, a prominent figure of the Federation of Synagogues. He firmly opposed a Jewish national home. In fact, in 1914, in a community of over 300k British Jews, only 8,000 were members of the Zionist Federation.

AND, up until 1916, the British PM at the time was a gentleman named Herbert Asquith, who thought the idea of regaining a land from 1800 years ago was “fantastic,” as in, a fantasy — or as they say in Israel, “chai b’seret.” That’s one of my favorite Israeli sayings. It literally means “you’re living in a movie”. MEANING, IT AIN’T HAPPENING. Anyway — in 1914, there were 85,000 Jews in Palestine, but there were also 600k Arabs. It just didn’t seem possible. Chai b’seret.

So, what happened? How did this letter come about and why in the world would the Brits think this wouldn’t get messy?

Well, there were a few notable players to mention.

Let’s start with Weizmann, and his acetone. REMEMBER, I MENTIONED HE KNEW A THING OR TWO ABOUT CHEMISTRY?

Yes, you heard me right, acetone. Let’s dive into that.

Chaim Weizmann was a brilliant chemist and Zionist leader, who at this point had recently developed a new process of extracting acetone from chestnuts. What’s so special about acetone? Forget about it being nail polish remover — it was a key ingredient for the gunpowder the British Army needed in great supply. Up until the war, in 1914, it was produced from minerals imported largely from Germany. But with Germany now being their enemy, Britain had to quickly find another source of large quantities of acetone.

Suddenly, Weizmann’s revolutionary acetone production process was in high demand. So, Weizmann gave the British government the rights to its development without charge. In return, Weizmann was appointed director of the British Royal Navy laboratories.

Weizmann’s scientific impact and position in the military industry brought him into working relationships with senior administration officials in London, and he became close to a young Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, and David Lloyd George who was then Minister of Munitions. Lloyd George actually once jokingly said, “Acetone converted me to Zionism.”

But honestly, David Lloyd George’s relationship with Zionism was already built. This is a cool little factoid — Lloyd George was actually Herzl’s lawyer when he was drafting up plans for the Uganda option. CHECK OUT EPISODE TWO IF YOU FORGOT ABOUT THAT. The Zionists became his clients and he developed a deep understanding of Zionism. George understood that the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel was unbreakable and rooted in deep history.

Overall, Weitzmann became well respected and was given the chance to talk about his ideals of Zionism with the “big leagues.” The “start up nation” was making developments before it was even a state.

As luck or divine providence would have it (depending on your perspective), in December 1916, Lloyd George became Prime Minister and he named Arthur Balfour as his foreign secretary. SEE WHERE THIS IS GOING? Soon the British Foreign Office sent a note to Lord Rothschild and his good friend Weizmann requesting that they submit proposals for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

In July 1917, Weizmann submitted his proposal. A few months later, the British government wrote and revised a few drafts of the declaration. Some Zionists were frustrated when the British used the phrase “establishing a Jewish national homeland” instead of “reconstituting,” which would imply they had a historical precedent for a national home there. Ultimately though, the letter was a landmark achievement for the Zionists. The letter promised the very thing the Zionist movement longed for: a recognition of the right of Jewish people to establish their national home in the land of Israel. THE RIGHT TO SELF-DETERMINATION

It’s also super duper important to note that this was not some whimsical decision, but was deliberate and the result of British policy and their politics, and included serious consultation from the Americans and other allies.

So the Zionists were good to go; The British sent a clear message of their commitment to establish a Jewish state in Palestine, right?
…Well, not so fast.

Why does the declaration remain so significant, and why does it cause so many debates?

One major reason that the declaration was so contentious is a result of its ambiguity. Many authors like Neil Caplan and Daniel Gordis note this. Gordis, in his book on Israel’s history, actually calls it an “astonishingly ambiguous document.” Let’s read the declaration again and I will highlight in my reading some ambiguity..

Ready?

“His Majesty’s Government views 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 the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

Here are FIVE the things you might HAVE picked up on while LISTENING:

  1. First of all — While there is mention of a Jewish national home, there is no mention of a state.
    Was this the British government’s “politically correct” way of telling the Jews what they wanted, without overpromising?
  2. Also notice that there was no explanation of how a national home for the Jews wouldn’t impinge on the civil and religious rights of existing communities there.
  3. There were no maps to indicate what was meant specifically by Palestine (though it actually seemed to indicate both sides of the Jordan river!) Imagine that…
  4. In the document, there is no timetable for making this all happen.
  5. And oddly, this declaration was made by the Brits when the region was still in the Ottomans control….HMMM…questionable

Why is this significant declaration controversial? Let’s look at it from the Arab/Palestinian perspective. In a high school experimental curriculum for some Palestinian and Israeli students put out by Sami Adwan and Dan Bar-on they describe the Balfour declaration in the following way:

“the Balfour declaration was a conspicuous example of the British policy of seizing another nation’s land and resources and effacing its identity. It is a policy based on aggression, expansion and repression of a native people’s aspirations for national liberation. For the Palestinians, the year 1917 was the first of many…marked by tragedy, war, disaster, killing, destruction, homelessness and catastrophe.”

Regardless of your politics, I think we can certainly empathize with the Arab-Palestinian perspective on the year of 1917. I don’t think anyone expects them to be doing somersaults and backflips if they think the Brits totally duped them. MANY OF The Arabs felt when the Balfour declaration was issued, the British were promising land that had already been spoken for! RIGHT OR WRONG, IT’S IMPORTANT TO UNDERSTAND WHERE THEY’RE COMING FROM AND WHY THERE IS OPPOSITION TO THIS DECLARATION.

Specifically finding issue with the word “communities” in the declaration, Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi said IN 2019, that “A hundred and two years ago, the British Foreign Secretary signed a pledge that changed the course of the Palestinian people’s history”. “The Balfour Declaration was a moral, political, and historic outrage, wherein a foreign colonial power had the audacity to promise a people’s homeland to another while denying their national and historic roots and dismissing them as mere ‘communities.”

To be fully transparent, it’s really hard for me to empathize with Ashrawi’s words. IT’S KIND OF WHERE MY EMPATHY ENDS AND FRUSTRATION BEGINS. The Jewish people were not just “another.” From the Biblical record, to archaeology to history, to heritage to liturgy, the Jewish people and the Land of Israel have had quite the distinct relationship!

As I hope you clearly see…This was not merely a letter from one guy to the next.

I think that’s how I thought about it when I was younger. Like, so what? I write emails all the time. But, let’s be clear.
This declaration represented official British policy, BUT IT GETS MUCH MORE IMPORTANT. When Japan, Italy, france and Britain were all huddled in the Italian town of San Remo in 1920 after they won WW1, the Balfour declaration was formally incorporated into the resolutions of the San Remo conference, and Britain OFFICIALLY was given the mandate for Palestine.
(The San Remo conference is definitely in my top five of most underrated moments in modern Jewish history.)
At the San Remo conference, the foundation for 22 Arab League states was created and…the Balfour declaration became a legally binding doc giving what was then called Palestine to the Jewish people. The League of Nations which was the precursor to the United Nations then recognized the region of Palestine, i.e. the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.

So, yes, from an international perspective, the Jewish people certainly got international approval they needed to start RE-building their ancient state.

And of course, this declaration should be a little modest. It alone cannot be celebrated or blamed as the reason for the State of Israel — the Jews were determined to find their way home before Balfour ever spoke with Rothschild. But what certainly is important is that November 2nd, 1917 is a day remembered by Jews around the world as representing international recognition of their rights as a people to their historic homeland.

But, from a Jewish perspective, or at least from my perspective, or even for someone as avowedly secular as David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first PM, these declarations were always secondary to the most important document of all, THE BEST SELLING BOOK OF ALL TIME, the Bible. Ben Gurion declared:

“The Bible is our mandate, the Bible which was written by us, written in Hebrew, in this very country. THAT is our mandate. Our right is as old as the Jewish people. the Jews’ right to the Land of Israel was not based on Balfour, but on their history, recorded in the Bible, in Hebrew, in that very land. The Balfour Declaration merely gave international recognition of this right.”

So, did the British create more problems than they solved by keeping the Balfour declaration ambiguous? Perhaps. During the years of 1915 to 1917, did Britain date too many people? Maybe. What were their true intentions behind the declaration? Couldn’t tell you that 100%. But it certainly is important to remember that this one piece of paper can be viewed so differently by different people, and also why this document is essential to the story of the Jewish people.

Five Fast Facts

  1. The Balfour Declaration in 1917 was the first major international recognition of the right to a Jewish home in the Jewish nation’s ancestral homeland
  2. The declaration was partly influenced by the British desire to have Jewish support during WWI, and not entirely by the British belief in Zionism.
  3. Perhaps the British would not have supported Zionism if Chaim Weizmann wasn’t a chemistry savant.
  4. The declaration was vaguely worded, perhaps on purpose, perhaps not.
  5. For many Zionists, the Balfour declaration is not viewed as the document that gives legitimacy to Jewish self-determination in the Land of Israel. Rather, it represents the international recognition of something that the Jewish people already hold dear.

Those are the facts, but HERE IS ONE ENDURING LESSON AS I SEE IT, and it comes straight out of the mouth of the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Joseph Hertz. Yes, there are multiple perspectives on the declaration, and yes, at the time there were many Jews who did not support Zionism for fears of how they would be perceived by their non-Jewish colleagues. Ultimately, however, Hertz said, “To millions of my brethren throughout the world, [The BALFOUR DECLARATION] will mean the realisation of Israel’s undying hope of a Restoration — a hope that has been the spiritual lodestar of Israel’s wanderings for the last 1,800 years.” That’s right. The return to the Land of Israel has always been the goal of the Jewish people, and with the Balfour Declaration, this would now be possible.

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