The Secret Drafts of the Balfour Declaration

On November 2nd, 1917, a declaration that changed the course of history was published.

The document that would become the foundation of the state of Israel was sent in the form of a letter by Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild. Rothschild was to pass it on to the Zionist Organization headed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

The unpublished drafts of the declaration open a window to an entirely different and equally significant history.

As the Hebrew settlement in the Land of Israel kept establishing and expanding itself, the leaders of the Zionist movement realized they would need support from the world’s empires, specifically the British Empire.

When the British ousted the centuries old Ottoman presence in Palestine, Chaim Weizmann presented a draft for the founding of a state. This draft was a declaration sent to the then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour, on July 1917. The draft declared that Britain would recognize the Land of Israel as the land of the Jewish people.

The declaration did not leave the Foreign Office as it was drafted, of course. The declaration went through several rewrites by the Foreign Office. By early October 1917, the draft was processed by the War Office in conjunction with the Zionist Organization delegation.

It was in one of the final drafts of the declaration that the section regarding the Jewish people’s right to the land was omitted and the “Jewish state” became a “National Home” – an unprecedented legal and diplomatic term.

Before the declaration was officially presented to Lord Rothschild by Lord Balfour, the draft was presented to Jewish leaders of every political stripe, both Zionist and non-Zionist. One of these leaders was Sir Philip Magnus, a Reform rabbi and British politician whose opinion on the declaration was sought.

The British Rabbi and Politician, Sir Philip Magnus (1933-1842)

The National Library holds the draft of the declaration the War Office sent Sir Magnus. The differences in the draft sent to Sir Magnus and the final historic letter were slight, but significant. In the finalized version in which “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People”, the earlier draft speaks of a “National Home for the Jewish Race”.

The draft of the declaration sent to Sir Philp Magnus. The draft is kept in the Philip Magnus Collection in the National Library

With this change the British government strengthened the Zionist position of Jews as a nation, rather than a culture and religion, which the word race conveyed strongly in the early 20th century.

Sir Magnus’ reply and draft changes are also kept in the National Library, offering a glimpse into the minds and opinions of Non-Zionist British Jews. Sir Magnus refused to distinguish between his opinions as a Jew and as British subject in a stroke of political brilliance. Sir Magnus made the claim that ever since the Roman exile, the Jewish people ceased being a political body and share only a religion and as such do not have a national aspiration in the Land of Israel.

Sir Magnus’ suggested changes, which were later incorporated into the final decleration, had more to do with the people of other faiths and cultures in the region. This is clearly stated in the final draft of the declaration as: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Sir Philip Magnus’ reply to the War Office. The letter is kept in the Philip Magnus Collection in the National Library

The original letter sent to Lord Rothschild by Lord Balfour is kept in the British Museum to this very day.


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