How the Palestinians View the Balfour Declaration Today

Yossi Kuperwasse speaks about Palestine‘s narrative on the Balfour Declaration and the State of Israel, this includes several facts and goals: The fact that there is no “Jewish People” only a religion, there was no historical sovereignty of Jews in Palestine, the destruction of Zionism, Palestinians are the only victims of the conflict, their struggle is both Islamic and national, and finally that their struggle is for all of Palestine. Despite this, there is a growing understanding of the Islamic threat.

Winston Churchill’s Defense of the Balfour Declaration in 1921

By Lenny Ben-David


On March 28, 1921, British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill visited Jerusalem where he attended a tree-planting ceremony on the site of the future Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. At the Government Office of the British High Commissioner, Churchill also met with Emir Abdullah of Jordan, Jerusalem’s Arab political and religious leaders, and the Jewish chief rabbis.

Winston Churchill Was a KEY Player to the Formaton of Modern Israel

He also met and heard from a former mayor of Jerusalem, Musa Kazim el Husseini who denounced the Balfour Declaration, petitioned Churchill to stop the immigration of Jews into Palestine, and claimed that life for the Arabs was better under the Ottomans. Churchill responded, defending the Balfour Declaration and the reestablishment of the Jewish homeland.

Winston Churchill in doorway receiving Mousa Kasim Pasha el Husseini at reception at Government House, Jerusalem. Emir Abdullah of Jordan stands on the left behind Mrs. Churchill. (Library of Congress)

Husseini was related to the infamous Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini and father of the notorious Arab militia fighter, Abdul Khadar el-Husseini. The Husseinis’ hatred of Jews was only matched by their hatred for King Abdullah, and Husseini clan members were involved in Abdullah’s assassination on the Temple Mount in 1951.

Churchill’s response:

…You have asked me in the first place to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and to veto immigration of Jews into Palestine. It is not in my power to do so, nor, if it were in my power, would it be my wish. The British Government have passed their word, by the mouth of Mr. Balfour, that they will view with favour the establishment of a National Home for Jews in Palestine, and that inevitably involves the immigration of Jews into the country. This declaration of Mr. Balfour and of the British Government has been ratified by the Allied Powers who have been victorious in the Great War; and it was a declaration made while the war was still in progress, while victory and defeat hung in the balance. It must therefore be regarded as one of the facts definitely established by the triumphant conclusion of the Great War. It is upon this basis that the mandate has been undertaken by Great Britain, it is upon this basis that the mandate will be discharged. I have no doubt that it is on this basis that the mandate will be accepted by the Council of the League of Nations, which is to meet again shortly.

Moreover, it is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire. But we also think it will be good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine, and we intend that it shall be good for them, and that they shall not be sufferers or supplanted in the country in which they dwell or denied their share in all that makes for its progress and prosperity. And here I would draw your attention to the second part of the Balfour Declaration, which solemnly and explicitly promises to the inhabitants of Palestine the fullest protection of their civil and political rights.

Churchill (beneath the tree) speaks at the Hebrew University tree-planting ceremony. Note the translator (standing left of Churchill) and the two chief rabbis of Palestine. (Library of Congress)

I was sorry to hear in the paper which you have just read that you do not regard that promise as of value. It seems to be a vital matter for your and one to which you should hold most firmly and for the exact fulfillment of which you should claim. If the one promise stands, so does the other; and we shall be judged as we faithfully fulfil both.

The Arabs Didn’t Liberate Palestine; the British Did

After all, the British Government has a view of its own in this matter, and we have right to such a view. Our position in this country is based upon the events of the war, ratified, as they have been, by the treaties signed by the victorious Powers. I thought, when listening to your statements, that it seemed that the Arabs of Palestine had overthrown the Turkish Government. That is the reverse of the true facts. It has been the armies of Britain which have liberated these regions. You had only to look on your road here this afternoon to see the graveyard of over 2,000 British soldiers, and there are many other graveyards, some even larger, that are scattered about in this land. The position of Great Britain in Palestine is one of trust, but it is also one of right. For the discharge of that trust and for the high purposes we have in view, supreme sacrifices were made by all these soldiers of the British Empire, who gave up their lives and their blood. Therefore I beg you to realize that we shall strive to be loyal to the promises we have made both to the Arab and to the Jewish people, and that we shall fail neither in the one nor in the other.

I would also draw your attention to the very careful and exact nature of the words which were used by Mr. Balfour. He spoke of “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jews.” He did not say he would make Palestine the National Home for the Jews. There is a difference between the two which is of great importance. The fact that Palestine shall contain a National Home for the Jews does not mean that it will cease to be the National Home of other people, or that a Jewish Government will be set up to dominate the Arab people. On the contrary, the British Government is well disposed towards the Arabs in Palestine, and, indeed, cherish a strong friendship and desire for co-operation with the Arab race as a whole. That is what you would expect from the British Empire, which is the greatest of all the Moslem States in the world, and which must never cease to study the needs and wishes of its Moslem subjects and allies; and surely you have found that – at any rate I have been assured on this point by many Moslems since my arrival here – in the daily contact with the officers of this Administration in Palestine: that they make no distinction as between Arab and Jew, and that they endeavour in every way to render impartial, even-handed justice.

We regard this mater of such importance that we moved his Majesty the King to appoint Sir Herbert Samuel as High Commissioner. He has held very high office in our own country, and he has many years’ experience in our Parliamentary and Cabinet life. Therefore in selecting him we knew we had a trained and experienced man who would understand what ought to be done and what the full meaning and purpose of British policy was. Moreover, he is himself a Jew, and therefore we knew that in holding the balance even and securing fair treatment for all he could not be reproached for being hostile to his own people, and he would be believed by them when he said that he was only doing what was just and fair; and I think this appointment has been vindicated and justified not only by what has been done but by its results.

I do not think you have any need to feel alarmed or troubled in your minds about the future. The British Government has promised that what is called the Zionist movement shall have a fair chance in this country, and the British Government will do what is necessary to secure that fair chance. But after all it is only upon its merits that Zionism can succeed. We cannot tolerate the expropriation of one set of people by another or the violent trampling down of one set of national ideals for the sake of erecting another. If a National Home for the Jews is to be established in Palestine, as we hope to see it established, it can only be by a process which at every stage wins its way on its merits and carries with it increasing benefits and prosperity and happiness to the people of the country as a whole. And why should this not be so? Why should this not be possible? You can see with your own eyes in many parts of this country the work which has already been done by Jewish colonies; how sandy wastes have been reclaimed and thriving farms and orangeries planted in their stead. It is quite true that they have been helped by money from outside, whereas your people have not had a similar advantage, but surely these funds of money largely coming from outside and being devoted to the increase of the general prosperity of Palestine is one of the very reasons which should lead you to take a wise and tolerant view of the Zionist movement.

The paper which you have just read painted a golden picture of the delightful state of affairs in Palestine under the Turkish rule. Every man did everything he pleased; taxation was light; justice was prompt and impartial; trade, commerce, education, the arts all flourished. It was a wonderful picture. But it had no relation whatever to the truth, for otherwise why did the Arab race rebel against this heavenly condition? Obviously the picture has been overdrawn. And what is the truth?

This country has been very much neglected in the past and starved and even mutilated by Turkish misgovernment. There is no reason why Palestine should not support a larger number of people than it does at present, and all of those in a higher condition of prosperity.

But you will say to me, are we to be led by the hopes of material gain into letting ourselves be dispossessed in our own house by enormous numbers of strangers brought together across the seas from all over the world? My answer is; no, that will not be, that will never be. Jewish immigration into Palestine can only come as it makes a place for itself by legitimate and honourable means; as it provides the means by which it is to be supported. The task before the Zionists is one of extraordinary difficulty. The present form of government will continue for many years, and step by step we shall develop representative institutions leading up to full self-government. All of us here to-day will have passed away from the earth and also our children and our children’s children before it is fully achieved. The Jews will need the help of the Arabs at every stage, and I think you would be wise to give them your help and your aid and encourage them in their difficulties. They may fail. If they are not guided by wisdom and goodwill, if they do not tread the path of justice and tolerance and neighbourliness, if the class of men who come in are not worthy of the Jewish race, then they will fail and there will be an end of the experiment. But on the other hand, if they succeed, and in proportion as they do succeed year by year, such success can only be accompanied by a general diffusion of wealth and well-being among all the dwellers in Palestine and by an advance in the social, scientific and cultural life of the people as a whole.

These are words which I speak to you with great belief in their truth. I am sure if you take my advice you will not find in the future any difference in the life you have led in the past, or in the part you have played in your country, except an improvement. There will be more food, there will be more freedom, there will be more people, there will be more health among the people, there will be more knowledge, the fruits of toil will be more securely enjoyed, and the harvests will be more fully reaped by those who have sown them. Above all there will be a complete respect for everyone’s religious faith. Although the Arabs are in a large majority in Palestine and although the British Empire has accepted the mandate for Palestine, yet in a certain wider sense Palestine belongs to all the world. This city of Jerusalem itself is almost equally sacred to Moslem, Christian and Jew – not only those who dwell in this land, but those of these three religions who all over the world look to what is the holy centre of their faith. The Arabs of Palestine have therefore a great trust which we look to them to discharge and to help us (the British Government) in discharging, and just as in the spiritual sphere the profession of one faith does not mean the exclusion of another, so in the material world there is room for all. If instead of sharing miseries through quarrels you will share blessings through co-operations, a bright and tranquil future lies before your country. The earth is a generous mother. She will produce in plentiful abundance for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and in peace.

A separate meeting took place that day between Churchill and Emir Abdullah in the garden of Government House. It was a fateful meeting for the Middle East. With T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) witnessing, Abdullah was installed as the Emir of Transjordan (east of the Jordan River), with the British Mandate controlling the west side of the river.

Churchill, Lawrence and Abdullah, March, 1921. (Library of Congress)


Balfour at 100

A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey for the late Lord Balfour who was buried at Whittinghame, Scotland. Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill at the service at Westminster Abbey, London on March 22, 1930. (AP Photo)

Ninety-nine years ago, a 67-word message changed the world. The Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, is generally considered the moment when the dream of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in their ancient homeland began to come to fruition. But while Jews around the world plan to spend the coming year celebrating the anniversary with efforts such as the Balfour 100 Project, the fact that Palestinians are still seeking to refight the battle over it tells us all we need to know why peace between Arabs and Jews remains nowhere in sight a century later.

The declaration was a letter sent from Britain’s Foreign Secretary to Lord Lionel Rothschild, a leader of that country’s Jewish community:

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

Britain was then fighting for its life. The outcome of World War I was still very much in doubt at the time. Its forces had already invaded Palestine, then a possession of the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Scientist Chaim Weizmann and other members of the Zionist movement influenced Balfour and others in the government, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, to see the return of the Jews as an act of justice. In addition to their sympathy for the idea of creating a home for a persecuted people in the land of the Bible, the British were also under the misapprehension that doing so would generate more support for Britain from American and Russian Jews. In truth, Jews had little influence on U.S. policy and none at all in a Russia, which would soon exit the war after the Bolshevik coup the following month. But even though these philo-Semitic statesmen were also motivated in part by anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power, what they did was to set in motion a process that would lead to the British taking possession of Ottoman territory after Turkey’s defeat.

In 1922, the League of Nations gave Britain a Mandate to govern Palestine after World War I, the purpose of which was to create just such a “national home.” But though this helped facilitate more Jewish immigration and the creation of institutions that would prove essential to Israel’s birth, the British soon tired of the task. The British administration was largely sympathetic to the Arab population and often stood by as Arab mobs launched pogroms and placed strict limits on the ability of the Jews to defend themselves. Only 17 years after the Mandate was issued, the British effectively repudiated its terms by placing draconian limits on immigration and land purchases, seemingly forestalling any hope for a Jewish state.

This act of appeasement aimed at conciliating the Arabs also had the effect of trapping millions of European Jews, who might have looked to Palestine as a place to escape the Nazis. After World War II, the British continued to do their best to repress Jewish immigration and hopes for a state. When, in 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution that partitioned Western Palestine (the Eastern portion on the other side of the Jordan River had already been set aside to create what is now the Kingdom of Jordan) into Jewish and Arab states, the British withdrew. The Arabs rejected partition and launched a war to destroy the newborn Jewish state. Their defeat led to the creation of a Palestinian refugee problem (ironically up until 1948 the term “Palestinian” solely referred to Jews living in the country; not Arabs), and the conflict that continues to this day.

Far from being a “crime,” the Declaration was an effort to correct a great historical injustice to the Jews. If Palestinian Arabs suffered from the wars that were launched to render it null and void, it is because they viewed the effort to deny the Jews any part of the country as a greater priority than the wellbeing of their own people. Palestinian national identity is still inextricably tied to that hopeless war in such a manner as to render all efforts to broker peace futile.

So it is no trifling matter that Palestinians will use the coming year to protest Balfour, including an absurd plan to sue the United Kingdom over the declaration in the International Court at The Hague. It may be understandable that they view the events of November 1917 with regret, since it was the moment when it became inevitable that this territory would have to be shared with the Jews in one form or another. But if their goal is, as their apologists often tell us, the elusive two-state solution rather than their century-old dream of eradicating the Jewish presence, then the focus on Balfour makes no sense.

The Balfour Centennial might be an apt moment for both peoples to seek to redeem the hope that Jewish rights could be respected without harming those of their Arab neighbors via a two-state solution. Instead, the Palestinians will spend it not merely venting spleen at a long gone British statesman but by reminding the world that their hope is to return to the pre-Balfour world, even to the point of campaigning to have the United Nations treat Jewish holy places in Jerusalem as solely Muslim sites.

In that sense, the Balfour anniversary isn’t merely a historical milestone for the Jews. It is also an apt reminder of why the Palestinians remain stuck in a mindset that makes peace unattainable.


Faisal–Weizmann Agreement – When the Arabs asked the Jews to return to Israel

Feisal-Frankfurter Correspondence (March 1919)

Letter from Emir Feisal (Son of Hussein Bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca | Great grandson of the prophet Muhammad) to Felix Frankfurter, associate of Dr. Chaim Weizmann:


Paris Peace Conference

March 3, 1919

Dear Mr. Frankfurter:

I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I have often been able to say to Dr. Weizmann in Arabia and Europe.

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.

With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr. Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause, and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other.

People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists, have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have, I am afraid, misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences.

I wish to give you my firm conviction that these differences are not on questions of principle, but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and as are easily adjusted by mutual good will. Indeed nearly all of them will disappear with fuller knowledge.

I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of civilised peoples of the world.

Believe me,

Yours sincerely,

(Sgd.) Feisal

Letter of reply from Felix Frankfurter to Emir Feisal:

Paris Peace Conference

March 5, 1919

Royal Highness,

Allow me, on behalf of the Zionist Organisation, to acknowledge your recent letter with deep appreciation.

Those of us who come from the United States have already been gratified by the friendly relations and the active cooperation maintained between you and the Zionist leaders, particularly Dr. Weizmann. We knew it could not be otherwise; we knew that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to re-establish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.

The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the just national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.

We knew from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement — in other words the national aim of the Jewish people — had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals by the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation.

For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead — difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries. We each have our difficulties we shall work out as friends, friends who are animated by similar purposes, seeking a free and full development for the two neighbouring peoples. The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends.

Very respectfully,

(Sgd.) Felix Frankfurter

Agreement Between Emir Feisal and Dr. Weizmann
Faisal–Weizmann Agreement

3 January 1919

His Royal Highness the Emir Feisal, representing and acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, representing and acting on behalf of the Zionist Organization, mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them, have agreed upon the following:


Article I

The Arab State and Palestine in all their relations and undertakings shall be controlled by the most cordial goodwill and understanding, and to this end Arab and Jewish duly accredited agents shall be established and maintained in the respective territories.

Article II

Immediately following the completion of the deliberations of the Peace Conference, the definite boundaries between the Arab State and Palestine shall be determined by a Commission to be agreed upon by the parties hereto.

Article III

In the establishment of the Constitution and Administration of Palestine, all such measures shall be adopted as will afford the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British Government’s Declaration of the 2nd of November, 1917.

Article IV

All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil. In taking such measures the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.

Article V

No regulation or law shall be made prohibiting or interfering in any way with the free exercise of religion; and further, the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall ever be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.

Article VI

The Mohammedan Holy Places shall be under Mohammedan control.

Article VII

The Zionist Organization proposes to send to Palestine a Commission of experts to make a survey of the economic possibilities of the country, and to report upon the best means for its development. The Zionist Organization will place the aforementioned Commission at the disposal of the Arab State for the purpose of a survey of the economic possibilities of the Arab State and to report upon the best means for its development. The Zionist Organization will use its best efforts to assist the Arab State in providing the means for developing the natural resources and economic possibilities thereof.

Article VIII

The parties hereto agree to act in complete accord and harmony on all matters embraced herein before the Peace Congress.

Article IX

Any matters of dispute which may arise between the contracting parties hall be referred to the British Government for arbitration.

Given under our hand at London, England, the third day of January, one thousand nine hundred and nineteen

Chaim Weizmann Feisal Ibn-Hussein

Reservation by the Emir Feisal

If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of 4 January, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement.


Still bickering over Balfour

Dore Gold

Last year, on the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the former Palestinian minister, Nabil Shaath, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph attacking Britain for issuing its famous statement of support for the establishment in Eretz Yisrael of a national home for the Jewish people. Shaath called the Balfour Declaration, which was issued by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, the beginning of “British imperialism” in Palestine.

At the heart of what he called Britain’s “sins in Palestine” was the promise of this territory to the Jewish people, who, in the words of Shaath, “did not even live there.” For him there was no Jewish history in Palestine, that needed to be acknowledged but only “colonial conspiracies” against the Arab residents living there. The rise of the Jewish national home, in short, was the product of external manipulations by outside powers, like Britain, and not the result of any authentic yearning of the Jews themselves. With the anniversary of the declaration again upon us, it is important to understand how Balfour’s act still confounds Palestinian leaders who are prepared to distort its significance.

What Shaath and other Palestinian spokesmen found so objectionable about the Balfour Declaration was that it constituted the first step in a long effort to get the historical rights of the Jewish people to their homeland acknowledged by the international community. That recognition actually required a tough diplomatic struggle by the leaders of the Zionist movement during the First World War and in the years that followed.

Britain was not the only state involved. For example on June 4, 1917, they received a letter from the French foreign minister, Jules Cambon, who wrote: “…it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.”

It turned out to be much more difficult to extract language that strong in the British cabinet at that time. What became the Balfour Declaration went through a number of drafts during the summer and fall of 1917. The original language of the declaration that was approved by the British foreign office and Prime Minister Lloyd George on September 19, 1917 specifically stated that Britain accepted the principle that “Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.”

Use of the term “reconstitute” meant that the land was once their homeland before and should now be restored to them. It meant that the Jews had historical rights. For that reason, this language had been sought by the Zionist leadership led by Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow who wanted it indicated that the Jewish people had a historical connection to their land. This original formula had been approved by President Woodrow Wilson, to whom the text was submitted in advance.

It was not such a far-fetched goal to seek formal acknowledgement of Jewish historical rights. A little over two decades earlier a well-connected Protestant clergyman from Chicago, Reverend William Blackstone, received broad backing for a petition for a Jewish homeland signed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House of Representatives, university presidents and the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Top industrialists, like John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, also lent their support. In short, the idea of the Jewish people re-establishing their country had become acceptable in the elite sectors of the American establishment.

Blackstone’s petition specifically characterized the connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel as “an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force.” In other words, the Jewish people had not willingly given up their claim to their land. Indeed, there was no act in which they relinquished title to the Romans or their successors; in fact from the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E. until the Muslim conquests, there were Jewish resistance movements that tried to recover Jerusalem, and afterwards a constant stream of Jewish immigrants followed.

Blackstone may have not known all this but he touched upon the idea that there were historical rights of the Jewish people, which were recognized at the time he sought signatories to his petition. The petition was submitted to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 and in another version to President Wilson in 1917, with the aim of influencing his attitude to the Balfour Declaration.

Despite the growing popularity of the idea in the West, there were British opponents to making any commitment to a Jewish national home. This group sought to water down the language of what was to become the Balfour Declaration. Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India and the only Jewish member of the British cabinet ironically lead the internal fight against what Balfour was doing.

Montagu feared that acknowledging Jewish rights in Eretz Israel would lead to the denial of Jewish rights to live in Britain or elsewhere in the Diaspora. He was also ideologically committed to Jewish assimilation. So under his influence all references to the Jewish people “reconstituting” their homeland were dropped. He announced at the time: “I assert that there is not a Jewish nation.” He moreover insisted: “I deny that Palestine today is associated with the Jews.” Montagu could not stop the Balfour Declaration, so he tried to weaken its contents. It is not surprising that Shaath makes Montagu the hero of his analysis.

In any case, the Balfour Declaration was basically a statement of British policy; it did not establish legal rights. This first occurred with the meeting of the victorious allied powers at San Remo, Italy in 1920, where they adopted the Balfour Declaration in an international agreement. Then in 1922, 51 members of the League of Nations approved the document for the Palestine Mandate.

The Mandate document restored important elements that had been taken out of the Balfour Declaration as a result of the debate in the British cabinet, for it stated: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” The British Government issued a White Paper in 1922 that further clarified this point by saying that the Jewish national home “should be formally recognized to rest upon ancient historic connection.”

Nabil Shaath wanted his British readers last year to believe that the process that began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and ending up with the British Mandate in 1922 created the Jewish claim to a homeland. For him the Jewish homeland was entirely invented by British imperial interests and had no historical roots. In short, it was an illegitimate claim.

But that is a distortion of what happened for what was involved at the time was a British recognition of a pre-existing right. Moreover that British recognition was fully accepted by the international community by 1922, through the League of Nations. Finally, it must be added, that those rights were not suspended when the League of Nations was disbanded, but rather they were transferred to the United Nations, which replaced it.

In summary, Shaath refuses to acknowledge the steady buildup of the Jewish national home over the centuries; the Ottoman census already showed a Jewish majority in Safed in the 16th century. European consular reports in the 19th century showed that by the 1860s the Jews re-established their majority in Jerusalem — decades before British armies took over the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration reflected a historical trend that was already underway, but it did not launch the Jewish return to Eretz Israel. This return was a product of the national will of a people which Shaath and his colleagues still refuse to recognize, thereby perpetuating the conflict with Israel to this day.


“An Overwhelmingly Jewish State” – From the Balfour Declaration to the Palestine Mandate

By Sir Martin Gilbert

On 22 July 1922, when the League of Nations announced the terms of Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, it gave prominence to the Balfour Declaration. ‘The Mandatory should be responsible,’ the preamble stated, ‘for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty…in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’ The preamble of the Mandate included the precise wording of the Balfour Declaration.

Nothing in the Balfour Declaration dealt with Jewish statehood, immigration, land purchase or the boundaries of Palestine. This essay examines how British policy with regard to the ‘national home for the Jewish people’ evolved between November 1917 and July 1922, and the stages by which the Mandate commitments were reached.

In the discussions on the eve of the Balfour Declaration, the British War Cabinet, desperate to persuade the Jews of Russia to urge their government to renew Russia’s war effort, saw Palestine as a Jewish rallying cry. To this end, those advising the War Cabinet, and the Foreign Secretary himself, A.J. Balfour, encouraged at least the possibility of an eventual Jewish majority, even if it might – with the settled population of Palestine then being some 600,000 Arabs and 60,000 Jews – be many years before such a majority emerged. On 31 October 1917, Balfour had told the War Cabinet that while the words ‘national home…did not necessarily involve the early establishment of an independent Jewish State,’ such a State ‘was a matter for gradual development in accordance with the ordinary laws of political evolution.’2

How these laws were to be regarded was explained in a Foreign Office memorandum of 19 December 1917 by Arnold Toynbee and Lewis Namier, the latter a Galician-born Jew, who wrote jointly: ‘The objection raised against the Jews being given exclusive political rights in Palestine on a basis that would be undemocratic with regard to the local Christian and Mohammedan population,’ they wrote, ‘is certainly the most important which the anti-Zionists have hitherto raised, but the difficulty is imaginary. Palestine might be held in trust by Great Britain or America until there was a sufficient population in the country fit to govern it on European lines. Then no undemocratic restrictions of the kind indicated in the memorandum would be required any longer.’3

On 3 January 1919 agreement was reached between the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and the Arab leader Emir Feisal. Article Four of this agreement declared that all ‘necessary measures’ should be taken ‘to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil.’ In taking such measures, the agreement went on, ‘the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights, and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.’4

The Weizmann-Feisal agreement did not refer to Jewish statehood. Indeed, on 19 January 1919, Balfour wrote to his fellow Cabinet Minister Lord Curzon: ‘As far as I know, Weizmann has never put forward a claim for the Jewish Government of Palestine. Such a claim is, in my opinion, certainly inadmissible and personally I do not think we should go further than the original declaration which I made to Lord Rothschild.’5

Scarcely six weeks later, on February 27, in Balfour’s presence, Weizmann presented the essence of the Weizmann-Feisal Agreement to the Allied Supreme Council in Paris, telling them that the nation that was to receive Palestine as a League of Nations Mandate must first of all ‘Promote Jewish immigration and closer settlement on the land,’ while at the same time ensuring that ‘the established rights’ of the non-Jewish population be ‘equitably safe-guarded.’

During the discussion, Robert Lansing, the American Secretary of State, asked Weizmann for clarification ‘as to the meaning of the words “Jewish National Home.” Did that mean an autonomous Jewish Government?’ Weizmann replied, as the minutes of the discussion record, ‘in the negative.’ The Zionist Organisation, he told Lansing – reiterating what Balfour had told Curzon – ‘did not want an autonomous Jewish Government, but merely to establish in Palestine, under a Mandatory Power, an administration, not necessarily Jewish, which would render it possible to send into Palestine 70,000 to 80,000 Jews annually.’ The Zionist Organisation wanted permission ‘to build Jewish schools where Hebrew would be taught, and to develop institutions of every kind. Thus it would build up gradually a nationality, and so make Palestine as Jewish as America is American or England English.’

The Supreme Council wanted to know if such a ‘nationality’ would involve eventual statehood? Weizmann told them: ‘Later on, when the Jews formed the large majority, they would be ripe to establish such a Government as would answer to the state of the development of the country and to their ideals.’6

British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, 1917 (Israel National Photo Collection)

The British Government supported the Weizmann-Feisal Agreement with regard to both Jewish immigration and land purchase. On June 19 the senior British military officer in Palestine, General Clayton, telegraphed to the Foreign Office for approval of a Palestine ordinance to re-open land purchase ‘under official control.’ Zionist interests, Clayton stated, ‘will be fully safeguarded.’7

Clayton’s telegram was forwarded to Balfour, who replied on July 5 that land purchase could indeed be continued ‘provided that, as far as possible, preferential treatment is given to Zionist interests.’8

The Zionist plans were thus endorsed by both Feisal and Balfour. But on 28 August 1919 a United States commission, the King-Crane Commission, appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, published its report criticising Zionist ambitions and recommending ‘serious modification of the extremist Zionist programme for Palestine of unlimited immigration of Jews, looking finally to making Palestine distinctly a Jewish State.’9

The King-Crane Commission went on to state that the Zionists with whom it had spoken looked forward ‘to a practically complete dispossession of the present non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, by various forms of purchase.’ In their conclusion, the Commissioners felt ‘bound to recommend that only a greatly reduced Zionist programme be attempted’; a reduction that would ‘have to mean that Jewish immigration should be definitely limited, and that the project for making Palestine a distinctly Jewish commonwealth should be given up.’10

The United States was in a minority at the Supreme Council. On September 19 the Zionists received unexpected support from The Times, which declared: ‘Our duty as the Mandatory power will be to make Jewish Palestine not a struggling State, but one that is capable of vigorous and independent national life.’11

Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for War, and with ministerial responsibility for Palestine, took a more cynical view of Zionist ambitions. On October 25, in a memorandum for the Cabinet, he wrote of ‘the Jews, whom we are pledged to introduce into Palestine and who take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience.’12

Churchill’s critical attitude did not last long. Fearful of the rise of Communism in the East, and conscious of the part played by individual Jews in helping to impose Bolshevik rule on Russia, he soon set his cynicism aside. In an article entitled ‘Zionism versus Bolshevism: the Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People,’ he wrote in the Illustrated Sunday Herald on 8 February 1920 that Zionism offered the Jews ‘a national idea of a commanding character.’ Palestine would provide ‘the Jewish race all over the world’ with, as Churchill put it, ‘a home and a centre of national life.’ Although Palestine could only accommodate ‘a fraction of the Jewish race,’ but ‘if, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown which might comprise three or four millions of Jews, an event will have occurred in the history of the world which would from every point of view be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.’

Churchill’s article ended with an appeal for the building up ‘with the utmost rapidity’ of a ‘Jewish national centre’ in Palestine; a centre, he asserted, which might become ‘not only a refuge to the oppressed from the unhappy lands of Central Europe,’ but also ‘a symbol of Jewish unity and the temple of Jewish glory.’ On such a task, he added, ‘many blessings rest.’13

Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, January 16, 1943 (AP Photo)

On 24 April 1920, at the San Remo Conference, the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George accepted a British Mandate for Palestine, and that Britain, as the Mandatory Power, would be responsible for giving effect to the Balfour Declaration. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, noted in his diary that there had been a ‘two-hour battle’ among the British and French delegates, ‘about acknowledging and establishing Zionism as a separate State in Palestine under British protection.’14

In January 1921, Lloyd George appointed Churchill to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, charged with drawing up the terms of the Mandate and presenting them to the League of Nations. In March 1921, at the Cairo Conference, Churchill agreed to the establishment of a Jewish gendarmerie in Palestine to ward off local Arab attacks (Churchill preferred a Jewish Army). He also agreed that Transjordan, while part of the original Mandated Territory of Palestine, would be separate from it, and under an Arab ruler. This fitted in with what Britain had in mind as the wider settlement of Arab claims. On 17 January 1921, T.E. Lawrence had reported to Churchill that Emir Feisal ‘agreed to abandon all claims of his father to Palestine’ in return for Mesopotamia (Iraq) – where Churchill agreed at the Cairo Conference to install him as King – and Transjordan, where Feisal ‘hopes to have a recognised Arab State with British advice.’15

From Cairo, Churchill went to Jerusalem, where he was given a petition from the Haifa Congress of Palestinian Arabs, dated 14 March 1921, which began: ‘1. We refuse the Jewish Immigration to Palestine. 2. We energetically protest against the Balfour Declaration to the effect that our Country should be made the Jewish National Home.’16 Churchill rejected the Arab arguments. ‘It is manifestly right,’ he announced publicly on March 28, ‘that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in the land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it would be good for the world, good for the Jews, and good for the British Empire.’17

After Churchill’s visit, Arab violence in Jaffa led the British High Commissioner in Palestine, a British Jew, Sir Herbert Samuel, to order an immediate temporary suspension of Jewish immigration. This did not find favour in the Colonial Office. A telegram drafted for Churchill by one of his senior advisers, Major Hubert Young, who during the war had played his part in the Arab Revolt, was dispatched to Samuel on May 14. ‘The present agitation,’ the telegram read, ‘is doubtless engineered in the hope of frightening us out of our Zionist policy….We must firmly maintain law and order and make concessions on their merits and not under duress.’

On June 22 Churchill explained the British position on Zionism at a meeting of the Imperial Cabinet. The Canadian Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, questioned Churchill about the meaning of a Jewish ‘National Home.’ Did it mean, Meighen asked, giving the Jews ‘control of the Government’? To this Churchill replied: ‘If, in the course of many years, they become a majority in the country, they naturally would take it over.’18

Winston Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, arrives at the White House in Washington on March 11, 1946. (AP Photo/William J. Smith)

Churchill was asked about this sixteen years later by the Palestine Royal Commission. ‘What is the conception you have formed yourself,’ he was asked, ‘of the Jewish National Home?’ Churchill replied: ‘The conception undoubtedly was that, if the absorptive capacity over a number of years and the breeding over a number of years, all guided by the British Government, gave an increasing Jewish population, that population should not in any way be restricted from reaching a majority position.’ Churchill went on to tell the Commission: ‘As to what arrangement would be made to safeguard the rights of the new minority’ – the Arab minority – ‘that obviously remains open, but certainly we committed ourselves to the idea that some day, somehow, far off in the future, subject to justice and economic convenience, there might well be a great Jewish State there, numbered by millions, far exceeding the present inhabitants of the country and to cut them off from that would be a wrong.’ Churchill added: ‘We said there should be a Jewish Home in Palestine, but if more and more Jews gather to that Home and all is worked from age to age, from generation to generation, with justice and fair consideration to those displaced and so forth, certainly it was contemplated and intended that they might in the course of time become an overwhelmingly Jewish State.’19

Whether the Jews could form a majority – the sine qua non of statehood – was challenged publicly by Herbert Samuel on 3 June 1921, when he said that ‘the conditions of Palestine are such as not to permit anything in the nature of mass immigration.’20 But at a meeting in Balfour’s house in London on July 22, Lloyd George and Balfour had both agreed ‘that by the Declaration they had always meant an eventual Jewish State.’21

Churchill’s adviser, Major Young, likewise favoured a policy that, he wrote to Churchill on August 1, involved ‘the gradual immigration of Jews into Palestine until that country becomes a predominantly Jewish State.’ Young went on to argue that the phrase ‘National Home’ as used in the Balfour Declaration implied no less than full statehood for the Jews of Palestine. There could be ‘no half-way house,’ he wrote, between a Jewish State and ‘total abandonment of the Zionist programme.’22

When the Cabinet met on August 17 there was talk of handing the Palestine Mandate to the United States, but Lloyd George rejected this. The official minutes noted: ‘stress was laid on the following consideration, the honour of the government was involved in the Declaration made by Mr Balfour, and to go back on our pledge would seriously reduce the prestige of this country in the eyes of the Jews throughout the world.’

On 3 June 1922 the British Government issued a White Paper, known as the Churchill White Paper, which stated: ‘So far as the Jewish population of Palestine are concerned it appears that some among them are apprehensive that His Majesty’s Government may depart from the policy embodied in the Declaration of 1917. It is necessary, therefore, once more to affirm that these fears are unfounded, and that that Declaration, re-affirmed by the Conference of the Principal Allied Powers at San Remo and again in the Treaty of Sטvres, is not susceptible of change.’

The White Paper also noted: ‘During the last two or three generations the Jews have recreated in Palestine a community, now numbering 80,000…it is essential that it should know that it is in Palestine as of right and not on the sufferance. That is the reason why it is necessary that the existence of a Jewish National Home in Palestine should be internationally guaranteed, and that it should be formally recognized to rest upon ancient historic connection.’23

To reinforce this concept of ‘right,’ Churchill had granted the Zionists a monopoly on the development of electrical power in Palestine, authorising a scheme drawn up by the Russian-born Jewish engineer, Pinhas Rutenberg, to harness the waters of the Jordan River. To stop what critics were calling the ‘beginning of Jewish domination,’ a debate was held in the House of Lords demanding representative institutions that would enable the Arabs to halt Jewish immigration. In the debate, held on June 21, sixty Peers voted against the Mandate as envisaged by the White Paper, and against the Balfour Declaration. Only twenty-nine Peers voted for it.

On July 4 it fell to Churchill to persuade the House of Commons to reverse this vote. He staunchly defended the Zionists. Anyone who had visited Palestine recently, he said, ‘must have seen how part of the desert have been converted into gardens, and how material improvement has been effected in every respect by the Arab population dwelling around.’ Apart from ‘this agricultural work – this reclamation work – there are services which science, assisted by outside capital, can render, and of all the enterprises of importance which would have the effect of greatly enriching the land none was greater than the scientific storage and regulation of the waters of the Jordan for the provision of cheap power and light needed for the industry of Palestine, as well as water for the irrigation of new lands now desolate.’ The Rutenberg concession offered to all the inhabitants of Palestine ‘the assurance of a greater prosperity and the means of a higher economic and social life.’

Churchill asked that the Government be allowed ‘to use Jews, and use Jews freely, within limits that are proper, to develop new sources of wealth in Palestine.’ It was also imperative, he said, if the Balfour Declaration’s ‘pledges to the Zionists’ were to be carried out, for the House of Commons to reverse the vote of the House of Lords. Churchill’s appeal was successful. Only thirty-five votes were cast against the Government’s Palestine policy, 292 in favour.24

The way was clear for presenting the terms of the Mandate to the League of Nations. On July 5, Churchill telegraphed Sir Wyndham Deedes, who was administering the Government of Palestine in Samuel’s absence, that ‘every effort will be made to get terms of Mandate approved by Council of League of Nations at forthcoming session and policy will be vigorously pursued.’25

On 22 July 1922 the League of Nations approved the Palestine Mandate (it came into force on 29 September 1923). One particular article, Article 25, relating to Transjordan, disappointed the Zionists, who had hoped to settle on both sides of the Jordan River. ‘In the territories lying between the Jordan and the eastern boundary of Palestine as ultimately determined,’ Article 25 stated, ‘the Mandatory shall be entitled, with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations, to postpone or withhold application of such provisions of this mandate as he may consider inapplicable to the existing local conditions, and to make such provision for the administration of the territories as he may consider suitable to those conditions, provided that no action shall be taken which is inconsistent with the provisions of Articles 15, 16 and 18.’

The Zionists pointed out that Article 15 was clearly inconsistent with not allowing a Jewish presence in Transjordan, for it stated clearly, with regard to the whole area of Mandatory Palestine, west and east of the Jordan, that ‘The Mandatory shall see that complete freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all forms of worship, subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals, are ensured to all. No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief. The right of each community to maintain its own schools for the education of its own members in its own language, while conforming to such educational requirements of a general nature as the Administration may impose, shall not be denied or impaired.’

The rest of the Mandate was strongly in support of Zionist aspirations. Article 2, while making no reference to the previous four and a half years’ debate on statehood, instructed the Mandatory to secure ‘the development of self-governing institutions.’ In a note to the United States Government five months later, the Foreign Office pointed out that ‘so far as Palestine is concerned’ Article 2 of the Mandate ‘expressly provides that the administration may arrange with the Jewish Agency to develop any of the natural resources of the country, in so far as these matters are not directly undertaken by the Administration.’ The reason for this, the Foreign Office explained, ‘is that in order that the policy of establishing in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people could be successfully carried out, it is impractical to guarantee that equal facilities for developing the natural resources of the country should be granted to persons or bodies who may be motivated by other motives.’26 It was on this basis that the Rutenberg electrical concession had been granted as a monopoly to the Zionists, and on which representative institutions had been withheld for as long as the Arabs were in a majority.

Article 4 recognised the Zionist Organization as the ‘appropriate Jewish Agency,’ to work with the British Government ‘to secure the co-operation of all Jews who are willing to assist in the establishment of a Jewish national home.’ Article 6 instructed the Palestine Administration both to ‘facilitate’ Jewish immigration, and to ‘encourage’ close settlement by Jews on the land, ‘including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.’27

On the evening of 22 July 1922, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the pioneer of modern spoken Hebrew, went to see his friend Arthur Ruppin. It was more than forty years since Ben Yehuda had come to live in Palestine. He had just seen a telegram announcing that the League of Nations had just confirmed Britain’s Palestine Mandate. ‘The Ben Yehudas were elated,’ Ruppin recorded in his diary, with Ben Yehuda telling Ruppin, in Hebrew, ‘now we are in our own country.’ Ruppin himself was hesitant. ‘I could not share their enthusiasm,’ he wrote. ‘One is not allocated a fatherland by means of diplomatic resolutions.’ Ruppin added: ‘If we do not acquire Palestine economically by means of work and if we do not win the friendship of the Arabs, our position under the Mandate will be no better than it was before.’28

* * *


1. Council of the League of Nations, League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, 22 July 1922: League of Nations – Official Journal.

2. War Cabinet minutes, 30 October 1917; Cabinet Papers, 23/4.

3. Foreign Office papers, 371/3054.

4. The text of the Weizmann-Feisal Agreement was quoted in The Times, 10 June 1936.

5. Curzon papers, India Office Library.

6. Supreme Council minutes: Event 4651: Zionist presentation to the Supreme Council of the Paris Peace Conference.

7. Foreign Office papers, 371/4171.

8. Ibid.

9. Henry C. King was a theologian and President of Oberlin College, Ohio. Charles R. Crane was a prominent Democratic Party contributor who had been a member of the United States delegation at the Paris Peace Conference.

10. Report of American Section of Inter-Allied Commission of Mandates in Turkey: An official United States Government report by the Inter-allied Commission on Mandates in Turkey. American Section. First printed as ‘King-Crane Report on the Near East,’ New York, 1922, volume 55.

11. The Times, London, 9 September 1919.

12. Churchill papers, 16/18.

13. Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920.

14. Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, diary (unpublished).

15. Churchill papers, 17/20.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Minutes of the Imperial Cabinet: Lloyd George papers.

19. Palestine Royal Commission, notes of evidence, 12 March 1937: Churchill papers: 2/317.

20. Samuel papers.

21. Weizmann papers.

22. Colonial Office papers, 733/10.

23. Statement of British Policy in Palestine, Command Paper 1700 of 1922, 3 June 1922.

24. Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, 4 July 1922.

25. Colonial Office papers, 733/35.

26. Communication dated 29 December 1921, Command Paper 2559 of 1926.

27. Council of the League of Nations, League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, 22 July 1922: League of Nations – Official Journal.

28. Arthur Ruppin diary, Ruppin papers.