THE BACKGROUND TO THE DRAFTING OF THE BALFOUR DECLARATION

Author: Barry Shaw

The stars were in perfect alignment at a time in history. Such moments are fleeting and must be grabbed before the opportunity recedes into the past.
One such moment was when David Lloyd George succeeded Herbert Henry Asquith as Britain’s Prime Minister in 1916. People assume that Lloyd George was a Welshman but he was born in Manchester. The alignment was enhanced with the appointment of Arthur Balfour to the position of Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s government.
Alignment and timing are all important in world affairs. Both men were raised on a late Victorian religious upbringing and the relevance of their Christianity on matters of principle. Both were nurtured on hymns and on the belief in the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land, an act that would herald the coming of their Messiah.
Although Jewish Zionist heroes such as Herzl and Weizmann were lobbying and organizing global and diplomatic support for the notion of reclaiming a national home in an ancient land, then called Palestine, it was, if truth be told, the influence of well positioned Christians that opened the political gates to that goal. It was the core beliefs of people like Lloyd George and Balfour that would drive a policy that has led us to where we are today.
Parts of Kenya on the border with Uganda had been suggested as a British protectorate for the Jews but this had been dismissed by Chaim Weizmann. He stated his case forcefully;
“Uganda will never be Palestine. We cannot possibly sell our birthright. It is like someone giving up one’s religion, giving up one’s self. We thank the British Government for its generous and magnanimous offer, but we cannot accept it, and we think the British Government is perhaps the only government which will understand the motives which lead us to refuse this offer.”
It was this rejection that prompted the first meeting between the Manchester-based Jew and Balfour who had been one of the proposers of the Uganda plan.
Balfour was curious to hear why Weizmann had rejected the African proposal. The conversation between them went on for some time until Dr. Weizmann said to Balfour, “Mr. Balfour, suppose I gave you Paris in place of London? Would you take it?”
“We have London,” Balfour replied.
“Mr. Balfour. We had Jerusalem when London was a swamp.”
Balfour was impressed by Weizmann’s stubbornness and determination that, for the Jews, a homeland could only be based in the land of their forefathers, even if it was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.

Weizmann was not to meet Balfour for another ten years. In 1916 Balfour was First Lord of the Admiralty. Weizmann went into the meeting with great trepidation. He was concerned that the senior British politician would recall the abrupt ending of their last conversation. When he entered the office, Balfour greeted him with, “You know, Dr. Weizmann, if the Allies win the war you might possibly get your Jerusalem.”

Britain was at war and was contemplating opening up a new front in the Middle East against the Turks who had allied with the Germany.

By 1917 Arthur Balfour was Foreign Secretary in Lloyd George’s government and was persuaded by faith and by persuasion to inform his colleagues in the War Cabinet of his intention to submit an official letter on behalf of His Majesty’s Government that would be favorable to Zionist aspirations in Palestine. The reason he gave was that this would attract both American and Russian support behind Britain’s war against Germany and their Turkish allies. In this he was supported by his Prime Minister.
The stars were aligned at a moment in history for the Jewish people.
Balfour met with Chaim Weizmann and Lord Rothschild on June 19 and invited them to submit a declaration that would be acceptable to the War Cabinet for the British Government to declare its conviction and support of the Zionist aims for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

In my new book, ‘1917 From Palestine to the Land of Israel,’ I relate the background to the drafting of the Balfour Declaration which was to set British policy at a critical time in the Jewish struggle to claim Palestine as a national homeland.
A little known fact is that the early working of this document was done by a small team of Zionists based in Manchester. Simon Marks and Israel Sieff were born in Prestwich. They were joined by Harry Sacher who was a journalist at the Manchester Guardian. They gathered under the tutelage of Weizmann in Sieff’s home in Didsbury.
Their enthusiasm and intellectual input raised the spirits of Chaim Weizmann who wrote in his book Trial and Error; “They helped make Manchester, the city I had come to as a stranger, and had considered a place of exile, a happy place for me.”

Sachar began composing the document by writing, “The British Government declares that one of its essential war aims is the reconstitution of Palestine as a Jewish state.”
The group received advice from Herbert Sidebotham. Sidebotham was the military correspondent at the Manchester Guardian. He and its editor, C.P. Snow, were ardent Zionists and close friends of Weizmann. Sidebotham sent Sachar a memo pointing out that “by a Jewish state is meant a state composed not only of Jews, but one whose dominant national character shall be as Jewish as the dominant national character of England in English.”

Sachar told Nahum Sokolov, a prominent Zionist leader, “We must control the State machinery in Palestine. If we don’t, the Arabs will. Give the Arabs all the guarantees they like for cultural autonomy but the State must be Jewish.”

It must be mentioned there was a raging public argument in Britain between the Zionists and the anti-Jewish state Jews. One of the anti-Zionist leaders was the influential Edwin Montagu, a senior member of the government.
The fearful Montagu expressed his position against a Jewish state by arguing “When Jews are told that Palestine is a national home every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens.”
The narrow-minded lord went on, “When the Jews have a national home surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased.”
Leopold Amery, the War Cabinet Secretary threw scorn on Montagu calling him “a tame Jew who doesn’t want to be bothered with Zionism or national aspirations and only regards it as a nuisance to himself.”
The ignoble Lord Montagu accused the Zionist Organization of being run by “men of enemy descent or birth.”
The War Cabinet rejected Montagu’s argument by reminding him “that the existence of a Jewish State or autonomous community in Palestine would strengthen rather than weaken the situation of Jews in countries ere they were not yet in possession of equal rights.”
Weizmann responded to the clique of Jewish anti-Zionists by claiming they were “a small minority of so-called assimilated cosmopolitan Jews, most belonging to haute finance, who have lost contact with the development of Jewish life or ideas.”


The drafting of an original Zionist Organization proposal underwent several changes and redraftings. Lord Rothschild drafted a proposal in July 1917 which read;
“1. His Majesty’s Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.
2. His Majesty’s Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization.”
There were further counter-drafts drawn up by Balfour in August and later amended the same month by Lord Milner. Milner changed the phrase “reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people” to “the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine.”
The Milner/Amery draft of October clarified the nature of the Jewish entity by calling it “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish race” but the word “race” was changed back to “people” in the final Balfour draft.
The final draft of the Balfour Declaration was drawn up and presented to Walter Rothschild, a leader of Britain’s Jewish community for transferring on to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, It read;
‘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.”
The letter was presented to Baron Rothschild on 2nd November 1917 and published in the press one week later.
The wording fell short of what the Zionist representatives wanted. Instead of the word “establishment” they wanted the word “re-establishment” to emphasize the continuity of the Jewish presence in Palestine and its history and heritage with this land. They had called for the inclusion of the word “state” but out of fear of opposition within the British Cabinet compromised with the inclusion of a reference to a “national home.”
Balfour said in 1918, he hoped that “Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a state.”
Prime Minister Lloyd George confirmed that when the Jews would be a majority in Palestine then “Palestine would become a Jewish Commonwealth.”
Leopold Amery, who had been intimately involved with the history of the drafting and was acutely aware of the political implications and purpose behind the release of the Declaration, when testifying under oath at the Anglo-American Committee of Enquiry as late as 1946 to examine the political, economic, and social conditions in Mandatory Palestine with regard to the problems of Jewish settlement and immigration, said;
“The phrase ‘the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people’ was intended and understood by all concerned to mean at the time of the Balfour Declaration that Palestine would ultimately become a ‘Jewish Commonwealth’ or a ‘Jewish state,’ if only Jews came and settled there in sufficient numbers.”

This is where you, dear reader, are playing a vital role in living the essence of the Balfour Declaration.

Barry Shaw.
Senior Associate for Public Diplomacy at the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.
1917. From Palestine to the Land of Israel is available from the author or from CreateSpace in paperback https://www.createspace.com/6830537 or from Amazon in Kindle format at:
https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Ddigital-text&field-keywords=1917.+from+palestine+to+the+land+of+israel


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The Global History of the Balfour Declaration by Maryanne A. Rhett

the-global-history-of-the-balfour-declaration-coverThis book examines the development and issuance of the Balfour Declaration, the document that set the stage for the creation of the state of Israel, within its global setting. The heart of the book demonstrates that the Declaration developed and contributed to a juncture in a global dialogue about the nature and definition of nation at the outset of the twentieth century. Embedded in this examination are gendered, racial, nationalistic, and imperial considerations. The work posits that the Balfour Declaration was a specific tool designed by the manipulation of these ideas. Once established, the Declaration helped, and hindered, established imperial powers like the British, nascent imperial powers like the Japanese and Indians, and emerging nationalist movements like the Zionists, Irish, Palestinians, and East Africans, to advocate for their own vision of national definition.

By Maryanne A. Rhett

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