The Anonymous Figure Behind the Balfour Declaration

While many of those associated with the Balfour Declaration, which was published one hundred years ago, have been given their due recognition, with heaped accolades, one name remains absent from the list. I refer to South African General Jan Smuts, a highly intelligent, articulate and complicated personality as well as a Zionist.

Letter to the New York Times 19 February 1984

The the Editor: In his review of “The High Walls of Jerusalem,” Paul Johnson named all but one of the actors in the drama of the Balfour Declaration. He was Gen. Jan Smuts of South Africa. As the authors Leonard Stein (“The Balfour Declaration”) and Richard P. Stevens (“Weizmann & Smuts: A Study in Zionist South African Cooperation”) point out, General Smuts was an integral, albeit anonymous, figure in the creation of the Balfour Declaration and later diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel by various nations. RABBI JOSHUA DAVID KREINDLER Editor, Journal of the American Institute of the Study of Middle Eastern Civilization

Kew Gardens, N.Y

Early Life

Smuts, one of six children born on a farm in the Cape Colony, started his formal schooling at the age of twelve, matriculating with distinction four years later. By the age of twenty one hr found himself at Christ’s College, Cambridge, on a scholarship to study law following a highly successful four year study period at Stellenbosch University in Cape Colony. His studies in Stellenbosch ended in 1891 when he earned double first class honours in the diverse subjects of Literature and science.
Smuts graduated with a double First from Christ’s College in 1893 after receiving numerous academic prizes and accolades which included the prestigious George Long Prize for Roman Law and Jurisprudence. Professor Maitland, a tutor at Christ’s College, described Smuts as the most brilliant student he had ever met. Lord Alexander Todd, 1957 Nobel Chemistry Prize winner and Master of Christ’s College from 1963 to 1978 said that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present,three had been truly outstanding, John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts”. Illustrious company indeed! During 1894 Smuts wrote the Honours Examination of the Inns of Court, in Smuts’ own words “perhaps the hardest Law examination in the world. Of the 20 or 30 candidates who appeared I alone obtained the Honours Certificate.” He relates that he was awarded a prize of 50 Guineas for distinction in Constitutional Law and History and Legal History.

The Anglo Boer War

After his admission to the London Bar, Smuts returned to the Cape Colony where he entered legal practice, while politically he became a supporter of Cecil Rhodes, Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. The Jameson Raid, led by Rhodes’ protégé, Leander Starr Jameson, infuriated and alienated Smuts, who saw the incursion into the Transvaal as an act of betrayal by Rhodes. The result was that Smuts left the Cape and went to the Transvaal, where he served as State Secretary under Paul Kruger, President of the Zuid Afrikaanse Republiek (South African Republic). He became an implacable enemy of the British, eventually rising to the rank of General, commanding a military force that made incursions into the Cape Colony. Here he tweaked the British nose by taking control of a 300 mile swathe of British territory after Lord Roberts had occupied the Z.A.R. capital of Pretoria. He later attended the Peace Conferencepin Vereeniging that resulted in the peace treaty signed on 31 May 1902, establishing British control over the whole of South Africa.

Having made his peace with Britain, Smuts now dedicated himself to establishing a Union, under British Rule, between the four territories which made up South Africa – The Cape, Natal, The Orange Free State and the Transvaal. His creation, the Union of South Africa, under the aegis of the British Empire, came into being on 31 May 1910. Having embraced Britain as the rulers of South Africa, Smuts offered his loyalty to the British Empire and supported a Declaration of War against Germany in support of Great Britain by the Union of South Africa in 1914. Smuts commanded the South African forces that defeated the German army in South West Africa and then took command of the battle against the German forces in East Africa. Following his military successes, he was offered the command of all Allied forces in Palestine, an offer he refused, after which he was appointed as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet under Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

International Statesman

Although an excellent military tactician and astute politician, Smuts was also a scientist and botanist who had identified many new species of flora in South Africa. He shared the belief of many early Afrikaaners who viewed themselves as modern Israelites under a British yoke, making him an ardent Christian Zionist. This, combined with his scientific background, made him an ideal friend and confidante of Zionist leader, Dr Chaim Weizmann. After Smuts and Weizmann had met in London during the First World War, the two began a close friendship that lasted for the rest of their lives and greatly influenced events in Palestine. As Richard P. Stevens says in his essay on Smuts and Weizmann “perhaps few personal friendships have so influenced the course of political events during the twentieth century as the relationship between General Jan Christiaan Smuts, South Africa’s celebrated prime minister, and Chaim Weizmann, Zionist leader and Israel’s first president.”

British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Balfour, had a great admiration for Smuts and valued his opinion on matters pertaining to the British conduct of the war, as well as international politics. Smuts played a great backroom role in the drafting of the Balfour Declaration, providing Weizmann with a direct conduit to the War Cabinet. In common with Smuts, Lloyd George and Balfour who had both had a Christian Evangelical background as children, were ardent Christian Zionists, the spiritual aspect of Zionism holding great appeal for both politicians. The precise role played by Smuts has not come to the fore, but in almost every history of that momentous period, the name Smuts flits in and out, almost like that of an eminence grise exercising an influence that has never been fully defined.

That this was the way in which Smuts operated is borne out by the introductory lines to the chapter on Smuts in the book The Boer War Generals by Peter Trew. The opening line of the chapter reads:

Smuts’ contribution ran like a thread through the Boer War – he played a significant part in the events leading up to it, in its conduct and in the final peace negotiations”. A similar description could be given to the part played by Smuts in the Balfour Declaration. Here too he played a significant part in the events leading up to it, through his close association with Weizmann and the Zionist group on the one hand, and as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet on the other hand, he was party to its final wording and approval. He was present at the Versailles Peace Conference as well as the later San Remo Conference, where he was responsible for the Smuts Resolution regarding the establishment of the various Mandates and one of the authors of the San Remo Declaration. He could in many ways be said to have had a dual loyalty, to Weizmann and the Zionist cause, while at the same to Great Britain and British interests, with these loyalties coinciding in the Balfour Declaration.

Smuts and Zionism

Ashley Perry, editor of the Middle East Information project writes in an essay that General Smuts, a member of the Imperial War Cabinet when the Declaration was published, stated in 1919 that “he could see in generations to come, a great Jewish state rising there once more.” Prophetic words indeed.

Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan which was founded in 1932 was named in honour of Jan Smuts, Yohanan being the Hebrew translation for the Afrikaans Jan or English John, in recognition of his unstinting efforts on behalf of the Jewish people. I believe that the naming of Ramat Yohanan was at Weizmann’s prompting in recognition of the Smuts contribution to the Balfour Declaration. Smuts Boulevard in Tel Aviv was also named in honour of this remarkable individual, in this case in gratitude for his early recognition of the State of Israel as Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa

Smuts and the South African Zionist Federation

Below is an excerpt from a book by Marcia Gitlin (1950), The Vision Amazing, the Story of South African Zionism:- In January 1917 it (The South African Zionist Federation) had requested Nathan Levi, a Zionist who was known to be a friend of Smuts, to “use any personal influence and any opportunities” to obtain Smuts’ support for a SAZF resolution. The resolution dealt with ensuring that the Peace Conference after the end of the Great War would ensure the establishment of a Homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. (My synopsis of a lengthy resolution).
Gitlin further quotes from a speech delivered by Smuts at a banquet honouring him two years after the publication of the Balfour Declaration when he said “I was ill in my house, and the resolutions passed by the Zionist Federation were brought to me there. I gave my assurance that whenever I would have the chance, I would help Zionism”. Later in the speech he related how he had been offered command of the military forces in Palestine by Lloyd George, an offer he refused, after which he became a member of the Imperial War Cabinet. He continued “I was really at the centre of things. And then began the movement in favour of a Declaration on behalf of Palestine as the future home of the Jewish race ……..Dr. Weizmann, who was a friend of mine, approached me and pressed me very strongly, and I told him of the promise I had made on my sick bed in Irene (his home village), and that I had to carry out my promise – and I did my best to carry it out……”

Recognition with Regard to the Balfour Declaration

There can be no doubt that General Jan Smuts, a South African born farmer’s son who rose to bestride the world stage like a colossus in the first half of the twentieth century, played an active and important role in the events leading up to the publication of the Balfour Declaration. Due recognition should be given to this truly amazing international statesman and friend of the Jewish people.

Peter Bailey


We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

By Yaffa Abadi: It is a scary and somewhat daunting phrase that captures the truth about many aspects of interpersonal relationships. When it comes to the Jewish people as a unit, this too rings true. Most of the time our own worst enemy is, in fact, ourselves.

As the century mark of the Balfour Declaration is coming along, I have become engrossed in researching the process that led to the Declaration and what we can learn from it up until today. To me, this seems like a prime example where the Jews of the diaspora came together as a unit to fight for the continued existence of the Jewish people. But, as my research expands, a certain name keeps coming up. A thorn in the rosebush of this Jewish unity.

His name was Edwin Montague and in my mind, he represents one the biggest problems facing world jewry to this very day. Montague was the single Jew working in the British Cabinet during World War One and his family was one of the most prominent and influential families in British and Jewish affairs. With such a seemingly large influence in the secular world, you would assume that obviously this was a huge positive for the Jews at the time. One foot in the door of British politics!

Think again.

Montague was one of the most staunch anti-Zionists around, making it his life’s work to resist Zionist endeavors. In his writings, he makes his views clear, claiming ‘Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.

His attitude towards the Zionist movement came to life when he used his influence to try put an end to one of the most important letters leading up to the establishment of Israel and what led me to Montague in the first place – the Balfour Declaration. He tried his very best to stop this meaningful Declaration from being accepted. However when he saw that this was not possible, he was sure to add phrases that blurred the lines and added a sense of ambiguity about the nature of the homeland that the Jewish people would eventually receive.

Montague is an example in history that parallels some of the biggest threats we have today. From the anti-Israel Neturei Karta ‘a group of Orthodox Jews which rejects Zionism and the establishment of the State of Israel. based off of their supposed religious ideals, to extreme left movements such as J Street who parade as Zionist organisations but whose actions, such as drawing parallels between Israel and Hamas and constantly condemning Israel’s protective efforts, proves it to be another Jewish movement that can act as a magnet to anti-Zionists.

While the size of movements such as these may not be large, any sort of threat coming from within our own people is something the Jewish Nation has suffered from the most throughout our history as a nation.

Going back to ancient times, we are reminded of the story of Kamsa and Bar Kamsa. A petty argument between these two Jewish men which led to the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (temple). This cruel destruction of our most Holy temple did not begin from an outer force, but rather from the hatred that was bred within the Jewish community.

It is strikingly clear that while, as Jews living in Israel, we face many threats from outer forces, one of our worst enemies is none other than ourselves. From the biblical times, seen throughout our history and highlighted with Montague’s involvement in the Balfour declaration, this threat of Jews against Israel is very real still today and must be countered by remaining loyal and united even in the face of our differences.

Let us learn from our mistakes, and take action to ensure the continuity of our people. Let us look forward to celebrating the century mark of the Balfour Declaration as a symbol where our unity as a Jewish nation overcame all.

People take part in the 51st annual Israel parade in Manhattan, New York May 31, 2015. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz.


The War Cabinet’s Motivation

Rev Dr David Schmidt in a London lecture marking the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration claimed that the evangelical Christian faith of the then war cabinet was a major influence which motivated them to make the Declaration.

As a Bible-believing academic, Dr Schmidt is convinced that, the Balfour Declaration was part of God’s plan and Israel’s destiny, as foretold by the Old Testament prophets.

Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel

Various theories have been put forward for the motivation of David Lloyd George’s ten-strong War Cabinet of 1917 – such as empire expansion, remorse over Jewish persecution and even gratitude for the war efforts of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, a top biochemist who had developed an important chemical ingredient for gunpowder.
But Dr Schmidt is convinced that Christian Zionism was, at its heart, defining Zionism as the belief that Jews remain God’s chosen people and that they have a right to live in the land of Israel.
Though from different social backgrounds and representing all contemporary political parties, these magnificent ten were, for the most part, non-Conformist evangelical Christians – there were no Anglicans – who were familiar with the Old Testament and aware of biblical prophecy. Ironically, the only Jewish member strongly opposed the policy. Many Jews at the time saw it as being herded into a ‘ghetto’. But their opposition gradually faded as the Zionist movement gained momentum.
Lloyd George was the main figure behind the declaration, said Dr Schmidt. Though “ethically challenged” – he had a mistress, for one thing – the Manchester born, Welshspeaking Liberal Prime Minister was raised on the Bible and retained a sentimental attachment to biblical values while not always living up to its high ideals.

Balfour too was steeped in the Bible from his Scottish Presbyterian childhood, believing that Christian civilization owed an immeasurable debt to Judaism. He was motivated by what he called “the desire to give the Jews their rightful place in the world” and even gave theological lectures at Cambridge University. He was highly accomplished, having already served as Prime Minister, and declared on his deathbed that aiding Jewish restoration was possibly the most worthwhile thing he had done.
Also in the cabinet was Jan Christian Smuts, a Boer general in the South African War. Raised in the Reform Church, his early life was filled with Bible teaching and he predicted that, in generations to come, a great Jewish state would arise once more. In fact, Smuts argued for the biblical restoration of Israel all his life. He was the only Cabinet member who lived to see the re-born state when, as South African Prime Minister, he was the first to recognise the new country after the United States.
Edward Carson, a fiery criminal lawyer from Ulster, opposed Lloyd George on many other issues, but not this one.
Andrew Bonar Law, a Canadian raised by a Presbyterian minister, became Prime Minister in 1922, but died of cancer soon afterwards.
Labour politician Arthur Henderson was converted to Christ through the famed evangelist Gypsy Smith and was also a wholehearted supporter of the Balfour Declaration, as was fellow Labour member George Barnes, who loved the Jewish people.
Support also came from Alfred Milner (brought up in Germany) but George Nathaniel Curzon raised early objections. As a former Viceroy of India, he understood how the Muslims could rise up in opposition and believed the Jews would struggle to live in such “a desolate place”.
Edwin Montague, meanwhile, was opposed both to the declaration and to Zionism in general despite being a Jew himself because it would force a nationality on people who had nothing in common, and become a Jewish ghetto.
In answer to questions, Dr Schmidt suggested that the failure of British foreign policy was not in supporting the Jews with their Zionist cause but, in having done so, trying to appease the Arabs as well so that in the end they pleased no-one.

Charles Gardner, author of Israel the Chosen and Peace in Jerusalem.



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.


100 years later

Next week will mark the beginning of the 100th year since the Balfour Declaration. On Friday, Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced in a short letter to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.”

Five years later, the Balfour Declaration was included in the League of Nations resolution to mandate Palestine to the British government, and another sentence was added to it: “Whereas recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who, with the assistance of his colleague Nahum Sokolow, worked persistently and wisely on behalf of the World Zionist Organization to obtain the documents, aspired to a clearer commitment, but the modest version was still an important tier in building the State of Israel.

Arab leaders in Palestine opposed the Balfour Declaration as soon as it was made public. They protested the use of the terms “the Jewish people” and “national home” as well as the reference to the Arabs as one of the “communities” with civil and religious — but not national — rights. It is for these reasons that the Palestine Liberation Organization determined in article 18 of its 1964 charter, three years prior to “the occupation,” that “the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate system and all that has been based upon them are considered fraud.” In keeping with his organization’s charter, PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas recently stated at the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 21, 2016): “One hundred years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road for the Nakba of Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land.”

In the same speech, Abbas also demanded that Britain apologize to the Palestinians “for the catastrophes, miseries and injustices that it created” as a result of the Balfour Declaration. Two months earlier (July 25, 2016), Abbas, in a speech read at the summit of the Arab League, asked the secretariat-general of the Arab League to support him “in preparing a legal portfolio in order to file a lawsuit against the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration and for subsequently implementing it in its capacity as a Mandate authority.”

These statements, as strange as they sound, reach down to the root of the matter. In 1917, the U.N. partition plan for western Israel had not yet been suggested, there was no “Nakba,” and “the occupation” of 1967 had not yet begun. The PLO’s stance proves once again the depth of its opposition to the existence of Jewish sovereignty in any part of Palestine, an opposition born of 100 years of denying the fact that the Jews comprise not only a religion but also to a nation and are reconstituting their sovereignty in their ancient homeland. In the PLO charter — which is still alive and most definitely kicking — contrary to statements made by interested parties — this denial is stated in the clearest possible manner.

“Fanaticism,” wrote Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, “consists of redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten your aim.” The old slogan “land — (but) for peace” had its own logic, even if I do not share it. And while the fanatics of the Israeli Left forgot their aim years ago, they are redoubling their efforts to bring an end to “the occupation” without any conditions, without even the illusion of peace. In his appearance before the U.N. Security Council on Oct. 16, 2016, as though he were a brave dissident secretly coming forward from a dark dictatorship, the B’Tselem representative condemned “the occupation” and demanded that the council act immediately to force his country to put an end to it — but in his entire speech, he did not even once express hope for peace that will prevail here after the yearned-for end to this “occupation.”

Many in Israel and around the world still do not understand the basic difficulty. In contrast to an interim agreement, which allows the both sides to continue working toward the realization of all their ambitions and dreams, a permanent agreement does not allow this. From the PLO’s point of view, a permanent agreement that will anchor Israel eternally in a part of Palestine and apply a quota to the realization of “the return of refugees to their homes,” cannot also include the essential clause declaring “an end to mutual claims.” Therefore the PLO, which loathes the Balfour Declaration 100 years after its publication, is not able to sign a permanent agreement with the State of Israel, even with the most modest terms that the Israeli Zionist Left can think of. An international attempt to coerce such an agreement will lead to the dismantling of the PLO and to the elimination of its leadership, and it will fail. From this we can understand that the efforts of the fanatics in Israel and abroad intend to have Israel withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines. Only this and nothing else.

But — we see with our own eyes: A hundred years later, and despite everything, the national home of the Jewish people is growing, rising and prospering in the land of Israel. And so it shall be.

Benny Begin is a Knesset member for the Likud party and a former government minister.

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10 things you may not know about Balfour

To mark this week’s 99th anniversary of the Balour Declaration, we reveal some fascinating facts about the most famous proclamation since the Ten Commandments

David Ben Gurion (left) signing the Declaration of Independence held by Moshe Sharet, with Eliezer

1. The Balfour Declaration is in the form of a letter dated 2 November 2017 from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild. It comprises just 67 words.

2. Lord Rothschild was asked to convey the letter’s contents to the Zionist Federation. This was because the letter could not be addressed to Chaim Weizmann, the main driver behind the Declaration, as Weizmann was not the most senior member of the Zionist hierarchy. Therefore, Lord Rothschild, as de facto head of the British Jewish community, was asked to pass the contents of the Declaration to the ZF.

3. The final letter, which was sent on 2 November, was the fifth draft of the historic Declaration. You can see the text of all five drafts at

4. A month before issuing the Declaration, the War Cabinet asked for the views of eight Jews, four anti-Zionists and four Zionists. Letters of support were submitted by Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz, Lord Walter Rothschild and Zionist leaders Nahum Sokolow and Chaim Weizmann.

5. Chaim Weizmann was known to the British Government for his scientific work for the war effort from Manchester University, inventing a method to produce the synthetic acetone used to create cordite, a military propellant.

6. Arthur Balfour and Chaim Weizmann had first met in Manchester in 1906. They reacquainted their friendship in 1914 through Weizmanns work in the war effort.

7. The legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian, CP Scott, after the whom the Scott Trust is named, did more than anybody else to open doors for Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann in his quest for British support for the Zionist enterprise.

8. In May 1918, Chaim Weizmann met the Emir Feisal – the single recognised Arab leader at the time – in Aqaba where they exchanged letters of mutual support. With T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as a middleman, the two continued with a series of meetings that led to a 3 January 1919 memorandum in which Feisal endorsed the Balfour Declaration. However, he was unable to deliver the memorandum due to Arab hostility. Imagine how the course of history would have changed had he been able to do so.

9. The Balfour Declaration was given legal effect and became part of international law at the 1920 San Remo conference where Britain was given a Mandate to administer Palestine and was required to implement the Balfour Declaration.

10. Winston Churchill (pictured) told the House of Commons in May 1939: “Either there will be a Britain which knows how to keep its word on the Balfour Declaration and is not afraid to do so, or believe me, we shall find ourselves relieved of many overseas responsibilities other than those comprised within the Palestine Mandate.”

11. In honour of the community coming together for this special anniversary, here’s a bonus fact… The Declaration was not published in the press until 9 November – a week after it was issued. The government intended that it should not be made public “until a favourable military situation had been brought about”. This was known by 8 November. However, since this was a Thursday, the news was delayed until the next day, a Friday, when it could be revealed in the Jewish Chronicle (a popular newspaper of the time).


Is the Balfour Declaration Still Relevant?

Jews and Palestinians both say yes – which shows that both sides still care more about how they are perceived than about reality on the ground.

Today is the 95th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s official pledge to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” which was sent to Lord Rothschild by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on November 2, 1917. Growing up in Israel and learning the national historical narrative, I had a rather jaundiced view of the Balfour Declaration. In the eyes of many Israelis, it is basically yet another symbol of Albion’s perfidy.

The British, after receiving significant help from Jews and Zionists in World War I, promised to help found a Jewish state. But the moment they were awarded the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, they began dragging their feet and reneging on their commitment. They ultimately had to be kicked out by Jewish underground movements, and it was the United Nations, not Britain, that passed the partition resolution. The British Mandate, with its army, slunk away, making no effort to implement the UN resolution and leaving the Jews to fend for themselves against seven Arab armies. So much for British promises.

Only in recent years did I realize that British Jews have a very different opinion of the Balfour Declaration, as do Palestinian nationalists and their supporters. Essentially, both these groups agree in their assessment of its historical importance: It made a major contribution to the process that led to Israel’s establishment. The only difference is that Jews in Britain (at least the Israel-supporters among them ) celebrate this as one of the community’s greatest moments of pride, in which they came together with His Majesty’s Government to set the ball of Jewish statehood rolling. The Palestinians see it as the moment “that Palestine became the victim of colonial conspiracies.” At least that is what Nabil Sha’ath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, wrote in a column this week in the Daily Telegraph, drawing a line of shame between the signing of the Balfour Declaration and the British government’s current opposition to upgrading the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations.

There are so many anniversaries crowding the conflict’s calendar, both celebrations and commemorations, in which the memory of a triumph for one side is usually the mourning of a downfall for the other. Thus it’s almost surprising that the Balfour Declaration, just a letter of intent devoid of corresponding actions on the ground, can still excite emotions.

Britain had not yet captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, and World War I’s outcome was still far from decided. The letter certainly roused many Zionists over the prospect of one of the world’s greatest powers supporting their aspirations, but many others saw it as a barely veiled attempt by the British to enlist Jewish support in persuading the United States to send its forces to Europe’s battlefields in a timelier fashion. Still others saw it as a continuation of Balfour’s attempts to curtail Jewish immigration to Britain, accusing him of anti-Semitism.

Yet the passions still run high. Tonight in London, a local Justice for Palestine group will hold an event at which writers and activists will commemorate the Balfour Declaration by discussing “the responsibility of the British State for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people.” On Sunday, a bronze bust of the man who did more than any other British leader to uphold the declaration, Winston Churchill, will be unveiled in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim. And on Monday, the Zionist Federation in London will hold its annual Balfour Lecture – go tell them Balfour was an anti-Semite.

All they want is love

Historians of the “what-if” school of thought can spend their days on questions such as “would Israel have been founded if there had been no Balfour Declaration?” but these are empty discussions. The obsession with the meaning of such events from the distant past says less about their historical relevance and much more about the current tendencies of both sides in the conflict.

Whether the Balfour Declaration had a material influence on the international community’s attitude toward Zionism is little more than fodder for a minor academic debate. But the words of Balfour’s letter still resonate with many simply because it was the first clear and official statement of support by a major power of the Zionist movement’s aims, and it was issued under the seal of His Majesty King George V. Nowadays, when every American presidential debate is a competition over which candidate is more committed to Israel’s security, it is almost impossible to imagine how rare such an affirmation of Zionism was less than a century ago.

What hasn’t changed is the desire of so many Jews (and Palestinians too, obviously ) to constantly hear from around the world that they are supported and sympathized with as history’s victims. We yearn so much for international recognition, for votes of solidarity and gestures of compassion, and above all, we want the media to love us. If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious that supporters of both Israel and the Palestinians are equally convinced their side is terribly maligned by the international mainstream media and the other side given an easy ride. The resources poured into the self-appointed media monitors and advocacy groups could be put to so many better uses, which might just help create a better reality for the media to report on.

It is sad because it sometimes seem that many Palestinians would prefer an empty and meaningless upgrade of their status at the United Nations to a concrete improvement of their situation and perhaps even some progress toward statehood. Similarly, many Israelis and Zionists appear to care far more about how their country is portrayed in the press than about the actual morality of its actions and policies.

Reading some of the literature on pro-Palestinian websites, it is hard to avoid the impression that there are people today who would make major efforts to get the British government to repeal the Balfour Declaration, even if such a step would be simply declarative and have no real effect on anything happening in the region. And were such an initiative ever to get off the ground, there would be a similar effort on the other side to “protect Balfour.”

The Balfour Declaration has its place in history, but at the end of the day, it was just a letter from the British foreign secretary, and its significance today is about as great as anything today’s British foreign secretary may have to say. To only slightly paraphrase David Ben-Gurion: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, what’s important is what the Jews (and Palestinians ) do.”


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.


Sykes-Picot and the Zionists

Clearing up some misconceptions about Sykes-Picot on its centenary.