Dear Lord Rothschild…….
Why was this letter written?
The Balfour Declaration contained 3 main elements:
1) His Majesty’s Government’s intention to establish a national home for the Jewish people in (both my italics) Palestine with a commitment to use its best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this objective;
2) the protection of the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine and
3) an assurance that the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country would be unaffected.
The meaning and purpose of each of these elements – particularly the first, have been dissected with Talmudic intensity and pored over by historians and politicians ad nauseam. The wording of the Declaration underwent several textual changes to meet political objections, principally to avoid an unequivocal statement that “Palestine be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish People”.
Volumes have been and still are being written about the reasons Lloyd George’s administration, at the height of the First World War, decided to offer the Jews the prospect of a homeland in Palestine; was it pure altruism encouraged by the influential Zionist lobby (notably Weizmann), or the perceived need to encourage world Jewry to support the Allies’ cause or just to pre-empt the possibility that Germany might make the same offer, given its collaboration with Turkey whose Ottoman Empire embraced Palestine?
Undeniably, the Declaration assured Great Britain of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine; indeed the wording of Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild was incorporated verbatim into the Mandate with an obligation to implement its aims.
British Jews were concerned that the Declaration would provoke allegations of dual loyalty and intensify anti-Semitism. Hence, to accommodate these fears, the wording of the third element of the Declaration referred to above; an insertion made on the initiative of Edwin Montague, a British Liberal politician who served as Secretary of State for India between 1917 and 1922. The following is an extract from a lengthy Memorandum submitted by Montagu to the British Cabinet in August 1917 in anticipation of the Balfour Declaration in the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild:
“Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or be treated as an Englishman.”
These views were not confined to the British and certainly featured among Jewish circles in the United States whose government, after initial hesitations, approved the Declaration. But this was not the prevailing Jewish response. Great Britain duly became the mandatory power and in the early years, earnestly upheld its commitment “to use its best endeavors” to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine – a commitment pursued energetically until violent Arab antagonism could no longer be contained.
Much has been written about the mandate period, the waves of aliya and evolving institutions of Jewish governance, the Arab riots, the abortive Peel Commission (the first time the Zionists accepted the concept of dividing the land) culminating in the infamous 1939 White Paper which effectively abrogated British obligations under the Balfour Declaration.
But at the end of the day, the significance of the Balfour Declaration cannot be over-rated. It instigated the train of events that undoubtedly led, however tortuously, to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. If the British Foreign secretary had not seen fit to write his famous letter to Lord Rothschild on 2 November 1917, the League of Nations Mandate would never have been predicated on any formal Jewish presence in Palestine. It is thus conceivable the United Nations General Assembly in 1947 would not have been tasked even to contemplate a partition plan for Palestine between Arabs and Jews.
For Israelis and for Jews throughout the Diaspora, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration is an event to celebrate with uninhibited joy.
By Raymond Cannon
Raymond Cannon is a retired lawyer whose specialisms were international business and corporate transactions. He was a prominent communal leader in the UK and held a number of prestigious positions. Raymond is an amateur historian with an obsessive interest in, inter alia, English, American and European political history. He speaks to many groups and organizations, and writes articles for a whole range of publications and societies in Israel and abroad.