On this day: the Balfour Declaration

November 2 1917: a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations


Hailed as a “Jewish triumph” in that week’s JC, the Balfour Declaration is one of the most significant texts in the history of the Zionist movement.

Following a War cabinet meeting on the subject, it was a formal statement by the British government saying that they “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."

Written by then foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour, it was addressed to Lord Rothschild who was a leading figure in the British Jewish community of the time. He asked that the message be conveyed to the Zionist Federation.

A month later, Lord Rothschild told a crowd of nearly 3,000 British Jews at the London Opera House in Kingsway: “We are met on the most momentous occasion in the history of Judaism for the last eighteen hundred years.

“We are here to return thanks to His Majesty's Government for a declaration which marked an epoch - for the first time since the dispersion, the Jewish people have received their proper status by the declaration of one of the great powers".

Although it was a striking message, the use of the word “homeland” rather than “state” was a source of contention. Many historians view the document in light of the First World War, as an attempt to bring the United States into the allied fold.

The original copy of the declaration is kept in the British Library.

The Balfour Declaration, whilst hailed as miraculous, did not immediately change the fortunes of the Zionist movement. Lloyd George’s government fell in 1922 and a series of less-favourable White Papers and decisions were made by the British government on the future of Palestine throughout the mandate period.

It was, of course, not until 1948 that the “national home” became a reality.

What the JC said: With one step the Jewish cause has made a great bound forward…a new epoch for our race…Amidst all that is so dark and dismal and tragic throughout the world, there has thus arisen for the Jews a great light. It is the perceptible lifting of the cloud of centuries, the palpable sign that the Jew-condemned for two thousand years to unparalleled wrong – is at last coming to his right.

See more from the JC archives here

Last updated: 9:05am, November 2 2010