Putting Balfour’s words into context

One hundred years after Arthur Balfour pledged the British government's support for a Jewish state, Leslie Turnberg, author of a new book about the Balfour Declaration weighs up its importance, then and now


Why did Arthur Balfour, an aloof aristocratic British establishment figure, come to support the Zionist cause? Was it as a reward for Chaim Weizmann who had helped the war effort by finding a way to produce large amounts of the acetone needed to manufacture explosives? Or was it to persuade American Jewry to press their president to enter the war on the Allies’ side? Or to place a supportive people in Palestine to protect British interests?

None of these provide the ultimate reason since Balfour had long been conscious of the injustices inflicted on the Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia and had felt a strong desire to ease their burden. It was Weizmann who finally switched him on to the Zionist’s cause.


His Declaration has always been controversial. There are those who condemn it as the biggest error of judgment that a great state could make while others see it as the most magnanimous gesture of an imperial nation towards a persecuted people.

Even in 1917 there were strong objections. Then it was the assimilated Jews, most notably cabinet member, Edwin Montague, who vehemently opposed the Zionists. He found it objectionable that he might be forced to leave his cosseted existence to till the land in an inhospitable country far away. And now the Palestinian Authority is seeking an apology from the British government for the Declaration of 100 years ago. Although it was a significant statement of intent by the British government, it was always fragile and had no legal status. It was nothing like a treaty; simply a letter of support for the aspirations of the Jews. And it could have got lost at any time.

If, in 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George had succeeded in his secret negotiations with the Turks to make a separate peace with them they would have been able to hang on to their Middle East Empire and the Zionists’ dreams would have been shattered.

The Declaration was not only the work of Balfour since it did, finally, have the full support of the British cabinet together with international approval from France, Russia and President Woodrow Wilson in America. French support was always ambiguous and Wilson was hesitant, but their approval oiled the wheels of its passage. But it remained simply a letter of support until it gained true legal and international approval for a Jewish home in Palestine, in 1920 at San Remo and in 1922 at the League of Nations when all 51 nations voted for it.

Then the British and French carved up the Middle East under their mandates, and Palestine came under the British umbrella.

It was then that the British not only looked with favour on a home for the Jews in Palestine, they were mandated to provide it, and spoke for the first time of a Jewish nation.

Today, when the legality of the Balfour Declaration and even of Israel’s existence, is sometimes questioned, it should be unnecessary to emphasise that these international declarations give the lie to accusations of “illegality”. 

But the seeds of the ongoing dispute between the Palestinians and Israelis were sown then and it was not simply Jewish immigration that started it.

In fact, the wider Arab world welcomed the idea of a Jewish home in Palestine. Grand Sharif Hussein and his son Faisal in Mecca said as much to Weizmann and their daily newspaper welcomed the Jews as “brethren”.

But the Arabs reacted when they realised that they had been duped by the British into believing that if they sided with them against the Turks they would be given a huge kingdom, all under the rule of Hussein.

When it became clear that they would remain under the thumb of French and British mandates they began to regard the influx of Jews as just another symbol of Western “colonisation”.

In Palestine, hitherto regarded as part of Syria, the Arabs decided that their future could not reside in the Pan-Arabism arising in Damascus when the much-derided French took over there. Again, it was this French “colonisation” of Syria that determined the birth of a distinct and separate Palestinian nationalism, rather than Jewish immigration.

We are now left with an unstable stand-off between two parties who believe that they each have a right to the land. My Israeli taxi driver expressed the views of many when he said that “the Palestinians want to drive us into the sea,” while many Palestinians see their hope of a state disappearing, eroded by the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It was recognition that the two opposing factions could not live together that led to the partition plans of the Peel Commission in 1937 and the UN in 1947; and it is these that are the harbingers of the “two-state solution.”

Balfour’s fond assumption that Arab and Jew could live peacefully together has long been shown to be naïve. Given the history of animosity, talk now of a “one-state solution” seems hopelessly optimistic. Israel would soon be overwhelmed by an Arab majority and would become just another Arab state in the Middle East. It is hardly likely to be attractive to an Israel whose whole raison d’être is to be a Jewish state. Similarly, recent ideas about a federation with Jew and Arab living peacefully side by side seem unlikely to find support among the majority of wary Israelis or Palestinians.

It has to be admitted, however, that, although the “two-state solution” is the only one that has any hope of being acceptable, it has not had a happy history. Despite repeated and serious efforts, peace has remained elusive and it is hard now to remain optimistic.

But the dividends to be gained from a peace for Israelis and Palestinians are enormous.

Will it happen any time soon? Highly unlikely.

Will it require new leadership on both sides? Almost certainly.

Is it worth all the effort? Absolutely.


‘Beyond the Balfour Declaration: The 100-Year Quest for Israeli–Palestinian Peace’ by Leslie Turnberg, is published this week by Biteback Publishing

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