The Balfour Declaration
The declaration took the form of a short letter dated 2 November 1917 from Lord Arthur James Balfour
, British Foreign Secretary, to Lord
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 statement was the product of Zionist advocates inside the government (including Balfour, Prime Minister David Lloyd George
, and cabinet member Herbert Samuel
), and from outside; of paramount importance was the immensely energetic and persuasive Zionist spokesman Chaim Weizmann
, who had longstanding close relationships with Balfour, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill
, and other powerful figures of the political elite. From a strategic perspective, British officials hoped that taking a “favorable view” toward a Jewish national home in Palestine would garner Jewish support in the United States
, and Russia
, thus bolstering the war effort. They also sought to solidify postwar British claims to Palestine to shore up control over
The declaration was conceived and drafted in the heat of World War I, when Great Britain and France
, anticipating an allied victory over the German-led Central Powers, were thinking ahead to the postwar fate of the Ottoman Empire
’s Arab provinces. The two Western powers had already negotiated (with Imperial Russian approval) the division of the Arab provinces into French and British spheres of influence, with
Shortly after the declaration was issued, British troops entered Palestine, capturing
The 1919 Paris Peace Conference had established the League of Nations and introduced into international law the concept of “trusteeship” known as the Mandate system. As described in Article 22 of the League’s covenant, territories of the defeated nations would be tutored by “advanced nations” on behalf of the League until they could stand alone. Specifically, Article 22 recognized the formerly Ottoman Arab provinces as “independent nations” subject to the administrative assistance of a Mandatory power. Although the League’s covenant stipulated that the wishes of the communities “must be a principal consideration in the selection of the Mandatory,” the Mandate for Palestine was granted to Britain at the San Remo Conference in April 1920 and imposed on the Palestinians.
The text of the Mandate for Palestine, approved by the Council of the League of Nations on 24 July 1922, comprised a preamble and twenty-eight articles.
The preamble reiterated Britain’s commitment to the Zionist project in the terms used in the Balfour Declaration, but presented a justification that was not explicit in the Declaration, i.e. its "recognition" of "the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine". Concerning the vast majority of Palestine’s population (almost 90 percent according to the British census of 1922), primarily Christian and Muslim Arabs, the preamble referred to them, similarly to the Balfour Declaration, as “the non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” declared that nothing would be done to prejudice their “civil and religious rights,” and made no mention of their political or national rights.
In contrast to the short and restrictive reference to Arab rights in the preamble, the operative text of the Mandate was replete with Britain's various responsibilities to foster the Zionist project in Palestine: Article 2 made Britain responsible “for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home”; Article 4 recognized the Zionist Organization
and its subsidiary, the
From the start, the Arab population of Palestine expressed their opposition to the Balfour policy in numerous ways, including demonstrations and violent clashes in April 1920 and May 1921. Opposition to the Balfour Declaration dominated the agendas of meetings of the Palestine Arab Congress (held in January–February 1919, May 1920, December 1920, June 1921, August 1922, June 1923, June 1928) and the delegations that it dispatched to London
(from August 1921 to July 1922; July 1923, and April 1930). The relentless Palestinian opposition prompted British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill’s White Paper
of 1922, which sought to clarify that Britain’s intention was to establish a Jewish national home in Palestine, not to turn the entirety of Palestine into such a home—a clarification that did nothing to mollify the Arab majority. Successive commissions of inquiry (the U.S. King-Crane Commission
of 1919, the British
Within this framework, the Palestinian Arab population was significantly handicapped in any effort toward independence. Indeed, any movement toward proportionate representation within the administration or policies that reflected the will of the majority was seen by the British government as an abdication of its commitment to the project of building a Jewish national home in Palestine. The tension between the self-determination promised by the League of Nations and the Mandate’s privileging of the national aspirations of a largely foreign minority was a continual source of conflict and dissatisfaction throughout the Mandate period, as was the transformation wrought by the influx of Jewish immigrants and the development of Zionist institutions. While Britain’s other mandates received nominal independence (Iraq in 1932,
From 1918 to 1936, Arabs throughout Palestine have commemorated 2 November, Balfour Day, as a day of mourning, marking it by demonstrations and one-day general strikes (brought to an end by the British suppression of the 1936 revolt). Meanwhile, the Jewish community of Palestine proclaimed 2 November a national holiday, which was celebrated from 1918 to the end of World War II . Given the faltering prospects of the Zionist project in 1917 and the facts on the ground, it is not too much to say that without the Balfour Declaration there would be no Israel.
Huneidi, Sahar. “Was Balfour Policy Reversible? The Colonial Office and Palestine, 1921–23.” Journal of Palestine Studies 27, no.2 (Winter 1998): 23–41.
Jeffries, J. M. N. The Palestine Deception, 1915–1923: The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Jewish National Home, ed. William M. Mathew. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 2014.
Khalidi, Walid. Before Their Diaspora: A Photographic History of the Palestinians, 1876–1948. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1984.
A Survey for Palestine, Vol. I: Prepared in December 1945 and January 1946 for the Information of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry. Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1991.