Anniversary of the Balfour Declaration

Yesterday, Nov. 2, was the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.  We mentioned this anniversary last year, with a post about the problematic term “Jewish National Home.”

This year we will focus on the uniqeness of the Balfour Declaration.  Throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, many agreements were made between countries concerning borders.  The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, for instance, re-divided Europe (theoretically) between the French and the British.  What made the Balfour Declaration special was the fact that it was not a secret agreement, but rather a document presented in the form of a letter from Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild.  Beyond the diplomatic maneuverings of the British in relation to France, Russia and the dwindling Ottoman Empire, the Balfour Declaration contained a promise to the Jews.

Why did the British choose to so publicly announce that they would work towards the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine?  In Albright, et al, Palestine: A Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies, vol. I, Yale University Press, p. 75, four reasons are given:

  • Some British statesmen felt that the implementation of a Jewish state in Palestine would be the best assurance to a friendly stronghold between the Nile River and the Middle East.
  • During 1916 and 1917, the British were interested in gaining greater support for Allied causes, particularly through the moral support of American Jews, and thus, the United States. They hoped to do this before Germany made such a promise for the same purpose.
  • To counter the negative effects Britain’s allegiance with Czarist Russia had, in the eyes of the Jews.
  • There were altruistic reasons, as well. Britain and the Allied forces were fighting a war based, in part, on the defense of rights for minorities and oppressed people; the Jews were certainly recognized as such.

In an article in the Jerusalem Post yesterday, Ashley Perry writes that another unique characteristic of the Balfour Declaration is that at the time of its writing it was accepted by all world leaders, including King Feisal of Iraq.  It was adopted by the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference in 1920.  Only later, due to Arab opposition, did the Balfour Declaration become so hotly contested and open to different interpretations.

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