The Balfour Declaration

In 1917, the British government declared its support for the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

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During World War I, when it became clear that the Ottoman Empire (which controlled much of the Middle East, including Palestine) would side with Germany against Great Britain and France, the Allied powers began to plan the fate of the strategically and economically important Middle East. The British were particularly busy strategists, making agreements with three parties regarding the fate of Palestine: the French, the Jews, and the Arabs. The agreement that the British struck with the Jews was called the Balfour Declaration. The following article outlines the circumstances that compelled the Zionists to seek, and Britain to issue, the declaration. It is reprinted with permission from A History of the Jewish People, edited by H.H. Ben-Sasson and published by Dvir Publishing House.

The First World War stunned the World Zionist Organization and confronted it with numerous problems. When it became clear that Russia was allied with the Entente Powers of Britain and France, many Jews anticipated a change in Russia's anti-Jewish policy. But they were harshly disappointed, however, in the first months of the war, when Jews were expelled from the front-line areas, seized as hostages, and even attacked in pogroms. This disappointment only reinforced the belief of many other Jews, particularly in the United States, who from the first had supported the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungary (which were later joined by Turkey). But even these Jews could not disregard the basic fact that one-half of the Jewish people resided in Russia, the most important center of Jewish life, and that the fate of this country could decide the destiny of its Jews.

lord balfourThe Zionist Organization, which was centered in Berlin, endeavored to continue Herzl's tradition and to avoid arousing the hostility of any political factor. It therefore anticipated events and opened a "Chief Bureau" in neutral Copenhagen in order to be able to continue Zionist activity in all countries. But even among Zionist leaders there were those with conflicting political orientation. Some, such as Vladimir Jabotinsky, claimed vehemently that only the defeat of Turkey could save the Jewish community in Palestine from destruction and open up new horizons for the Zionist movement. He therefore called for active participation in the war on the Entente side. Those with pro-German orientation, on the other hand, argued that only Germany, which wielded considerable influence over the Turkish government could ensure the safety of the Yishuv [Jewish settlement in Palestine].

As early as 1915, British Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, had begun to attempt to persuade the British government to safeguard Jewish interests in Palestine, out of the hope that after the war the country would be under British trusteeship. Several prominent British Jews, including Sir Herbert Samuel [later the first British High Commissioner for Palestine], presented memoranda to Cabinet ministers in this spirit. The spokesman for the joint Foreign Committee of British Jewry, Lucien Wolf, who cooperated with British Foreign Office in an effort to draw the sympathies of American Jewry to the Allies, also claimed that a guarantee to the Jews regarding Palestine would aid this issue. The Zionist Chief Bureau in Copenhagen sent two representatives to Britain, Yehiel Tschlenow and Nahum Sokolow, to negotiate with the British government. A memorandum that the Zionists submitted to the British government in October 1916 contained the demand that, after the liberation of Palestine from Turkish rule, the rights of the Jewish people in the country be recognized, free immigration be permitted, and the status of Zionist institutions be legalized

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Historian Shmuel Ettinger was the head of the Dinur Center for Research in Jewish History at Hebrew University until his death in 1998.