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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Despite the opposition of Zionist leaders, Vladimir Jabotinsky, Joseph Trumpeldor, and Pinhas Ruttenberg began to agitate for the establishment of a Jewish Legion to fight on the side of the Allies. At first the British authorities expressed reservation with regard to the entire project, but at the beginning of 1915 they agreed to set up the Zion Mule Corps, drawn particularly from the Palestinian refugees in Egyptian camps. This unit was deployed in service tasks (supplying food and ammunition) under the arduous conditions of the Gallipoli Campaign. In the summer of 1917, the 38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers was established, mainly composed of Jews from London's East End and, after undergoing training, was sent to Palestine and participated in battles there in the following summer. Ruttenberg went to the United States, where, with the aid of David Ben Gurion and Ithak Ben-Zvi, he conducted propaganda to promote volunteering in Jewish units. The volunteer movement encompassed thousands of young men and by the summer of 1918, some 4,000 had arrived in England. They composed the 39th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers, only part of which arrived in time to take part in the fighting in Palestine.

The change of government in Britain and the worsening military situation induced the British authorities to respond more strongly to Zionist demands. The Allies hoped that, through a declaration recognizing the justice of Zionist aspirations, they would influence Jewish public opinion in the United States to aid them in their efforts to persuade the United States to join the war effort. Furthermore, it became known that the German authorities were also contemplating the possibility of publishing a declaration expressing sympathy for Zionist aspirations. For all of these reasons, contact was established at the end of January 1917 between the Zionists and the British Foreign Office in order to define political objectives after the war. At the same time, Sokolow was contemplating negotiations with the French government, and even receiving considerable concessions.

[Meanwhile] in the British Foreign Office and among the military there were those who hoped, with the aid of the Zionists, to include the whole of Palestine within the British sphere of control, in contrast to the secret British-French Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916, which divided the spheres of influence of the Allies in this area.

In July the Zionists submitted to the British government the draft text of a proposed political declaration, in which Britain would agree with "the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish People" and the British government "will use its best endeavors to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization." The opponents of Zionism, both Jewish and non-Jewish, violently objected to this declaration, and eventually, the British government approved a much more guarded wording. In a letter that British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent to Lord Rothschild [Lionel Walter Rothschild, the honorary president of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland at the time] on 2 November 1917, which was to be conveyed to the British Zionist Federation, he stated that the British government "views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and would use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object." Despite the moderate and careful working, the Balfour Declaration was the first political triumph of the Zionists and the culmination of Jewish independent political activity until that time.

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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.