The Balfour Declaration was a public statement issued by the British government on November 2, 1917, during World War I. Drafted in the form of a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader in the British Jewish community, the declaration pledged British support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.
Historical Context and Timeframe
- World War I: The declaration was made in the context of World War I, with the British engaged in the fight against the Central Powers, including the Ottoman Empire. The war allowed the Allies to divide Ottoman territories according to their own interests, illustrated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
- Zionism: Zionism, the Jewish nationalist movement, had been growing since the late 19th century. Leaders like Theodor Herzl advocated for a homeland for Jews, preferably in Palestine. The British saw the Zionist movement as an ally against the Central Powers.
- Strategic Interests: The British had strategic interests in controlling Palestine, particularly its proximity to the Suez Canal, a vital route for British imperial interests in Asia and Africa.
Text and Implications
The actual text of the Balfour Declaration was vague and carefully worded, saying nothing about sovereignty or borders. It also stated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” a sentence that has been the subject of much debate.
Jonathan Schneer, in his book “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” points out the inherent contradiction in the document: “While pledging support for Zionist aims in Palestine, it [the Balfour Declaration] had also promised to uphold the civil and religious rights of the territory’s ‘existing non-Jewish communities,’ who made up about 90 percent of the population.”
- British Mandate: Post-WWI, the League of Nations granted Britain the mandate over Palestine in 1920. The Balfour Declaration was incorporated into the text of the mandate, lending it international legal standing.
- Arab Reaction: The Arab population, initially not fully aware of the implications of the declaration, eventually opposed it as Zionist immigration increased. This led to tensions and conflicts that continue to reverberate in the Middle East today.
- State of Israel: The Balfour Declaration is often seen as a stepping stone toward the eventual establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, following the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 181.
The Balfour Declaration remains a subject of deep analysis and contention. Its issuance set in motion a series of events that had far-reaching consequences for the Middle East. It remains a fundamental document that has influenced the region’s complex history, laying the groundwork for a myriad of social, political, and territorial disputes that persist today. Tom Segev, in his book “One Palestine, Complete,” highlights the wide-reaching implications of the declaration, stating, “It is probably the vaguest and yet most significant document relating to Palestine ever published.”