These undertakings to the Zionist Organization were made known in a declaration issued by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Arthur James Balfour, (whose name it has borne since):
2 November 1917
"Dear Lord Rothschild,
I have much pleasure in conveying to you on behalf of His Majesty's Government the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations, which has been submitted to and approved by the Cabinet:
'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.'
I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.
Arthur James Balfour".
The PIVOTAL ROLE of the Balfour Declaration in virtually every phase of the Palestinian issue CANNOT be exaggerated. The Declaration, which determined the direction of subsequent developments in Palestine, was incorporated in the Mandate. Its implementation brought Arab opposition and revolt. It caused unending difficulties for the Mandatory in the last stages pitting British, Jews and Arabs against each other. It ultimately led to partition and to the problem as it exists today. Any understanding of the Palestine issue, therefore, requires some examination of this Declaration which can be considered the ROOT of the problem of Palestine.
The Balfour Declaration was the direct outcome of a sustained effort by the Zionist Organization to establish a Jewish State in Palestine.
Moved by anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe, Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, wrote in Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) in 1896:
"The Idea which I have developed in this pamphlet is a very old one: it is the RESTORATION of the Jewish State.
Let the sovereignty be granted us OVER A PORTION [not necessarily in Palestine] of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation, the rest we shall manage for ourselves". 9/
Herzl mentioned Palestine and Argentina but, the following year, the first Zionist Congress held in Basle declared that the goal of Zionism was to "create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine secured by public law". Herzl wrote:
"Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word - which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly - it would be this: at Basle I founded the Jewish State ... If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. Perhaps in 5 years and certainly in 50 everyone will know it." 10/
Following REJECTION by the Ottoman authorities of his ideas, Herzl approached the British, German, Belgian and Italian Governments and such far-flung locations as Cyprus, East Africa and the Congo were considered, but did not materialize. The creation of a Jewish State in Palestine became the avowed aim of Zionism, zealously pressed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann when he came to head the movement.
Since Palestine was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, the Zionist Organization was cautious in declaring its aims, particularly after the young Turk revolution. The term "State" was avoided, "homeland" being used instead.
According to a Herzl associate, Max Nordau:
"I did my best to persuade the claimants of the Jewish State in Palestine that we might find a circumlocution that would express all we meant, but would say it in a way so as to avoid provoking the Turkish rulers of the coveted land. I suggested "Heimstنtte" as a synonym for "State" ... This is the history of the much commented expression. It was equivocal, but we all understood what it meant. To us it signified "Judenstaat" then and it signifies the same now". 11/
In Herzl's words:
"No need to worry [about the phraseology]. The people will read it as 'Jewish State' anyhow". 12/
Leonard Stein, authoritative historian of Zionism, writes:
"If their distrust of Zionism was to be dispelled, there must be no more talk of a Charter or, even worse, of an international guarantee; still less must there be any room for the suspicion that the real purpose of the Zionist movement was to DETACH Palestine from Turkey and turn it into a Jewish State. However reluctant they might be to acknowledge that Herzl's ideas were outmoded, even the 'political' Zionists were forced to recognize that, without abandoning the essence of aspirations the movement must change its tactics". 13/
The words of another eminent Zionist historian, who participated in the drafting of the Declaration, conform to this tactic:
"It has been said and is still being obstinately repeated by anti-Zionists again and again, that Zionism aims at the creation of an independent 'Jewish State'. But this is wholly fallacious. The 'Jewish State' was never part of the Zionist programme". 14/
But the direction was clear - the goal of Zionism from the start was the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine. The RIGHTS of the people of Palestine themselves received NO ATTENTION in these plans.
What the political concept of a Jewish State in Palestine needed to give it reality was to transfer people to Palestine. The religious and spiritual solidarity of the Jews in the Diaspora with the Holy Land had survived over the centuries. Despite the anti-Semitism in Europe, only small groups had emigrated to Palestine to settle in Palestine for purely religious sentiments. They numbered perhaps 50,000 at the end of the nineteenth century, and personified, or symbolized, the Jewish link to Palestine which was, in essence, spiritual.
The Zionists drew on this ancient spiritual potential to build a political movement. A stirring slogan was spread abroad:
"A land without people for a people without land" [Click here to read our response]
ignoring the fact that the Palestinians themselves, well over half a million at the turn of the century, lived in Palestine, that it was their home. The great Zionist humanist, Ahad Ha'am warned against the violation of the rights of the Palestinian people, and his words are well known in the literature of Palestine.
"... Ahad Ha'am warned that the settlers must under no circumstances arouse the wrath of the natives ... 'Yet what do our brethren do in Palestine? Just the very opposite! Serfs they were in the lands of the Diaspora and suddenly they find themselves in unrestricted freedom and this change has awakened in them an inclination to despotism. They treat the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, deprive them of their rights, offend them without cause and even boast of these deeds; and nobody among us opposes this despicable and dangerous inclination ...'
"... The same lack of understanding he found in the boycott of Arab labour proclaimed by Jewish labour ... 'Apart from the political danger, I can't put up with the idea that our brethren are morally capable of behaving in such a way to humans of another people, and unwittingly the thought comes to my mind: if it is so now, what will be our relation to the others if in truth we shall achieve at the end of times power in Eretz Yisrael? And if this be the "Messiah": I do not wish to see his coming.'
"Ahad Ha'am returned to the Arab problem ... in February 1914 ... '[the Zionists] wax angry towards those who remind them that there is still another people in Eretz Yisrael that has been living there and does not intend at all to leave its place. In a future when this illusion will have been torn from their hearts and they will look with open eyes upon the reality as it is, they will certainly understand how important this question is and how great our duty to work for its solution'." 15/
But Ahad Ha'am's plea went unheeded as political Zionism set about to realize its goal of a Jewish State.
Dr. Weizmann's approaches to various Governments led him to conclude that
Zionism's strongest hopes for a Jewish State in Palestine, tentatively destined for internationalization under the Sykes-Picot agreement, lay with Great Britain. Links with British leaders were established, notably with Lloyd George, a future Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, a future Foreign Secretary, Herbert Samuel, a future High Commissioner of Palestine, and Mark Sykes. In 1915, Samuel in a memorandum entitled The Future of Palestine, proposed:
"... the British annexation of Palestine [where] we might plant 3 or 4 million European Jews". 16/
Weizmann describes the links built up with British leaders, commenting in particular that:
"One of our greatest finds was Sir Mark Sykes, Chief Secretary of the War Cabinet ... I cannot say enough regarding the services rendered us by Sykes. It was he who guided our work into more official channels. He belonged to the secretariat of the War Cabinet, which contained, among others, Leopold Amery, Ormsby-Gore and Ronald Storrs. If it had not been for the counsel of men like Sykes we, with our inexperience in delicate diplomatic negotiations, would undoubtedly have committed many dangerous blunders. The need for such counsel will become evident [in] the complications which already, at that time, surrounded the status of the Near East." 17/
Zionist leaders stressed the strategic advantages to Britain of a Jewish State in Palestine. In a letter written in 1914 to a sympathizer, Weizmann said:
"... should Palestine fall within the British sphere of influence, and should Britain encourage a Jewish settlement there, as a British dependency, we could have in 20 to 30 years a million Jews out there - perhaps more; they would ... form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal." 18/
Another Weizmann letter of 1916 reads:
"... The British Cabinet is not only sympathetic toward the Palestinian aspirations of the Jews, but would like to see these aspirations realized ...
"England ... would have in the Jews the best possible friends, who would be the best national interpreters of ideas in the eastern countries and would serve as a bridge between the two civilizations. That again is not a material argument, but certainly it ought to carry great weight with any politician who likes to look 50 years ahead." 19/
Sykes was especially valuable in helping Weizmann and his colleagues, particularly Nahum Sokolow, in trying to persuade France to renounce its residual claims in the internationalized Jerusalem agreed upon in the Sykes-Picot accord. Original French ambitions had embraced all of Syria, including Palestine, to whose internationalization it had agreed only on strong British insistence. Sykes advised that "the Zionists should approach M. Picot and convince the French" 20/ to relinquish their claims and accompanied Sokolow to Paris, reporting progress of the mission to the Foreign Office. Sokolow told Picot that "the Jews had long had in mind the sovereignty of the British Government" 21/ but Picot demurred, pointing to the interests of other Governments.
Stein recounts how the French objections were countered:
"The plan of campaign now began to take shape. Weizmann was to join Sykes in Egypt and go on with him to Palestine when the time was ripe. Sokolow was to see what he could do to create a more favourable atmosphere in Paris, where the Government had been disinclined to take the Zionists seriously and the leading Jews for the most part openly hostile. Sokolow's mission was in the end to take him to Rome as well as Paris, but this was not originally planned or foreseen. An organized effort was to be made to secure the support of the American and Russian Zionists, and, if possible, of their Governments, for what was now to be put forward openly as the Zionist programme - the building up of a Jewish Commonwealth in Palestine under the aegis of Great Britain. Sykes, for his part, was getting ready to break it to Picot that Great Britain meant to insist on some form of British suzerainty in Palestine and that the French would have to reconcile themselves to the relinquishment of their claims". 22/
Eventually the French were persuaded to accept "the development of Jewish colonization in Palestine" 23/ and let Palestine pass into the British sphere of control.
"The time had come, therefore, to take action, to press for a declaration of policy in regard to Palestine on the part of the British Government; and toward the end of January 1917, I submitted to Sir Mark Sykes the memorandum prepared by our committee, and had several preliminary conferences with him ...
"The document was called: 'Outline of Programme for the Jewish Resettlement of Palestine in accordance with the Aspirations of the Zionist movement'. Its first point had to do with national recognition:
"The Jewish population of Palestine (which in the programme shall be taken to mean both present and future Jewish population), shall be officially recognized by the Suzerain Government as the Jewish Nation, and shall enjoy in that country full civic, national and political rights. The Suzerain Government recognizes the desirability and necessity of a Jewish resettlement of Palestine." 24/
Stein describes the initiation of the consultations between the British Government and the Zionist Organization:
"On 2 February 1917 a meeting of representative Zionists in London was attended by Sir Mark Sykes ... ostensibly present in his private capacity, but he occupied an influential position at the Foreign Office, and was playing an important part in shaping British policy in the Middle East. The conference of February 2nd was, in fact, the starting point of a prolonged exchange of views between the Zionist Organization and the British Government ... In July 1917, a formula for a proposed declaration was submitted to the Government by the Zionist representatives. This formula recognized Palestine as 'the national home of the Jewish people' and provided for the establishment of a 'Jewish National Colonising Corporation for the resettlement and economic development of the country'. The Government replied with an alternative draft which formed the basis of ... the Balfour Declaration." 25/
Actually there were six drafts exchanged and discussed between the British Government and the Zionist movement, United States assent also being obtained before the British Foreign Secretary issued the final text of the Declaration in November 1917. The process has been described by more than one authority. 26/ There was no thought of consulting the Palestinians.
The final version of the Declaration received the most careful examination. The Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, is quoted as saying that the Declaration "... was prepared after much consideration, not merely of its policy but of its actual wording". 27/ Jeffries says:
"... The first thing of all to be said of the Balfour Declaration is that it was a pronouncement which was weighed to the last pennyweight before it was issued. There was but sixty-seven words in it, and each of these ... was considered at length before it was passed into the text". 27/
This meticulous drafting process assumes significance precisely because the result of this lengthy and careful drafting was a statement remarkable for the ambiguities it carried. To quote Stein:
"What were the Zionists being promised? The language of the Declaration was studiously vague, and neither on the British nor on the Zionist side was there any disposition, at that time, to probe deeply into its meaning - still less was there any agreed interpretation." 28/
Although the Declaration had fallen short of Zionist hopes, it was considered politic not to press further. Dr. Weizmann writes:
"It is one of the 'ifs' of history whether we should have been intransigent, and stood by our guns. Should we then have obtained a better statement or would the Government have wearied of these internal Jewish divisions and dropped the whole matter? Our judgement was to accept". 29/
Yet the British Government had exercised caution where the original Zionist draft, sent to Balfour by Lord Rothschild, had proposed that "His Majesty's Government accept(s) the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people", 30/ the official statement stated that the Government view(s) with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people". There is a significant difference - it would be a home, not the home, and would be established not reconstituted, the latter term implying a legal right.
The original Zionist draft had proposed that "His Majesty's Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievements of this object, and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization". 30/ The official version stated that the Government "will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object". The formal recognition of the Zionist Organization as an authority, implicit in the Zionist draft, had been dropped. Weizmann was sensitive to these significant changes:
"A comparison of the two texts - the one approved by the Foreign Office and the Prime Minister, and the one adopted on 4 October, after Montagu's attack - shows a painful recession from what the Government itself was prepared to offer. The first declares that "Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people". The second speaks of "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish race". The first adds only that the "Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods with the Zionist Organization"; the second introduced the subject of the "civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities" in such a fashion as to impute possible oppressive intentions to the Jews, and can be interpreted to mean such limitations on our work as completely to cripple it". 31/
One of Weizmann's concerns was over a "safeguard" clause concerning the interests of the Palestinian people. Its wording is remarkable, particularly when the careful drafting of the Declaration's language is recalled. This clause does not mention the Palestinian or Arab people, whether Christian or Muslim, who compromised over 90 per cent of the population of Palestine, and who owned about 97 per cent of its land. Instead, the Declaration refers to them as the "existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine", a formulation which has been likened to calling "the multitude the non-few" or the British people "the non-Continental communities in Great Britain". 32/
Further, at a time when the principle of self-determination was being accorded recognition it was being denied to the people of Palestine. The Declaration's language seeks to prevent actions "which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine", but is singularly silent on their more fundamental political rights.
This is of particular interest because the concept of political rights is present in the very next phrase, providing "... that nothing shall be done which may prejudice ... the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country". This second "safeguard" had not been proposed by the Zionist Organization, and is believed to have been the outcome of Sir Edwin Montagu's apprehensions over the repercussions of the Declaration on Jews who chose to remain in their own countries.
An eminent authority in international law, Professor W. T. Mallison, writes:
"There is no doubt concerning the centrality of the Balfour Declaration in the Zionist-Israel juridical claims. The issue of its accurate juridical interpretation is therefore, one of very substantial importance. In view of these considerations, it is necessary to use the most reliable evidence, the primary public law source materials, for interpretational purposes. Among these sources, the negotiating history of the Declaration including the various negotiating positions, as well as the final official text, are essential". 33/
He then summarizes the negotiating objectives of both the British Government and the Zionist Organization.
"The British Government had two principal political objectives during the period of the negotiations. The first was to win the war, and the second was to maximize the British power position through the ensuing peace settlement ...
"The consistent Zionist objectives before and during the negotiations were to obtain public law authority for their territorial ambitions ...
"The Zionists entered the negotiations with the expectations of obtaining their full territorial demands. These expectations, however, were necessarily limited by two objective factors. The first was that the number of Jews in Palestine during the World War was only a small fraction of the entire population of the country. The second was that the Zionists could not expect anything from the British Government which did not accord with its actual or supposed imperial interests". 34/
Another authority states that the fact that the Declaration was:
"A definite contract between the British Government and Jewry represented by the Zionists is beyond question. In spirit it is a pledge that in return for service to be rendered by Jewry, the British Government would 'use their best endeavours' to secure the execution of a certain definite policy in Palestine". 35/
The Balfour Declaration became a highly controversial document. It disturbed those Jewish circles who were not in favour of the Zionist aim of the creation of a Jewish State (the "internal divisions" referred to by Weizmann). Many Jewish communities of non-Zionist convictions regarded themselves as nationals of their countries, and the concept of a "Jewish national home" created strong conflicts of loyalties, notwithstanding the clause in the Declaration assuring retention of their status in their respective countries.
Foremost among Jewish critics was Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India and the only Jewish member of the British Cabinet. His dissent from the political nature of Zionist aims stemmed from conviction that Judaism was a universal faith, distinct from nationality, and that in the era of the modern nation-State the Jewish people did not constitute a nation. He questioned the credentials of the Zionist Organization to speak for all Jews. In secret memoranda (later made public) he wrote:
"Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom ... I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognized by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the 'national home of the Jewish people'. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mohammedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews, and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mohammedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine ... When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country ...
"I deny that Palestine is today associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mohammedan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history ...
"... When the Jew has a national home, surely it follows that the impetus to deprive us of the rights of British citizenship must be enormously increased. Palestine will become the world's ghetto. Why should the Russian give the Jew equal rights? His national home is Palestine". 36/
This was very much a minority view in the British Government whose policy was summed up by Prime Minister Lloyd George:
"There can be no doubt as to what the [Imperial War] Cabinet then had in their minds. It was not their idea that a Jewish State should be set up immediately by the Peace Treaty without reference to the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants. On the other hand, it was contemplated that, when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth. The notion that Jewish immigration would have to be artificially restricted in order that the Jews should be a permanent minority never entered the head of anyone engaged in framing the policy. That would have been regarded as unjust and as a fraud on the people to whom we were appealing". 37/
The implication is clear - the achievement of a Jewish majority would assure the establishment of a Jewish State. The fundamental question of the rights of the Palestinians themselves did not enter into the picture.
Three features of the Balfour Declaration draw attention.
One is that evidently it was not in accordance with the spirit of the pledges of independence given to the Arabs both before and after it was issued. The second is that the disposition of Palestine was determined in close consultation with a political organization whose declared aim was to settle non-Palestinians in Palestine. Not only did this ignore the interests of the native Palestinians, but it was a deliberate violation of their rights (see section IV). The third is that through the Declaration the British Government made commitments to the Zionist Organization regarding the land of the Palestinians at a moment when it was still formally part of the Ottoman Empire.
One authority writes:
"The most significant and incontrovertible fact is, however, that by itself the Declaration was legally impotent. For Great Britain had no sovereign rights over Palestine, it had no proprietary interest, it had no authority to dispose of the land. The Declaration was merely a statement of British intentions and no more". 38/
Other authorities in international law have also held the Declaration to be legally invalid 39/ but this was not an issue in 1917, when the Balfour Declaration became official British policy for the future of Palestine. The ambiguities and contradictions within the Declaration contributed heavily towards the conflict of goals and expectations that arose between the Palestinian Arabs and the non-Palestinian Jews. The Zionist Organization was to use the assurances for "a national home for the Jewish people" to press its plans for the colonization of Palestine on the basis of the Balfour Declaration and its implementation through the League of Nations Mandates System. The Palestinian people were to resist these efforts, since their fundamental political right to self-determination had been denied, and their land was to become the object of colonization from abroad during the period it was under a League of Nations Mandate.
9/ Laqueur, Walter, The Israel Arab Reader (New York, Bantam Books, 1976), pp. 6-11.
10/ Herzl, Theodor, The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl (New York, Herzl Press and Thomas Yosecoff, 1960), vol. I, p. 343.
11/ Sykes, Christopher, Crossroads to Israel (London, Collins, 1965), p. 24.
12/ Esco Foundation for Palestine, Palestine: A Study of Jewish, Arab and British Policies (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1947), vol. I, p. 41.
13/ Stein, Leonard, The Balfour Declaration (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1961), p. 64.
14/ Sokolow, Nahum, History of Zionism, 1600-1918 (London, Loggmans, Green, 1919), vol. I, p. xxi.
15/ Kohn, Hans, "Ahad Ha'am: Nationalist with a Difference" in Smith, Gary (ed.): Zionism: The Dream and the Reality (New York, Harper and Row, 1974), pp. 31-32.
16/ Weisgal, Meyer (ed.), Chaim Weizmann (New York, Dial Press, 1944), p. 131.
17/ Weizmann, Chaim, Trial and Error (New York, Harper, 1949), p. 149.
18/ Ibid., pp. 177-178.
19/ Ibid., p. 181.
20/ Ibid., p. 374.
21/ Ibid., p. 375.
22/ Ibid., p. 386.
23/ Ibid., p. 416.
24/ Ibid., p. 186.
25/ Stein, Zionism (London, Ernest Benn, 1925), pp. 113-115.
26/ Stein, op. cit., chapters 31, 34 and 35; Jeffries, J. M. N., Palestine: The Reality (London, Longman, 1939), pp. 163-171; and Robert John and Sami Hadawi, op. cit., pp. 75-91.
27/ Jeffries, op. cit., p. 172.
28/ Stein, op. cit., p. 552.
29/ Weizmann, op. cit., pp. 207-208.
30/ Stein, op. cit., p. 470.
31/ Weizmann, op. cit., p. 207.
32/ Jeffries, op. cit., p. 178.
33/ Mallison, W. T., "The Balfour Declaration: An Appraisal in International Law" in Abu Lughod, Ibrahim: The Transformation of Palestine (Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 1971), p. 6.
34/ Ibid., p. 67-69.
35/ Temperley, Harold (ed.), A History of the Peace Conference at Paris, vol. VI (London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1924), p. 173.
36/ British Government, British Public Record Office, Cabinet No. 24/24 (August 1917).
37/ Weizmann, op. cit., p. 212.
38/ Linowitz, Sol M., "The Legal Basis for the State of Israel" American Bar Association Journal, vol. 43, 1957, p. 522.
39/ Cattan, Henry, Palestine and International Law (London, Longman, 1973), Mallison, op. cit.
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