The Balfour Declaration, 2 November 1917   Leave a comment

My father was born on 14 November 1914 and named ‘Arthur James’ after Arthur James Balfour, who had been Prime Minister from 1902-1905. Following his resignation, Balfour was out of office and, after the Liberal ‘landslide’ election of 1905, temporarily out of Parliament. However, he was returned in a safe London seat the following year and continued to lead the Conservative and Unionist Party in opposition until 1911, when he resigned, exhausted by the Constitutional Crisis which led to the reform of the House of Lords. During the parliamentary debates and two general elections on the issue, the Lords had been described as Mr Balfour’s poodle.

I’m not sure why my grandparents chose to name their son after him (I never met them), other than that they were working-class Tories from the Black Country, who may, like many others in the region, have supported Joseph Chamberlain’s Protectionist policies. Balfour is thought to have formulated the basis for the evolutionary argument against naturalism. He was also a member of the Society for Psychical Research, a society studying psychic and paranormal phenomena, and in 1914, he delivered the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, which formed the basis for the book Theism and Humanism (1915). Churchill compared Balfour to H. H. Asquith:

The difference between Balfour and Asquith is that Arthur is wicked and moral, while Asquith is good and immoral.

Margot Asquith, writing in her memoirs in 1933, claimed that he had an inveterate distaste for wit levelled at the expense of  religion. However, another contemporary described him as…

…little less resentful of the confident denier than he was contemptuous of the fanatical believer… For a man to be a power of the first magnitude in politics, as in religion, it is not enough that he should possess a creed; the creed must possess him. Mr Balfour possessed much, but was possessed by nothing; and his one constant positive feeling was a cold dislike of enthusiasm… 

Balfour returned to office in Asquith’s coalition government of May 1915, as First Lord of the Admiralty, replacing Churchill, and was appointed Foreign Secretary by Lloyd George in December 1916, though the Prime Minister kept him out of the ‘inner war cabinet’. Balfour’s service as Foreign Secretary was notable for the Balfour Mission, a crucial alliance building visit to the US in April 1917, and the Balfour Declaration of 1917, a letter to Lord Rothschild affirming the government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire.

Balfour, who had known Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann (1877-1952) since 1906, had opposed Russian mistreatment of Jews and had increasingly supported Zionism as a program for European Jews to settle in Palestine. However, in 1905 he also supported stringent anti-immigration legislation, meant primarily to prevent Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe from entering Britain. Weizmann was Balfour’s last visitor, as a lifelong friend, shortly before his death in 1930.

British policy during the war years became gradually committed to the idea of the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. After discussions on cabinet level and consultation with Jewish leaders, the decision was made known in the form of a letter by Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, written from the Foreign Office on 2nd 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.

Yours sincerely,

ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR

During the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, Emir Faisal (1855-1933), the son of Hussein, the Sherif of Mecca, met various Jewish leaders and signed an agreement with Chaim Weizmann in London on 3 January, 1919. Feisal, who in 1923 became King of Iraq, had it announced ten years later that His Majesty does not remember having written anything of that kind with his knowledge. Article III of the agreement between the two men states:

In the establishment of the Constitution and Administration of Palestine all such measures shall be adopted as will afford the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British Government’s Declaration of 2nd of November, 1917.

Faisal had added a ‘reservation’ to the agreement, referring to a document sent to Balfour, still Foreign Secretary at that point, which stated…

If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of January 4th addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement. 

However, there was no suggestion in this that he would later seek to deny knowledge of the agreement as a whole. Indeed, exactly two months after signing the agreement, he wrote to a delegation of ‘American Zionists’ confirming its context:

We feel that the Arabs and the Jews are cousins in race, having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first towards the attainment of their national ideals together… 

With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations … We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria (Palestine) for us both. Indeed, I think that neither can be a real success without the other.

I have written and posted elsewhere on this site about what happened between 1919 and 1936 to destroy these cordial relations. However, there is little evidence to suggest that the future conflict between the Arabs and Israel was at all endemic in the Balfour Declaration. In fact, the opposite would appear to be the case.

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