The Mideast: A Century of Conflict
Part 2: The Balfour Declaration and the British Mandate

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Balfour Declaration text closeup
A closeup of the Balfour Declaration text. The 1917 document declared that the British favored a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Photo courtesy World Zionist Organization Hagshama Department

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The Balfour Declaration

Foreign Office
November 2nd, 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

Map of the British Mandate of Palestine
Map of the British Mandate of Palestine.
Source: Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, 7th edition - Sir Martin Gilbert; Publisher: Routledge (Taylor & Francis), 2002; ISBN: 0415281172 (paperback), 0415281164 (hardback); Map: NPR Online

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Oct. 1, 2002 -- In 1917, 20 years after the first Zionist Congress proposed establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, Great Britain declared itself in favor of such a plan.

The Balfour Declaration "was the product of British strategic thinking," says NPR's Mike Shuster -- "and (of) the lobbying of modern Zionism's second great personality, Chaim Weizmann." Shuster reports in the second of Morning Edition's seven-part series on the history of the Middle East conflict.

Weizmann, a Russian Jew, settled in Great Britain before World War I, and became the local representative of the World Zionist Organization, which had set a Jewish homeland in Palestine as its goal in 1897. He managed to make his way into the offices of Great Britain's highest officials, including David Lloyd George, who became prime minister in 1916.

The British quickly warmed to the strategic value of a Zionist enterprise in Palestine, says Howard Sachar, the author of A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time. "People like Lloyd George, people like Arthur James Balfour -- the British foreign secretary -- in the latter phase of the war began to see a number of very important advantages to cultivating a Jewish presence in Palestine, with the unspoken understanding that this Jewish presence would be under a British protectorate," Sachar says.

On Nov. 2, 1917, Britain issued what came to be known as the Balfour Declaration. The letter from Balfour declared the government in favor of establishing "a national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine.

The Zionists were euphoric, Shuster reports. They understood the words "national home" to mean Jewish state.

Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American historian at the University of Chicago, calls the declaration a monumental injustice: "The Balfour Declaration involved a promise by an imperial power to establish a national home for a minority in a country that had a population which was not recognized in that declaration... The existing non-Jewish populations were the 92 percent majority of the country. Their national and political rights were ignored in a declaration which promised national and political rights to the Jewish people."

Britain gained control of Palestine at the end of World War I. And in 1922, the League of Nations gave a mandate to Britain to rule Palestine, envisioning that the territory would eventually be granted independence.

Britain attempted to bridge the political interests of both the Zionist settlers and the indigenous Palestinian Arabs. But violence broke out between the two communities almost from the start. It culminated in the Arab revolt of 1936, which left hundreds of Arabs and Jews dead. Britain proposed partitioning Palestine, an idea the Palestinians rejected and for which the Zionists had little enthusiasm. When World War II broke out, Great Britain was ready to leave Palestine.

Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952)
Chaim Weizmann Born in a poor Jewish village in Russia. Studied chemistry in Germany and Switzerland. Settled in England in 1904, and became the representative of the World Zionist Organization. Played an important role in convincing the British government to issue the Balfour Declaration (1917) in which Great Britain expressed support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Became head of the World Zionist Organization in 1921. Helped to persuade President Harry Truman to support the U.N. proposal to partition Palestine; and in 1949, was elected the first president of Israel.

Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930)
Arthur James Balfour British Conservative Party leader in early part of 20th century. Prime Minister 1902-1905. Foreign Secretary 1916-1919 in wartime cabinet of David Lloyd George. Issued what has come to be known as the Balfour Declaration (Nov. 2, 1917), a letter from him to Baron Rothschild, expressing the support of the British government for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Other Resources

• Read the 1922 League of Nations document making Palestine a mandate of Britain.

• Read the British White Paper of 1939, which traditional historians of Israel see as a repudiation of Zionism and the Balfour Declaration.