The Balfour Declaration

It is 100 years since the Balfour Declaration declared the British government's support for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine (Israel). It was dated 2 November 1917 and addressed to the 2nd Baron Rothschild.

Balfour Stamp
Israeli stamp in 1967,
marking 50 years since
the Balfour Declaration

Arthur James Balfour was born in 1848. His father who died age 36 of TB had been an MP from 1841 to 1847 and his mother was the daughter of the Marquess of Salisbury and of strong religious convictions. The eldest son he was educated at Eton and Cambridge but did not excel at school although having a lively mind and does not appear to have been diligent in his studies. As most men need some type of occupation he followed his father and uncle into politics.

He was adopted as the conservative candidate for Hertford in 1873 largely because his politician uncle was Lord Salisbury, and was duly elected in 1874 when Disraeli became was Prime Minister for the second time. He began very quietly and did not give his maiden speech till late 1875 on the topic of the Indian currency, something he knew a lot about, when the chamber was at its quietest. His career continued in the same quiet vein till he became involved in the Nonconformist grievance that burials were carried out by Anglican parsons who would use words and phrases in Anglican churchyards that would not match the beliefs of the deceased and their families. So in 1878 he introduced the Burial Law Amendment Bill. Later on he got involved with religious instruction in primary schools with different school boards realising there were a number of protestant denominations in the country.

Despite not appearing dynamic in the early part of his political life he was Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905. He succeeded his uncle *Lord Salisbury as Prime Minister who favoured him and did much to advance his role in Parliament. But it was not until twelve years later when part of the government during World War 1, that the declaration that Balfour became so widely remembered for, occurred.

Balfour first met the Zionist Chaim Weizmann in 1906 and became very interested in the Zionist cause. He noted the genius in the Jewish race and he is recorded as saying that the Jewish race was 'the most gifted race that mankind has seen since the Greeks of the fifth century'. During the First World War the Foreign Office considered winning over Jewish opinion in Germany, Russia and the U.S.A. In 1916 the Fall of Jerusalem to the British army boosted morale in a public who had been dismayed by the loss of life on the Western front. In this background in June 1917 Balfour asked Weizmann and Lord Rothschild to draft a Zionist declaration to put before the war cabinet. This was done on 4 October. Prime Minister Lloyd George was in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people and did his best to move this endeavour forward. British churches were very aware of the importance of the Old Testament at a time that most Britons were still churchgoers. The main objection also came from the Foreign office who had regard to the reaction of the Arabs. So it was that the Balfour Declaration came about in the form of a letter dated 2 November 1917 to Lord Rothschild:

'His Majesty's (George V) Government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use its 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.'

Carriage pulled by zebrasLord Rothschild (Lionel Walter 1868‑1937) was the 2nd Baron Rothschild. He was from the successful banking family and had a prominent place in the Anglo‑Jewish community and was a friend of Chaim Weizmann. He lived all his life in Tring apart from time studying zoology at Cambridge where his main interest lay after a short time in the family banking business and being MP for Aylesbury (1899‑1910). His Zoological Museum in Tring was opened to the public in 1892 and it was bequeathed to the British Museum at his death. The said museum, much extended is there today. Later on the family had much to do with financing the building of the Knesset in Israel.

The Balfour declaration did nothing to affect the course of the war. As it came to a close Lloyd George was keen to maintain control of Palestine although Balfour is recorded as trying to get the League of Nations to award control to the U.S. Balfour spoke up for the Zionist cause and defended the troubled British mandate in the House of Lords in 1922. In 1925 he visited Palestine (Israel) and was warmly welcomed there which was the polar opposite to the reaction he received in Damascus, Syria on the same trip. He died in 1930 and Chaim Weizmann was one of his final visitors. Rothschild died in 1937. Neither man got to witness World War two and its horrors nor the establishment of the state of Israel 70 years ago. One would be inclined to think that if Balfour had still been in charge of the Foreign office that the British would have voted for the establishment of the state of Israel rather than abstaining. 1967 saw the capture of Jerusalem by the Israeli army.