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What is the background to the Balfour Declaration?
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Lord Balfour. This man has been described as perhaps the most effective British friend the Jews have ever had. I'm sure you've all heard of the Balfour Declaration, the piece of paper that gave official British recognition of the need for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Well, here is the man behind it. His full name was Arthur James Balfour and he was British Prime Minister in 1902. He wasn't very good at the job and was replaced in 1905, but bounced back when he became foreign secretary during the First World War.
Politically, he had made many friends with influential Jews, such as Theodore Herzl, the first 'Zionist'. His most significant friendship, though, was with Chaim Weizmann, the Jewish chemist and Lenin look-alike. When they met in 1914 Balfour stated that the Jewish question would remain insoluble until either the Jews here (in Britain) became entirely assimilated or there was a normal Jewish community in Palestine. In the meantime Uganda was offered as a possible homeland for the Jews. This was rejected.
Balfour asked Weizmann why Uganda was rejected and why were the Jews so hung up on Palestine? Weitzman responded by asking why the British were hung up on London. Balfour replied that the British currently had London but the Jews did not have Jerusalem. Weizmann replied, "We had Jerusalem when London was a swamp." That was enough to persuade Balfour to begin to argue for Palestine for the Jews.
As the First World War progressed, Weizmann made himself invaluable to the British war effort through his discovery of a process to produce synthetic acetone, a chemical needed to make cordite, a naval explosive. His reward was the Balfour Declaration, contained within a letter to Lord Rothschild, the most prominent Jew of the day. Here is the letter:
The Balfour Declaration
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.
Arthur James Balfour
Lord Balfour had a Christian upbringing and it was his deep familiarity with the Old Testament that motivated his favourable attitude towards the Jews, rather than a particular love for the Jewish people. It mustn’t be forgotten that, as Prime Minister in 1905, he had introduced the Aliens Bill, to limit Jewish immigration to Britain, at a time when they were still being severely persecuted in the east. A decade later he seems to have softened his attitude, saying "The treatment of the race has been a disgrace of Christendom" and viewed the establishment of a Jewish State as a way of making amends. Although he didn't live long enough to witness the eventual birth of the State of Israel, his name is commemorated throughout the land in streets, a forest and a moshav (agricultural community).