3 Things People Forget About the Balfour Declaration

What are we to make of the Balfour Declaration today?

The words below have been prayed by Jewish people around the globe quite literally every morning, noon and night, throughout their 2000 year exile:

“Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise the banner to gather our exiles, and gather us from the four corners of the earth. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who gathers the dispersed of Your people Israel.” 

“Return in compassion to your city, Jerusalem, and rest within it as You have said; rebuild it soon in our days as an everlasting building, and speedily set up therein the throne of David. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who rebuilds Jerusalem.”

Wherever they may be in the world, Jewish people traditionally say these blessings as part of their prayers three times a day, facing Jerusalem. Just like Daniel. The people, the Book and the Land are thoroughly intertwined, and the long exile away from Israel has been a matter of grief expressed in Jewish liturgy throughout the generations. Whenever a Jewish couple marry, whenever a Jewish person dies, whenever traditional Jewish blessings are made over meals, the prayers include a longing for Israel and Jerusalem. So just imagine the joy that many felt when the Balfour declaration was made public by the British government in 1917 to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine:

“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.”

Arthur James Balfour, British foreign secretary,
2 November 1917

(To read the full letter, see transcript below)

Now it must be said that although it was the answer to literally billions of prayers (just think of it – three times every day by millions of Jews – for two millennia!) not to mention the fulfillment of prophecies uttered by almost every Biblical prophet, this declaration has caused more than a little consternation. Palestinian leaders are demanding an apology from the British government for giving away what was not theirs to give.

After the passing of a hundred years, most have forgotten that it was not a unilateral act of the UK. There was no UN at that time, or even League of Nations, but in the wake of the Turks finally losing their grip on the countries in the Levant, several nations were allied in agreement that there should be some provision made for the Jewish people within Palestine. 

1) Britain did not act alone, but it was a move endorsed by many nations together.

The aspiration to create a homeland for the Jewish people had the agreement of President Woodrow Wilson since the US had joined the first World War, as well as Italy and Japan who, along with Britain and France, would participate in the San Remo conference and become members of the Council of the League of Nations. Even the Pope had assented, describing return of the Jews to Palestine as “providential; God has willed it.” The Cambon letter Issued in June 1917 clarified full support for the cause from the French government:

“It would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality [nationalité juive] in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago”.

And so the foreign ministers of Britain (Balfour), France (Pichon), the United States (Robert Lansing), Italy (Sidney Sonnino), and Japan (Makino Nabuaki) all had been in agreement with the endeavour. 

“In the era before the United Nations and the League of Nations, there existed no higher international forum than this”, according to Middle East historian, Martin Kramer. [1]

The British government have declined to issue an apology to the Palestinian leadership, saying,

“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG (Her Majesty’s Government) does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace… The Declaration was written in a world of competing imperial powers, in the midst of the First World War and in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire. In that context, establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.” [2]

As the British response states, the British Empire was not the only empire at large at the time. Certainly there are matters in the histories of each of our nations that should cause mortification when we consider the evil that has been done in the past. However, Ottoman Turks were from Turkey, not Palestine. People forget that the Ottoman Empire was a colonialist enterprise too.

2) Palestine was not free, but had been under occupation by the Turkish Empire for 400 years.

It is important to remember that in 1917 the Middle East was not a collection of autonomous nations that were suddenly overrun by the West. The Ottoman Empire was just that – an empire. The Turks had been the colonizers for four centuries, and before them, there had been a series of Muslim and Christian empires dominating the region and to some degree imposing their religions, or restricting the religions of others. There was the Byzantine empire, ruling from Constantinople, followed by an invasion from Arabia which imposed Islam on the region, followed by the Crusaders from Europe, the Mamluks from Egypt, and then the Ottomans from Turkey.

Different Islamic powers had conquered and taken control for 973 years, imposing the “Jizya” tax on non-Muslims and outlawing church bells and construction of synagogues and churches. Jews and Christians living in Palestine had been second class citizens for 80% of the centuries-long Turkish occupation. Equal rights were not given to non-Muslims until 1839, and only in order to appease the Europeans as the Turks struggled to maintain sovereignty in the region.[3] 

Consider: when was the last time that Palestine actually ruled itself? When was it ever free from occupation?

It was free just before the Roman occupation that was in force at the time of Yeshua, after the Israelites had successfully beaten back the Greek occupation in 167 BCE. The Jews had a sizable chunk of self rule then, and hundreds of years of autonomy between the Exodus and the first exile to Babylon. Apart from that, the land has been passed back and forth from pillar to post, from conqueror to conqueror, and the people of the land just had to deal with whatever powers had control at the time.

The allied forces were to some extent attempting to parcel out the lands of the Middle East away from the hands of the Turks and back to the people groups themselves. There is much to say about their method and the measure of success, but Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the UK, declared it “visionary and moral politics of a high order”. Perhaps it is not hard to imagine a higher morality, since the integrity of the allied powers was severely compromised by self interest, but there is some weight to the idea that the intention was to return the lands rather than to take them. Sacks continues,

“It was an anti-imperialist gesture, after centuries of Christian and Muslim imperialism with no autonomous states, they attempted to return Ottoman ruled lands to the tribes that lived in them. Lloyd George was seeking more justice and wanting an end of the days of Empire, to return the lands to their original inhabitants.”[4]

The San Remo conference in April 1920 turned former Ottoman territories into mandates, which would be administered on behalf of the League of Nations. They made Britain “responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said Powers.”

3) Britain soon changed its tune, blocking Jewish immigration just as the Holocaust hit its peak.

Due to national self interest, Britain issued the infamous White Paper of 1939, severely limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine during World War II, and currying favor with the Arab world. Instead of creating a Jewish homeland, Britain instead was working towards an Arab state in which Jewish people could live as a minority. It is important to remember that such a state would continue to be under Islamic rule – not an insignificant fact. Today, the Palestinian people are tragically trapped in yet another occupation, but the prospect of a 51st Muslim state and the disappearance of the only Jewish state causes a great dilemma.

The Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations ruled that this White Paper “was not in accordance with the interpretation which, in agreement with the mandatory power and the Council, the commission had always placed upon the Palestine mandate.” In short, Britain’s refusal to give the Jewish people a national home, or even a haven, was ruled illegal. Sadly, it was too late for millions of Jewish people who perished at the hands of the Nazis. At a time when they most needed a refuge, Britain was turning Jewish people away and denying them access to the land of their forefathers. Ultimately, the British pulled out and Israel declared its independence in 1948 – a state that would welcome all those Hitler would consider Jewish enough to kill.

There have always been Jewish communities living in Palestine throughout the centuries, but when the British pulled out of the region and Israel declared its independence, finally, it could become a safe haven for all Jewish people, not just for the few. They were no longer a minority living at the mercy of others.

As American novelist, Robert Frost, defines it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” This is what the Jewish people have prayed for for centuries, and this is what God has now given them, according to his promises.

“Comfort, comfort my people”, says the Lord. (Isaiah 40:1)


[1] Martin Kramer, The Forgotten Truth about the Balfour Declaration, 5th June 2017, Mosaic Magazine
“In May 1918, the Italian government pledged to Sokolow to help “facilitate the establishment in Palestine of a Jewish national center (centro nazionale ebraico).” In January 1919, Japan informed Weizmann that “the Japanese Government gladly take note of the Zionist aspirations to establish in Palestine a national home for the Jewish people and they look forward with a sympathetic interest to the realization of such desire.” (Similar endorsements came from Siam and China, the other two then-independent states of East Asia.)”
[2] Jewish Telegraphic Agency, British government rejects Palestinian request to apologize for Balfour Declaration, 25th April 2017
[3] Kelvin Crombie, For the Love of Zion, Hodder and Stoughton 2008, p.29
[3] Reflections on Balfour 100 from Rabbi Sacks

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