What Led to the Balfour Declaration?
The Balfour Declaration was the first time the world's super powers recognised the Jewish people's right to a homeland.
What were the events that ultimately led to this historic first?
The Declaration was officially issued on November 2, 1917. Let's take a look at what happened before then.
In 70 CE, the Jews were exiled from their homeland, the Land of Israel, and dispersed throughout the world. Despite their physical distance from Israel, they always longed to return.
During the two thousand years of living in the diaspora, Jews developed a rich culture and contributed to the countries where they lived. However, Jews were victims of anti-Semitic attacks throughout history and suffered from discrimination. The nineteenth-century rise of nationalism in Europe saw the emergence of the modern concept of the nation-state. Influenced by these nationalist sentiments, anti-Semitism, and the eternal yearning for Zion, Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement. In 1882, the first group of Zionists moved to Israel and began developing the land. This was called the First Aliyah. In the following years, many more immigrants settled in the country, establishing kibbutzim, moshavim, towns, and cities.
Chaim Weizmann, a passionate Zionist and scientist, moved to London in 1904, where he developed relationships with some of society’s most influential people. Weizmann was responsible for discovering acetone which was of great benefit to Britain’s efforts in World War I. Weizmann was very influential in rallying support for Zionism, and he played a large role in creating the Balfour Declaration.
When World War I broke out in July 1914, Israel was ruled by Turkey (the Ottoman Empire), which was allied with Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By this time, the Ottoman Empire was in decline, and Britain, France, and Russia met in secret in 1916 to define their spheres of influence and control after the imminent Ottoman defeat. Their agreement, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, determined that the Land of Israel would be under British rule.
It was generally believed that the Jews had much influence in the political world, and the British, who were allied with France and Russia, thought that by promising the Jews a national homeland, they would gain Jewish support in the war.
In 1917, as a result of this geopolitical situation and of the Zionist movement's activities, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, acknowledging and supporting the dreams of the Jewish people for a homeland in the Land of Israel. The British were not, however, looking to alienate the Arabs, and consequently the language of the Balfour Declaration was phrased vaguely enough to avoid committing to either side.
When speaking about the Balfour Declaration in his documentary Story of the Jews, Simon Schama says: "The word miracle gets horribly overused in Jewish history. For once, it seems like the right word."
At the time the Balfour Declaration was issued, the thought of the Jews having a homeland in Palestine was nothing but a fantasy.
Thirty-one years later, this fantasy became reality with the birth of the State of Israel.
For more information:
The History of Zionism/Moshe Maor, Jewish Virtual Library
Background information about Zionism
For more information about the personalities involved in the Balfour Declaration, as well as historical context
The Balfour Betrayal: How the British Empire Failed Zionism, Eli Kavon, Jpost
For more information about the effects of the Balfour Declaration
Chaim Weizmann and how the Balfour Declaration was made in Manchester, Josh Glancy, The Jewish Chronicle
For more information about Chaim Weizmann
“Zionism and the Balfour Declaration” (excerpt from Steven Schama The Story of the Jews) PBS Learning Media
The following resource about the background to the Balfour Declaration includes a video and suggestions for activities