The Balfour Declaration

A Hundred Years On

A hundred years ago today, while World War I was raging and no one knew which side would win, the British government, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, released a declaration bearing the name of Arthur Balfour, the foreign secretary. This “Balfour Declaration” promised to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” so long as that did not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” there. That short document (its crucial paragraph contains 67 words) laid the foundation of modern Israel—but also sowed dragon’s teeth.

Why did the British government do it? Some historians argue that a few cabinet ministers sympathized with the Jews and wanted to help them. Others point out that Lloyd George and Balfour were Christian Zionists, who wanted to facilitate the gathering of Jews in Palestine, a precondition, they believed, for the Second Coming. Still others note Palestine’s strategic importance: it overlooks Egypt, through which runs the Suez Canal, the United Kingdom’s economic jugular at the time, and the cabinet wanted a grateful and largely European population to provide stability if the British established a protectorate there. Moreover, as yet other historians have noted, Foreign Office mandarins pushed Lloyd George and Balfour to act because they feared that if they did not, Germany would, thereby depriving the United Kingdom of Jewish support.

Each of these arguments is true, and the last one points to the most important reason of all. Lloyd George’s government issued the Balfour Declaration primarily because it thought that doing so would help it win the war. Most of its members believed that “world Jewry” had great subterranean influence—over world finance, for example, and, contradictorily, over world socialism. They thought that American Jewish financiers could persuade U.S. President Woodrow Wilson to bring his country into World War I. They thought that Russian Jewish socialists could persuade Russian Prime Minister Aleksandr Kerensky not to leave it. And they thought

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