BICOM Briefing | The Balfour Declaration: origins and impact

The 1917 Balfour Declaration enshrined the British Government’s support for a Jewish national home. Originally taking the form of a letter from British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour to honorary president of the Zionist Federation Lord Rothschild, the Declaration played an important role in Britain’s support for, and the creation of, the State of Israel.

To mark the Centenary of this landmark document, the BICOM research team has produced a briefing explaining the Declaration, outlining its historical context, its legal implications and why the Declaration continues to hold significance 100 years later.

Key Points:

  • Zionism, the name given to the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, emerged in Europe at the end of 19th century and called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel/Palestine. By 1917, when the Balfour Declaration was published, Zionism had cross-party support in Britain as well as government backing in France, America, and other countries, while the pending defeat of the Ottoman Empire – which had controlled that geographic area for the previous four hundred years – provided an opportunity for British politicians to translate their ideological support for Zionism into practice. In that period, the Zionist movement’s call for statehood was but one of many nationalist movements – such as the Arab, Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish – which saw the collapse of empires as an opportunity to achieve self-determination.
  • The Declaration neither signalled the start of a Jewish return to the Land of Israel/Palestine nor mass immigration to it. Jews had enjoyed a continuous presence in the area for centuries before the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 CE, and by the time of the Declaration, approximately 80,000-90,000 Jews already lived in Palestine without the assistance of any external power.
  • Despite opposition among many locals to Jewish immigration, some Middle Eastern leaders welcomed Zionism. As Emir Faisal ibn Husain, leader of the Arab delegation at the Paris Peace Conference wrote, the Arabs “look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement” seeing it as helping their own people’s quest for self-determination.
  • The Declaration itself was not a legal document but the policy it expressed, the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine, became binding in international law following the 1920 San Remo Conference, and the 1922 British Mandate from the League of Nations. As the Mandate drew to a close, the international legitimacy of Jewish statehood was further strengthened  by UN General Assembly Resolution 181 – which recommended partitioning Mandatory Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states – and reinforced by the State of Israel’s acceptance into the family of nations following its 1948 War of Independence.
  • While the Declaration constituted an important component in facilitating Jewish immigration and creating the legal basis for the establishment of the State of Israel, it did not make such a homeland inevitable. In fact, primarily motivated by an attempt to satisfy Arab opposition to Zionism, British White Papers in the 1920s and 1930s severely limited Jewish immigration and threatened the viability of Jewish statehood. Any analysis of Britain’s role in the establishment of Israel should thus include both the Declaration – which encouraged Jewish immigration – and the numerous White Papers which restricted it.
  • Britain’s role in the Middle East in the decades following the First World War was highly significant. But the history of the Declaration, the years of the British Mandate and the establishment of the State of Israel are complex and any assessment of Britain’s role needs to take that into consideration.

The full briefing is available as a PDF below.

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