A deed done: the Balfour Declaration

A deed done: the Balfour Declaration 

Today is a Centenary connected with the Balfour Declaration, a document which with hindsight unleashed terrible things on the world with devastating ramifications still occurring. A deed done, with many good intentions behind it, but not well done. The Declaration is usually dated from around 9 November 1917. What is perhaps less well-known is that it started with a letter sent a week earlier. A facsimile is shown here, courtesy of the British Library.

This letter is dated 2 November 1917 and is from Arthur Balfour at the Foreign Office. It was written to Walter Rothschild, who had fairly recently inherited his title from his father Nathan, someone who with other male members of the family pops up in the 1880s and 90s with significance in WWW archive materials. Nathan had drawn a distance from the nationalist aspirations of Zionists in Britain and elsewhere. Not so Walter, who when the letter was written was chairman of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland (with only a very small percentage of Jewish people in Britain being members of it). The actual Declaration was not released and reported on in the press until 9 November 1917.

As can be seen, this is a hybridic document, to use Bakhtin‘s term, for the Declaration is encapsulated, indented and in quotation marks, within the frame of Balfour’s letter to Rothschild. Its wording is largely that put on record by Leo Amory in trying to find a workable solution to the Zionist/Palestinian issue. A key phrase for Amory before him and then Balfour as Foreign Secretary when he wrote his letter was “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which would prejudice the civil and religious rights of any non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

All the signs are that this was meant, that it shouldn’t prejudice the rights of other communities, but also it was wooly, aspirational and lacked the teeth of enforcement. The term that has had the clout is ‘a national home’. It is also notable that this advance sight of the Declaration was sent in a letter from a very senior British politician to the leader of the main British Zionist organisation, the exceptionally well-heeled and well-connected Lord Rothschild. On a scale of 1 to 100, the possibility of Palestinian leaders receiving a similar advance letter seems about zero.

Last updated: 2 November 2017