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Balfour Declaration, 1917

The Balfour Declaration was a a letter of November 2 1917 from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation. It stated the position agreed at a British Cabinet meeting on October 31, 1917, that Great Britain supported Zionist plans for a Jewish national home in Palestine, though nothing should be done which might prejudice the rights of existing communities there.

At the time, the Ottoman Empire still had most of the area of Palestine under its control, and the borders of what would become Palestine had been outlined as part of the 16 May 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France. In exchange for the commitment in the declaration, the Jewish community would seek to encourage the United States to join World War I. That wasn't the sole reason, for there had long been considerable support in Britain for the idea of a jewish homeland, but the timing was influenced by the possibility.

Wording from the Declaration was later incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with Turkey and the Mandate for Palestine.

The declaration read as follows:

Foreign Office
November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"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."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,
Arthur James Balfour

The record of discussions that led up to the final text of the Balfour Declaration clarifies some details of its wording. The phrase "national home" was intentionally used instead of "state", and the British devoted some effort over the following decades to denying that a state was the intention, including the Churchill White Paper, 1922. However, in private, many British officials agreed with the interpretation of the Zionists that a state would be the eventual outcome.

An early draft used the word that in referring to Palestine as a jewish homeland, which was changed to in Palestine to avoid committing to it being the whole of Palestine. Similarly, an early draft did not include the commitment to not prejudicing the rights of the non-jewish communities. These changes came about partly as the result of the urgings of Edwin Montagu, an influential anti-Zionist Jew and Secretary of State for India, who, among others, was concerned that the declaration without those changes could result in increased anti-semitic persecution.

Like the preceding Sykes-Picot Agreement, the declaration is viewed by many Arabs as a gross betrayal of Britain's undertakings to support Arab independence in the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence of 1915-1916.

One of the main Jewish personalities who negotiated the granting of the declaration was Dr. Chaim Weizmann, the leading spokesman for organized Zionism in Great Britain. During meetings in 1906 between Chaim Weizmann and Balfour, the Unionist leader was impressed by Weizman's personality. Balfour asked Weizmann why Palestine - and Palestine alone - could be the basis for Zionism. "Anything else would be idolatry", Weizmann protested, adding: "Mr. Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?" "But Dr. Weizmann", Balfour retorted, "we have London", to which Weizmann rejoined "That is true, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh".

Weizmann was a chemist who managed to synthesize acetone via fermentation. Acetone is needed in the production of cordite, a propellant needed to lob artillery shells. Germany had a corner on a key acetone ingredient, calcium acetate. Without calcium acetate, Britain could not produce acetone and without acetone there would be no cordite. Without cordite, then Britain may have lost the Great War. When asked what payment Weizmann would like, Weizmann responded, "There is only one thing I want. A national home for my people". He received both payment for the chemical work and a role in the history of the origins of the state of Israel.

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