The Balfour Declaration remains of interest to the twenty-first century because it became the agreement upon which a Palestinian homeland for European Jewry rested, “solving the Jewish problem.” The Declaration (2 November 1917) also provided safeguards for the religious rights of the existing non-Jewish inhabitants (Arabs) of Palestine, and less assuredly, the rights and political status that Jews were to enjoy in other countries.
This preoccupation with a homeland for the Jews on the part of European ruling elites has been termed Zionism. On the day that the Balfour Declaration was proclaimed, there were 300,000 Jews living in Britain. Only 4,000 of those Jews considered themselves Zionists.
Jews had differing views about a future in their Holy Land. Many were intent upon creating settlements based on cooperative agriculture, the kibbutzim. Part of the Jewish Problem was that Jews had always been city folk, but only a relationship with the soil, it was argued, would give them a nationality.
Creating a homeland for European Jewry would also help consolidate Jewish support for the wartime alliance of Britain, France, and Russia. The Russian war effort was lagging and would soon dissolve in revolution. Jewish support for the war would be all the more important.
There was a big complication to realizing the Zionist goal: Palestine was well-occupied with Arab pastoralists and they would have to be cleared out, hopefully through land purchases. But also Palestine was part of the British Empire in the Near East. The agreement would have to be approved by the British Foreign Office.
British statesmen were making decisions on behalf of Arabs. That might not have been so bad. Except that the Europeans were suspected of maintaining, even attempting to expand their imperial reign in the post-war world at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. They, the British and French, were attempting to ensure a resolution to the Jewish problem in order to give some creditability to the question: “Why are we fighting the Great War at such a huge cost of the lives of young men?” The War was now three years old, and nothing was being decided on the Western Front.
Part of the thrust of European imperialism in the early twentieth century was the construction of railroads throughout their Empires. A railroad that would link the Near East to Europe was under construction. It would provide access to Islam’s holy cities of Mecca and Medina from Damascus. The railroad was particularly important during the Hejaz when thousands of Moslems made a pilgrimage to their holy cities.
Germany and hence its allies, Austro-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers), were concerned about whether the Hejaz Railroad would lead to even greater imperial competition with an advantage to Britain and France.
The Balfour Declaration addressed many of these issues. Arthur James Balfour, then British Foreign Secretary (1916-1919) and a member of the Conservative Party was intent upon including a provision for a national homeland for European Jews but also safeguarding the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jews living in Palestine. And with British support, the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
But another party of Jews considered themselves assimilationists. Palestine was not the only homeland for Jews. Moreover Jews should not be required to settle in Palestine to acquire their rights. Nor to entangle themselves in British and French imperialism.
David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in the Imperial War Cabinet, became totally absorbed in fighting the war on the European fronts and little was heard about “next year in Jerusalem.” The War Cabinet, a coalition Government, promised Turks that their flag would continue to wave over the Holy Land. Whatever that meant!
Imperial objectives that had been incorporated into the Balfour Declaration remained part of the intentions of the British during the Great War. The Brits no longer had the strength they had in 1914, and the Balfour Declaration held the British war efforts together as their Imperial strength ebbed.
It became clear, however, that the homeland for European Jewry was getting in the way of the peace efforts; the Zionists were making the search for a truce more difficult. And that was particularly true once the U.S. got involved in the competition for Jewish Zionist support and the fading interest in Jewish assimilation. And ambitious politicians involved themselves in the struggle between Jewish Zionists and Assimilationists.