Today is the 100th anniversary of Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which proclaimed its support for a Jewish state in Palestine (1917). The declaration took the form of a brief letter from foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent British Zionist. Balfour wrote a “declaration of sympathy” with the Zionist cause, adding: “His Majesty’s Government views 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.” The British government believed the cause was just; they also hoped to gain Jewish support for the Allies in World War I.
Arab leaders felt betrayed by the Balfour Declaration, since they had supported the Allies against Turkey in World War I and had been guaranteed complete autonomy in the region in return. The declaration’s vague wording also made it unclear what exactly Britain was offering to do. The government later clarified that the intent of the declaration was to support a “homeland” for Jews, where they would live side by side with the indigenous Palestinians. They did not intend to advocate for a formal Jewish state. After the declaration, Jews migrated to Palestine in large numbers, and the Jewish population grew from 50,000 in 1917 to 600,000 in 1947. The state of Israel was established in 1948.
Earlier this year, the British government acknowledged that the Balfour Declaration should have explicitly protected the political rights of indigenous Palestinians, as well as their civil and religious rights.