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Promises of Independence: The Balfour Declaration

One of the roots of the Arab-Jewish conflict was the contradictory promises the British government made to the Jewish Zionists and the Arab populations of the Ottoman Empire. Both groups believed not only that they were the rightful owners and occupants of Palestine, but also that Britain was sympathetic to and supportive of their respective claims. While the Arab population was able to point to the Hussein-McMahon correspondence and the Churchill White Paper to support their position, Jews similarly had the Balfour Declaration as an indication of Great Britain’s support.

The Balfour Declaration was expressed in November 1917 in a letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, who was a leader in the British Jewish community. In the letter, Balfour explicitly stated the position of the British government that it would support the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, so long as it did not infringe on the rights of any existing populations. As in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence, the statement was ambiguously worded (for instance, using the term “national home” instead of “state”) and sowed the seeds for conflicting interpretations. The Balfour Declaration read:

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 stance of the British government as seen in the Balfour Declaration was a reflection of European anti-Semitism. Jewish people could be expected to leave Europe and move to Israel.

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