Balfour Declaration turns 102: The milestone and the man who made it happen

Key milestone in Zionist history paved way for the creation of the Jewish State.

By David Isaac, World Israel News 

The Balfour Declaration turned 102 on Saturday. The document represents an important milestone in Zionist history as it marks the first political recognition of Zionism by a Great Power and led directly to international recognition of Jewish rights to the Land of Israel.

It was named after Lord Arthur James Balfour, then Britain’s foreign secretary. But the man who did more than anyone to bring it about was Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

Weizmann is remembered as the face of world Zionism. Elected president of the World Zionist Organization in 1920, he served in that capacity, with a short break from 1931 to 1935, until 1946. In 1949, he was elected Israel’s first president.

Weizmann did not start out as an establishment figure. At first, he bucked the Zionist establishment. It was his rebelliousness that enabled him to bring about the Balfour Declaration.

He fought against the Zionist establishment’s position that the Zionist movement should take a neutral position in World War I. He urged the Zionists to back Britain in the war.

Weizmann’s efforts on behalf of Zionism began before the war. He called it “reconnoitering work” – meeting important people in informal settings – tea parties, parlor meetings, drawing rooms where he would talk about Zionism.

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Weizmann first met Balfour in January 1906. He wouldn’t meet him again for eight years, but Balfour remembered this early meeting well, telling his niece “It was from that talk with Weizmann that I saw that the Jewish form of patriotism was unique. Their love for their country refused to be satisfied by the Uganda scheme. It was Weizmann’s refusal to even look at it which impressed me.”

Balfour referred to a proposal by Britain to offer the Zionists parts of what are in today’s Kenya for a national home.

It was World War I that sent Weizmann into overdrive, and in the winter of 1914-1915 his lobbying efforts began in earnest. Weizmann recognized that England was Zionism’s best hope. When Turkey entered the war in November, it was clear to Weizmann that the Land of Israel would be among the spoils

Writing to his friend, fellow Zionist Schmarya Levin, he said: “I am convinced that the outcome of this catastrophe will be a British and French victory… I further hope that in that case Palestine will come under English influence and England will understand the Zionists better than anyone else.”

Weizmann was eager to remove any hint of German influence from the Zionist movement. He stopped writing in German and urged his colleagues to do likewise.

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‘A brilliant talker’

Weizmann was persuasive, charming and witty. Described as a “brilliant talker,” he was best in one-on-one conversations or small discreet settings. He made a strong impression on all who met him thanks to a combination of passion, idealism and high intelligence.

Weizmann came to realize that biblical and romantic arguments were more effective with British officials than modern Zionist ones – an acknowledgment of the strong element of evangelical Protestantism in the education of many British leaders.

Balfour, for instance, had been raised in a devout evangelical protestant home. Echoing Jewish tradition, though likely unaware of it, his mother taught him the Bible straight through every year and then started over again with the new year.

Weizmann said, “Those British statesmen of the old school … were genuinely religious. They understood as a reality the concept of the Return. It appealed to their tradition and their faith.”

Through 1917, Weizmann prodded the British to issue a pro-Zionist public statement.

It was not until Nov. 2, after a final discussion in the War Cabinet, that the text of the Balfour Declaration was approved. It took the form of a letter to Lord Rothschild, who had submitted the initial formula on July 18. Ironically, Weizmann’s name appears nowhere in the document though he had done the most to see it through.

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Its main paragraph read: “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.”

Balfour Declaration

Balfour Declaration (GPO)

The Balfour Declaration was a dramatic achievement. It was greeted with elation by Jews the world over.

It would serve as the basis for the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, the final draft of which Balfour submitted to the League of Nations on December 6, 1920. It was ratified on July 24, 1922. The pledge made in the Balfour Declaration took on the force of international law.

Weizmann also played a central role in seeing that process through.