November 2, 2017 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a historic document created by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. Although it was a small document, it would have major consequences on the future of the middle east and eventually lead to the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. It stated:
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.
The Jewish Diaspora and the Beginning of Zionism
The Jewish people have had a long history of exile beginning in 70 AD with the destruction of Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman war. Following the Bar Kokhba Revolt, all Jewish independence was completely lost and Jews were forbidden to live in the capital city, with most fleeing to various regions of Europe and Northern Africa. Persecutions and expulsions continued in many regions including the expulsion from England in 1290 (which was not reversed until 1657) and from Spain in 1492, which forced Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave the region.
In the late nineteenth century, in reaction to hundreds of years of anti-Semitic movements and most recently the Russian pogroms, another movement arose, termed Zionism. Zionism encouraged the Jewish people to strive for independence, national consciousness and the creation of some form of Jewish state. One of the pivotal leaders of this movement was a man by the name of Theodor Herzl, who wrote a book entitled, The Jewish State. In it, Herzl proposed: “Let the sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the reasonable requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves.” It was first published in Vienna in 1896 as Der Judenstaat, and it was the beginning of Herzl’s work in “transform[ing] Zionism from a weak and insignificant movement into a world organization and a political entity that Great Britain was prepared to accept as the authorized representative of the Jewish people” (Encyclopedia Judaica 8:419-20). “Herzl’s book… crystallized the idea of a national home for the Jews… By his work he transformed the Jewish people from a passive community into a positive political force” (PMM 381). It “has remained the single most important manifesto of modern Zionism and is one of the most important books in the history of the Jewish People” (Heymann, Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana—Treasures of Jewish Booklore 46:102-03).
Below is a first American edition of this manifesto, published in New York in 1904, which we currently have in our collection. We also have a collection of his Complete Diaries.
Herzl initiated the founding of the The World Zionist Organization at the First World Zionist Congress, which took place in August 1897 in Basel, Switzerland. He was the organization’s first president and proposed a number of areas for a Jewish homeland, including an area of British East Africa.
Chaim Weizmann and the Push for Palestine
Another Zionist leader named Chaim Weizmann, who would later become president of the World Zionist Organisation, moved from Switzerland to the UK to teach at the University of Manchester. Weizmann was a biochemist who developed the acetone–butanol–ethanol fermentation process, which would later be of great importance for the British military in making a smokeless propellant during World War I.
He soon met Arthur Balfour, who had just resigned as British Prime Minister, but was still head of his party. Balfour’s intentions in helping the Zionist movement were not all together altruistic, but initially came from his desire to limit the wave of immigration into Britain by Jews fleeing the Russian Empire. During their discussions, Weizmann said to Balfour the he believed the “English are to London as Jews are to Jerusalem”, and tried to convince the British that the land of Palestine would be the best home for the Jewish people.
Weizmann then met Baron Edmond de Rothschild in 1914, who was a leading proponent of the Zionist movement and spearheaded the project to build a Hebrew university in Jerusalem. He also met other members of this wealthy and well-connected family, including Walter, who at the time was the head, or Baron, of the British family. It was to this Lord Rothschild, that the letter that is now known as the Balfour Declaration was addressed.
In 1917, when the document was written, the future of the Ottoman Empire was unknown, but likely would be somehow divided between the Allied forces of World War I. The Empire had entered the war in November of 1914 after a secret attack on Russia in the Black Sea. The Empire, which included the present area of Palestine, was on the decline and resources were depleted following the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. The people did not want to enter the conflict, but Enver Pasha, the Ottoman Minister of War, along with a German alliance, created a spark that could not be extinguished.
Weizmann understood that the future map of the Middle East would be determined by World War rivalries, European strategic thinking, and domestic British politics and carried out the negotiations for a Jewish entity. Britain, which was in possession of the Suez Canal, attached great strategic importance to the region of the Middle East. When David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in 1916, he was determined that Palestine should come under British rule, and the Zionists appeared to be a potential ally capable of protecting the British interests. The British also calculated that support of a Jewish entity in Palestine would mobilize America’s influential Jewish community to rally for US intervention in the war. Both Lloyd George and Balfour were Christians who believed the reinstatement of the Jews in their ancient homeland was the proper thing to do.
The Balfour Declaration radically changed the status of the Zionist movement. It promised support from a major world power and gave the Zionists international recognition. Zionism was transformed by the British pledge from a dream into a legitimate and achievable undertaking. Five weeks after the Balfour Declaration, British troops took Jerusalem from the Turks and by the following year all of Palestine had come under British military rule.
The Balfour Declaration has been widely criticized throughout the Arab world as contrary to pledges contained in the another letter called the Husayn-McMahon correspondence. The wording of the document itself, although composed with great care and thoroughness, can have many different interpretations. Unfortunately, it was found to contain two incompatible tasks: establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jews and preservation of the rights of existing non-Jewish communities.
After World War I came to an end, The League of Nations created the official British Mandate for Palestine, which, under its terms, recognized the “historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine,” and called upon the mandatory power to “secure establishment of the Jewish National Home,” and recognized the WZO as “an appropriate Jewish agency” for advice and cooperation to that end. Jewish immigration was to be facilitated, while ensuring that the “rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced.”
Over the years that followed there were a number of large scale waves of Jewish immigration into Palestine or Aliyahs, which in Hebrew means “ascent” or “going up” because the Jewish tradition views traveling to the land of Israel as an ascent. The largest wave (around 250,000) occurred between 1929 and 1939, with the rise of Nazism in Germany. Increasing tensions between the native Palestinians and the Jewish immigrants continued to rise, which led to the “Great Uprising” or the Arab Revolt between 1936 and 1939. The British then had to impose restrictions on immigration, called Aliyah Bet, but despite British efforts to curb the illegal immigration, 110,000 Jews immigrated to Palestine during that period.
On 14 May 1948, the day before the expiration of the British Mandate, the Jews declared independence. Chaim Weizmann became the first President of the new state, serving until his death in 1952. Below is a photo currently in our collection of Weizmann, inscribed by him, “In appreciation of devoted service and leadership in behalf of the United Jewish Appeal May 4, 1949—The First Anniversary of Israel.”
We also have in our inventory a signed limited edition of Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, in which Weizmann describes with intimate knowledge the growth of the movement, its battles and triumphs, its internal conflicts, its personalities, what the Jews have already done in Palestine and their almost Messianic dreams for the future. At the time of publication, it was called “… one of the important historical documents of our time” — Orville Prescott, The New York Times (January 19, 1949). “[Trial and Error] is likely to be read for many years to come as an authoritative exposition of the Zionist movement … records eye-witness accounts of so many crucial events and reflects so many deep insights that it is certain to become of permanent value to the scholar and a delight to the general reader” — Salo Baron, The New York Times (January 23, 1949).
David Ben-Gurion and the Formation of the State of Israel
While Weizmann served as the first President of Israel, it was really David Ben-Gurion who was entrusted with forming the government and being its real leader, serving as the country’s first Prime Minister until 1963. He was the first to sign the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which he had helped to write, and led Israel during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. He has become known as “Israel’s founding father”, and after his death he was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th century.
Below is a photograph of David Ben-Gurion signed and dated in 1959 by him in Hebrew, presented to Max Goldweber in appreciation from The United Jewish Appeal. The UJA-Federation, as it is known today, was created from the 1986 merger of the United Jewish Appeal, established in 1939, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies of New York, a predecessor organization established in 1917. It is the largest local philanthropy in the world. Headquartered in New York City, the organization raises and allocates funds annually to fulfill a mission to “care for people in need, inspire a passion for Jewish life and learning, and strengthen Jewish communities in New York, in Israel, and around the world.”
We also have in our inventory a fairly large number of books relating to Jewish history and the State of Israel. Below are some items of note: The first Jewish translation of the Pentateuch into English, an inscribed first edition of Portraits Etched in Stone: Early Jewish Settlers, 1682-1831, an inscribed first edition of Ariel Sharon’s Warrior, and a signed first edition of Golda Meir’s A Land of My Own.
While to some, the Balfour Declaration was a wonderful historic event, to others, it is considered the “original sin” of the conflict in the Middle East. The disagreements over territories and rights continue to this day and, although new efforts toward peace are always being made, it is a difficult struggle. As we mark the anniversary of this historic event, many around the world are taking an extra moment to more fully understand the history behind the disputes. Of course, our views of history often depend on whose accounts we read. While this short history of the declaration focused on the British and Jewish side of history, we also encourage readers to understand the Palestinian struggle, for it is only when we come to the understanding that we are all humans and share the same DNA that true peace will be made in this world.