57. The Balfour Declaration

The number of Jews returning to Jerusalem from various parts of the world crossed 40 thousand between 1904 and 1914 and the world witnessed the second wave of the ‘Aliyah’. The relentless efforts of the Zionist Organization founded by Theodore Herzl had indeed culminated in success. During the times of the Holy Temple, the city of Jerusalem, though spread across an area of merely one square kilometer, was encircled by, and so in order to accommodate the newly immigrated Jews, the city was going to have to spread its limbs. Accordingly, the building of residential structures began but outside of the fortifications of course.

Balfour, Declaration, Lord Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, support for Zionism, Jerusalem, Germany
The Second Aliyah

However, the death knell had already sounded for the Ottoman Empire, considered the largest of all until the 19th century. Its boundaries spread from China in the east to Egypt in the west, and covered an extensive area of Europe as well. Having captured numerous regions at different points in time, during their expansionist campaigns, the Ottomans ended up with an empire that was far from homogenous as each of these parts had its own culture and nationalism.

The 19th century saw the zealous surge of nationalism and the sparking of movements for freedom from the Ottoman rule. At the turn of the 20th century these sparks turned into flames which resulted in the crippling of the Ottoman rulers.

In 1912-13, the Balkan states declared war on the Ottoman Empire to set themselves free. The Ottoman army was defeated which resulted in the Ottoman Empire losing their hold over the Balkans. Moreover, it resulted in the straining of the Ottoman exchequer to a great extent.

Balfour, Declaration, Lord Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, support for Zionism, Jerusalem, Germany
Ottoman Balkan War

In addition to this, World War I started in 1914 and the Ottoman Sultan decided to take the plunge in the conflict. However, it proved to be a suicidal decision and was in fact the last nail in the coffin. The sun finally set on the Ottoman Empire.

Having sided with Germany (the Axis Powers) in the world war, the Ottoman Empire naturally found itself pitted against Britain. Though the Ottoman forces recorded victories in some of the initial battles, they gradually fell weak before the disciplined forces and modern weaponry of the Allied Powers.

In the meantime, the year 1916 saw an uprising of the Arab tribes against the Ottoman Sultan. The rebellion, known to history as ‘The Arab Revolt’, aimed at carving out a sovereign Arab state from the Ottoman Empire which would stretch all the way from Syria’s Aleppo in the west to Yemen’s Aden in the east. The Arabs had, since long, been asking for greater autonomy and that Arabic be made the medium of instruction. These demands had all along been turned down and discontent against the Ottoman rulers seethed in the minds of the people. By then, the majority of the Ottoman army was engaged in the World War I on various fronts. Should the Arab leaders engage in revolt for independence against the Ottoman rulers, they would receive support from the British, was a shrewd offer that the British had made to the Arab leaders. Grabbing this offer, considering it to be a golden opportunity that would help achieve their goal, the Arabs did indeed rise in revolt. A large part of the Ottoman army, engaged in crushing the revolt, remained stuck in the Middle East.

Balfour, Declaration, Lord Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, support for Zionism, Jerusalem, Germany
The Arab Revolt

Subsequently, the Ottomans fell short of forces in the world war and finally, in 1918 the Ottoman Empire surrendered before the Allied Powers. The Ottoman territory was split under the treaties signed after the war. The area was divided by the Allied nations among themselves and as per the arrangement, the land of Palestine was handed over to Britain. After having spent about 4 hundred years under the Ottoman rule, the control of Palestine had again changed hands.

The untiring efforts on the part of the members of the Zionist Organization and in particular by Chaim Weizmann (who later became the first President of independent Israel) met with success. The then British Prime Minister, Lloyd George and some of the influential members of his cabinet signaled their acceptance to Zionism. The move was of course, not void of farsighted political motives. France had, through various ways and means, already made an entry into Palestine while Britain keenly awaited an opportunity to do so. The then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, wrote to the leaders of the Jewish community in Britain, pledging support of the British government to the creation of a Jewish state in the land of Palestine, which came to be known as the ‘Balfour Declaration of 1917’.

Balfour, Declaration, Lord Arthur Balfour, British Foreign Secretary, support for Zionism, Jerusalem, Germany
Surrender of Jerusalem to the British by the Ottomans

Though the public statement was quite ambiguous, obscure and left much room for interpretation, the fact remained that this was indeed the first instance of open support to Zionism on the part of a superpower of the world. (It was ambiguous because the term ‘national home for the Jews in Palestine’ did not clarify whether it was to be an independent nation or a British colony; it remained unclear about whether ‘in Palestine’ meant the whole of Palestine or a part of it; not to mention other uncertainties like those about the definition of the boundaries of Palestine, etc.)

Of course, anti-Semitic groups in Britain were active as well. Thus, the latter half of the declaration was drafted to appease such opponents of Zionism. It stated that while creating a ‘national home’ for the Jews in Palestine, care would be taken to safeguard the religious, civil, political and social rights of the local non-Jews.

Yet, the Balfour Declaration played an important part in not just drawing increasing support for Zionism but also in earning recognition for Zionism among the Jewish people.(To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar