Arthur James Balfour

One of the most important landmarks of the modern Zionism, and by some people, the beginning of the actual restoration of the Jewish people in their homeland, was a letter written on November 2, 1917, by the then foreign secretary of Britain, Arthur James Balfour, to Baron Walter Rothschild. The letter promised the Jews a “national home” in Palestine, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire but was soon to be ruled under a British mandate. This letter, known as the Balfour Declaration, is the biggest boost for the Zionist movement on the world stage.


Arthur James Balfour, was born on July 1848, at Whittingehame House, East Lothian, Scotland, the eldest son of James Maitland Balfour, Scottish MP (member of parliament), and Lady Blanche Gascoyne-Cecil, a daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Salisbury and a sister to the 3rd Marquess, the future Prime Minister. Balfour was a member of a highly intellectual, wealthy, and aristocratic circle. He was educated at Eton and at Trinity College, Cambridge, and upon leaving Cambridge, he entered Parliament as a Conservative member for Hertford. In 1879, he published a book “Defence of Philosophic Doubt“, in which he endeavored to show that scientific knowledge depends just as much as theology upon an act of faith. In the great Victorian struggle between science and religion, Balfour was on the side of religion. He continued to take a keen interest in scientific and philosophical problems throughout his life.

Between the years 1885-1886, Balfour was president of the Local Government Board in his uncle’s first government. In the second Salisbury ministry (1886–1892), he was secretary for Scotland and then chief secretary for Ireland, with a seat in the cabinet. Known as a formidable parliamentary debater, Balfour became leader of the House of Commons on 1891, and first lord of the treasury, thus being second in command to Lord Salisbury. After Salisbury’s retirement, Balfour served as prime minister from July 12, 1902, to December 4, 1905. He sponsored and secured passage of the Education Act, which reorganized the local administration of elementary and secondary schools. On May 25, 1915, Balfour succeeded Winston Churchill as first lord of the Admiralty. In the political crisis of December 1916, he ceased to support Asquith and turned to David Lloyd George, in whose new coalition he became foreign secretary.

Balfour had met and been impressed by Chaim Weizmann, then the Jewish leader of the Zionist movement, and in 1906 by at least April 1917, he had privately identified himself as a supporter of Zionism. Together with Weizmann and with the full backing of David Lloyd George, who served as prime minister of Britain from 1916 to 1922, they created a declaration of support for a Jewish homeland whose message was unprecedented and revolutionary. It was a highly debated matter, but in the end, the British Parliament endorsed the Balfour Declaration. This single letter backing the Zionist cause was to have enormous consequences for the later establishment of the State of Israel in the Holy Land.

The decision to release the declaration was taken by the British War Cabinet on October 31 1917. This followed discussion at four War Cabinet meetings over the space of the previous two months. The agreed version of the declaration, which contains just 67 words, was sent in a short letter from Balfour to Walter Rothschild, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, on 2 November 1917. It promised to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, with two safeguards with respect to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”, and “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country. The original document is kept at the British Library

Balfour provided the first political recognition of Zionist aims by a great power. His name has lived on in perpetuity in the modern State of Israel. One can see streets named in their honor in Israel’s capital city of Jerusalem and in other cities in the country.