On November 2, 1917, Lord Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, that the British government supported the establishment of a Jewish home in the land of Palestine. It became known as the Balfour Declaration:
“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 endeavors 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.
Arthur James Balfour”
The letter became the basis of international law in following years which expanded on the principle of a Jewish homeland.
In April 1920, Great Britain, France, Italy and Japan met in San Remo, Italy to consider what to do with the collapsed Ottoman Empire after its defeat in World War I. On April 24, the powers decided to adopt the key essence of the Balfour Declaration (being in favor of a Jewish homeland) as a basis for the disposition of Palestine. The language of the San Remo Convention expanded on the theme with several additional declarations:
- Historical basis for the Balfour Declaration: “Whereas recognition has thereby been given to the historical connexion of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country;“
- Provide safety for the Jews: “The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home, as laid down in the preamble, and the development of self-governing institutions, and also for safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.” (Article 2)
- Jews to have autonomy (possibly an independent state or something short of it): “The Mandatory shall, so far as circumstances permit, encourage local autonomy.” (Article 3)
- Facilitate Jewish immigration and land ownership: “The Administration of Palestine, while ensuring that the rights and position of other sections of the population are not prejudiced, shall facilitate Jewish immigration under suitable conditions and shall encourage, in co-operation with the Jewish agency referred to in Article 4, close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands and waste lands not required for public purposes.” (Article 6)
- Citizenship. “The Administration of Palestine shall be responsible for enacting a nationality law. There shall be included in this law provisions framed so as to facilitate the acquisition of Palestinian citizenship by Jews who take up their permanent residence in Palestine.” (Article 7)
- Access to Holy Places. “All responsibility in connexion with the Holy Places and religious buildings or sites in Palestine, including that of preserving existing rights and of securing free access to the Holy Places, religious buildings and sites and the free exercise of worship, while ensuring the requirements of public order and decorum, is assumed by the Mandatory, who shall be responsible solely to the League of Nations in all matters connected herewith, provided that nothing in this article shall prevent the Mandatory from entering into such arrangements as he may deem reasonable with the Administration for the purpose of carrying the provisions of this article into effect; and provided also that nothing in this Mandate shall be construed as conferring upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Moslem sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed.” (Article 13) “A special Commission shall be appointed by the Mandatory to study, define and determine the rights and claims in connection with the Holy Places and the rights and claims relating to the different religious communities in Palestine. The method of nomination, the composition and the functions of this Commission shall be submitted to the Council of the League for its approval, and the Commission shall not be appointed or enter upon its functions without the approval of the Council.” (Article 14)
- Freedom to Worship and Live throughout the land: “The Mandatory shall see that complete freedom of conscience and the free exercise of all forms of worship, subject only to the maintenance of public order and morals are ensured to all. No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief.” (Article 15)
- Hebrew an official language. “English, Arabic and Hebrew shall be the official languages of Palestine. Any statement or inscription in Arabic on stamps or money in Palestine shall be repeated in Hebrew and any statement or inscription in Hebrew shall be repeated in Arabic.” (Article 22)
As detailed above, the San Remo Conference took many more exhaustive steps in broadening the rights of Jews to a homeland beyond the simple statement of support in the brief Balfour Declaration.
It would ultimately be the Palestine Mandate of 1922 that would repeat the terms laid out in the San Remo Convention and cement them into international law. The British would assume their role as the administrator for the Mandate in 1924.
On November 2, 2017, Zionists around the world celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration which declared Britain’s approval of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That short letter became the basis for the global powers formally laying out the historical and legal rights of Jews to reconstitute their autonomy and live, worship, own property and have citizenship throughout Palestine.
As they celebrate, they appreciate the emergence of the Jewish State as a leading democracy, military and economic powerhouse, and environmental and technological marvel. Unfortunately they will have to also acknowledge that much of the world refuses to recognize Jewish history in the land, thinks that Israel should be limited in its defenses against hostile forces, believes Jews should not have rights to worship at their holiest location, and not be allowed to live and own land throughout Judea and Samaria.
Still much to do 100 years on.
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