The full history of the Balfour Declaration

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Edwin Black’s presentation of the Balfour Declaration history, recorded in a recent issue of the Washington Jewish Week, unfortunately stopped short of telling the full story, i.e., how the 1917 Balfour Declaration that expressed the British government’s endorsement of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, if implemented, could have saved many lives and could have helped initiate the State of Israel without the Jews having to fight a war to achieve it. But it never was.

Fifty-one member countries — the entire League of Nations — unanimously declared on July 24, 1922: “Whereas recognition has been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country … .” Great Britain was put in charge of carrying out this Palestinian mandate setting up the Jewish national home in Palestine. Unfortunately, the various British commanders of the Palestinian mandate failed to carry out the Mandate over a 26-year period, ignoring the British government’s Balfour Declaration endorsing a Jewish state in Palestine and ignorning the later League of Nations endorsement of a Jewish state in Palestine.


In 1939, when many European Jews were still able to escape from being sent to Hitler’s concentration camps, the British, who were still in charge of the Palestinian Mandate, issued a White Paper limiting Jewish immigration to 75,000 over a five-year period, again ignoring the Balfour Declaration. Further immigration required Arab approval, essentially ending all hope for a Jewish state.

After the European concentration camp liberations, the new Jewish Bricha (meaning “flight”) organization struggled to get 70,000 Jewish concentration camp survivors from Europe to Palestine. The British, again ignoring their Balfour Declaration, caught most of them and detained them in Cyprus. The most famous incident was how the British brutally handled the 4,500 Holocaust survivor passengers on the ship Exodus 1947 who were trying to get to Palestine, taking them back to Europe. This incident was covered in the popular movie, “Exodus.”

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After Germany was finally defeated there were more than 250,000 Jewish concentration camp survivors. Most preferred to get to the Jewish areas in Palestine. The British again ignored their Balfour Declaration and prevented them from entering Palestine.

In 1947, when the British Mandate over Palestine ended, the United Nations approved the Palestine Partition Plan, defining an area of Palestine to be a Jewish state — the real application of the Balfour Declaration. However, it took the miraculous Jewish defeat of the six well-armed Arab armies in the 1948-49 War of Independence for Jews to have their independent national home for the Jewish people in the area then called Palestine, now called the State of Israel.


This was achieved in spite of continuous British opposition. They never supported implementing their Balfour Declaration calling for a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Ralph Shapiro is a historian and author. He lives in Silver Spring.

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