History of IsraelThe Balfour Declaration of 1917

The Balfour Declaration represents the first time a world power—Great Britain—recognized the need for a Jewish homeland and openly supported and legitimized Zionist efforts in an official statement.

The beginnings of the Balfour Declaration, some contend, reach back to France in the year 1894—the year of the Dreyfus Affair. The Dreyfus Affair—in which a young, Jewish officer in the French Army was framed for treason, and only exonerated after a lengthy imprisonment—shocked Jews worldwide. They realized that there was no safe place for the Jewish people, save for a homeland of their own, and prominent Jewish Zionists all over the world were impelled to action. By the time World War I began in 1914, the Zionist movement had gained momentum.

Chaim Weizmann, a scientist and Zionist leader—and later Israel's first president—was a significant proponent of building a Jewish homeland. He was also the Director of the British Admiral Laboratories during WWI. Discussions between Weizmann and then Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour had begun a decade before the war, and Weizmann, together with fellow Zionist leader and British citizen Nahum Sokolow, was instrumental in pushing through the necessary legislation.

In November, 1917, Lord Balfour sent a letter to Baron Rothschild, the leader of Britain's Jewish community, stating Great Britain's commitment to establish a "national homeland for the Jewish people." While it stopped short of declaring Palestine "the" homeland of the Jews, it was the first time Zionist aspirations were realized.

The declaration was accepted by the League of Nations in 1922. With that, Jews in the Holy Land were able to run their own internal affairs and economy, and Jewish cultural life flourished. However, in 1939, Great Britain issued a White Paper, essentially reneging on the original declaration, and stating that a Jewish homeland was no longer a priority. Immigration to Palestine was severely restricted, and because of this, many Jews were unable to flee the persecution taking place in eastern and central Europe.

Despite this, the Balfour Declaration laid a solid foundation for realizing the Zionist dream, becoming the first officially sanctioned step toward what would eventually become the Jewish state.