On November 2, 1917, as Britain was poised to defeat the Turkish regime that controlled Palestine, the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, issued an official statement recognizing the right of the Jewish people to a national home in the land of Israel. The rare document seen here, on display to the public for the first time, was the basis for the text that has gone down in history as the Balfour Declaration. It is fitting that this document, which helped lay the groundwork for such a pivotal moment, be unveiled in an exhibition devoted to a man who saw his life's work as a crucial component of the Zionist enterprise.

The Balfour Declaration was the outcome of prolonged negotiations involving Anglo-Jewish notables and Zionist activists, led by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, who was acquainted with the Foreign Secretary. Lord Balfour had asked Weizmann to formulate a proposal expressing the sentiments of the Zionist Organization.

 

A committee that included Weizmann and other Zionist leaders considered the question and, on July 17, 1917, convened in the Imperial Hotel in London and agreed on a draft proposal: "H[is] M[ajesty's] G[overnment] accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the Nat[ional] Home of the J[ewish] P[eople]. HMG will use its best efforts to secure the achievement of this object, and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Z[ionist] O[rganization]."

On November 2, two weeks after British forces entered Palestine, Lord Balfour issued the hoped-for declaration in the form of a letter addressed to Lord Rothschild, the unofficial leader of Anglo-Jewry. The July 17 draft proposal formed the basis of Balfour's text, with some revision and a significant addition: "His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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." The Balfour Declaration laid the legal foundation for intensive Zionist activity and widespread Jewish immigration.

Boris Schatz, in Turkish custody in Damascus in the winter of 1917, later recalled: "Suddenly the sun broke through the black clouds: Jerusalem liberated! The Balfour Declaration! The Return to Zion had begun! It is as though we were in a dream; and then I heard a voice, a great voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way, make straight a road." Students at the Bezalel School crafted gifts for Lord Balfour; Schatz himself, inspired by the news, returned to the book he was writing with renewed vigor. In 1918 he completed his novella Jerusalem Rebuilt, a utopian vision of the land of Israel in the year 2018.

 


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