On Sunday, Dec. 2, 1917, London’s Royal Opera House was filled to capacity and overflowing into the street. The crowd of both Jews and Christians had come to express their gratitude for a 67-word paragraph that became known as the Balfour Declaration, for its author, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour. With it, Britain formally endorsed a Jewish national homeland in Palestine and pledged to “facilitate” its achievement.
After speeches by clergy, officials and even an Arab representative from Palestine, what had begun solemnly now ended with loud cheers and the audience singing “Hatikvah,” the Zionist anthem and later the national anthem of the realized dream of the Jewish State of Israel.
Though B’nai B’rith adopted a neutral policy toward Zionism at the time, B’nai B’rith members, some passionately committed to the cause for more than a decade, played an indirect role in the events leading up to the writing and acceptance of the Declaration, conveyed in a message from Balfour to Baron Rothschild, a leading member of Britain’s Jewish community. Prominent among them were B’nai B’rith lodges in London and Manchester, initiated in 1910 and 1912, respectively.
B’nai B’rith in England reflected the era’s spirit of democracy, as rapidly occurring social and political changes weakened the control of the titled and landed classes. Those who joined London’s First Lodge of England included prominent businessmen, clergy, academics and journalists (and even a famous 20th century violinist, Mischa Elman) who had various opinions on Zionism. Among those working to give concrete form to the dream of a Jewish homeland were Rabbi Moses Gaster, leader of London’s largest Sephardic congregation; Herbert Bentwich, an eminent barrister who had founded the British Zionist Federation in 1899; Selig Brodetsky, a mathematics professor and future president of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University; and Paul Goodman, secretary at both the First Lodge and at the English Zionist Federation.
Despite differing views of Zionism, London members launched new projects of much benefit to the Jewish community, particularly after the start of the world war in 1914, as Britain faced the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Their lodge provided free legal services and tended to the needs of those interned throughout the country as enemy aliens. Members also safeguarded civic regulations allowing ritual slaughter and Sabbath observance, often in conflict with what the non-Jewish community considered acceptable. The lodge also published pamphlets designed to educate Christians about Jewish history and customs.
The Manchester B’nai B’rith was home to Zionists from Germany and Russia, as well as a contingent of locals devoted to the lodge’s president, their friend and mentor, Chaim Weizmann, a scientist on faculty at the university who would become the first president of Israel. Those assisting in his efforts included Nahum Sokolow, a Russian-born journalist and diplomat, and Israel Sieff, a financial mainstay and publisher of the magazine Palestine, a partner in his family’s chain of retail stores, Marks and Spencer.
Weizmann intended to garner support for Zionism from the inside, through his affiliation with a respected philanthropic organization like B’nai B’rith. Working for the Ministry of Munitions in 1914, Weizmann conducted experiments that led to streamlining the manufacture of explosives. His achievements won him entrée to high government offices, where, employing his considerable diplomatic skills, he convinced officials of the benefits of creating a home for the Jews in Palestine, after the Allies defeated the Turks, who ruled over it. Agreeing with Weizmann was David Lloyd George, England’s prime minster after December 1916. A devout Christian who believed a Jewish Palestine was biblically ordained, he was also convinced that Jews controlled the world’s finances and had the power to induce Russia and America to support Britain in the war.
First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Arthur Balfour, appointed foreign minister in Lloyd George’s war cabinet, also favored the concept of a Jewish Palestine. In perceiving the Jews as a race, he was motivated by his conviction that “a great nation without a home is not right.”
As the war progressed, Zionism, formerly supported by a small Jewish minority, acquired an increasing number of converts, although many native-born Jews feared that the profession of loyalty to their religion or ethnicity would lead to questioning their patriotism. This faction continued to lobby against Zionism in the halls of Parliament, as Zionists won further ground.
As early as 1915, Jewish leaders, including Weizmann and others at B’nai B’rith, understood the necessity of developing a united position on postwar issues that were most pressing to their co-religionists in Europe. After intense discussions between First Lodge members of differing views, it was resolved that “the formulation of a united communal opinion on the Jewish problem … being eminently desirable, the First Lodge … associate itself with [the Manchester Committee, the men helping Weizmann] … to cooperate with the existing communal organizations [in meetings with] the British government.”
After a series of Zionist talks organized by the Manchester Committee were delivered to the London B’nai B’rith, its members organized the Jewish Emergency Committee, composed of Weizmann, Bentwich, Gaster, Sokolow and Goodman. Goodman’s report on its findings noted both the imperative for equal rights and freedom from persecution and “the demand for the creation of an autonomous Jewish Community which will serve as the centre of the Jewish race.” Submitted to Parliament in B’nai B’rith’s name, “Palestine and the Jews” elicited a number of positive responses, all published in the “Letter from London” column in the B’nai B’rith News.
In 1917, B’nai B’rith and its members significantly affected the complex chain of events culminating in the realization of Weizmann’s efforts. In February, war cabinet administrator Sir Mark Sykes arranged a meeting of British officials and Zionist leaders, including Weizmann, Bentwich and Sokolow, at the home of Rabbi Gaster. During the spring, Sokolow, in his capacity as a diplomat, engaged in discussions with both the Vatican and France, and his successful negotiations resulted in the approval of each government in allowing Britain to control Palestine exclusively. In diplomatic discussions with the Allies, resulting in the relinquishing of their right to control Palestine, he had also been tasked with producing a lengthy and detailed plan for Palestine’s governance, with contributions added by Weizmann, publisher Sieff and others.
As a Zionist victory seemed secure, opponents launched one final, controversial volley. The Board of Deputies of British Jews, the community’s largest and most established philanthropy run by the country’s most affluent Jewish citizens, had collaborated with a small, privately funded educational society, the Anglo-Jewish Association, to organize what was known as “The Conjoint Foreign Committee.” In the name of the Board, and officially speaking for the whole of Britain’s Jews, the “Conjoint” published what some in the community saw as an anti-Zionist manifesto, “Palestine and Zionism—Views of Anglo-Jewry” in the London Times on May 24. Leaders on both sides quickly rejected as unfair its conclusions that all “Jews [are] … only unified by a religious system … had no separate national aspirations” and dispelled the prediction that “The establishment of a country for the Jews would condemn those who did not immigrate ‘as strangers in their native lands.’”
B’nai B’rith was represented at the Board. After an emergency meeting on May 25, it was the opinion of First Lodge members that the autocratic “manner rather than the matter of the manifesto … the way in which the Conjoint … acted …” was at issue. Days later, B’nai B’rith, joined by other organizations, registered its objections at the Board. For Paul Goodman, “the action of the Lodge in rallying against the Official Statement proved decisive,” resulting in the Board’s resolution of censure against the Conjoint, passed on June 17 by a vote of 56 to 51. The resignations of several Conjoint members were followed by those of the Board’s officers, ending what Goodman described as “the ancient regime” and imposition of its conservative agenda. Ties between the Board and the Anglo-Jewish Association would be severed.
On July 18, Jewish community leader Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild submitted his version of the document that condensed the essential message of Sokolow’s earlier report. It was reviewed by Balfour, who adopted its wording: “His Majesty’s government accepts the principle that Palestine shall be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people and will use their best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will be ready to consider any suggestions on the subject which the Zionist Organization may desire to lay before them.”
In October, Sir Alfred Milner and Leo Amery of the War Cabinet again reworded the draft, inserting language that assured the rights of the Jews in any place they inhabited and safeguarded protections of Arabs living in Palestine. Although the British victory in Palestine was still weeks away, the Balfour Declaration in its final form was composed as a letter addressed to Walter Rothschild, the Second Baron Rothschild, and delivered to him on Nov. 2.
“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.”
He also asked that his message be “brought to the knowledge of the Zionist federation.”
As Jews reacted euphorically around the world, Sokolow commented, “It was at once clear that a great moment in the history of the Jewish people had arrived through this Declaration … Great new horizons of free national constructive work are revealed before our eyes. The fate of the Jewish land depends not only on the powerful protection of Governments, but first and foremost on the steadfastness and capacity for sacrifice of the Jewish people itself.”
On Dec. 23, Rabbi Stephen Wise, one of America’s most important Jewish leaders, celebrated the signing of the Declaration as “nothing more than ‘a scrap of paper’ but that scrap is written in English. It is signed by the British government, and therefore is sacred and inviolable.”