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"A National Home for the Jewish People": The Balfour Declaration Centennial GPO National Photo Collection
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"A National Home for the Jewish People": The Balfour Declaration Centennial

02 November 2017 by Efraim Roseman, GPO


"A National Home for the Jewish People": The Balfour Declaration Centennial

"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."


Birth of the Modern Nation-State

The 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War, established a new political order in Europe, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign states.  It created a basis for national self-determination and the modern nation-state. 

It wasn't really a new concept; examples of nationalist movements can be found throughout history, going back at least to the Jewish revolts of the 1st and 2nd centuries.   The Bar-Kachba revolt of the 2nd century culminated in a crushing defeat by the Romans.  Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina by Emperor Hadrian to further spite the Jews, and the land of Israel was renamed Palestine after one of the Jews' long-gone Biblical adversaries, the Philistines.


19th Century Nationalism

The American and French revolutions paved the way for the next great leap of the modern nation-state.  Napoleon's armies carried the slogan from the Napoleonic Code of "liberty, equality and fraternity" and spread ideas of liberalism and national self-determinism across Europe.

The period from 1776–1912 saw no less than 18 national revolutions, including: Italy, Germany, Hungary, Belgium, Greece, Poland, Romania, Croatia, etc.).  The 20th century began with three European nations realizing their independence: Norway (1905); Bulgaria (1908); and Albania (1912).  The Great War (WWI) itself was ignited by the nationalist assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serb.  The rise of national movements and the formation of independent nation states was an ongoing process leading into the war.


The Jewish National Movement

The 19th century was also a watershed for the emerging Jewish national movement known as Zionism (Mt. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem).  In 1867, Mark Twain described the land which the Zionists so coveted as "a desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds".

In the period between 1880 and 1903, known as the First Aliya ("going up" –to Zion) 35,000 Jewish immigrants arrived and over 50 Jewish communities were established.

In 1897, the First Zionist Congress, establishing the Zionist Organization (ZO) was held in Basel, Switzerland to forward the Jewish People's national aspirations.

During the WWI, five battalions of Jewish volunteers, (aka, The Jewish Legion) fought in the British Army against the Ottoman Empire.



The British defeat the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine

The Ottoman involvement in World War I ended with the partition of the Ottoman Empire under the terms of the Treaty of Sèvres.  The treaty stipulated Turkey's renunciation of all non-Turkish territory, and its cession to Allied administration, thus paving the way for Arab nationalism and the creation of the 20th century nation states in the Middle East.

For the Ottoman territory of Palestine, the war culminated with the Battles for Be'er Sheva, 31 October and Jerusalem in December of 1917.  Following the victory of its forces in Be'er Sheva, British Foreign Minister (and former Prime Minister) Lord Arthur Balfour expressed the United Kingdom's support for a Jewish national home in Palestine in a public letter which promised that his government would “use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

The declaration was the first time that a leading world power- the British Empire no-less - formally recognized the right of the modern Jewish state to exist.