The Balfour Declaration, though short in length, was one of the most significant and controversial documents in modern history. Written by Arthur Balfour, then Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, to prominent Jewish figure Lord Walter Rothschild in 1917, the letter stated that Britain would support ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ but at the same time not ‘prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine’. This declaration had long-lasting consequences, resulting in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict which remains a subject of intense debate.
Both of these documents from the Churchill Archive show Churchill engaging with this sensitive issue. The first is a telegram sent on behalf of Winston Churchill to Chaim Weizmann, President of the World Zionist Organization, on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and in the midst of the Second World War. In the telegram, Churchill writes that his thoughts are with Weizmann on the anniversary, and expresses sympathy ‘for your suffering people and for the great cause for which you have fought so bravely’. Churchill’s insistence that his message not be published shows his understanding of the sensitivity of this issue.
In a letter written to his constituency chairman in Dundee, Sir George Ritchie, in 1921, Churchill shows his concerns relating to the situation in Palestine, which was under British administration. He explains that he has been asked to leave Britain to attend a conference ‘on questions connected with our responsibilities in the Middle East’ – implementing the Balfour Declaration as well as agreements made at Versailles. He describes his undertaking as not to ‘build up a costly and vainglorious Middle Eastern Empire’ but to recognise Britain’s ‘responsibilities in regard to the Arabs and the holy places’.
Following the civil war between the Arab and Israeli populations of Palestine, Britain’s mandate came to an end in May 1948; the Israeli Declaration of Independence occurred soon after, resulting in the Arab-Israeli War and the ongoing conflict in the region.