There are two Balfour Declarations. The first came on 2 November 1917 as World War I raged, and it brought about Great Britain’s recognition that a Jewish homeland should be in Palestine. The second Balfour Declaration is lesser known and was the result of the sixth Imperial Conference, a 1926 meeting of prime ministers from six countries in the British Empire. That declaration established autonomy and equality for those countries within the Empire. Both declarations are named for Arthur James Balfour, a long-time statesman in the early 20th century whose career included serving in the British Parliament, a stint as British prime minister and time spent in cabinet positions.
At the time of the first Balfour Declaration, Balfour was a Member of Parliament and foreign secretary in Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s coalition government. Zionists, members of a Jewish political movement that sought a Jewish state in the Middle East, had been lobbying the British government to recognize the need for a Jewish homeland. After discussions in the British cabinet, Balfour sent a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild — an international financier, former Member of Parliament and leader in the Zionist movement — stating that the British government supported a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. Britain was the first world power to make such a declaration, and it became known as the Balfour Declaration.
The Balfour Declaration stated that Great Britain would use its best efforts to achieve the objective of a Jewish homeland. It also said that there were would be no prejudice against non-Jewish people in Palestine. In turn, the rights and political statuses of Jewish people in other countries wouldn’t be prejudiced.
This declaration was delivered before the end of World War I in 1918. The Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty finalized in 1919, broke up the four-century old Ottoman Empire and created mandates for the Middle East to determine which territories the Allies would manage. The Balfour Declaration’s terms were included in the Mandate for Palestine, which gave the British control over that territory. The mandate, approved by the League of Nations, recognized the Jewish people’s historic connection to the region and called on the ruling power in the region, great Britain, to create a Jewish homeland. With the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate for Palestine as their guide, Jewish people began settling in British-controlled Palestine in the 1920s.
Promises, however, had been made to the Arabs for helping the Allies defeat the Turks, who had controlled Palestine. This prompted a subdivision of the Mandate for Palestine. The British put a portion under Arab administration. Essentially, the British created the borders for what became Israel and Jordan. Arabs had opposed the Balfour Declaration's terms and soon clashed with Jews in Palestine, laying the foundation for the violence that has continued in Israel.
The second Balfour Declaration came on 15 November 1926 as a report from a committee that Balfour chaired on relations between countries in the British Empire. Balfour, who was 78 at the time, was no longer foreign secretary but Lord President of the Council — still a top post in the British cabinet. The committee included the prime ministers of Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the Irish Free State. India wasn’t included in the report because its position in the British Empire already had been established in the 1919 Government of India Act, which allowed the participation of Indians in governing their country.
This inter-imperial relations committee had been charged with creating a constitution for the entire British Empire. The committee, however, decided that such an endeavor made little sense because of the empire’s far-flung nature, different histories and varied cultures. Balfour’s report established equality between the countries and with Great Britain. Countries in the empire began recommending the Governor Generals, which were the de facto heads-of-state for each country under the British Crown, instead of the British government making the recommendation.
Balfour played a key role in recognizing the need for a Jewish homeland, which eventually led to Israel becoming a country. Israel and the Jewish people celebrate Balfour Day on the anniversary of the first Balfour Declaration. There is no celebration for the second Balfour Declaration, which created the framework for British Empire countries eventually becoming independent.