One hundred years ago the British Government issued a document which would change the face of Middle East politics for ever. On 2 November 1917 the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour wrote to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Jewish community in Britain and announced to the world that “his majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

Britain was at the zenith of its imperial power, had interests and responsibilities in every corner of the globe and had no particular relationship with the Jews in the land. Why then did the British government complicate its international agenda by undertaking such a difficult, sensitive task?

The Mind of Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Grants Jews Religious and Social Freedom 1806

We find that the matter of Israel’s restoration predated Britain’s announcement by many decades. When Napoleon Bonaparte was grappling with his 50,000 soldiers in the barren sands of Palestine, it came into his heart to make a universal call to Jews to return to the land promised to their fathers. The year was 1798 and he saw opportunity for the original habitants of the Land to return to Palestine and build their state under the protection of his own army – “the greatest army of the world” as he described it.

This intention however, never progressed, but it shows that the concept of a Jewish homeland had been around for 120 years before Lord Balfour. Russia, too, in the 1880s had interest in Palestine and all its special holy sites: hence Russian real estate in Israel to this day. And the German Kaiser put on a grand display in his 1898 visit with red carpet treatment from his Turkish hosts.

All the five great powers were interested in the Holy Land. Almost totally neglected for 1800 years there was an awakening interest in the Land of Promise, mostly for strategic purposes, as the significance of the Middle East was resonating throughout the corridors of power. But God had long ago made His choice.

The Statement of Brother Thomas in 1848

On Page 442 of Elpis Israel we find the following remarkable words:

“I know not whether the men, who at present contrive the foreign policy of Britain, entertain the idea of assuming the sovereignty of the Holy Land, and of promoting its colonization by the Jews: their present intentions, however, are of no importance one way or the other, because they will be compelled, by events soon to happen, to do what under existing circumstances, heaven and earth combined could not move them to attempt. The present decisions of “statesmen” are destitute of stability. The anger of God has indicated a course to be pursued by Britain which cannot be evaded, and which her counsellors will not only be willing, but eager, to adopt when the crisis comes upon them.”

Based on the prophetic word, Brother Thomas saw Britain as the nation which would promote the colonisation of Palestine even though there was no likelihood in his day of Britain’s aristocracy bothering themselves with a Jewish national revival. It was in AD135 that a decree from the Roman Emperor Hadrian forbad Jews in the Land of Israel and no nation in 1800 years had attempted to re-colonise the land of Palestine with Jews. The present occupants were the Ottoman Turks and they were certainly not favourable to such a cause.

Yet by November 1917 everything fell into place and we ask the question: ‘How did such a turnaround occur?’

Turkey’s Surprise Decision in World War I

When Britain and France declared war against Germany all the other countries of Europe had to decide which side they would support – the western Alliance or Germany? Turkey was expected to fall in with the Allies as Britain and France had given administrative support to Turkey in her struggle to control her empire. For example, England, through her strong military base in Alexandria, ruled Egypt on behalf of the Sultan of Turkey. France played a similar role in the Syria-Iraq area and both Britain and France had earlier given support to Turkey against Russian aggression in the Crimean Peninsula in 1854. So, it was an unexpected shock when in the early stage of World War I the Sultan declared its support for Germany.

Sinking of HMS Irresistible during the failed Dardanelles Campaign

Throughout 1914 the Allies suffered badly at the hands of the German advance through France. Turkey’s betrayal added to these woes and opened up the possibility of threatening British possessions beyond the Suez.

A Smart Solution?

The British War Cabinet was desperate! The idea was proposed that the Allies would make a break through the Dardanelles and aim for Constantinople. The narrow straits could then be opened, Russia could be re-supplied with desperately needed food and weapons and Germany could be threatened from the East. A promise was suggested to Russia that if she cooperated with this plan she would be rewarded with Constantinople; something which had been her obsession for centuries.

These new plans for the Allies were completely revolutionary. Lord Kitchener’s strong voice had been propounding that the War would be won or lost in Western Europe, but it was obvious that progress along the Western Front was stalling with a vast loss of life and no answer in sight. Something new had to be tried.

The Hand of God was working in all this human tangle but the direction was not yet quite obvious. In three significant steps, however, the purpose of the God of Israel became apparent.

1) The Dardanelles Navy Campaign was an attempted naval invasion of Turkey. The plan was simple. Britain ruled the waves; their navy was the undisputed leader in maritime activity and it was considered a straight forward exercise to line up the warships along the mouth of the Dardanelles and blast the Turks into submission. Russia would in turn support the Allies and would gain open access through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles and their beloved Constantinople would return to them after some 400 years.

This invasion was undertaken in early 1915 but it was a complete disaster. The mouth of the Dardanelles was heavily mined, the shoreline fortresses wreaked havoc on the best vessels of the British and French navies, four major warships were sunk and the two greatest navies in the world had to pull out in humiliation.

2) The Gallipoli Campaign (April–November 1915). With the naval campaign in tatters the next plan was to take the Gallipoli peninsula using infantry and capture Constantinople this way. The whole campaign was a bitter embarrassment to the War Cabinet in London and confidence in the Allies’ ability to win the War plummeted.

3) Britain’s occupation of the east side of the Suez Canal. For almost two years the British and ANZAC forces, which had withdrawn from Gallipoli, were kept in Egypt. In 1916 the Turks then made an attempt to attack the British in Egypt and this resulted in Britain making the decision to occupy the eastern side of the Canal to be better able to resist further incursions.

The British army was now in the Holy Land with no option but to go forward.

A New Prime Minister and a New Direction

David Lloyd George became Prime Minister in the last weeks of 1916, replacing Mr Asquith, a leader whose equivocation had led to loss of confidence in him by the Parliament. Lloyd George came into office bursting with energy and ideas. He was a great communicator, in touch with the people and with Parliament. Although only about 51⁄2 feet tall, he brought a new determination to the progress of the War and gave orders to be on the ready to the British army and ANZAC forces in Egypt. He popularised the central idea of removing Turkey from the War by coining the phrase: “ The Turk must go”. With one deft move Britain was about to switch its activities away from the stale frontiers in France and Belgium back to the Middle East.

Despite opposition from his own party he forged ahead with the plan to defeat the Turk. Desperate for a strong companion he surprised everyone by appointing Winston Churchill into his cabinet to ‘cheer him up when surrounded by gloomy faces’.

A New General

The Allies made good progress from the Suez to Gaza enjoying success in a number of significant battles. However, it stalled at Gaza, where the British forces fell short with heavy losses on two occasions.

On 28 June 1917, General Sir Edmund Allenby was appointed as the new Commander. He was strong-willed, determined and battle-experienced and he immediately shifted his working quarters close to the action.

In the last issue of The Lampstand, Brother Darren Tappouras described the thrilling victory won by the Allies as they pushed the Turks out of the Land. On 31 October the full force of the British attack broke out upon the Turks and their German officers; yet by 4:30pm there was little advance! At that point Allenby gave the word for the 800 Australian Light Horsemen to charge from the east and north upon the ancient city of Beersheba.

Taken by surprise, the lines of Turkish infantry were overwhelmed by this galloping, screaming, bayonet waving advance which swept over the trenches and straight into the city just in time to prevent the detonation of the famous water wells of Beersheba.

This charge of the Australian Light Horse was the last and critical factor in the Battle of Beersheba and was so swift and emotional that it is often viewed as the turning point of World War I. We could not doubt that the God of Israel was behind such an encounter, for the Turkish troops were over-awed by the assault and that momentum continued till Jerusalem was taken by 11 December. The confidence of the Turkish forces crumbled before the British army. The whole British Empire celebrated this great reversal of the fortunes of war. When they co-operated with the Jewish settlers and fought for the freedom of the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, then God blessed their cause and the Great War hurried to its conclusion.

And in London …

On the very day that Beersheba was taken by the British Army in the south plains of Israel, a special War Cabinet meeting was in session in London 2,500 miles away. Earl Arthur James Balfour in recent months had been finalising a document proposing British support for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people. Balfour was the Minister of Foreign Affairs (earlier he was Prime Minister from 1902–1904) and he had discussed various amendments with leading British Jews and Zionists who supported the move. In fact, some six months before this their leader, Chaim Weizmann, had sent the first draft of the document to the Foreign Minister.

In a calm and dignified manner Balfour opened the War Cabinet meeting with these well-chosen words: “I gather that everyone has now agreed that, from a purely diplomatic and political point of view, it is desirable that some declaration favourable to the aspirations of the Jewish nationalists should now be made.” He then read out the statement that thereafter would be referred to as the Balfour Declaration.

It was a simple statement with the most significant implications for the British Empire and the world for the next 100 years. Its time had come! The angels had been working and their achievement was now obvious. This hugely contentious declaration was endorsed with scant comment!

Elpis Israel Again

Brother Thomas’ words, based on the ancient prophets and the promise made to the fathers of Israel, affirmed that:

1) It would be England’s role to give support for the new nation.

2) This would be contrary to Great Britain’s desire but that when the time came …

3) “The finger of God has indicated a course to be pursued by Britain which cannot be evaded, and which her counsellors will not only be willing, but eager, to adopt when the crisis comes upon them”.

Let us look at Britain’s key “counsellors” involved in this amazing prophetic event.

There was the Prime Minister, Lloyd George; a dynamic leader whose lowly upbringing was strongly influenced by a biblical education. As a fervent Zionist, his greatest desire was that Britain would end up with Palestine and Mesopotamia as a result of the War. His professional life began as a lawyer and one of his early projects, before he had anything to do with politics, was to draw up a plan for one of his clients (the Zionist Theodor Herzl) called “A Charter for the Jewish Settlement”. He presented it to the Foreign Office in 1903, when Arthur Balfour was Prime Minister, with supporting facts and figures. This was 14 years before the actual Balfour Declaration and he received the reply “that His Majesty’s Government would consider favourably proposals for the creation of a Jewish colony”. This was the first official statement of any government implying national status for the Jewish people for more than 2,000 years.

Also at the Cabinet table was Sir Herbert Samuel who, as his name suggests, was of the Jewish faith. A wealthy, competent and loyal member of the British aristocracy he also was an active and respected Zionist. There was no doubt what he would think of a Jewish homeland.

Then there was Lord Curzon; an extremely influential member of the Government who, whilst asking probing questions, was nevertheless a fervent backer of the Declaration. So too Lord Milner and General Smuts of South Africa – a highly principled and respected man, brought up on strong Bible principles, as a visit to his vast library in Irene makes clear to its visitors.

Winston Churchill was Minister of Munitions at the time and his powerful persuasion towards Zionist goals is widely documented. He much later said to Dwight Eisenhower, President of the US: “I am, of course, a Zionist and have been ever since the Balfour Declaration”.

Remember the words of John Thomas? Every syllable of his statement was powerfully fulfilled. Britain never had a Cabinet like this one! The Most High was ruling in the kingdom of men and how wonderful it was to see His Hand in these events.

1922 And the House of Lords

Only five years later on 21 June 1922, the House of Lords – the House of review – debated Britain’s support for the Mandate over Palestine, so very recently granted by the League of Nations. The motion to abandon the Balfour Declaration was passed by 60 to 29 votes. It was a shattering rebuff to the former enthusiasm of Parliament in 1917.

It fell to Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons, to answer this motion spearheaded by the Lords. Would Great Britain turn its back upon the commitment it made to the Balfour Declaration only five years before, in the peak of the War? His speech was long and powerful, appealing to the very soul of his countrymen and sprinkled with echoes about the hope and justice and benefit of the Zionist cause and the honour to be involved in Israel’s restoration. “A Jewish National Home in Palestine should be internationally guaranteed,” he said, “and formally recognised to rest upon its ancient, historic connection”. The favour of the prophets was in his words and the vote was taken; the Commons supported the Balfour Declaration, 292 votes for; 35 against.

100 Years Later – A Continuing Legacy

Despite recent calls from Palestinians for Britain to “openly apologise to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration”, the British Government has stood firm. On 12 December 2016, in her first speech as Prime Minister to the Conservative Friends of Israel, Mrs May said that the Balfour Declaration had been “one of the most important letters in history” and pledged the government would celebrate next year’s centenary anniversary ‘with pride’.

As recently as 6 September 2017, she said, “I want to take this opportunity to reaffirm my long-standing and total commitment to the security of the Jewish com- munity and I will do everything possible to fight anti-Semitism and all forms of hatred and prejudice in our country.”

Much of this allegiance can be traced back to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.

References for recommended reading:

  • “Anzacs, Empires & Israel’s Restoration” 1798-1948 by Kelvin Crombie c/- PO Babakin WA 6428
  • “A Peace to End All Peace” 1914-1922 by David Fromkin Penguin Books 1989
  • “David Lloyd George, Great Britain” by Alan Sharp Haus Publishing Ltd, 26 Cadogan Court, Draycott Ave, London SW3 3BX
  • “Churchill and the Jews” by Martin Gilbert McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 75 Sherbourne St, Toronto Canada MPA2P9
  • “The Balfour Declaration” by Jonathan Schneer 2010 Random House, New York