Now notorious declaration had muted media response in 1917

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LONDON: “Palestine for the Jews. Official Sympathy,” read a laconic headline on page seven of The Times on Nov. 9, 1917. Five days prior, the then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour had penned a 67-word missive to Lord Walter Rothschild, expressing the British government’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The text of the letter, which was the product of years of careful political choreography between British officials, Zionist leaders and the Jewish community, was published in full in the Nov. 9 issue without additional comment.
News of the Balfour Declaration was muted in the British press for a number of reasons, scholars said, largely because a number of geopolitical crises were unfolding that had a more immediate impact on the British public than a promised homeland for the Jewish people.
Coverage of the Balfour Declaration paled in comparison with the near-daily updates on the military activities in Palestine where British and Ottoman troops were fighting. The same week that Balfour inked his famous letter to Lord Rothschild, Gen. Edmund Allenby was fighting decisive battles around Gaza and the local press was less interested in a future Jewish homeland than in British casualties and the Camel Transport Corps used to carry supplies to allied troops.
“Readers and editors were much more concerned with the conduct of the ongoing war rather than what the peace might look like,” explained James Rodgers, a professor of International Journalism Studies at City University of London.
Moreover, the Russian Revolution broke out the same week the Balfour Declaration was signed, Rodgers notes, further displacing coverage of the letter to the back pages of British broadsheets. Fleet Street spilt much ink analyzing the possible repercussions of the October Revolution, while the Balfour Declaration attracted less attention.
“There was no reason for it to be noticed when so much else was coming down the pike at the time,” agreed James Gelvin, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of California, Los Angeles.
An item about the declaration was squeezed onto page 12 of London’s Pall Mall Gazette, which was later absorbed into the Evening Standard, on Nov. 9, 1917. The paper noted that the declaration “was the main topic of conversation” in London Jewish circles, but that the “problem of a new home” was “difficult.” The difficulty lay not in negotiating coexistence with the local Palestinian population, but rather with what kind of constitution should govern the new homeland.
The lack of prominent media coverage may also be due to the fact that the Jewish population comprised a relatively small proportion of British society at the time, noted scholar Jonathan Schneer, whose book “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” was published in 2011.
“There was a population of around 40-something million in Britain and there were 30,000 Jews. So it was not the biggest story in the world,” Schneer said.
On Nov. 19, The Globe crammed in a cursory bulletin on the subject, saying only that “the question of Palestine as a home for the Jewish people would have to be left until after the war.”
Moreover, the Balfour Declaration was just one of a slew of agreements the British signed at the time hoping to improve their bearings in the ongoing war and position themselves to benefit from post-conflict spoils, Gelvin added. It may have gone underreported because it simply was not clear at the time which of these deals would actually be implemented, and which would be written off as wartime strategy following the armistice, he said.
But on Dec. 3, the Times once again returned to the subject, covering a rally at the London Opera House chaired by Lord Rothschild during which the Jewish community conveyed “to his Majesty’s government an expression of heartfelt gratitude for their declaration.”
The article notes that the Balfour Declaration issued one month prior “acknowledged and approved of the aspirations of the Jewish people for a national home (and) at the same time placed them on their honor to respect… the rights and privileges of their prospective non-Jewish neighbors in Palestine.”
The paper had been pushing for the Balfour Declaration, and its issuance was seen as an editorial success, notes historian James Barr. “The Times had been lobbying for this for quite some time. They were the pro-Zionist newspaper,” Barr explained.
Other publications, however, resorted to stereotypes and tropes in editorial pages to promote the Zionist cause.
A contributor to “The Graphic,” a London weekly, commented in late November 1917 that 40,000 Jewish colonists were already in Palestine “and it is these pioneers who have to defend their possessions from the Arab thief and the Turkish official.” The author, who self-identified as Jewish, notes that Palestine “is capable of supporting 7 million under very favorable climatic conditions and leaving the Bedouin undisturbed.”
Several press clippings highlighted that some of London’s most prominent Jews opposed the Balfour Declaration. The Times notes that among the Jewish community there was “those of their own people who did not see eye-to-eye with the Zionist cause.”
“Zionism was not the dominant trend among the Jewish community at the time, not by a long shot,” Gelvin said. Some prominent Jewish leaders were concerned that Jews in Europe would face pressure to immigrate once the new homeland was established.
In weeks following the declaration, several leading publications ran articles celebrating the Zionist project. A leading rabbi writing for the Pall Mall Gazette cheered the Balfour Declaration as a step that would allow Jews “to be masters in their own house. Palestine is theirs by right of ancient ownership.”
The story became more relevant as British troops defeated Ottoman forces in December 1917 in the Battle of Jerusalem, begging the question of who would administer the Holy City after the war. Articles focusing on Jewish historical claims to the city began to crop up in British dailies.
A piece in the Liverpool Daily Post published in December that year highlighted the wonders to be found in what it called the “ancient Jewish capital” of Jerusalem. “In light of Mr. Balfour’s declaration … a few facts concerning Jerusalem as a Jewish city in modern times are of interest,” the article read.
The Yorkshire Evening Post ran a piece touting “the re-birth of a nation” following the Balfour declaration. Commenting favorably on the “reconstitution of the ancient Jewish state,” the broadsheet said that the move would serve as a “symbol of a commonwealth” between the Middle East and Europe.
Taken as a whole, however, the early media coverage of the Balfour Declaration was limited, edited down for British readers whose focus was largely on the Western Front. “It’s only in retrospect that it becomes important,” said Gelvin.

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