Many of history's great documents and speeches, not to mention works of literature, art, and music, were repeatedly modified and refashioned before they were finalised.
So it was that on June 19, 1917, British Government officials led by Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour asked Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild to produce a draft formulation, for British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which the Cabinet could consider.
The Zionists along with sympathetic British officials had already been working on the contours of such a statement. Among those involved were Mark Sykes, Ronald Graham, Nahum Sokolow, Joseph Cowen, Israel Sieff, Simon Marks, Ahad Ha'Am, Leon Simon, and Harry Sacher.
The version seen here, dated 18 July 1917, is known as the Lord Rothschild draft. It was based on a rather long and detailed 12 July working draft by the Zionists.
In his capacity as the titular head of the British Jewish community, Rothschild sent it to Balfour with a cover note mentioning that if acceptable he would "hand it on to the Zionist Federation and also announce it at a meeting called for that purpose".
Historian Jonathan Schneer, author of 'The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict', is struck by the very first sentence -- the use of the term "reconstituted", which "implies an unbroken link between Jews and Palestine despite the nearly two-thousand-year separation".
The reference to the Zionist Organisation as the official representative of Jewish interests had several purposes.
Much later, when Britain was granted the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations in 1922, Article 5 formalised a role for a "Zionist organization."
That Organisation evolved into the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency.
In 1917, though, it was meant to play up the (hugely embroidered) impression of worldwide Jewish influence.
Britain's interest was for Russia to remain in WWI and for the US, which had entered only in April 1917, to assume a major role in the fighting.
It was no secret that neither American nor Russian Jews were enthusiastic about the war continuing.
London's hope was that giving the Zionists a direct stake in the war's outcome would persuade Jews in Russia and America to urge their governments to support the war.
The idea of a commitment addressed to the Zionist Organisation was also intended to deflate rumours that Germany might yet issue its own statement of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
And Balfour himself had used terminology which asked for "any suggestions which the Zionist Organisation may desire to lay before" the Cabinet, according to Leonard Stein, the Anglo-Jewish historian in 'The Balfour Declaration'.
This first draft is also modest in its wording.
It refrains from using the phrase "Jewish state," which Sacher had argued for, and instead employed the more restrained "national home of the Jewish people," notes 'The Encyclopedia of Zionism'.
In modern parlance, this phrase from the Balfour Declaration is paraphrased as "Jewish National Home".
Although statehood was not explicitly mentioned in any of the drafts, the expression "a national home for the Jewish people" is consistent in four of the five drafts, including the final Balfour Declaration.
This phrase echoed back to the 1897 First Zionist Congress in Basel.
Some British Zionists were already vaguely thinking of a self-governing Jewish Commonwealth, presumably under British sovereignty.
Balfour himself figured the matter of statehood-- if it was to happen-- would be the outcome of a gradual political development.
Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour replied to the Rothschild draft with his own draft seen here. He sent it to Lord Rothschild on August 2, 1917, according to Jehuda Reinharz in his biography, 'Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Statesman'.
Balfour had made adjustments - some stylistic others substantive.
Gone was the first draft's statement that "His Majesty's Government" would "discuss the necessary methods and means with" the Zionist Organization.
Balfour preferred: "be ready to consider any suggestions on the subject which...may desire to lay before them".
The third "Milner Draft" shown here was dated August 4, 1917:
Everything seemed to be on track, but as Balfour expert Leonard Stein notes, it would be "more than three months" until the first draft, which was "drastically amended" would be ultimately translated into the Balfour Declaration.
Sir Alfred Milner, a Conservative Party Minister Without Portfolio in the War Cabinet "with an eye toward the anti-Zionist Jews in Britain," writes Jehuda Reinharz, deleted "reconstituted."
Palestine would be reconstituted as a home for the Jewish people but not as a national home – a change that might appeal to anti-Zionist Jews.
Milner understood that this measure was undertaken to facilitate the Declaration not torpedo it.
The War Cabinet met on September 3, 1917, but both Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour were away on holiday.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Andrew Bonar Law presided and Edwin Montagu, an anti-Zionist Jewish member of the broader Cabinet, was invited to make his case.
The Cabinet's main action was to send the latest draft with a query to the Wilson Administration in Washington asking where it stood regarding Zionist aspirations.
President Woodrow Wilson's top aide Edward M. "Colonel" House was unsympathetic to Zionism (and exploring the possibility of a separate peace with Ottoman Turkey) and it took the intervention of US Zionist leader and jurist Louis Brandeis to, at the end of the day, bring forth a positive reply to the War Cabinet's query.
And so the Cabinet was presented with a fourth draft.
On October 4th 1917, the War Cabinet took up the Zionist issue again with Lloyd George chairing, and Lord Curzon making a realpolitik case against any "sentimental" Declaration, which, among other things seemed to ignore Palestine's Muslim population.
He also pointed out that Zionism was hardly the unanimous position within Britain's Jewish community.
At Milner's instruction, Leo Amery, a member of the War Cabinet Secretariat, reworked the draft so that the concerns of anti-Zionist Jews, recently aired in the Times newspaper, were clearly taken into account.
He further removed reference to a singular Zionist Organization.
He added language intended to indicate concern for Arab sensibilities.
He made explicit the idea of a "national home" and also introduced the term "race" in relation to the Jews.
This use of “race” rather than “people” was not favoured by either Zionist or anti-Zionist Jews.
To safeguard against their possible dilution, "the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" were made explicit for the first time.
This formulation, intended to meet both Jewish and pro-Arab objections, survived into the final draft.
It was significant that the reference was to “civil and religious rights” of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, in contrast to the reference of the “rights and political status” of Jews in other countries.
The national home was to be established "in Palestine" for Jews who didn't want to live elsewhere.
Also, it was thought helpful to facilitate approval to add "and citizenship," notes historian and biographer Jehuda Reinharz.
The Zionists were disappointed with this draft because it missed out the historic claim to Palestine being ‘reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people’, according to Reinharz.
Finally, on November 1, 1917 the War Cabinet agreed to a slightly amended version of the Milner-Amery formula.
Shown here is the final -- now famous -- text delivered by messenger to Lord Rothschild's London home at 148 Piccadilly.
Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour was authorised to send the letter to Rothschild-- who had after all initiated the process when he asked Balfour to "send me a message" regarding the Government's stance.
While Chaim Weizmann was the driving force behind the Declaration he was not the most senior Zionist official in London – Nahum Sokolow was, but he was not a British citizen.
As explained by historian Leonard Stein, addressing the Declaration to Rothschild resolved protocol issues and "had the decisive advantage of associating the Declaration with the most potent name in Jewry."
The final version was aimed at ensuring that there would be no deleterious impact on the rights and political status of Jews who lived outside the Jewish homeland nor on the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
The reference to Jewish "race" was replaced with "people" -- terminology preferred both by Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews.
As Stein points out, "The language of the Declaration was studiously vague. It did not give any assurance that the British Government would make itself directly responsible for the establishment of the Jewish national home”.
For on November 2, 1917, Britain did not fully control the territory.
When it eventually did take possession of Palestine, it still needed an international imprimatur to exercise power. And the Declaration was not a legal document; it was more a statement of political intent.
There was no mention of Arab political rights in Palestine – or, indeed, of Jewish political rights.
Regarding the Arab population, Weizmann anticipated that by the time Palestine became a Jewish Commonwealth, the Arabs would have become a minority—in the Muslim majority Middle East— with their full civil and religious rights guaranteed, writes Stein.
Indeed, according to Stein, in a June 1917 letter to Leon Simon, Harry Sacher expressed worry:
"At the back of my mind, there is firmly fixed the recognition that, even if all our political scheming turn out in the way we desire, the Arabs will remain our most tremendous problem. I don't want us in Palestine to deal with the Arabs as the Poles deal with the Jews, and with the lesser excuse that belongs to a numerical minority. That kind of chauvinism might poison the whole Yishuv [settlement enterprise]. It is our business to fight against it”.
Balfour Declaration Postscript
Lord Rothschild replied to Foreign Minister Balfour on November 4, 1917 in a handwritten note:
'Dear Mr. Balfour,
I write to thank you most sincerely for your letter and also for the great interest you have shown in the wishes of the large mass of the Jewish people and also for the efforts and trouble you have taken on our behalf. I can assure you that the gratitude of ten millions of people will be yours, for the British Government has opened up, by their message, a prospect of safety and comfort to large masses of people who are in need of it.
I dare say you have been informed that already in many parts of Russia renewed persecution has broken out.
With renewed thanks to you and His Majesty's Government,