Arthur James Balfour

Foreign Minister and Author of the Balfour Declaration 1848 - 1930

I am convinced that none but… people who are prejudiced… would deny that the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional and must be ‎treated by exceptional means.‎

Arthur James Balfour

No statesman is more directly associated with Britain's recognition of the national home of the Jewish people in Palestine than Arthur James Balfour. A Conservative grandee who came of age during the Victorian era, Balfour served as prime minister from 1902 to 1905 and—more significantly from the Zionist perspective—as Foreign Secretary in a wartime coalition government during the First World War. Together with Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Balfour bestowed upon the Jewish people an historic opening to take their destiny back into their own hands.


Balfour bestowed upon the Jewish people an historic opening to take their destiny back into their own hands

Arthur James Balfour ‎was born on July 25, 1848, to a land-owning family in Scotland. His father, James Maitland Balfour, who died when Arthur was not yet 10, was a country squire; his mother, Lady Blanche Balfour, was daughter of the 2nd Marquess of Salisbury. Balfour entered Eton at age 14, and Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1866 where he read mostly philosophy.

An early reputation for idleness and frivolity proved deceptive. He gained the respect of those around him—and not just because family connections to Lord Salisbury on his mother’s side stood him in good stead.

Elected to Parliament

Balfour ‎was elected a Conservative Member of Parliament in 1874 for the constituency of Manchester East, the year Benjamin Disraeli—a Jew whose father had found it expedient to embrace Anglicanism—became prime minister.

Balfour pursued two vocations, philosophy and politics, often concurrently. As a metaphysician his main concern was to find arguments for religious belief. His writings on religious philosophy include A Defense of Philosophical Doubt (1879), Foundations of Belief (1896) and the Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow, which were published as Theism and Humanism (1915) and Theism and Thought (1923).

In Foundations of Belief  he argued that nothing is certain and that everything rests on belief; science cannot dictate to religion and, indeed, presupposes theism as the basis for its own assertions of rationality.

He became Lord Salisbury’s parliamentary private secretary and accompanied him to the 1878 Congress of Berlin, where the older man as Foreign Secretary engaged Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck in a balance of power game. When Salisbury became Prime Minister in 1895 (until 1902) he appointed Balfour to the Cabinet, first as Secretary for Scotland (1886) and then as Irish Secretary (1887-1892). To the surprise of some, Balfour proved his mettle as a steely politician.

Prime Minister

In July 1902, aged 47, Balfour succeeded his uncle, Lord Salisbury, as Prime Minister and remained ensconced at 10 Downing Street until November 1905. He was credited with the Education Act of 1902, which reorganized the administration of schooling at the local level, and the Irish Land Act of 1903, intended to make it possible for peasants to own land.

Balfour supported the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at limiting East European immigration. This support stemmed from his conviction that Jews from the Russian Empire could not acculturate and become Britons but would remain “a people apart.” According to his biographer, R.J.Q. Adam, Balfour believed that the Jews shared not just a religion but also a cultural identity which made it difficult for many to “become British.”

At the same time, Balfour made clear his opposition to the persecution of Jews. He had his frustrations about Jews, but these were tinged with admiration. “I think that their rigid separation… from their fellow countrymen is a misfortune for us,” he said.

He happened to be Prime Minister in 1903, as Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain weighed up whether to provide refuge to persecuted Russian Jews in Britain’s East Africa territories (today’s Kenya) under the so-called Uganda Plan. Balfour was baffled when, after brutal internecine clashes, the Zionists rebuffed Britain’s Africa offer, the desperate imperative to find a haven for persecuted Jews notwithstanding. Though the territory was then firmly in Turkish hands, they would hold out for a return to Zion represented by a Jewish home in Palestine.

Balfour lost power when his Conservative Party (Tories) split over whether to move away from the party’s traditional free trade doctrine. The Tories found themselves defeated in the general election of 1906 by the Liberals, led by Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Balfour himself lost his Manchester constituency.

In short order, a safe seat in the City of London was found for him. He remained leader of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, determined to stymie Liberal social and economic reforms, even employing the House of Lords. When his tactics ultimately failed he resigned the party leadership in 1911.

Foreign Minister

After World War I erupted in August 1914, Balfour was brought back into the government as First Lord of the Admiralty (1915-16) under the new Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Though he respected Asquith as fair-minded and temperate, Balfour did not think he had the grit to be a wartime prime minister. When a new coalition government headed by Liberal David Lloyd George was formed, Balfour became Foreign Secretary, serving from 1916 to 1919.

'National Home' for the Jews

In keeping with the era and his class, Balfour was not above the occasional anti-Jewish aside, yet he said of the Jews: “I like them for their history.” In France, the 1894 trial and conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, an assimilated Jewish officer, had drawn Balfour’s sympathetic attention.

And in January 1905, just before he lost the premiership to Campbell-Bannerman’s Liberals, Balfour met the Belarus-born chemist and Zionist luminary Chaim Weizmann in Manchester. He found himself impressed by the force of Weizmann’s personality and by the cause he espoused.

In January 1906, the two men met for a second time. The more he learned about Zionism from Weizmann, the more clearly Balfour appreciated why the Uganda Plan could not have served even as an interim substitute for Palestine.

In December 1914, with the world war under way, Weizmann again called on Balfour. Both men anticipated Turkey’s defeat and the dismembering of the Ottoman Empire. Balfour continued to be moved by Weizmann’s fervour and the nobility of his cause.

The two met again in March 1915, and yet again in March 1916 – and they probably met for a second time that year, according to Leonard Stein, who wrote the seminal history of the Balfour Declaration. In March 1917, Weizmann would recall, their Palestine discussions turned to practical implementation issues.

If a place were provided for them in the land of their historic origins, the Jews would be given the choice of assimilation in their adopted countries or Jewish citizenship in their ancient homeland.

Arthur James Balfour

Drafting the Declaration

Then on June 13, 1917, Balfour met with Weizmann and Lord Rothschild, who had perhaps surprisingly emerged as the preeminent British-born Zionist leader. He asked them to come up with a statement defining Zionist aspirations that he could present to the War Cabinet.

Most of the opposition to such a statement came from within the British Jewish community itself—including from Edwin Montagu, a Jewish cabinet member—out of concern that fulfilling Zionist aspirations in Palestine would undermine hard-won Jewish civil rights in Britain and elsewhere.

Beyond the Jewish community, Lord Curzon, a leading member of the War Cabinet, argued against the Jewish homeland idea on the grounds that Arabs far outnumbered Jews in Palestine. Balfour, however, assumed that the Arabs would take the long view and see the value of a Jewish homeland to the region. He further supposed that the Jews would find a way to win the Arabs over and that the Arabs, for their part, would be content with dominion over Arabia and Iraq.

So what, he asked, if the Jews were allowed “a small notch… in what are now Arab territories”? They were, after all, a “people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated” from Palestine.

As Balfour saw it, Zionism was the solution to the Jewish problem: “If a place were provided for them in the land of their historic origins, the Jews would be given the choice of assimilation in their adopted countries or Jewish citizenship in their ancient homeland.” Thus, he told the War Cabinet in October 1917, “any danger of a double allegiance or non-national outlook would be eliminated.”

After much back and forth on the precise wording of the declaration to be put before the ministers and with solid backing from Lloyd George, Balfour won the cabinet’s approval. And on November 2, 1917, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, Balfour wrote the now familiar letter addressed to Lord Rothschild that committed Britain to supporting the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine.


By the time the war ended on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, Britain had captured Palestine in its entirety from the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Following the post-war Versailles Peace Conference, which began in January 1919, Balfour stepped down as Foreign Secretary though he continued to hold a place in the cabinet. He also continued to represent Britain in the international arena when his presence was demanded.

For that reason he attended the April 1920 San Remo international conference, which determined the boundaries of the colonial territories—Palestine included—that the Allies had captured from Turkey and the other Axis powers. The San Remo delegates resolved to incorporate the Balfour Declaration into the international mandate granted to Britain for Palestine. The various mandates were under the overall authority of the new League of Nations, whose founding was itself an outcome of Versailles. In February 1920, Balfour personally chaired the first meeting of the League, serving as his country’s chief representative.

Unwavering support for Zionism

In 1920, taking cognizance of the self-determination principle and the Arab majority in Palestine, Balfour said: “The deep, underlying principle of self-determination really points to a Zionist policy—however little in its strict technical interpretation it may seem to favour it. I am convinced that none but the pedants or people who are prejudiced by religious or racial bigotry, none but those who are blinded by one of these causes would deny for one instant that the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional, and must be treated by exceptional means.”

On October 13, 1920 Balfour wrote to Lloyd George: “Whether Zionism be good or bad—and, as you know, I think it good—we are now committed to it, and failure to make it a success will be a failure for us.”

Once Balfour was succeeded by Curzon at the Foreign Office and Lloyd George was replaced by the Conservative Bonar Law at Number 10 Downing Street, Britain’s official support for Zionism became wobbly.

Still, Balfour went on to represent Britain at the 1921-1922 Washington Disarmament Conference, which, like the League of Nations, was an initiative taken by the international community intended to end war once and for all.

Balfour was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Balfour in 1922 and took a seat in the House of Lords.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

On April 1, 1925, Lord Balfour was enthusiastically welcomed by the Palestinian Jewish community when he visited the country to attend the official opening ceremony of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mount Scopus. Creating the university had been a key Zionist goal and its cornerstones had been laid in 1918. Balfour delivered the opening address and sat through too many mostly Hebrew speeches alongside British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, Weizmann, Palestine’s Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, and the great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik.

After touring Palestine, he was driven north to French-controlled Syria, where he was greeted by anti-Zionist Arab protesters outside his hotel.

Yet Balfour did not waver in his belief that it was right to embrace Zionism. His attraction to Zionism was anchored, writes his biographer Adams, “in his belief that it provided solutions to a number of problems: It would solve the problem of Jewish assimilation in the West, strike at the worldwide curse of anti-Semitism, and revitalize Palestine. Furthermore, it would reunite the Jews in the land of their origins, which he believed in a spiritual as well as a historic sense was in fact theirs.”

Blanche Dugdale, Balfour’s niece and a Zionist in her own right, attributed her uncle’s Zionism to his reading of the Bible. And Leonard Stein suggested that Balfour was motivated by a need to redress the persecution of the Jews, quoting him as saying, “The treatment of the race has been a disgrace to Christendom.”

Beyond politics

Balfour had many interests besides philosophy and politics. Back in 1893, for instance, he became President of the Society for Psychical Research, which studied the paranormal. Indeed, on his deathbed he reportedly said, “I am longing to get to the other side to see what it’s like.”

He never married and had no children. “Whether I have time for Love or not, I certainly have no time for Matrimony,” he once wrote.

He valued his solitude even as he relished the elaborate table talk so adored by the Victorians. He ate and drank with restraint – “not least of all,” according to his biographer, “because he was repelled by the idea of taking on the rotund shape so common among gentlemen of this time.”

Balfour resigned his last high-profile position, that of Lord President of the Council, in 1929, when he was 81, to be replaced by the Leader of the House of Lords, Charles Cripps. He had mostly withdrawn from public commitments in the final two years of his life. As the end drew closer, he was visited by an array of officials from across the political spectrum, from David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.

According to Adams, “Chaim Weizmann was the last visitor outside the family to see the dying statesman—it was a silent farewell, with Balfour too weak and the great Zionist too overcome to speak.”

Arthur James Balfour died on March 19, 1930, at his brother Gerald’s estate near Woking.


“For me, this is the greatest loss of my life,” Weizmann told a British Zionist gathering. “Lord Balfour left us at a time when we needed him most. The period of our most beautiful dreams and fondest hopes passes with him. He was working for our cause to his very last.” Weizmann then paraphrased the traditional Jewish response upon hearing of a death: “Let God console us together with all mourners in Zion.”

In Palestine, the Jewish community went into mourning. Shops closed, schools held special assemblies and prayer services were held in synagogues.

Besides Blanche Dugdale, who worked with the Jewish Agency in London and closely collaborated with Weizmann, Balfour’s family continued to support the cause. For example, in 1939 his nephew, Robert Arthur Lytton, the 3rd Earl of Balfour, offered his family estate at Whittingham as a training school for Jewish refugee children from Germany.

It is fitting, too, that the official residence of Israel’s Prime Minister is located on Balfour Street in Jerusalem. There are many Balfour streets in Israel.

The Hebrew Bible (Ezra 1:1-4) records that it was by the decree of Cyrus II the Great, King of Persia, that the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their Temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed in 586 BCE. Providentially for Chaim Weizmann and the political Zionists, Arthur James Balfour ardently embraced a new Jewish return. It was his efforts and those of other British friends of Zionism that set the stage—some 30 years after the Balfour Declaration—for the United Nations to vote for the establishment of a Jewish state.

Learn more about Balfour


Arthur James Balfour by Kenneth Young

Arthur James Balfour, First Earl of Balfour by Blanche E. C. Dugdale.

Balfour: The Last Grandee by R.J.Q. Adams

Speeches on Zionism by Arthur James Balfour, edited by Israel Cohen