The birth of modern Israel: A scrap of paper that changed history

A paragraph scrawled on a piece of hotel stationery by a young British civil servant in July 1917 will be sold next month by Sotheby's for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But its value goes far beyond money, as Donald Macintyre explains

The term "living history" is a cliché that slips as easily from the lips of museum curators as it does from the makers of documentary films.

But it may actually help to explain why a single paragraph of roughly abbreviated handwriting scrawled on a piece of a Bloomsbury hotel's stationery by a young British civil servant in the summer of 1917 should attract such attention ­ and such a price-tag. It is easily the most valuable item in a batch of papers estimated by Sotheby's to be worth between $500,000 (£273,000) and $800,000 when it goes on sale at its New York auction house next month.

But then it's hard to think of a single document that changed the course of world history as decisively as did the Balfour Declaration.

Whatever their perspective, Jews and Arabs would agree on the fundamental importance of the document issued by the government of what was then the world's leading superpower. The Balfour Declaration is in the words of Norman Rose, the British-born Hebrew University professor who is a leading historian of the period, "generally acknowledged to be the first decisive step towards the creation of a Jewish independent state". For Zionists, therefore, a triumphant moment.

Equally, anyone who announces himself as a Briton in the West Bank or Gaza won't talk for long with a group of older Palestinians without someone getting round ­ always emphatically, and usually good humouredly ­ to blaming the United Kingdom and Arthur James Balfour in particular for being the root of his people's troubles.

Given that its very name still reverberates round the Middle East with much of the same potency that it did nearly 90 years ago, it isn't, perhaps that surprising that a mere ­ and fairly early ­ draft of the letter Balfour, Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, eventually sent to Lord Rothschild backing "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" should be sold for such an amount.

The lot of private papers on sale next month is from the collection of Leon Simon, an important though relatively little-known figure among the British Zionists of the early 20th century. Much more than Chaim Weizmann, the leading figure among those who persuaded the British government to issue the declaration over a year of negotiation, Simon was a highly assimilated Jew, a fully paid up member, in effect, of the British establishment. Born in Southampton, he went to Manchester Grammar School ­ in the city to which Weizmann's family had migrated from what became Belorussia ­ and read Greats at Oxford, joined the Civil Service and rose up the ranks of the General Post Office, becoming its director before retiring in 1944.

But Simon also wrote a biography of his mentor and friend, Ahad Ha'am, a leading but relatively unpolitical "spiritual Zionist" who exercised significant influence over a younger generation of soon-to-be leading British Jews, who included not only Simon but also men from Manchester such as Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, crucial to the subsequent growth of Marks and Spencer. But we also know from a footnote in Leonard Stein's standard history of the Balfour Declaration that Simon was present at the historic drafting meeting of Zionists convened by Naum Sokolow, Weizmann's right-hand man.

It may not be too fanciful to imagine that Simon, who no doubt combined his feel for language ­ he translated works by both John Stuart Mill and Plato (from classical Greek) into Hebrew ­ with a British bureaucrat's ability to write a minute, was a signal asset to the drafting process. These were heady times for the young British Zionists ; the negotiations with Prime Minister Lloyd George's war government were in full swing and Weizmann was in sight of his dream.

It had been Theodor Herzl who had first promoted the idea of Jewish nationhood and pointed to what the historian Martin Gilbert calls the "precarious nature of Jewish acceptance in otherwise civilised societies". These fears had been brutally intensified within recent memory by the pogroms in Russia in the late 19th century. But Herzl, as Norman Rose pointed out at his home in Jerusalem yesterday, never achieved what Weizmann was on the brink of doing when Simon scrawled his note: a declaration by a leading Western government in favour of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Among British Jewry the efforts to secure a homeland in Palestine were bitterly controversial. Indeed, one of the most prominent opponents was the Jewish cabinet minister Edwin Montagu, like Simon a highly assimilated Jew, but unlike him, one who believed that the idea of the Jewish homeland was a direct threat to the security and acceptance of Jews in Britain and other European countries.

At a cabinet meeting in October 1917, Montagu, staging his last stand against the Declaration, asked caustically how he could negotiate as a minister in India if his own colleagues had decided his home was somewhere in "Turkish territory", as Palestine then was.

Montagu saw a threat to his own position; but his stance also had a basis in the motives of some of those who were, to use a term coined by Professor Rose, the "gentile Zionists" of the time. On the one hand were those who had an instinctive sympathy with and fellow feeling for Jews ­ notably including Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and one of the first in a long line of those on the British left to identify with the Zionist cause, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, C P Scott, who introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George. Professor Rose says one explanation for Lloyd George's sympathy with Zionism "was that he also came from a small oppressed minority". But he adds that steeped in a Welsh non-conformist education in which the Old Testament was an integral part, "Lloyd George was once asked where he envisaged the borders of a Jewish Palestine and he said immediately: 'from Dan to Beersheeba'."

But there were others whose attitudes were much more complex ­ including Balfour, who early in the century had introduced the Aliens Act, specifically to restrict the immigration of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe and in a speech widely denounced as anti-Semitic had described the Jews as a "people apart".

There were British Conservatives, too, who believed that the Jews were part of the "Bolshevik revolution" ­ in "some cases" as Professor Rose wryly says, "rightly" given that a majority of the members of the first Soviet politburo were Jews. The co-incidence of the drafting of the Balfour Declaration with the Russian Revolution must have encouraged among such people the idea that Jews would be better out of the way. And there were those who simply believed that getting the Jews to Palestine would ease racial tensions.

According to Professor Rose, Harold Nicolson, the diarist and Tory MP who was an enthusiastic "gentile Zionist", said he saw the Jewish homeland "as a way of confining the Jews to a super-Butlins holiday camp, as a way of dealing with a minority problem". At the same time many of these groups had an almost mythical belief in the power of Jews to control financial and many other institutions. As such they were seen as ideal, explains Professor Rose, to acts as a pro-British bulwark on behalf of Britain, not least to help protect the Suez Canal and act as a counterweight in the Middle East against French influence.

This wasn't what happened. But the combination of these disparate forces, under Lloyd George as a genuine pro-Zionist, combined to ensure the Declaration was passed. Simon's scrawl is also testimony to the fraughtness of the detailed negotiations. It was the Zionists, who having secured the general promise of the text, who were producing all the drafts at this stage; but it was not all plain sailing. The 17 July text was itself a condensation and a watering down of one produced by the Zionist drafters four days earlier, which called for internal autonomy to the Jewish nationality in Palestine, freedom of immigration of Jews, and the establishment of a "Jewish National Colonising Corporation for the resettlement and economic development of the country".

Lord Rothschild, the figurehead of pro-Zionist Anglo Jewry, and by now closely in touch with Balfour and other leading government figures, decided this went too far. As Sokolow explained to his young colleagues, the first draft had been thought to contain "matters of detail which it would be undesirable to raise at the present moment". But after 17 July, the text went through many twists and turns as the ministers in Lloyd George's cabinet took an increasing interest. With Edwin Montagu and Lord Curzon ­ partly on the grounds of the impact on the Arab world ­ as well as on the huge Muslim population in British India ­ leading the charge against the declaration, it was (somewhat) further diluted.

Stein records that by the time the War Cabinet met on 4 October to consider formally the Declaration, it realised that at least some lip service would have to be paid to Arab opinion. Lord Milner instructed the then Cabinet Secretary, Leo Amery, to come up with a draft that would "go a reasonable distance to meeting the objections both Jewish and pro-Arab without impairing the substance of the ... Declaration". The Milner-Amery text, as it became known internally was essentially the final version. The new text committed the British government only to "facilitating" and not, as in the Simon text, to "securing" that goal. And it insisted, in words most Palestinians would argue have yet to be fulfilled, on "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country".

The Declaration did not, therefore, promise a Jewish state. Indeed it was in some ways, as Professor Rose says, "a very ambiguous document". But he adds: "We know that Lloyd George, Balfour and Churchill did envisage such a [Jewish] state but that was dependent on the Jews themselves." Professor Rose points out that the outcome was far from certain. Immigration fluctuated wildly; in 1927 after the first, but not the last, Arab anti-Jewish riots more Jews left Palestine than entered it. It was only after Hitler came to power in 1933 that Jewish immigration steadily increased by large numbers for three successive years.

What's more, the Balfour Declaration proved, at least in the first two decades or so of the British mandate, to be quite fragile. Professor Rose says that Weizmann "argued that the British tried to renege on it almost from the first day after it had been issued".

The 1939 White Paper that went out of its way to restrict Jewish immigration and to envisage a state of Palestine within 10 years was the outstanding, but by no means the only, example of an attempted retreat. But its central message proved durable; in the end the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was, however long, bloody and tortuous the road that led there, the fruit of the document Simon helped to draft that July day in the Imperial Hotel, and why it remains such a powerful ­ and very different ­ symbol for Jews and Arabs today.