The Secret Drafts of the Balfour Declaration

On November 2nd, 1917, a declaration that changed the course of history was published.

The document that would lay the foundation for the establishment of the state of Israel was  sent in the form of a letter by Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild. Rothschild was to pass it on to the Zionist Organization headed by Dr. Chaim Weizmann.

The unpublished drafts of the Balfour Declaration allow us a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse into one of the most significant episodes in the history of Zionism.

As the Hebrew settlement in the Land of Israel kept establishing and expanding itself, the leaders of the Zionist movement realized they would need political support from one of the world’s great powers, specifically the British Empire.

When the British ousted the centuries old Ottoman presence in Palestine, Chaim Weizmann presented a draft for the founding of a state. This draft was a declaration sent to the then British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur James Balfour, on July 1917. The draft declared that Britain would recognize the Land of Israel as the land of the Jewish people.

The declaration did not leave the Foreign Office as it was drafted, of course. In fact, it went through several rewrites. By early October 1917, the draft was processed by the War Office in conjunction with the Zionist Organization delegation.

It was in one of the final drafts of the declaration that the section regarding the Jewish people’s right to the land was omitted and the “Jewish state” became a “National Home” – an unprecedented legal and diplomatic term.

Before the declaration was officially presented to Lord Rothschild by Lord Balfour, the draft was presented to Jewish leaders of every political stripe, both Zionist and non-Zionist. One of these leaders was Sir Philip Magnus, a Reform rabbi and British politician whose opinion on the declaration was sought.

The British Rabbi and Politician, Sir Philip Magnus (1933-1842)

The National Library of Israel holds the draft of the declaration the War Office sent Sir Magnus. The differences in the draft sent to Sir Magnus and the final historic letter were slight, but significant. In the finalized version we see the wording: “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish People”, while the earlier draft speaks of a “National Home for the Jewish Race”.

“….a National Home for the Jewish race” – The draft of the declaration sent to Sir Philp Magnus, the Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

With this change the British government strengthened the Zionist position of the Jews being a nation among nations, rather than just an ethnic group with their own religion.

Sir Magnus’ reply and draft changes can also be found in the National Library of Israel collections, shedding light on the opinions of non-Zionist British Jews at the time. Sir Magnus refused to distinguish between his opinions as a Jew and as a British subject in a stroke of political brilliance. Sir Magnus made the claim that ever since the Roman exile, the Jewish people had ceased being a political body and shared only a religion and as such did not have a national aspiration in the Land of Israel.

Sir Magnus’ suggested changes, which were later incorporated into the final declaration, had more to do with the people of other faiths and cultures in the region. This is clearly stated in the final draft of the declaration as: “It being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Sir Philip Magnus’ reply to the War Office. The Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

The original letter sent to Lord Rothschild by Lord Balfour is kept in the British Museum to this very day.

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Rare Album: The Machine Gun Squadron Soldier Documents the Conquest of the Land of Israel

We have an original copy of the 20th Machine Gun Squadron soldier's journal from the First World War.

While founding the 20th Machine Gun Squadron on July 4, 1917, its commanders found themselves dealing with an unexpected obstacle: only 30 of the squadron’s 121 soldiers had been trained to operate the latest weapons. The other soldiers had never been stationed in such a unit.

The impending battle to conquer the Land of Israel left no time for unnecessary delays, and a new order received several days before gave the soldiers of the new squadron a glimpse into the tremendous challenge that awaited them. On August 12, a month after its establishment, the squadron set out for the new military front: The Land of Israel.

The story of the squadron was documented in the book “Through Palestine with the 20th Machine Gun Squadron”, ​which was handed out to members of the unit after the war. One of the soldiers decided to stick photographs he took during the squadron’s trek through the Land of Israel.

Most likely the photographer, and original owner of the book. His identity is unknown.

The fascinating story of the squadron as documented through the eyes of one of its soldiers is preserved in the National Library.

View the full book here

The Original Cover of “Through Palestine with the 20th Machine Gun Squadron”

Under the fierce sun, with aching shoulders, and constant fear of depletion of the daily water ration, the squadron’s warriors spent 18 days traversing the Sinai desert. They took advantage of their stay in the British camp to continue the drills – they spent half a day practicing operating the weapons which were new to most of them, and the second half of the day – on horse riding.

Members of the Squadron. Besides the few drawings in the book, the Library’s copy contained photographs in the first few pages
The Women of Jerusalem by the Western Wall
Some of the drawings that accompany the book

 The soldiers encountered their first battle as a squadron seven miles south of the city of Be’er Sheba. With reinforcements on their left and the Australian units on their right, the solders of the machine gun squadron attacked the terrifying trenches the Ottomans had dug in the road leading to the city: the attackers and defenders fought the entire morning and afternoon.

The dust that flew in all directions inhibited both sides from seeing more than a few meters in front of them. After several hours of fighting, the soldiers discovered, to their utter dismay, that the Ottomans had retreated to the city. The order arrived at four in the afternoon: attack Be’er Sheba, which also proved to be deserted of enemy troops.

The Road to Jericho
A drawing by one of the squadron members
A soldier photographs “Native Women”

 “Be’er Sheba”, the soldiers wrote in the squadron book, “was extremely disappointing. It is barely a village in the way Europeans understand the term – a place one can buy cigarettes and something to eat; there was nothing to be found, and the only buildings in it which were not wooden huts were deserted.” When the soldiers toured around the area they were unimpressed by the arid desert which surrounded them, and by the lack of traversable roads.

The soldiers also reached Gaza after the Ottomans retreated from the city – This is not mentioned anywhere in the book, but it’s likely that the soldiers didn’t take part in the hard battles to conquer Gaza. Despite the short distance from Be’er Sheba, they encountered a different type of settlement – roadside villages, populated by farmers who worked their lands. As they approached they discovered a horrifying sight: dirt and refuse, men resting while the women did the hard work. The soldiers found nothing positive to say about this city either.

A map of the route the squadron took in the Land of Israel

The soldiers continued from Gaza to Ramallah, from Ramallah to the Arab village of Qezaze, from there they followed the train tracks to Jerusalem. The enemy soldiers predicted this path of advance and dug trenches along the way. The fierce battles led to a series of casualties. The squadron’s commanders decided to retreat and re-organize in the Jaffa area. On their way to Jaffa, the soldiers came across Rehovot for the first time.

Rehovot reminded the soldiers of the life they had left behind in Britain.  The soldiers met the Zionist settlers and bought sacks full of juicy Jaffa oranges from them. Anyone who did not have enough money with them bartered for the preserved meat they received from the squadron. The meeting with the Jewish settlers excited the soldiers, who regarded them as the beginning of the rebuilding of the Jewish nation.

Caves close to the Red Sea

After a short rest, the soldiers advanced on Jerusalem once again. The Ottoman defenders were aware of the importance of the holy city: they sent most of the forces stationed in the Land of Israel to defend the road to Jerusalem. With every additional meter the soldiers of the Machine Gun Squadron managed to capture from the enemy, the warriors’ focal effort was to station the terrifying artillery machines at the highest place in the battle zone. They took advantage of every gain they managed to achieve: coverage from other units, use of snipers, silent advance at night or – when there was no other option – firing burning fire on the enemy to force them to flee from the position they had taken up.

Thus, on December 8, 1917, despite the defective roads, the constant lack of water and Ottoman and German opposition along the way, the soldiers of the Machine Gun Squadron, together with Allenby’s other forces, managed to open the road to Jerusalem.

Jaffa Gate
Damascus Gate
Bedouin Riders

More than four hundred years of Ottoman rule in the Holy Land came to an end a day later, with the surrender of the city of Jerusalem. The date was merely symbolic, as most of northern Israel was still under Ottoman rule, which disintegrated in the following months.

“How wondrous,” declared the emotional soldiers who finally beheld the city of Jerusalem. The holy city was freed on the eve of the festival of Hanukah, and as the Ottomans fled from Jerusalem, the Jews celebrated the historical victory of the Maccabees over the ancient Greek conquers.

The squadron lost 3 commanders and 67 soldiers during the conquest of the Land of Israel.


That Time David Ben-Gurion’s Father Sent Him Some Cash

When Dr. Irving Halperin wrote to David Ben-Gurion in the summer of 1968, the response contained a few surprising anecdotes about the Jewish State's first prime minister.

גלויה של דוד בן גוריון בחדר עבודתו, אוסף אברהם שבדרון

I have long been an ‘invisible’ fan of yours.

It was the summer of 1968.

The United States was in turmoil. Protestors and public displays of affection filled the streets, new music filled the airwaves.

For many, San Francisco was the epicenter of it all. San Francisco State College, where Dr. Irving Halperin taught English, had seen violence, mass protests, arrests of students and faculty. It was soon to be the site of the longest student strike in American academic history.

Nonetheless, in the letter Dr. Halperin writes in English to Israel’s first prime minister, he makes no mention of what is going on around him.

Letter from Ben-Gurion to Irving Halperin, Correspondence, 14 August 1968, Ben-Gurion Archives.

Halperin, a middle-aged Jewish academic, simply wanted to know about the past, about the “Second Aliyah” period some six decades earlier during which Ben-Gurion made Ottoman Palestine his home.

In the last four months I was terribly busy and beg to apologize for not answering your letter of August 14th until now.

On September 18th, David Ben-Gurion handwrote his response in English from the humbly isolated confines of Kibbutz Sdeh-Boker in the Negev Desert. Israel’s 82-year-old founding father was embarrassed that it had taken him so long to get back to a man in California whom he had never met.

Halperin had asked Ben-Gurion to recommend “documentary material” and “works of literature” that would help him write a book about “the day-to-day life in Israel of Second Aliyah settlers”. He wanted “a palpable grasp of where they worked, how they lived, what they ate, how they saw the challenges of the land, how they suffered, etc.” As an afterthought, Halperin had jotted “in English” on the page’s margin, connecting it to the typed word “literature” in order to make it clear that Hebrew sources would be of no use to him.

In his response, Ben-Gurion first suggests reading  ספר העליה השניה (The Book of the Second Aliyah), a Hebrew collection of essays and personal accounts related to the period. Then, in first person, he offers this stranger from across the globe an intimate account (in English) of his earliest experiences in the Land of Israel:

I will describe my life when I worked a year in Petah-Tikva 62 years ago, and in Sejera 60 years ago. In P.T.: It was not easy to get work every day, as our colonists preferred Arab Labor. I worked 8 hours a day when I got work. I received 8 piasters a day, worked 8 hours a day. I could not work every day, either because I couldn’t get work or because I suffered from malaria. On the average I worked 10 day [sic] in a month.

The Sejera farm in 1912, from the book ספר העליה השנייה, personally recommended by Ben-Gurion.

Ben-Gurion’s father, himself an ardent and active Zionist who had once written to none other than Theodor Herzl to ask for advice about young David’s education, could not bear reading of his son’s miserable condition. He had even unsuccessfully invited his son back to Plonsk and sent him some money to help ease the situation:

When my father learnt that I suffer [sic] from malaria and hunger, he asked me in a letter to come home. I replied that my Home is in Israel. Then he sent me money. I returned the money.

After suffering through malaria, hunger and a measly 8 piasters a day, Ben-Gurion moved up to the settlement of Sejera in the Galilee, where, “I had permanent work and although my monthly salary was only 30 francs, I was quite happy.”

Intimating that a personal handwritten account from Israel’s founding father was of marginal importance, Ben-Gurion closes his letter to Halperin with “But try to get the book ‘ספר העליה השניה'” (“The Book of the Second Migration Wave”) – a simple recommendationm, and perhaps a not-so-subtle admonition to learn Hebrew. from an aging statesman in the Israeli desert to “an ‘invisible’ fan” across the world.

Envelope in which David Ben-Gurion sent his letter to Dr. Irving Halperin, San Francisco State College. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel (Schwad 01 02 216).

Hand-written letter from David Ben-Gurion to Dr. Irving Halperin. Sdeh-Boker, 9 September 1968. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel (Schwad 01 02 216).


Special thanks to Leanna Feldman of the Ben-Gurion Archives at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Daniel Lipson and Chen Malul of the National Library of Israel for their assistance and insights. 


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Forget Google Maps! To Get Out of Egypt, These Are the Maps You Need!

The National Library is in possession of many antique, rare and illustrated maps tracing the epic journey of the People of Israel through the wilderness.

A map of the Exodus from Egypt, 1712

If it so happens that in the future, we find ourselves in need of executing another Exodus from Egypt, the good news is: we will be prepared! We shall have a map! In fact, the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library has an assortment of old, rare and imaginatively illustrated maps which trace the mythical and defining journey of the People of Israel through the desert.

Since there is no accurate record of the points along the route of the Israelite Exodus, the maps can only show an approximate or imagined one. The path they traversed in the desert is not the only thing the maps show – many are accompanied by illustrations in which the artists offered their versions and interpretations of various aspects of the biblical story. The maps in our collection do not strive for geographic accuracy but rather emphasize the religious narrative. Therefore, the maps incorporate detailed depictions of figures and events to illustrate and enliven the well-known Exodus story.

Out of Egypt by Way of London


With the development of print, publishers began to attach maps to copies of the printed bible. These were often descriptive maps of the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land and its division among the tribes, Jesus’ wanderings, and of course the Exodus from Egypt.

This map of the Exodus, was added to the Book of Numbers in a bible published by Richard Harrison (London, 1562). The map shows the route the Israelites followed through the wilderness, including 42 various stops along the way. Along the route we see the Israelites crossing the Red Sea with the Egyptians in chariots and on horses chasing after them, the Israelites battling the Amalekites, gathering the manna from Heaven, dancing around the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai during the revelation of the name of God – indicated with Hebrew letters (י-ה-ו-ה), and Moses with the copper snake. On the left we see the Nile delta and the land of Goshen, and in the upper right are Moab and various other ancient and biblical cities, including Kadesh Barnea, Jericho and Hebron.

A Special Map for the Amsterdam Haggadah


Less than one hundred and fifty years later, in 1695, Abraham Bar Yaakov, a Protestant priest from Germany who converted to Judaism and worked as an engraver in Amsterdam created a map for the Amsterdam Haggadah.  This is, in fact, not only a map of the Exodus, but a map of the entire Promised Land, of which only the right half is dedicated to the Exodus. The route of the Exodus includes a number of small illustrations which depict the falling of the manna, Mount Sinai and the revelation of the name of God, and the altar with the twelve precious stones east of Jericho. There is also a key listing the places where the Israelites stopped along the way.

In creating the map for the Amsterdam Haggadah, Abraham Bar Yaakov was influenced by other contemporary maps made by Christians, and of course his own familiarity with Christianity and knowledge of Latin was useful. There is a striking similarity between his map and a map prepared by Hondius Jansson who himself used a map made in 1633 by Christian van Adrichom as a model. One can see that the route of the Exodus from Egypt, the tiny illustrations, and even the storm-tossed ship in the sea and the figure of Jonah being thrown from it, are all derived from that map.

However, Bar Yaakov also introduced important changes in his map. In the lower right corner is the figure of a nude woman on a crocodile, which in the Middle Ages and early modern period symbolized the continent of Africa. In medieval literature, the crocodile was used to symbolize Egypt. In a sense, Bar Yaakov “converted” Jansson’s older map to create his: he changed the fleet of ships into the barges of King Hiram transporting the cedars of Lebanon for the building of the Temple, and at the lower left, the Promised Land is represented as the Land of Milk and Honey, with a herd of cows and next to it the Hebrew word for “milk” (חלב, chalav) and beehives with the Hebrew word for “honey” (דבש, dvash). The eagle nearby is accompanied by the verse “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and [how] I bore you on eagles’ wings, and I brought you to Me,” stressing the map’s main motif of the Exodus from Egypt.

A Comic Book Version of the Priestly Ritual in the Tabernacle


This map printed in Paris in 1738 by Jacques Francois Brand was also dedicated to the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness. The route and various stops along it are marked in red and around them are a series of illustrations connected to the priestly work in the Tabernacle and its vessels. These pictures were intended to illustrate the worship in the Tabernacle at the encampments along the wilderness journey, and it is possible to identify the following (counter-clockwise): the high priest, the tabernacle and the surrounding camps, the tent of meeting, the ark and the cherubim, the altar, the table of the showbread (Lechem Ha’Panim), the candelabrum (the Menorah), the covered tabernacle (the Mishkan), the high priest performing a sacrifice inside the tabernacle, and an ordinary priest with a sacrificial bull.

And here are several more maps depicting the Exodus from Egypt:


You can view many more maps of all types from the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel, here.


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