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A century since the Balfour Declaration


A mere sixty-seven words helped alter the course of history. A century years ago this past week, November 2, 1917, the Balfour Declaration was issued, declaring British support for the establishment within the then-Ottoman Empire territory of Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.

The British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James, Lord Balfour, sent the following communication to Walter, Lord Rothschild, one of the most prominent Jews in England, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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 Balfour Declaration was the first step on the political road to reversing two millennia of Jewish statelessness and exile which had resulted in the Jews being the most dispersed and persecuted minority in history.

The British commitment did not envisage Jewish statehood in all or indeed any part of Palestine, a sparsely populated, backwater district of the soon-to-be dismembered Ottoman Empire, even though some such prospect was in the fullness of time anticipated by its proponents, especially Balfour and also the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George. Supporters of Zionism, like South Africa’s Jan Smuts, believed as early as 1918 that a heterogeneous population like Palestine (512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews and 61,000 Christians at the time of the Balfour Declaration — the Jewish population had dropped by about a third due to Ottoman depredations during the War) required something other than outright autonomy, with its minorities thrown on the mercy of the majority. (Similar thinking with regard to Lebanon, with its large, multi-confessional Christian population, was also prevalent at the time.)

The Declaration resulted in the subsequent, post-war British Mandate over the territory being dedicated to the upbuilding of the Jewish national home. Even though the British later reneged on this commitment in a bid to appease the Arabs on the eve of the Second World War by drastically curtailing Jewish immigration and land purchases, the state of Israel did eventually arise when the Mandate was terminated in May 1948.

Accordingly, Israel was not anyone’s gift to the Jews. The Jews of Palestine sacrificed scarce blood and treasure to obtain and preserve their independence from five invading Arab armies and internal Palestinian Arab militias led by the war-time Nazi collaborator, Haj Amin el Husseini. One percent of Israel’s population was killed defending Israel from the invasion which all Arabs belligerents declared would result in the destruction of Israel and the massacre of all its Jews.

However, precisely because the Arabs lost and because that loss has been recast to depict the Palestinian Arabs as innocent victims assaulted and dispersed by aggressive Zionism, the Balfour Declaration, as the first installment in the political drama leading to Jewish statehood, has been vilified as an injustice inflicted on Palestinian Arabs.

Thus, the PLO has claimed Britain has primary responsibility for the “historical injustice in Palestine,” while Mahmoud Abbas told the UN General Assembly last year that “Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people.” Or, in the famous formulation of Arthur Koestler, “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

It has also been ceaselessly argued that the Balfour Declaration defrauded the Arabs who, it is alleged, had been promised an independent Arab state in territories that included Palestine by Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Egypt, in correspondence with Sherif Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca and King of the Hijaz, during 1915-16 (the Hussein–McMahon Correspondence).

All of this turns out to be untrue.

First, the Balfour Declaration was not a lone, imperial act: it was an allied commitment, agreed upon by the allied powers in the First World War. It was incorporated in the Treaty of Sèvres, signed by the 13 allied powers, including the Kingdom of the Hijaz, the chief Arab interlocutor at the post-War Paris Peace Conference, as well as Turkey. In 1922, the Declaration was incorporated into the terms of the Mandate for Palestine awarded Britain by all 51 members of the League of Nations. Whatever force of argument commended the Declaration to the British who first issued it also communicated itself to the international community that endorsed it.

For these reasons, Ashley Perry has rightly observed, “the Balfour Declaration was unique, not only in Jewish history, but possibly in the history of national movements. For a short period, all the major powers, the leader of the Arab world and most interested parties created a mechanism to fulfill the Zionist dream.”

The moment in time proved short-lived. As Europe in the next two decades was to prove, there was no way to confer self-determination on some peoples without creating new minorities, because populations were intricately intertwined. The best that might be achievable — and this is the course that was followed — was to seek statehood for both Arabs and Jews across the region. Mounting Arab opposition to Jewish self-determination foredoomed a peaceful post-war settlement in the Middle East along these lines and led eventually to Zionism being put to the test of the sword.

Second, Britain had no control at all at the time over the territory in question, which was still lodged firmly in Ottoman hands. It was thus in no position to give the territory to the Jews, merely to state its preferred policy.

Third, nor was a country or people being usurped; no Palestinian country or nationality had pre-existed its Ottoman landlords, nor did the local population conceive of itself as anything other than the inhabitants of the southern part of Syria. Their political allegiance was centered on the Ottoman Empire, not on any national aspirations which were then virtually non-existent.

Fourth, no British commitment to create an Arab state in Palestine was at any time given to Sherif Hussein or any other Arab interlocutor. As Isaiah Friedman demonstrated in exquisite detail in his 2000 book, Palestine: A Twice Promised Land?, the original Arabic letter of October 24, 1915 from McMahon to Hussein (which Friedman uncovered), as well as its retranslation into English by the British in Cairo in November 1919, makes it clear beyond peradventure that the territory of what became the British Mandate of Palestine west of the Jordan River was not among the territories earmarked for Arab statehood. Moreover, there was no unilateral British commitment of any sort, but rather a conditional promise in the event of an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks which never materialized; to the contrary, the Arabs of Palestine and Syria in their overwhelming majority fought on the Ottoman side.

While T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) raised an army of Arab irregulars in the Hejaz, no indigenous revolt occurred in Syria or Iraq and indeed only the landing of a British army led to the driving out of Ottoman forces from Palestine after the victories of Gaza, Beersheba, and Megiddo. There was thus no “twice-promised land” — and consequently no fraudulent British dealings — which both friends and foes of Israel have frequently alleged to lie at the root of the conflict.

It is one thing to see the Balfour Declaration as a vital link in a chain leading to Israel’s creation over thirty years later, which it was. It is quite another to invest the Declaration with responsibility for the tragic consequences of the war Arabs insisted upon launching to abort Israel’s creation.

The Palestinian tragedy is not the Balfour Declaration. It is the Arab and Muslim supremacism that has determined Palestinian Arab political decisions at virtually every turn in the past century, ensuring that the Palestinian leadership opposed and denied — and continue to deny — any Jewish claim or connection with the land and refuse to countenance the idea that Jews are entitled to the self-determination they insist upon for themselves. The Palestinian Arab leadership’s demand of a British apology for the Declaration leading up to its anniversary merely underscores this fact.

This ongoing tragedy is unlikely to end until Palestinian Arabs relinquish the dream of Israel’s dismemberment, recognize the right of the Jews to their sovereign existence, and undertake to work with it to bring about peace, not war.

Blame for all manner of decisions and acts across intervening decades can be leveled at all parties involved. But that is no reason for Israel, or Britain, not to celebrate Lord Balfour’s high-minded act of statesmanship one hundred years ago which helped the Jewish people to rejoin the family of sovereign nations after two millennia of statelessness, persecution, and massacre.

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