Ninety-nine years ago, a 67-word message changed the world. The Balfour Declaration, issued on November 2, 1917, is generally considered the moment when the dream of the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in their ancient homeland began to come to fruition. But while Jews around the world plan to spend the coming year celebrating the anniversary with efforts such as the Balfour 100 Project, the fact that Palestinians are still seeking to refight the battle over it tells us all we need to know why peace between Arabs and Jews remains nowhere in sight a century later.
The declaration was a letter sent from Britain’s Foreign Secretary to Lord Lionel Rothschild, a leader of that country’s Jewish community:
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.
Britain was then fighting for its life. The outcome of World War I was still very much in doubt at the time. Its forces had already invaded Palestine, then a possession of the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Scientist Chaim Weizmann and other members of the Zionist movement influenced Balfour and others in the government, led by Prime Minister David Lloyd-George, to see the return of the Jews as an act of justice. In addition to their sympathy for the idea of creating a home for a persecuted people in the land of the Bible, the British were also under the misapprehension that doing so would generate more support for Britain from American and Russian Jews. In truth, Jews had little influence on U.S. policy and none at all in a Russia, which would soon exit the war after the Bolshevik coup the following month. But even though these philo-Semitic statesmen were also motivated in part by anti-Semitic myths about Jewish power, what they did was to set in motion a process that would lead to the British taking possession of Ottoman territory after Turkey’s defeat.
In 1922, the League of Nations gave Britain a Mandate to govern Palestine after World War I, the purpose of which was to create just such a “national home.” But though this helped facilitate more Jewish immigration and the creation of institutions that would prove essential to Israel’s birth, the British soon tired of the task. The British administration was largely sympathetic to the Arab population and often stood by as Arab mobs launched pogroms and placed strict limits on the ability of the Jews to defend themselves. Only 17 years after the Mandate was issued, the British effectively repudiated its terms by placing draconian limits on immigration and land purchases, seemingly forestalling any hope for a Jewish state.
This act of appeasement aimed at conciliating the Arabs also had the effect of trapping millions of European Jews, who might have looked to Palestine as a place to escape the Nazis. After World War II, the British continued to do their best to repress Jewish immigration and hopes for a state. When, in 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution that partitioned Western Palestine (the Eastern portion on the other side of the Jordan River had already been set aside to create what is now the Kingdom of Jordan) into Jewish and Arab states, the British withdrew. The Arabs rejected partition and launched a war to destroy the newborn Jewish state. Their defeat led to the creation of a Palestinian refugee problem (ironically up until 1948 the term “Palestinian” solely referred to Jews living in the country; not Arabs), and the conflict that continues to this day.
Far from being a “crime,” the Declaration was an effort to correct a great historical injustice to the Jews. If Palestinian Arabs suffered from the wars that were launched to render it null and void, it is because they viewed the effort to deny the Jews any part of the country as a greater priority than the wellbeing of their own people. Palestinian national identity is still inextricably tied to that hopeless war in such a manner as to render all efforts to broker peace futile.
So it is no trifling matter that Palestinians will use the coming year to protest Balfour, including an absurd plan to sue the United Kingdom over the declaration in the International Court at The Hague. It may be understandable that they view the events of November 1917 with regret, since it was the moment when it became inevitable that this territory would have to be shared with the Jews in one form or another. But if their goal is, as their apologists often tell us, the elusive two-state solution rather than their century-old dream of eradicating the Jewish presence, then the focus on Balfour makes no sense.
The Balfour Centennial might be an apt moment for both peoples to seek to redeem the hope that Jewish rights could be respected without harming those of their Arab neighbors via a two-state solution. Instead, the Palestinians will spend it not merely venting spleen at a long gone British statesman but by reminding the world that their hope is to return to the pre-Balfour world, even to the point of campaigning to have the United Nations treat Jewish holy places in Jerusalem as solely Muslim sites.
In that sense, the Balfour anniversary isn’t merely a historical milestone for the Jews. It is also an apt reminder of why the Palestinians remain stuck in a mindset that makes peace unattainable.