Is the Balfour Declaration Still Relevant?

Jews and Palestinians both say yes – which shows that both sides still care more about how they are perceived than about reality on the ground.

Today is the 95th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration, the British government’s official pledge to support “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” which was sent to Lord Rothschild by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour on November 2, 1917. Growing up in Israel and learning the national historical narrative, I had a rather jaundiced view of the Balfour Declaration. In the eyes of many Israelis, it is basically yet another symbol of Albion’s perfidy.

The British, after receiving significant help from Jews and Zionists in World War I, promised to help found a Jewish state. But the moment they were awarded the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, they began dragging their feet and reneging on their commitment. They ultimately had to be kicked out by Jewish underground movements, and it was the United Nations, not Britain, that passed the partition resolution. The British Mandate, with its army, slunk away, making no effort to implement the UN resolution and leaving the Jews to fend for themselves against seven Arab armies. So much for British promises.

Only in recent years did I realize that British Jews have a very different opinion of the Balfour Declaration, as do Palestinian nationalists and their supporters. Essentially, both these groups agree in their assessment of its historical importance: It made a major contribution to the process that led to Israel’s establishment. The only difference is that Jews in Britain (at least the Israel-supporters among them ) celebrate this as one of the community’s greatest moments of pride, in which they came together with His Majesty’s Government to set the ball of Jewish statehood rolling. The Palestinians see it as the moment “that Palestine became the victim of colonial conspiracies.” At least that is what Nabil Sha’ath, a former Palestinian foreign minister, wrote in a column this week in the Daily Telegraph, drawing a line of shame between the signing of the Balfour Declaration and the British government’s current opposition to upgrading the Palestinians’ status at the United Nations.

There are so many anniversaries crowding the conflict’s calendar, both celebrations and commemorations, in which the memory of a triumph for one side is usually the mourning of a downfall for the other. Thus it’s almost surprising that the Balfour Declaration, just a letter of intent devoid of corresponding actions on the ground, can still excite emotions.

Britain had not yet captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, and World War I’s outcome was still far from decided. The letter certainly roused many Zionists over the prospect of one of the world’s greatest powers supporting their aspirations, but many others saw it as a barely veiled attempt by the British to enlist Jewish support in persuading the United States to send its forces to Europe’s battlefields in a timelier fashion. Still others saw it as a continuation of Balfour’s attempts to curtail Jewish immigration to Britain, accusing him of anti-Semitism.

Yet the passions still run high. Tonight in London, a local Justice for Palestine group will hold an event at which writers and activists will commemorate the Balfour Declaration by discussing “the responsibility of the British State for the catastrophe that befell the Palestinian people.” On Sunday, a bronze bust of the man who did more than any other British leader to uphold the declaration, Winston Churchill, will be unveiled in Jerusalem’s Mishkenot Sha’ananim. And on Monday, the Zionist Federation in London will hold its annual Balfour Lecture – go tell them Balfour was an anti-Semite.

All they want is love

Historians of the “what-if” school of thought can spend their days on questions such as “would Israel have been founded if there had been no Balfour Declaration?” but these are empty discussions. The obsession with the meaning of such events from the distant past says less about their historical relevance and much more about the current tendencies of both sides in the conflict.

Whether the Balfour Declaration had a material influence on the international community’s attitude toward Zionism is little more than fodder for a minor academic debate. But the words of Balfour’s letter still resonate with many simply because it was the first clear and official statement of support by a major power of the Zionist movement’s aims, and it was issued under the seal of His Majesty King George V. Nowadays, when every American presidential debate is a competition over which candidate is more committed to Israel’s security, it is almost impossible to imagine how rare such an affirmation of Zionism was less than a century ago.

What hasn’t changed is the desire of so many Jews (and Palestinians too, obviously ) to constantly hear from around the world that they are supported and sympathized with as history’s victims. We yearn so much for international recognition, for votes of solidarity and gestures of compassion, and above all, we want the media to love us. If it weren’t so sad, it would be hilarious that supporters of both Israel and the Palestinians are equally convinced their side is terribly maligned by the international mainstream media and the other side given an easy ride. The resources poured into the self-appointed media monitors and advocacy groups could be put to so many better uses, which might just help create a better reality for the media to report on.

It is sad because it sometimes seem that many Palestinians would prefer an empty and meaningless upgrade of their status at the United Nations to a concrete improvement of their situation and perhaps even some progress toward statehood. Similarly, many Israelis and Zionists appear to care far more about how their country is portrayed in the press than about the actual morality of its actions and policies.

Reading some of the literature on pro-Palestinian websites, it is hard to avoid the impression that there are people today who would make major efforts to get the British government to repeal the Balfour Declaration, even if such a step would be simply declarative and have no real effect on anything happening in the region. And were such an initiative ever to get off the ground, there would be a similar effort on the other side to “protect Balfour.”

The Balfour Declaration has its place in history, but at the end of the day, it was just a letter from the British foreign secretary, and its significance today is about as great as anything today’s British foreign secretary may have to say. To only slightly paraphrase David Ben-Gurion: “It doesn’t matter what the goyim say, what’s important is what the Jews (and Palestinians ) do.”

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