Balfour at 100

A memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey for the late Lord Balfour who was buried at Whittinghame, Scotland. Mr. Lloyd George and Mr. Winston Churchill at the service at Westminster Abbey, London on March 22, 1930. (AP Photo)

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.


Faisal–Weizmann Agreement – When the Arabs asked the Jews to return to Israel

Feisal-Frankfurter Correspondence (March 1919)

Letter from Emir Feisal (Son of Hussein Bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca | Great grandson of the prophet Muhammad) to Felix Frankfurter, associate of Dr. Chaim Weizmann:


Paris Peace Conference

March 3, 1919

Dear Mr. Frankfurter:

I want to take this opportunity of my first contact with American Zionists to tell you what I have often been able to say to Dr. Weizmann in Arabia and Europe.

We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in having suffered similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves, and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.

The Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organisation to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.

With the chiefs of your movement, especially with Dr. Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause, and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another. The Jewish movement is national and not imperialist. Our movement is national and not imperialist, and there is room in Syria for us both. Indeed I think that neither can be a real success without the other.

People less informed and less responsible than our leaders and yours, ignoring the need for cooperation of the Arabs and Zionists, have been trying to exploit the local difficulties that must necessarily arise in Palestine in the early stages of our movements. Some of them have, I am afraid, misrepresented your aims to the Arab peasantry, and our aims to the Jewish peasantry, with the result that interested parties have been able to make capital out of what they call our differences.

I wish to give you my firm conviction that these differences are not on questions of principle, but on matters of detail such as must inevitably occur in every contact of neighbouring peoples, and as are easily adjusted by mutual good will. Indeed nearly all of them will disappear with fuller knowledge.

I look forward, and my people with me look forward, to a future in which we will help you and you will help us, so that the countries in which we are mutually interested may once again take their places in the community of civilised peoples of the world.

Believe me,

Yours sincerely,

(Sgd.) Feisal

Letter of reply from Felix Frankfurter to Emir Feisal:

Paris Peace Conference

March 5, 1919

Royal Highness,

Allow me, on behalf of the Zionist Organisation, to acknowledge your recent letter with deep appreciation.

Those of us who come from the United States have already been gratified by the friendly relations and the active cooperation maintained between you and the Zionist leaders, particularly Dr. Weizmann. We knew it could not be otherwise; we knew that the aspirations of the Arab and the Jewish peoples were parallel, that each aspired to re-establish its nationality in its own homeland, each making its own distinctive contribution to civilisation, each seeking its own peaceful mode of life.

The Zionist leaders and the Jewish people for whom they speak have watched with satisfaction the spiritual vigour of the Arab movement. Themselves seeking justice, they are anxious that the just national aims of the Arab people be confirmed and safeguarded by the Peace Conference.

We knew from your acts and your past utterances that the Zionist movement — in other words the national aim of the Jewish people — had your support and the support of the Arab people for whom you speak. These aims are now before the Peace Conference as definite proposals by the Zionist Organisation. We are happy indeed that you consider these proposals “moderate and proper,” and that we have in you a staunch supporter for their realisation.

For both the Arab and the Jewish peoples there are difficulties ahead — difficulties that challenge the united statesmanship of Arab and Jewish leaders. For it is no easy task to rebuild two great civilisations that have been suffering oppression and misrule for centuries. We each have our difficulties we shall work out as friends, friends who are animated by similar purposes, seeking a free and full development for the two neighbouring peoples. The Arabs and Jews are neighbours in territory; we cannot but live side by side as friends.

Very respectfully,

(Sgd.) Felix Frankfurter

Agreement Between Emir Feisal and Dr. Weizmann
Faisal–Weizmann Agreement

3 January 1919

His Royal Highness the Emir Feisal, representing and acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz, and Dr. Chaim Weizmann, representing and acting on behalf of the Zionist Organization, mindful of the racial kinship and ancient bonds existing between the Arabs and the Jewish people, and realizing that the surest means of working out the consummation of their natural aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration in the development of the Arab State and Palestine, and being desirous further of confirming the good understanding which exists between them, have agreed upon the following:


Article I

The Arab State and Palestine in all their relations and undertakings shall be controlled by the most cordial goodwill and understanding, and to this end Arab and Jewish duly accredited agents shall be established and maintained in the respective territories.

Article II

Immediately following the completion of the deliberations of the Peace Conference, the definite boundaries between the Arab State and Palestine shall be determined by a Commission to be agreed upon by the parties hereto.

Article III

In the establishment of the Constitution and Administration of Palestine, all such measures shall be adopted as will afford the fullest guarantees for carrying into effect the British Government’s Declaration of the 2nd of November, 1917.

Article IV

All necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible to settle Jewish immigrants upon the land through closer settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil. In taking such measures the Arab peasant and tenant farmers shall be protected in their rights and shall be assisted in forwarding their economic development.

Article V

No regulation or law shall be made prohibiting or interfering in any way with the free exercise of religion; and further, the free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship, without discrimination or preference, shall forever be allowed. No religious test shall ever be required for the exercise of civil or political rights.

Article VI

The Mohammedan Holy Places shall be under Mohammedan control.

Article VII

The Zionist Organization proposes to send to Palestine a Commission of experts to make a survey of the economic possibilities of the country, and to report upon the best means for its development. The Zionist Organization will place the aforementioned Commission at the disposal of the Arab State for the purpose of a survey of the economic possibilities of the Arab State and to report upon the best means for its development. The Zionist Organization will use its best efforts to assist the Arab State in providing the means for developing the natural resources and economic possibilities thereof.

Article VIII

The parties hereto agree to act in complete accord and harmony on all matters embraced herein before the Peace Congress.

Article IX

Any matters of dispute which may arise between the contracting parties hall be referred to the British Government for arbitration.

Given under our hand at London, England, the third day of January, one thousand nine hundred and nineteen

Chaim Weizmann Feisal Ibn-Hussein

Reservation by the Emir Feisal

If the Arabs are established as I have asked in my manifesto of 4 January, addressed to the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, I will carry out what is written in this agreement. If changes are made, I cannot be answerable for failing to carry out this agreement.