Reuven Rivlin extended the Royal invite to mark 100-years since Britain formally issued support for a Jewish state
By Stephen Oryszczuk
Israel’s president has invited the Royal Family to visit Israel to mark the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
President Reuven Rivlin conveyed the message to visiting British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, saying: “This is a very important year in the history of the relations between Israel and the UK.”
During the two men’s meeting in Jerusalem, Rivlin added: “We will mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and I am greatly honoured to extend an official invitation to the Royal family to visit Israel to mark this event.”
Last year, Prince Charles travelled to Jerusalem for the funeral of Rivlin’s predecessor Shimon Peres, where he met Israel’s current president after the service.
Were the Queen and Prince Philip to visit, it is likely that they would attend the grave of Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, who was recognised as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem for sheltering Jewish refugees in Athens. She is buried at the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council, said: “We would sincerely hope that the invitation from the President of Israel is welcomed and accepted by those who advise the Royal Family on foreign visits.”
Board of Deputies President Jonathan Arkush said: “It is not only high time but well beyond time for a Royal visit to Israel. I have been extremely proactive in advocating that a visit should happen.”
Speaking ahead of the 67-word letter’s centenary, Jacob Rothschild describes the historic declaration which paved the way for Israel’s existence
By Stephen Oryszczuk: The current and fourth Lord Rothschild has described the Balfour Declaration that helped pave the way for the creation of Israel as a “miracle” and revealed new details about his cousin Dorothea’s crucial role.
Speaking ahead of the 67-word letter’s centenary, they are his first ever public comments on the show of support from then-foreign secretary Lord Balfour to the second Lord Rothschild, his eccentric uncle Walter, and were made in a rare TV interview with former Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub as part of the Balfour 100 project.
Jacob Rothschild, 80, head of the family’s banking dynasty, said the declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine went through five drafts before finally being penned on 2 November 1917, adding: “It was the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years, a miracle… It took 3,000 years to get to this.”
The way it was achieved was extraordinary, he said. “It was the most incredible piece of opportunism. You had an impoverished would-be scientist, Chaim Weizmann, who somehow gets to England, meets a few people, including members of my family, seduces them, he has such charm and conviction, he gets to Balfour, and unbelievably, he persuades Lord Balfour, and Lloyd George, the prime minister, and most of the ministers, that this idea of a national home for Jews should be allowed to take place. I mean it’s so, so unlikely.”
The letter “changed the course of history for the Middle East and the Jewish people,” said Taub, who interviewed Rothschild at Waddeston Manor in Buckinghamshire, a country pile bequeathed to the nation by the family in 1957, where the Declaration is kept.
It was written to Walter Rothschild, a naturalist and collector, who was first and foremost interested in ornithology (the study of birds), said Jacob, and a “deeply eccentric man who rode around Tring Park on giant tortoises and whose carriage was pulled by zebras.
Walter only became interested in Zionism in later life, but Rothschild said he had been “deeply committed to Israel since the 1960s and have been there every year since”.
However, he said his family at the time was divided on the idea of Israel, noting that some members “didn’t think it was a good thing that this national home be established there”.
He also revealed for the first time the role of his cousin Dorothy de Rothschild, who acted as a critical go-between while still in her teens. Describing her as “devoted to Israel,” Rothschild said: “What she did, which was crucially important, was to connect Weizmann to the British establishment, and extraordinarily, she told Weizmann how to integrate, how to insert himself into British establishment life, which he learned very quickly.”
Her letters, which are stored at Waddeston, detail her later dealings with a range of Zionist leaders, and her advice on the organisation of the Zionist Conference, and Rothschild said she had a profound effect on him, introducing him to Israel and the family’s philanthropic foundation in 1962.
Descendant of signatory of Balfour Declaration sends special message to conference, which marks 100 years since historic letter sent.
Windsor – The 5th earl of Balfour Roderick Balfour expressed hope that a two-state solution could be achieved this year, as he conveyed pride in his family’s legacy, the centenary of which was celebrated at Limmud FSU in Windsor this weekend.
The Balfour Declaration, dated November 2, 1917, was sent by Lord Roderick Balfour’s relative, former British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild. It expressed Britain’s support for the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Israel.
The text of the letter was incorporated into the Treaty of Sevres with the Ottoman Empire and the Mandate for Palestine.
“I am very honored to hear that an element of your symposium will be a commemoration of the Centenary of the Balfour Declaration,” Balfour said in a special message to the conference, which was read out during a festive gala on Saturday night.
An exhibition about the Balfour Declaration was displayed throughout the event (the first Limmud FSU ever to be held in Europe), which drew some 700 Russian-speaking Jews to the UK from more than 20 European countries for three days of intensive Jewish learning.
“My family is very proud of the importance to Jewish people everywhere of this initiative by the British government of the day,” the letter read. “The relevance to you all here today is that the imperative for it stemmed from the appalling Russian pogroms at the turn of the 20th century. Thus, and this what we are most proud of, the declaration was first and foremost a humanitarian act trying repatriate a talented but much-persecuted people to the land of the original Judaic roots.”
In October, a campaign was launched at an event hosted at the British Parliament’s House of Lords, calling on the UK to apologize for the declaration. A petition for a British apology and compensation for the Palestinians garnered only 1,278 supporters, failing to meet the 10,000 signatures in six months required to merit a response from the Parliament. Balfour described blaming the declaration for political turmoil in the Middle East as “over-simplistic.”
“The borders imposed by Sykes-Picot were never going to be fit for purpose and nobody in 1917 could have foreseen the Holocaust or the extraordinarily high birth rate among the Palestinians in recent decades,” his letter read.
“How much more we could celebrate the centenary if we saw a two-state solution emerge this year, which in effect would bring closure on one of the central tenets of the declaration,” he concluded.
During the event, Limmud FSU bestowed an Honorary Balfour Declaration Award upon Board of Deputies of British Jews President Jonathan Arkush for his contributions to British Jewry.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Roderick Balfour was the great-grandson of Lord Balfour.
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.
As the year’s countdown to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 2017 begins, we are proud to announce that Weizmann UK is part of the Balfour 100 campaign which is a coalition of over 23 British-Jewish cross-communal and pro- Israel organisations.
The Balfour Declaration was a letter from the UK Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild (as a representative of the British Jewish Community and for passing on to the Zionist Federation) on 2 November 1917 promising support for the creation of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Israel. As part of the Balfour 100 campaign, we are proud of the British support for a Jewish and democratic state that strives to uphold the rights of all peoples living in the land and are proud of the contribution that Great Britain made towards the creation of the State of Israel.
Of particular cause for celebration for us at Weizmann UK is the very central role in securing the Balfour Declaration that was played by Dr Chaim Weizmann, founder of the Weizmann Institute of Science and first President of the State of Israel.
Chaim Weizmann‘s activities as Zionist and incisive political operator are recounted in detail on the Balfour 100 website as are the considerable contributions of his wife Vera Weizmann.
For Weizmann UK we celebrate in particular the dual achievements of Chaim Weizmann as a scientist and statesman and over this centenary year we will reflect on his vision that science would play a key role in the success of Israel as a country.
Testament to that vision was his foundation in 1934 of the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot, that would later be renamed the Weizmann Institute of Science in his honour.
In 1949, when Chaim Weizmann was elected the first President of the State of Israel it was clear that his political and scientific ambitions for the country were closely intertwined. In his opening speech at the Knesset, he said:
“We must build a new bridge, connecting science with the human spirit. ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’ All my life I have endeavoured to make science and research the basis of our national undertaking. But I also know that beyond science, there are lofty values that hold the solution to the ills of mankind, the values of justice and honesty, peace and fraternity.”
Thanks to Weizmann’s vision, today Science and technology is one of Israel’s most developed sectors. The percentage of Israelis engaged in scientific research and the amount spent on R&D in relation to GDP is the second highest in the world.
The Weizmann Institute’s scientific achievements go from strength to strength. It was recently ranked 10th in the world by the highly regarded Leiden University ranking of scientific research impact. It was the only Institute outside of the US to make the top 10.
The Balfour 100 campaign has produced the following materials and will be holding events over the year to celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.
A comprehensive website on the Balfour Declaration is now available and provides authoritative, historical and accurate detail about the Balfour Declaration. It has annotated versions of the 5 Declaration drafts, biographies of key players involved, and reactions to the Declaration from historic figures. There is also an extensive timeline of events leading up to the Declaration, as well as a shorter, more comprehensive slideshow which has questions and answers relating to each event in the timeline. You’ll be able to see this at www.balfour100.com.
The Jewish community will also be holding a cross-denominational ‘Balfour Shabbat’ on 3rd and 4 November 2017. Synagogues across all British Jewish denominations and movements will be marking the Balfour Centenary in their own way on this Shabbat.
Balfour 100 Lecture
On 1 November 2017 there will be a Balfour lecture. Advice on how to secure tickets to the event will be released in 2017.
There will be a number of events and conferences between November 2016 and November 2017. Academics are planning various key note lectures and lecture series around the country. Community groups in Manchester are hosting a large scale event on October 31 2017. The Balfour website will also host details of Balfour related events around the country, and there will be a communal calendar where this information will also be readily accessible.
Years after prime minister announced seminal Zionist document, issued 99 years ago today, would be displayed in Tel Aviv, dream of bringing it to Israel mired in renovations and bureaucratic snafus
took decades to bring the Balfour Declaration, which enshrined London’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, to fruition. Bringing the actual document to Israel for a second visit may take even longer.
Plans to bring the Balfour Declaration to Tel Aviv for its second-ever display in Israel were announced by the Israeli government six and a half years ago, but they are held up in a dust of renovation rubble and bureaucratic misunderstandings, with no horizon for getting it to Tel Aviv for at least another year.
The document, which was issued exactly 99 years ago Wednesday, is now expected to arrive in Israel in 2018. That is just in time for the country’s 70th anniversary — but one year after the declaration’s centennial in 2017.
Originally, the Israeli government expected to host the document in 2015 on the occasion of the grand opening of the renovated Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where it was supposed to be displayed together with Lord Arthur Balfour’s desk.
In a press release issued in April 2013, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that then-cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser “received agreement in principle from the British Library for the original copy of the Balfour Declaration.”
The British Library, however, insists that no such agreement was ever granted. Indeed, Israel never formally asked for a loan, according to library spokesperson Ben Sanderson.
“We received an initial enquiry from the Israeli government, as to the conditions that need to be met to enable a loan of the item,” Sanderson wrote in an email to The Times of Israel. “The Library responded to this request, outlining our loans policy and indicating the issues that need to be considered in order to facilitate the loan of the Declaration. We have yet to receive a formal loan request. Any decision on a loan of the item will ultimately be made by the British Library Board.”
Once a formal loan request is made, Sanderson added, “we’ll be able to give proper consideration to whether the institution making the request is able to fulfill the requirements of our loans policy.”
Reuven Pinski, Israel’s point man in the contacts with the British Library, acknowledged that the government was incorrect in announcing an “agreement in principle” from the British Library. In fact, the library was unhappy about the misleading press release and voiced its displeasure to the Israeli authorities, he admitted.
“No agreement was reached; it was more like an informal understanding that if we fulfill all the conditions in the future they would agree to loan it to us,” Pinski, who at the time directed the the Heritage Division in the Prime Minister’s Office (which has since been incorporated into the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, headed by Ze’ev Elkin), told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
Announcing an agreement where there was none was not the only inaccuracy in the Prime Minister’s Office’s 2013 statement: It also claimed that the future exhibit would mark the first time the Balfour Declaration would be shown in Israel. In fact, the original declaration was loaned to the Knesset from October 1987 to May 1988, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary and the State of Israel’s 40th birthday.
The British Library has strict rules for lending items to institutions abroad in order to guarantee they are preserved, presented and secured appropriately, Pinski explained. “We need to show exactly where it is going to be displayed, and what efforts we are making to preserve it and what kind of security there will be on the premises.”
Therefore, Israel has decided to wait until the current renovations at the Independence Hall are completed before filing a formal loan request, he said.
Following a government decision from May 2009, the preservation work started in 2011 and has since been expanded to included various stages. This major overhaul is a very complicated process, Pinski said, in part because the historic building on 6 Rothschild Boulevard — where David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in 1948 — has no foundations, entailing special zoning changes and planning approvals that took years to acquire.
The latest permit needed to advance constructions was just received this week, Pinski said.
The building is among the first five houses built on the sands of Tel Aviv in 1909, and therefore the renovations are being done in stages, explained Nirit Shalev Khalifa, Independence Hall’s main curator.
“In 2013, preliminary renovation and preservation work was conducted to allow the functioning of the building, which hosts thousands of visitors per month,” she told The Times of Israel. “In the coming year, after detailed planning, the house will be closed for about one year for thorough repair work, including the digging of a basement with an auditorium and the strengthening the foundations.”
The renovations are expected to be concluded in time for Israel’s 70th birthday in May 2018. “For the opening, we hope to showcase all original items, foremost among them the Scroll [the original Declaration of Independence], which will remain in the building for a permanent exhibition,” Shalev Khalifa said. “For short periods of time, special items from abroad — including the [Balfour] Declaration — will be exhibited. Their presentation requires special means of preservation, which will exist in the new museum.”
But next year, when the world marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration’s centennial with a host of programs and events — Israel is planning to publish a stamp to celebrate the occasion — Independence Hall will be closed.
The actual letter, which Balfour wrote to the head of Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild, asserting for the first time his government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in mandatory Palestine, will remain safely stowed away in London. (The Rothschild family gave it to the British Museum, which later transferred it to the British Library.)
“It’s regrettable that we’re missing the 100-year anniversary,” the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry’s Pinski said. “But it’s much preferable to present the Balfour Declaration at the grand opening of the Independence Hall.”
Battling over Balfour
Notwithstanding the document’s physical location during the centennial, Israelis and Palestinians have already launched rival campaigns, each interpreting the document’s historical importance according to their respective narrative.
Top officials in Ramallah have vowed to sue the British government and are badmouthing the “notorious” document, in which Britain gave “without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people,” as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations in September.
In a piece for Newsweek published Wednesday, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Saeb Erekat called the declaration a “grave insult to world justice” and urged the UK to apologize for it.
Even Hamas chimed in, saying in a press release Wednesday evening that the Palestinians’ right to the land “is sacred and cannot be erased by a void promise from one criminal to another.”
In Jerusalem, the Balfour Declaration is being celebrated as “one of the earliest statements by a major international actor to recognize the Jewish people’s rights to self-determination in their historic homeland,” as the Israeli embassy declared in a statement released Wednesday. Israel’s ambassador in London, Mark Regev, on Wednesday marked the occasion by releasing 99 balloons and having the text of the declaration projected onto the embassy façade.
Simon Schama, the prominent historian, will provide one of the key moments in the community’s celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration next year.
Professor Schama will give a lecture on the historical importance of the document – which expressed British government support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The talk will take place on November 1 2017, almost 100 years to the day that the Declaration was made by then Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour.
Plans unveiled today reveal a range of centenary events taking place up and down the country under the banner Balfour 100.
The first official celebration will take place in Manchester on October 31, details of which have yet to be confirmed.
The city has strong links with early Zionism – Chaim Weizmann, who became the first president of Israel was a lecturer at the Manchester University.
The following Shabbat, November 4, has been designated “Balfour Shabbat”, with synagogues from all the denominations hosting their own celebrations.
Other events are in the process of being organised, with most activities expected to take place from next autumn.
A steering group of 23 communal organisations have been working for almost a year on the preparations. Chaired by Lord Kestenbaum on behalf of the Rothschild Foundation Europe, the group includes the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Zionist Federation and the Israeli Embassy.
Simon Johnson, chief executive of the JLC, said: “The Balfour Declaration was instrumental in the creation of the state of Israel.
“As British Jews we are very proud of the role our government played and continues to play in supporting the country.”
He said the Balfour 100 campaign was the focal point for all the community to come together to celebrate the anniversary.
Prof Schama’s lecture will take place in central London in front of an audience 400 people – tickets will go on sale nearer the time.
“It’s great Prof Schama is doing it,” Mr Johnson said. “He adds real profile to the celebrations.”
The lecture will be livestreamed on the Balfour 100 website which launches today.
The site will be “the definitive digital resource about the centenary”, said Mr Johnson
As well as showing the various versions of the Declaration itself – describing it as “the 67 words that led to the creation of the state of Israel” – the site contains comprehensive timelines, biographies of the major figures involved and a complete history of the events that led up to the founding of Israel.
It also will feature uploaded details of Balfour 100 events as they are organised by communal organisations, individual shuls, student groups and others around the country.
Mr Johnson said: “It’s intended for everyone, from those who just want to dip in and learn something about the Declaration to students and scholars who are looking for educational materials.”
Noting that anti-Israel activists have launched their own campaign calling on the British government to “apologise” for the Declaration, Mr Johnson said: “People seeking an apology – they believe the state of Israel shouldn’t exist, therefore they are taking an antisemitic position.
“Anyone unsure about the Declaration should visit our website and make up their own mind.”
A poll for Bicom, the Israel and Middle East think-tank, has found that more than 40 per cent of British people back the aims of the Declaration today.
Quoted the text of the document, 43 per cent of people said they agreed that it was the right position for the British government to adopt, with 17 per cent disagreeing.
Some 2,054 people responded to the online poll which was conducted by Populus.
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.”
Clearing up some misconceptions about Sykes-Picot on its centenary.
Many people presume that the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, which partitioned the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France, advanced the Zionist project in Palestine.
The Zionist movement celebrated Sir Mark Sykes as one of its own, so many have assumed that he must have designed the agreement to serve the Zionist interest. In the words of a Palestinian professor of history at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, “Sykes-Picot was a carefully-designed plan and prelude to the Balfour Declaration. The creation of Israel on Palestinian land would not have been possible without the Sykes-Picot agreement.” A former Israeli Ambassador has written that the Sykes-Picot agreement “politically and materially contribut[ed] to the realization of the Zionist vision.” He has even suggested that its anniversary belongs on the same Zionist calendar with the anniversaries of the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition resolution of 1947, as “milestones on the path to Jewish statehood.”This is exactly wrong. In his memoirs, Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader who midwifed the Balfour Declaration, wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “fatal to us…. The Sykes-Picot arrangement was not a full treaty; but it was sufficiently official to create the greatest single obstacle to our progress.” Sykes-Picot wasn’t a prelude to the Balfour Declaration, but an obstacle that had to be cleared to reach the Balfour Declaration. To understand that, all one has to do is look carefully at the map. But before that, a word on the purpose of Sykes-Picot. It was the Arab activist George Antonius who famously wrote of Sykes-Picot that it was “the product of greed at its worst.” But it was a product of fear as much as of greed, if not more so. The fear was that in the aftermath of war, Britain and France, old rivals, would clash disastrously over the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot had the same logic as Yalta thirty years later: It proposed an orderly partition to keep wartime allies from plunging into a new conflict after victory. And a good case can be made that when it came to preventing clashes between two rivals, Sykes-Picot was much more effective than Yalta. Preserving the balance of power was its primary objective, and in that respect, Sykes-Picot achieved its purpose.This fear of clashing allies is most manifest on the Sykes-Picot map in its treatment of Palestine. Sykes and Picot divided the Arab provinces of the empire by an east-west “line in the sand” across the Syrian desert. North of that line, there would be a “blue” zone of exclusive French control (including Beirut and Tripoli), and an Arab state (or states) under French protection (including Damascus, Homs, Hama, Aleppo, and Mosul). South of it, there would be a “red” zone of direct British control (including Basra and Baghdad), and an Arab state (or states) under British protection (mostly desert).The first thing one notices is that Palestine doesn’t fit neatly within the dualistic rubric of the French and British zones. This corner of the map is, in fact, dividedfive ways.
A wedge in the north of the country, including the tributaries of the Jordan above the Sea of Galilee and part of the northern shore of the lake, are solid blue, that is, under direct French control.
The eastern shore of the lake and the Golan are marked off as part of the Arab state under French protection.
The bulk of the country, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Gaza, is colored brown. According to the agreement, “In the brown area there shall be established an international administration, the form of which is to be decided upon after consultation with Russia, and subsequently in consultation with the other Allies [the reference is to Italy], and the representatives of the Shereef of Mecca.” (In an earlier joint memo in January 1916, Sykes and Picot wrote that “the chief of the Arabian confederation should have an equal voice in the administration of Palestine.”) The notion was that this would be an Anglo-French condominium, with a yet-undetermined measure of input from other allies.
The ports of Haifa and Acre, and the plain between them, are red, under direct British administration. Britain wanted this as an end point for a railroad from Baghdad to the Mediterranean.
Last but not least, the south of the country, including Hebron and Beer Sheba, as well as Transjordan, are to be part of the independent Arab state or confederation of states under British protection.
The Sykes-Picot map thus constitutes the first partition plan for Palestine, into no fewer than five zones. Why so many pieces? Again, balance of power. Sykes had hoped to create a British-controlled land bridge from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, but other Allied claims stood in the way. So the agreement regarding Palestine made concessions to the interests of almost every stakeholder: Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and the Sharif of Mecca.
Almost everyone: missing from the list were the Zionists. Twenty years later, George Antonius would call Sykes-Picot a “shocking document.” It certainly shocked the Zionists in London in April 1917. That is when the British Zionist activist Harry Sacher got wind of it from a friendly journalist who picked up news of it from France. Sacher informed Chaim Weizmann, who was distressed to find that the agreement displayed not a single trace of consideration for Zionist aims. At this very time, Zionist leaders had been deep in discussion about Palestine with sympathetic British officials, including Sykes. Sachar wrote to Weizmann in disgust: “We have been lied to and deceived all along.”Weizmann was stunned by two aspects of the agreement. First, the Sykes-Picot partition thoroughly divided the Yishuv. Many of the most veteran Zionist settlements—Metullah, Rosh Pina, Yesod Hama’alah, Mishmar Hayarden—would be in the exclusively French zone, as would Safed. The internationalized brown zone would include Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tiberias, as well as newer settlements such as Tel Aviv, Petah Tikvah, Rishon Lezion, Rehovot, and Zichron Yaakov. Weizmann called this division a “Solomon’s judgment of the worst character, the child is cut in two and both halves mutilated.” Were Sykes-Picot implemented, he protested, “the Jewish colonizing effort of some thirty years [would be] annihilated.”Second, the agreement gave France a dominant role as far as the Jews were concerned. France would have full control of the Galilee settlements, and would be on equal par with Britain in Judaea and the coastal plain. Weizmann regarded France as wholly unsympathetic to Zionism; far from facilitating Zionist colonization, France would block it.So what was he to do? Weizmann’s immediate move was to show up at the Foreign Office and protest to Lord Robert Cecil, acting Foreign Secretary. Weizmann’s report of that meeting is the most thorough Zionist critique of Sykes-Picot. Weizmann denounced the proposed division between the Galilee and Judaea in emphatic terms. “We would always consider [this] as an unjust partition,” and the Galilee “would certainly constitute a Jewish irredenta…. There is little doubt that the suggested division of Palestine would raise an outcry which will ring through from one end of the world to the other.” As for international or dual control, in the brown area, “it would be fraught with gravest dangers…. Any enterprise in the country would have to be sanctioned by both governments and would lead constantly to jealousies.” According to Cecil, Weizmann even warned that “the Zionists throughout the world would regard a French administration in Palestine as… ‘a third destruction of the Temple.’”From April 1917, Weizmann devoted himself and his movement to overturning Sykes-Picot. The Zionists had one aim: to swap the Sykes-Picot partition plan for an exclusively British protectorate over the whole of Palestine. Only under a British protectorate, Weizmann rightly concluded, could the Jewish home project take root and flourish.And Weizmann succeeded: in regard to Palestine, he managed to overturn Sykes-Picot entirely. Or was it really his success? In fact, he had plenty of powerful partners. By the time Weizmann learned of Sykes-Picot, many British officials wanted to shred it. They thought Sykes had given away far too much to the French. In particular, they didn’t trust the French on the flank of the Suez canal, which was the imperial lifeline to India. And if the British and the ANZACs were going to do all the fighting and dying to liberate Palestine, why should Britain share it with anyone? As Lloyd George later wrote of the armies under Allenby: “The redemption of Palestine from the withering aggression of the Turk became like a pillar of flame to lead them on. The Sykes-Picot Agreement perished in its fire. It was not worth fighting for Canaan in order to condemn it to the fate of Agag and hew it in pieces before the Lord. Palestine, if recaptured, must be one and indivisible to renew its greatness as a living entity.”Sykes himself backtracked from the agreement, tried to get Picot to modify it, and helped formulate the Balfour Declaration. In 1919, the Zionist leader Nahum Sokolov wrote: “From the standpoint of Zionist interests in Palestine, [Sykes-Picot] justly met with severe criticism; but it was Sykes himself who criticized it most sharply and who with the change of circumstances dissociated himself from it entirely.”The Balfour Declaration was the crucial step in the unraveling the Palestine corner of the Sykes-Picot map. British military administration came next. The last nail in the coffin came in December 1918, when Lloyd George met Clemenceau in London. “Tell me what you want,” said Clemenceau. “I want Mosul,” said Lloyd George. “You shall have it. Anything else?” “Yes, I want Jerusalem too.” “You shall have it.” Exit France. Sykes-Picot formally and finally came undone when Britain received the exclusive mandate for all of Palestine. It is this exclusive British protectorate that eventually made Israel possible. Israel probably would never have been born, if the Sykes-Picot map had been implemented.So Sykes-Picot became a dead letter as regards Palestine no later than 1918, if not earlier. Has it left any legacy at all? The Sykes-Picot map proclaimed that no one actor could unilaterally determine the fate of the country. There were too many conflicting interests. During the mandate years, Britain had enough power to call the shots alone. But only twenty years after Sykes-Picot, partition again became the solution to solving clashing interests in Palestine. So it has been from the Peel plan of 1937, to the UN partition plan of 1947, and ever since. The idea of agreed partition is the lasting legacy of Sykes-Picot. Even Israel’s fifty-year control of the entire country from the Mediterranean sea to the Jordan river since 1967 hasn’t undone it. Other aspects of Sykes-Picot disappeared completely. The idea of an agreed partition of Palestine, proposed in 1916 but never realized, is likely to remain with us for some time to come.