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.”


Sykes-Picot and the Zionists

Clearing up some misconceptions about Sykes-Picot on its centenary.

The Palestinian Distortion of the Balfour Declaration

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki has threatened to sue Britain for issuing the 1917 Balfour Declaration because, he claims, that it led to mass Jewish immigration to British Mandate Palestine “at the expense of our Palestinian people.”

The Palestinian threat is not as laughable as it sounds. It’s not unexpected either, as part of the current Palestinian strategy to exploit any law and abuse any forum to delegitimise Israel.

The Balfour Declaration, named after then-UK Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour, pledged Britain’s support for the establishment “in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This was not intended to be at the expense of the local Arabs, whose civil rights would not be prejudiced: later, the 1936 Peel Commission proposed to partition western Palestine into an Arab, as well as a Jewish state.

“Nearly a century has passed since the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917,” Malki was quoted as recently saying,”And based on this ill-omened promise hundreds of thousands of Jews were moved from Europe and elsewhere to Palestine at the expense of our Palestinian people whose parents and grandparents had lived for thousands of years on the soil of their homeland.”

Almost every word in Malki’s statement is a lie. Britain reneged on its promises to the Zionists. It gave 70 percent of Palestine to Transjordan in 1921 and curtailed Jewish emigration,  sealing the fate of countless Jews trapped in Nazi-occupied Europe.

No Arab states were enjoined to respect the civil rights of their Jewish citizens. These Jews were unceremoniously thrown out of the Arab world without apology and without compensation — and their pre-Islamic communities were destroyed.

The Palestinians say they cannot be held responsible for what happened to the Jewish refugees. While Israel can legitimately discuss Palestinian refugees in peace talks, Jewish refugees would have to address their grievances with the Arab states.

Arab League states, which instigated the 1948 war against Israel, did indeed create both sets of refugees. However, an extremist Palestinian leadership, which collaborated with the Nazis and incited anti-Jewish hatred all over the Arab world, dragged five Arab states into conflict with the new Jewish state — a conflict they lost and whose consequences they must suffer.  The Palestinian move to sue is as if Germans sued the Allies for starting World War II.

From the outset, the Palestinian cause was a pan-Arab nationalist cause. It has also a powerful Islamist, antisemitic dimension. In Arab eyes, the Jews have no claim to a single inch of “Palestine.”

Every Balfour Declaration anniversary, Arab mobs took to the streets, and the demonstrations often degenerated into full-blown riots, as in Egypt and Libya in 1945, when 130 Jews were murdered.

Not only did the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, instigate deadly disturbances in Palestine in 1920 and 1929, but he used the Balfour Declaration as a rallying cry to incite persecution against the Jews of the Arab world.

The Jerusalem Islamic Congress of 1931, called by the Mufti, was followed by violence in Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and Aden. All this well before the creation of the state of Israel.

But the worst incitement, with the deadliest consequences, took place in Iraq: the Mufti  fled to Berlin after being implicated in a failed pro-Nazi coup, but not before he had primed the Arabs of Baghdad to unleash the Farhud of 1941. The pogrom claimed the lives of at least 179 Jews.

This was the first battle in the Palestinian war against the defenseless Jews of the Arab world. Had the Nazis been victorious, the Mufti wanted to oversee the Jews’ extermination, not just in Palestine but throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

It is these Jews who have been denied justice, the right to compensation for their loss of assets and land several times the size of Israel itself, and the human rights abuses they suffered. It is these Jews who have every right to sue those who wronged them.


Prepare for war over the Balfour Declaration

As the centenary of the pivotal “Balfour Declaration” looms in 2017, a new group wants Britain to apologise for making it

November 2017 marks 100 years since the famous “Balfour Declaration” was made in a letter to the British Jewish community, including the famous words, “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”.

The letter started a chain of events that led, by no means smoothly, to the eventual formation of the modern state of Israel. With the advent in recent years of campaigns such as BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions), an essentially anti-Israel movement, Sabeel (Palestinian “Liberation Theology”), and a plethora of other anti-Israel organisations and groups, attempts to attribute the blame for today’s conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have delved back into history long before 1948.

Now has arisen a group that wants Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration ever having been made. The Balfour Project claims that Britain deceived both Jews and Arabs in making the 1917 declaration in favour of a “Jewish national home” in what was then Palestine.

The Project attempts to dissect the convolutions of behind-the-scenes talks that went on during World War One, as Britain sought to undermine Turkish rule in the Middle East. By negotiating with both Jews and Arabs over the destiny of vast swathes of Ottoman territory, Britain hoped to create a friendly “bridge” between her African and Indian territories that would enable profitable trade (and Middle Eastern oil) to be cheaper through overland channels instead of the existing laborious sea routes.

So far so normal in imperial diplomacy. In attempts, however, to ensure Britain and France got the best deals from everyone involved, three sets of agreements made with interested parties collided in confusion at the close of the war. In simple terms, the McMahon/Hussein correspondence (1915) sought to buy the allegiance of the powerful Sharif of Mecca and his clan with offers of territory and power; the Sykes-Picot agreement (1917) sought to carve up part of the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France; and the Balfour Declaration (1917) sought to create a pro-British bloc in Palestine. Unfortunately, the Sykes-Picot agreement carved up territory that had already been promised to the Arabs under the McMahon correspondence.

Contrary to the claims of The Balfour Project, the area that is now Israel was under some dispute. Britain wanted to keep a coastal strip on the Mediterranean under her control, while Sharif Hussein wanted control over much of the same area. At no point was the area around Jerusalem and southwards promised to the Arabs.

It is therefore deceptive to accuse Britain of breaking a promise over an area that it had not promised at all. In fact, Hussein’s son Faisal agreed to abandon his father’s claims on Palestine when he was given Iraq to rule. Under the Sykes-Picot agreement also, most of today’s Israel was to be an international zone – again, not promised to the Arabs.

The eventual compromise gave Iraq to the Sharif’s son Faisal, Trans-Jordan to his other son Abdullah, and Lebanon and Syria to the French. The Zionists were left with the slip of land west of the Jordan River that we know today as Israel. Lebanon and Syria became the French Mandate and Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq) became the British Mandate. It is vital to recognise that the promises made to both Jews and Arabs were at least partly, if not mostly, fulfilled through the compromise arrangements.

The Balfour Project makes use of several revisionist articles to claim that Britain needs to apologise to both Jews and Arabs for its historical “balagan” (Arab for a proper foul-up), but betrays itself as another attempt at delegitimisation by its own strap-line: “Contributing to justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East”. As soon as you see the words “justice”, “peace”, “reconciliation” and “Middle East” in the same sentence, you know you are facing another attempt to denigrate and delegitimise the state of Israel.

The Balfour Project has already started holding meetings around the UK and while, to their credit, their meeting in Winchester included speakers opposed to the aims of the Project, most of the speakers and writers involved are also heavily connected to the BDS and delegitimisation movements, including Rev Stephen Sizer, Prof Ilan Pappe and others.

The Balfour Project aims to make sufficient impact in Britain that the Government will be forced into an apology for the Balfour Declaration on its centenary in 2017. This apology is not needed, will not contribute to peace or justice, and will not diminish the depth of feelings for and against Israel.

The Balfour Project claims it does not deny the right of Israel to exist, but Rabbi Dan Cohen-Sherbok threw a spanner in the works in his speech at the Project’s meeting in Winchester by pointing out that if the Balfour Declaration should not have been made then does that mean that the Jews should not have been offered a homeland and that Israel should not exist today?

Oops, back to the drawing board!