THE BALFOUR DECLARATION, 100 YEARS ON

There are only a few documents in Middle Eastern history which have had as much influence as the Balfour Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was sent as a 67-word statement contained within the short letter addressed to the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour on November 2, 1917. The declaration acknowledged the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. The statement of the Declaration read as:

 

“His Majesty’s Government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this objective, 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.”

 

The letter was addressed to Lionel Walter Rothschild, a British banker and a Zionist activist, who drafted the declaration with the help of fellow Zionist Chaim Weizmann and others. The declaration proved to be in line with the wishes of Zionist leaders who hoped for a homeland in Palestine. It was designed to encourage the intense immigration of Jews from all over the world to Palestine.

As Balfour was a part of the liberal government under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, they schemed to form a public opinion campaign stating that Jews had undergone injustices for a long time for which the West was to blame. Therefore, it was the responsibility of the West to find and establish a Jewish homeland. Their motivation for achieving a separate homeland for Jews was motivated by fundamentalist Christians like Lloyd George, who encouraged the idea for two reasons; to depopulate their own lands of Jews and to fulfill the Biblical prophecy, according to which the return of the Christ will occur after the establishment of a Jewish kingdom in the Holy Land.

The Zionist from the beginning were determined to turn Palestine into a Jewish nation-state but, being sensitive to British politics, their leaders denied the allegation that Jews had as aim to constitute a separate political nationality. The word the Zionist proposed for what they intended to create in Palestine was “heimstatte” which roughly translated meant something less than a state but equating a homeland.” It was to be used “until there was no reason to dissimulate our real aim.”

Everyone knew the Palestinians would not be content with the idea of a homeland for the Jewish people usurping them much less be relegated to an Old Testament role of a suppressed minority to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, but few cared. The word Palestinian was not even mentioned in the Balfour Declaration. It used, instead, the curious circumlocution of “the existing non-Jewish communities,” and focused on Jewish aspirations and avoided any mention of the Palestinians. It went on to specify that nothing should be done that would “prejudice” their “civil and religious rights,” again without specifying who the “they” and “their” was.

It was not until 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, that an attempt was made to find out what the Palestinians wanted. President Woodrow Wilson sent a mission of inquiry, the King-Crane Commission, to find out. The British were annoyed by the American inquiry; they didn’t care what the “natives” wanted. Meanwhile, the British were becoming increasingly disturbed that the “heimstatte” actually meant more than the Brits had intended. When Winston Churchill became Colonial Secretary and was responsible for Palestine, he publically rebuked the Zionists for trying to force Britain’s hand and emphasized that in the Balfour Declaration the British government had promised only to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It did not commit Britain to make Palestine as a whole the Jewish homeland. (This is discussed in great detail in my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides.

The injustice done and the promises made were irreconcilable. So it is curious almost admirable the candor of Lord Balfour who in a statement in 1919 to his fellow Cabinet ministers admitted: “So far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers (Britain and France in their Sykes-Picot Accords) have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which at least in letter they have not always intended to violate.”

Jump ahead one hundred years to a recent letter in the New York Times by the 5th Earl, Roderick Balfour in which he acknowledged that while one part of the Balfour Declaration, which gave Jews a homeland in Palestine had been fulfilled, the other, respecting the rights of the native Palestinian population, had not. He went on to say:

“In 1917, my forebear Arthur Balfour, as British foreign secretary, wrote the Balfour Declaration, a great humanitarian initiative to give Jews a home in their ancient lands, against the background of the dreadful Russian pogroms.”

The Earl continued: “We are conscious, however, that a central tenet of the declaration has all but been forgotten over the intervening 100 years: respect for the status of the Palestinian people.”

He went on to say that Israel’s inability to abide by UN resolutions to cease building illegal settlements and withdraw from the Occupied Territories is a key factor behind growing anti-Semitism around the world. The Israeli Prime Minister owes it to the millions of Jews around the world who suffer because of Israel’s internal politics, particularly as they pertain to the disenfranchised Palestinians, to change his policies.

The Earl insists the centenary of the Balfour Declaration cannot be properly commemorated without not only progress on a viable solution but a simultaneous push toward to declaring Jerusalem the internationally protected capital for all three Abrahamic faiths as it was always originally intended to be.

Israeli and Palestinian Voices is available here:

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