Balfour Street in Jerusalem. (photo by Pat Johnson)
One hundred years ago, on Nov. 2, 1917, one of history’s most consequential letters was typed. Simple and short, the Balfour Declaration, as it would become known, is a central artifact in the history of Zionism, the state of Israel and the ongoing conflict over claims to the land on which Israelis and Palestinians reside.
The letter from the British foreign secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour, was addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader in the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It informed Rothschild that the British cabinet had approved this one-paragraph statement:
“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.”
The letter was enormously historic for a number of reasons, not least that the first Zionist Congress had taken place a mere 20 years earlier, the first tangible expression in two millennia that the Jewish people should reasonably anticipate self-determination in the land of Zion. And now one of the world’s great powers was on record as supporting the endeavour.
The letter was also hugely presumptuous because the area in question was still under the control of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans would not be thoroughly vanquished by the British-French-Russian allies until 1918. Yet the allies were so confident of eventual victory that the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 was already (on paper) carving up the region between the European powers.
Nevertheless, the document stood as a testament to British allegiance to the Zionist ideal in the interwar period. That allegiance, of course, amounted to very little in practical terms. In response to Arab protests (including mass murder in Hebron in 1929), the British froze Jewish migration to Palestine at the very moment in history when it was more urgently necessary than ever. The Holocaust – which can be said to have begun in earnest on Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, 21 years to the day after the Balfour Declaration was made public – occurred, of course, because of the Nazis’ Final Solution. But it could only have occurred in the enormous extent that it did because no other nation on earth would welcome the imperiled Jews of Europe. Palestine was the most obvious place for them to go, but British resolve folded in the face of Arab protest and Jews were trapped in Europe, where six million would die.
Likewise, the British commitment to Zionism amounted to nothing when it mattered again after the Holocaust. Still preventing widespread Jewish migration to Palestine, the British eventually gave up on the entire enterprise and threw the troubled land into the lap of the newly founded United Nations. The UN, for its part, eventually passed the Partition Resolution that would have seen two states – one Jewish, one Arab – formed in Palestine.
The reality remains that one significant sub-clause of the Balfour Declaration stands out to the contemporary eye. The statement that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” would certainly be viewed by many as remaining unfulfilled. The civil rights of non-Jewish citizens of Israel are protected in law, but serious inequalities remain. More significantly, the statelessness and associated lack of civil rights experienced by Palestinians in the Israeli-controlled parts of the West Bank would certainly not live up to the well-intentioned words of Balfour.
Some say the British government should apologize for their role in advancing an independent Jewish state. British Prime Minister Theresa May batted that one back in a letter to her party’s Conservative Friends of Israel, saying, “We are proud of our role in creating the state of Israel.… The task now is to encourage moves toward peace.”
If apologies are in order, the British government might consider apologizing for giving little but lip-service to the Zionism enterprise throughout the 20th century.
The Balfour anniversary is an interesting time to reflect on history – and the past has an important role to play in informing us of the present. But, as always, we should keep our focus on the future.