100 years of the Balfour Declaration

November 2 marks the 100 th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a milestone in Zionist history and the earliest diplomatic foundation on which the State of Israel was established, 31 years later.

The anniversary has sparked a slew of retrospective books and articles and last year, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked Arab states to help prepare a lawsuit against Britain over the Declaration.  He asserts that it led to the Palestinian Nakba-their term for the tragedy of Israel's establishment and the thwarting of Palestinian statehood. Abbas clearly recognizes the Declaration's historic importance.

The Declaration was issued by Lord Balfour (1848-1930), Britain's Foreign Secretary, on behalf of the British government. Short and to the point, it said that "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."

As in so many cases of diplomatic messages, semantics are very important in this Declaration: it did not recognize the Jewish people's right to a state . Instead, it mentioned a national home -a term that had no legal definition, and could be interpreted in different ways by different people. It was no coincidence; this could avoid or at least delay a confrontation with the Arabs of the Middle East.

Another intentional semantic point was that the Declaration did not promise the Jews a homeland of Palestine but rather a homeland in Palestine; meaning, the whole territory would not necessarily be given to a Jewish homeland and there may be room for an Arab state alongside it.

Not less important is the statement that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the rights of "existing non-Jewish communities," meaning the indigenous Arabs sharing a land with the Jews. This was a quintessential British balancing act.

The Declaration was of utmost importance to the Jewish people because it was the first recognition by a world power of the Zionist idea of self-determination. After Theodor Herzl's largely futile world tour in search of international recognition, here finally-thanks largely to Israel's first president and British chemist Chaim Weizmann-was the stamp of approval by a superpower allowing the Jews to return to their historical land and to establish a homeland.

The British had an interest in making that declaration during the first World War and it is in the context of that war that it should be viewed. The ruling power in the region was the Ottoman Empire, at war with the allies. Britain was set to conquer Palestine from them and had an interest in ensuring the cooperation (and gratitude) of the local Jewish population ahead of the battle for Palestine.

Another British interest was to garner worldwide Jewish support for the allied cause in the war. They believed that the Declaration would get Jewish communities around the world to support the allied war effort and that in particular American Jewry would encourage the United States into the war. There was a clear propaganda benefit in store for Britain.

The British also had an interest in improving relations with the Jewish community so as to present a unified stance vis-à-vis France, another allied power, vying for Middle East hegemony. Britain, under Prime Minister David Lloyd George, favored a division of the Middle East into spheres of influence and wanted Palestine to be at the heart of its Mideast Empire.

Much of world Jewry received the Declaration with exaltation. Notable exceptions were anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Jews and many non-Orthodox American Jews who were concerned about allegations of dual loyalty and that the U.S. was actually the new Jewish "promised land." Nonetheless, the Zionist dream was finally being recognized internationally.

The Arab leadership saw it as a British betrayal. They considered the Declaration a promise by a foreign power to a non-indigenous people at their expense: not primarily the Arabs of Palestine but rather to their own designs for the land. To this day, the Palestinian Authority is actively trying to advance a narrative that disconnects the people of modern Israel from its historical homeland, even though that millennial connection has been proven time and again by scriptures as well as by archeological findings. The attempt to show that modern Israel and the ancient kingdom of Israel are separate entities serves a Palestinian political narrative, thwarted by the Balfour Declaration.

A century after the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist idea is no longer a dream but a reality. The Jewish people reestablished a homeland on our historic land where Jewish presence had been uninterrupted for two millennia. Sadly, the reluctance on the part of some Arabs to recognize that reality is a major stumbling block on the road to peace-as well as to eventual Palestinian statehood alongside Israel. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.


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