Balfour Declaration Anniversary Commentary

By Steve Hunegs

November 2, 2017

The 100th anniversary of the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration is an occasion worthy of the festive commemorative dinner to which Prime Minister Theresa May invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend.

Indeed, all friends of Israel should express their ongoing gratitude to Great Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour for their great act of historical imagination. To paraphrase David Ben Gurion and Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the Balfour Declaration aligned one of this age’s global powers with the Jewish people’s 2000-year-old dream to return to the land from which we gave the world the Bible.

Today, the British government remains resolute in support of the legitimacy and wisdom of the Balfour Declaration. Responding to a Palestinian demand for “an apology,” a government statement read:

“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s government does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

This is a belief shared by all recent British prime ministers from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair to the current prime minister, as well as those who came before them (though we are not unconcerned by the virulent strain of British anti-Zionism, if not anti-Semitism as well, found in such places as the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership or by the toxic remarks of Brexit leader Nigel Farage who recently claimed that Jews should concern Americans more than Russian influence). It is also foundational for the ongoing support of the English-speaking democracies–to paraphrase Winston Churchill–for Israel, a fellow democracy.

This auspicious time of anniversaries (50th anniversary of the Six Day War; 70th anniversary of the United Nation’s adoption of the 1947 Partition Plan; and the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence in 2018) is a time for contemplation looking towards progress for a two-state solution to address the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The same reflective impulse holds true for the Balfour Declaration. On one level, the Balfour Declaration was simply a message from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, of some sixty-five words expressing Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s Cabinet’s support for Zionism.

On the other hand, this short letter has generated tens of millions of words and a century of commentary. For example, the 1947 UNSCOP (United Nations Special Committee on Palestine) Report, which ultimately concluded partition of the Palestine mandate into Jewish and Arab states, was the only viable solution to the Palestine conflict, noted:

“[b]oth the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate involved international commitments to the Jewish people as a whole.”

Even today, one hundred years later, the words and the clauses into which they are divided are heavily and profoundly laden with struggle, redemption, hope, fate and imperfect historical reckoning. Specifically, the import of the following sentence lies at the heart of the debate:

“His Majesty’s Government view 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 object.”

Embedded in the words of Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, Leo Amery, Lord Alfred Milner and Lord Walter Rothschild is an exclamation of a powerful current of British Christian theology towards Judaism and the Jewish people.

As Ambassador Michael Oren writes in Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, Puritan dissidents from the Church of England in the 17th century opposed supersessionism. That is, they did not believe the Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus negated the Jewish covenantal relationship with God. The dissidents believed the Jewish people were a living and breathing presence in history and the Bible was prophetic about a Jewish return to the Holy Land.

The more secular version of this vision took root among certain British thought and political leaders. The late Sir Martin Gilbert in his biography, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship describes the intellectual ferment of Manchester, England around the turn of the 19th century and the relationship building between Churchill, CP Scott–the editor of the Manchester Guardian for 57 years–and the rising scientist and nascent Jewish community leader Dr. Chaim Weizmann. These British Christian leaders in part saw Zionism as; 1) destiny; 2) a significantly important endeavor towards nation-building to solve the “Jewish Question;” and 3) an element of mutual friendship and support between the Jewish people and Britain at the crossroads of their empire.

The last of these elements is salient towards the British view of the Arab world in the same time. The British were not afraid to make mutually contradictory promises motivated by the need to strengthen their position in the long shadows of the Suez Canal, and the communication and commercial necessities of London with respect to its India relationship.

The Sir Henry McMahon-Hussein bin Ali correspondence of ten letters from July 1915 to March 1916 between the British High Commissioner to Egypt and the Sharif of Mecca made certain territorial promises of Arab independence in exchange for Arab participation in the First World War front of the struggle against the Ottoman Empire.

The promises contained in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence may or may not have conflicted with the promises of the Balfour Declaration. An interesting and relevant corollary to the juxtaposition of the two sets of promises was the belief of individuals like T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) that Arab and Jewish national aspirations were not incompatible.

The nobility of British vision and/or its need to make promises to strengthen regional alliances did not preclude the British from misleading the parties. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, large swaths of the Middle East were allocated to the control of Britain (some of future Mandatory Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq), France (Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq) and Russia (Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and Armenia). This secret agreement by the Allied powers of the First World War was in derogation of promises made in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. The Bolsheviks revealed Sykes-Picot on November 23, 1917 shortly after the promulgation of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917.

The unfolding of the creation of the “Jewish National Home” was assisted significantly by the establishment of the British mandate for Palestine in 1922 and the creation of the Jewish Agency for Palestine in 1929. The Yishuv–the pre-state Jewish community of Palestine–began a generation-long process of establishing the future indicia of statehood: self-governance; educational system; communal self-defense; health and welfare organizations. Immigration had increased the Jewish population of mandatory Palestine from 57,000 in 1918 to 467,000 in 1939 with the rise of Hitler leading to significant German Aliyah in the mid-1930s (almost 165,000 German Jews), which consequently precipitated the terrorism of the Arab revolt of 1936-1939.

The United States strongly supported the creation of a Jewish National Home. Former President William Howard Taft authored a twenty-three-page article for National Geographic in July 1919 entitled The Progressive World Struggle of the Jews for Civil Equality. Noting Palestine, Taft wrote:

“After two millenniums of exile, the Jew may now return in safety to the land of his fathers and abide there with the assurance that his civil as well as religious liberty will be safeguarded by civilized nations.”

Congress ratified President Woodrow Wilson’s support for a Jewish National Home in 1922 and reiterated its support in December 1945, along with the Governors of 40 of the 48 states. (The Minnesota Legislature passed a resolution of support in 1920.)

Tragically, the British subordinated facilitation of the “Jewish National Home” due to perceived strategic needs presented by the Arab violence of 1936-1939 in tandem with the rising threat of Nazi Germany, amplified by the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and the final betrayal of democratic Czechoslovakia in 1939. In March 1939, the British government essentially concluded its task of fulfilling the “object” of the “Jewish National Home” accomplished and issued the infamous White Paper. This document strictly limited Jewish immigration to 75,000 over the next five years and enforced a fixed ratio of two Arabs per Jew would be maintained within their Mandate.

The Jewish world and the 179 MP(s) who voted against the restrictions of the White Paper viewed it as both a British abdication of its responsibilities under the League of Nations Mandate and a betrayal of the fundamental premise of the Balfour Declaration. The timing for the desperate Jews of Germany and Austria in the aftermath of the November 1938 Kristallnacht was devastating–a reality that would spread to the Jews of occupied Europe from 1939-1942. The imposition of the 1939 White Paper confirmed a rueful and painfully prophetic observation of Chaim Weizmann in 1935:

“The world seemed to be divided into two parts — those places where the Jews could not live, and those where they could not enter.”

The bitterness of the Jews of Palestine and throughout the world was manifest. After the outbreak of World War ll with the German invasion of Poland, David Ben Gurion famously declared:

“We shall fight side by side with the British in our war against Hitler as if there were no White Paper, and we shall fight the White Paper as if there were no war.”

Consequently, over 130,000 Jews of mandatory Palestine (40% of the Jewish population) volunteered for service in the British armed forces including the son of Chaim Weizmann who was killed in action as a RAF pilot in February 1942. Meanwhile, the response of the Arabs of mandatory Palestine ranged from sullen neutrality to outright full-fledged support of the Nazis–such as the Mufti in Jerusalem who spent the war making Nazi propaganda broadcasts in Berlin and was later convicted in absentia of war crimes.

The fearless resistance of the British to Nazi Germany in the darkest days of World War II, from the fall of France to the United States entry into the war, elevated the esteem with which the British were held–only deepening the cognitive dissidence which Ben Gurion defined. Reading Lynne Olson’s Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War provides a beautifully detailed narrative of the power of the reality and metaphor of Britain standing alone as inspiration to the conquered and terrorized people of Europe.

In short, Britain doomed most European Jews when the doors of refuge to the “Jewish National Home” were all but soldered shut in 1939. On the other hand, Britain prevented the complete takeover of Europe by Nazi Germany and destruction of all European Jewry with its determination to continue the war alone against Germany. Historical legacies are difficult sometimes to define, which is the case of the Balfour Declaration, Britain and its ramifications.

Other clauses in the Balfour Declaration present issues, problems and conundrums which continue through 2017. The declaration included the statement:

“…it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights… or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

As described by Ronald Sanders in The High Walls of Jerusalem: A History of the Balfour Declaration and the Birth of the British Mandate for Palestine, the ascension of Lloyd George to Prime Minister and appointment of Arthur Balfour as Foreign Secretary in December 2016 meant there was now a prime minister “who had often enthused over the idea of a Jewish Palestine and a foreign secretary who once had all but wept at it.”

Military and political circumstances in the early months of 1917 began to favor a British expression of support for Zionism: British military victories in the Sinai Peninsula were a prelude to the victorious entrance of British forces into Palestine; American, French and Italian statements of support for Zionism; and the perceived need to secure the support of Russian Jews as the military resolve of Russia began to wither after the February 1917 Revolution followed by the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917. By August 1917, Balfour was circulating a draft declaration with the British government supporting Palestine as the “national home of the Jewish people.”

Opposition to British support for Zionism arose most passionately from certain corners of the English Jewish world. Edwin Montagu, the Jewish Secretary of State for India was at the heart of the opposition. Montagu saw Zionism as a “mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom.” He believed that once Palestine was declared the national home of the Jewish people “every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens…” In short, the declaration would jeopardize the hard-won rights of Jews in the western democracies and expose them to accusations of “dual loyalty.” Ultimately the deep seeded opposition of Montagu led to an insertion of the clause protecting the rights of Jews in the countries they lived, but it did not derail the powerful statement of Zionism contained in the Balfour Declaration. On October 31, 1917 Sir Mark Sykes emerged from War Cabinet deliberations and told Chaim Weizmann, “[i]t’s a boy.”

The rise of Arab nationalism in the Middle East and the conflicting Jewish and Arab claims over Palestine led to the inclusion of the clause that:

“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

The most profound protection of such rights would have flowed through the creation of an Arab state in part of Palestine, which the Jews accepted by supporting the Peel Commission (1937) and the United Nations partition plan (1947).

Israel’s Declaration of Independence, nevertheless, guarantees the right of all citizens of Israel full and equal rights. The Jewish State has struggled at times to reach this goal while keeping in mind its Arab citizens enjoy a standard of living higher than in any Arab country. Coming full historical circle in 2017, Lord Roderick Balfour–a descendent of Lord Arthur Balfour–has reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration as “a great humanitarian gesture” for which “[h]umanity should be extremely grateful.” Roderick Balfour says he is reminded of the importance of his great-great uncle each time he visits Israel.

Like many in Israel today, Roderick Balfour is concerned about the status of Arabs in Israel citing the declaration’s necessity of protecting non-Jewish rights in Palestine as a point of departure. He sees a large-scale need for a “greater economic role for the Palestinians.”

To that end, our Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas has been proud to partner with Palestinians such as Bashar Masri, founder of Rawabi, the first planned city built for and by Palestinians and the largest private sector project in the Palestinian Territories, as well as Siraj, the first Palestinian private equity fund, to advance peace by fostering prosperity and economic independence for Palestinians. We look forward to returning to Rawabi for a second visit next month to see the progress which has been made in turning Masri’s vision of Rawabi as a city where Palestinians can “live, work and grow” into a reality.

Steve Hunegs is the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas