By Joshua Sinai – – Monday, September 17, 2018
THE BALFOUR DECLARATION: SIXTY-SEVEN WORDS — 100 YEARS OF CONFLICT
By Elliot Jager
Gefen Publishing House, $16.95, 201 pages
The year 2017 marked the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, one of the most famous — and to its opponents, most infamous — promises ever issued by a colonial power to a people seeking to reclaim its nationhood in its ancient land, in this case, the Jewish people’s historical connection to the land of Israel.
As Elliot Jager explains, the Balfour Declaration was a letter, dated Nov. 2, 1917, from British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a leader of British Jewry, that began the process by which the international community embraced and approved a national home for the Jewish people.
This came after the League of Nations on July 24, 1922, and later, the U.N. General Assembly’s Partition Resolution, on Nov. 29, 1947, validated the idea of establishing in part of historical Palestine a national home for the Jewish people, with the Arabs of Palestine also approved for statehood in their part of historical Palestine.
What did the Balfour Declaration promise? It was a conveyance, on behalf of the British government, and, as approved by its cabinet, of “a declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations” that “[viewed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
It added that Britain “will use [its] best endeavours to facilitate the establishment 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 deliberate vagueness of the Balfour Declaration is considered one of its strongest features, Mr. Jager explains, because this was the only way to reach consensus for its passage in the British government.
It refrained, therefore, from using the phrase “Jewish state,” instead employing the more restrained “national home of the Jewish people,” and, while stressing that nothing would “be done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” namely the indigenous Arab community, it did not mention Jewish or Arab political rights in Palestine.
Overall, the Balfour Declaration’s significance was that it provided the leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine, which at the time was a demographic minority, a British-sanctioned opportunity to employ its political, diplomatic and military ingenuity in the region and internationally to make its promise of a Jewish national home a future geo-political reality.
What is remarkable is that it was far from certain at the time that this could ever be achieved, as the declaration represented a symbolic victory for the Jews because it was issued in the midst of World War I and its implementation was conditioned, as the author writes, on “completing the liberation of Palestine from the crumbling Ottoman Empire.”
Even more remarkable is that it was part of additional contradictory promises the British had earlier made in 1916 that in the event the Ottoman Empire was defeated by the Arab Revolt, which the British had supported, that the ruling Hashemite dynasty that had ruled over Mecca and Medina (in what later became Saudi Arabia under a rival ruling dynasty) would receive British support for “Arab independence in Arabia,” but without direct reference to Palestine, which the British had later promised to the Zionists.
Also, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, the British and the French colonial powers decided to divide the regions of the Middle East that would be liberated from the Ottomans, and this time, without informing the Hashemite allies, by giving the British control over what became Palestine/Transjordan and Iraq, with the French granted the mandates for what became modern-day Lebanon/Syria.
Thus, it was up to each of the Middle East’s parties, whether the Zionists, the Hashemites, or the Palestinian Arabs to exploit the opportunities provided to them by the break-up of the Ottoman Empire to carve their own political futures.
Interestingly, the Hashemites institutionalized their rule over Transjordan (which became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in December 1948), while the Palestinian leadership kept sabotaging their opportunities for statehood through their intransigence in rejecting the U.N. General Assembly’s 1947 Partition Resolution.
This book is an important reminder of how fragile the position of the Zionists during the period of World War I and its aftermath was, and the crucial roles played by the pragmatic Zionist leaders — particularly Chaim Weitzmann — in delicately persuading Lord Balfour and others to issue the Declaration. Their activities are discussed by the author in a series of gripping biographical accounts. (Mr. Weitzman negotiated from England where he was working as a prominent chemist. He later became Israel’s first president.)
The author concludes that “the Balfour Declaration did indeed, in a matter of three decades, help to pave the way for a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. It did not happen in the way its framers envisioned, it required a violent shove from the Jewish underground in Palestine, and it became a reality only after much of European Jewry had been annihilated in the Shoah — yet the Balfour Declaration did come to fruition.”
• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH) in Alexandria, Va.