JMF: The Balfour Declaration

November 2, 2017, marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, a historic statement of sympathy issued by the British government for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, penned the historic letter on behalf of the British Government, to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent leader of Britain’s Jewish community.

The Declaration expressed the British government’s recognition of and support for the inalienable right of the Jewish people for self-determination in their historical homeland, the Land of Israel.

(The Declaration refers to the Land of Israel as “Palestine,” since this was the common geographical denomination of the area at the time, without any political or ethnic connotation. Everyone living there was called “Palestinian,” Jew and Arab alike).

British Prime Minister Theresa May has described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history.” Meanwhile, the British government recently stated that, “establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.” 

Balfour Reflects International Support for Jewish Sovereignty: 

Moreover, far from acting alone, Great Britain was actually part of a major international consensus supporting Zionism, the aspiration of the Jewish people to restore their independence and sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Prior to issuing the declaration, Great Britain coordinated with its allies.

– On June 4, 1917, several months before the Balfour Declaration, the French government issued a letter by its Foreign Minister, Jules Cambon, which endorsed the Zionist cause: “… it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago…”

– In October 1917, US President Woodrow Wilson told the British that he approved their plan for a declaration in favor of the Jewish people’s national movement, and in August 1918, he said so publicly. He based his policy on the new principle he introduced to international relations: a people’s right to self-determination.

– In May 1918, the Italian government pledged to help facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national center (“centro nazionale ebraico”).

– In January 1919, Japan stated that it would “gladly take note of the Zionist aspirations.”

– Similar endorsements then came from Chinese leaders and Siam (Thailand).

While Great Britain acted in conjunction with other nations, the Balfour Declaration stands apart from these other endorsements in that it became part of the 1922 mandate issued by the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. The League of Nations decision was a major milestone: it granted official recognition from the international community to the Jewish national movement, which led to Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948 and to Israel’s admission to the UN on May 11, 1949, as its 59th member. After almost 2000 years of yearning, the Jewish people restored their home and sovereignty in the Land of Israel.

100 Years of Arab Rejection:   

The Balfour Declaration recognized not only the inalienable rights of the Jewish people, but it also stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Balfour Declaration made clear that supporting Jewish rights did not preclude the rights and liberties of the Arab side.

In similar vein, throughout the decades, the Zionist dream encompassed respect for and coexistence with all people in the region, including the Palestinian Arabs. This vision was most clearly outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that all citizens, irrespective of race, religion or gender, have equal rights. Today, some 20% of Israel’s population is comprised of Arab citizens, who enjoy full rights and liberties and serve in prominent positions in law, politics, medicine and other fields.

The Jewish leadership at the time of the Balfour Declaration, as today, sought to cooperate with their Arab neighbors. Chaim Weizmann, who represented the World Zionist Organization, and Emir Feisal (one of the most prominent Arab leaders) signed an agreement in 1919 to work together to bring about the aspirations of both the Jews and the Arabs of the region. Unfortunately, this precedent did not last long. Throughout the 20th century, extremist Arab leaders rejected Jewish rights, promoted an exclusivist worldview that the land only belonged to them and encouraged violent attacks on the Jewish population.

This rejection of the legitimate and internationally-mandated and recognized claim of the Jewish people to a national homeland in the Holy Land is the bedrock – the ground zero – of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It is the thread which connects every war, every atrocity, every diplomatic maneuver and every terrorist act initiated by the Arab side, from 1917 to today.

Even now, the Palestinian side, instead of looking forward and educating and building towards a future of peace, is still looking backwards, trying to turn back the hands of time, re-litigate and deny, and reject the world’s acceptance of the justice of the Jewish people’s claims.

Thus, at the July 2016 Arab League Summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to sue Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration. His and other Palestinian leaders’ rejection of the Balfour Declaration reflects their consistent denial of any rights of the Jewish people in their homeland, and thus, drives peace further away. The vehement opposition to the Balfour Declaration was and has remained rooted in the anti-historical view that Jews are aliens, and in the false assumption that they have no connection to the land and no right of any kind to live there as a people. This attitude of Arab exclusivism continues to drive the Arab-Israeli conflict to this day.

In a recent example of how this rejectionism manifests itself, on October 19, 2017, the Palestinian diplomatic delegation to Colombia tweeted, quoting Yasser Arafat, that “the end of Israel is our objective… We do not want peace, we want war, victory.” 

Looking Forward:

In 1917 the British government acknowledged an historic truth and the Arab world launched a 100 year-long campaign to deny and erase that truth.

As Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people – marks with gratitude the endorsement of its national story embodied in the Balfour Declaration, it looks to its Palestinian and Arab neighbors with its hand outstretched in peace and cooperation, urging them to accept, once and for all, the legitimacy of Israel’s membership of the family of nations.   Only thus will the peace we all yearn for be able to come into being.

Text of the Balfour Declaration:

Foreign Office

November 2nd, 1917

Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet. 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, 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.

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour