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Did Balfour Really Want An Israeli State?

This is the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the British document that was the beginning of the modern idea of a homeland for Jews in the Middle East. It came near the end of World War I, when allied powers were planning to destroy the Ottoman Empire, and tear it to pieces. Balfour was one of the plans for Ottoman territory.

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Several opinion pieces have been written about Balfour, in various publications, such as the Washington Times, which sees Balfour as the birth of modern Israel.

On Nov. 2 it will be exactly 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, the British Empire’s statement in support of the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then a backwater of the soon-to-be-defeated Ottoman Empire.

Britain’s promise enjoyed what historian Martin Kramer calls “buy-in” from the Allied Powers, including the U.S. and France, who fought the Central Powers, including Germany and the Ottomans, in what we retrospectively call World War I.

“In Palestine shall be laid the foundation of a Jewish Commonwealth,” President Wilson announced. French diplomat Jules Cambon wrote that 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.”

The Times article sees Balfour as a matter of “self-determination,” rather than “an egregious case of imperial self-dealing.” But a piece in the Washington Post notes that only ten percent of the population there was Jewish at the time of Balfour. The writer sees Balfour as an international power play, rather than sympathy for Jews. For example, leaflets were dropped on Germany and Austria, encouraging Jews to rise up against their local governments.

In 1917, Jews made up less than 10 percent of Palestine’s population . . . Of course, the motives driving Balfour, an influential Conservative statesman who briefly served as prime minister, had as much to do with geopolitics as any abiding sympathy for the Zionist plight.

Just days before issuing the declaration, Balfour said at a cabinet meeting that appealing to Jewish nationalism would serve as “extremely useful propaganda both in Russia and in America” — two countries with significant Jewish populations and whose contributions were necessary to winning World War I.

Balfour also mentions how the area should be governed.

As for Lord Roderick Balfour, the great-great-nephew of the declaration’s architect, he sees flaws still unaddressed in his ancestor’s famous act.

“I have major reservations,” he recently told reporters. “There is this sentence in the declaration, ‘Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.’ That’s pretty clear. Well, that’s not being adhered to. That has somehow got to be rectified.”

There is likewise the question of whether Balfour really expected Jews to have an actual “state.”

But the Balfour Declaration is held up as a seminal event, the first formal utterance of the modern Israeli state’s right to exist (though some historians quibble that a “national home” is not the same thing as a state).

Back to the Washington Times:

Throughout 2017, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders have been denouncing the Balfour Declaration as a “crime,” demanding that the British renounce it and apologize for it.

But British Prime Theresa May said last week that Britons are “proud of the role that we played in the creation of the State of Israel and we certainly mark the centenary with pride.” A separate British government statement asserted that the “important thing now is to look forward and establish security and justice for both Israelis and Palestinians through a lasting peace.”

Meanwhile, also in Britain, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, wrote his views in the Guardian.

In 1948 Zionist militias forcibly expelled more than 800,000 men, women and children from their homeland, perpetrating horrific massacres and destroying hundreds of villages in the process. I was 13 years old at the time of our expulsion from Safad. The occasion on which Israel celebrates its creation as a state, we Palestinians mark as the darkest day in our history. . .

The creation of a homeland for one people resulted in the dispossession and continuing persecution of another – now a deep imbalance between occupier and occupied.

To Abbas, the entire problem is not that Palestinians won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, but the exact opposite, that Israel won’t recognize Palestine’s right to exist.

Over the years we have adapted to the realities around us – the chain of events triggered in 1917 – and made deeply painful compromises for the sake of peace, beginning with the decision to accept a state on only 22% of our historical homeland while recognising the state of Israel, without any reciprocation thus far.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be in Britain this week to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, but obviously, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is far from settled.

Goethe Behr :Goethe Behr is a Contributing Editor and Moderator at Election Central. He started out posting during the 2008 election, became more active during 2012, and very active in 2016. He has been a political junkie since the 1950s and enjoys adding a historical perspective.

View Comments (1)

  • "To Abbas, the entire problem is not that Palestinians won’t recognize Israel’s right to exist, but the exact opposite, that Israel won’t recognize Palestine’s right to exist."

    Uh, no. The Palestinians not recognizing the state of Israel is the key stumbling block. The rest can be negotiated if once the Palestinians, especially Hamas, recognizes the reality that the state of Israel is not going away.

    Unfortunately, the longer this drags out, the more entrenched the far right in Israel opposes any concessions. But it's understandable after all these years of constant war against Israel.