On the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, Israelis celebrated, while Palestinians mourned. British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, on November 2, 1917, signed away the ancestral home of the Palestinians in a letter assuring Britain’s Zionist community of his government’s support for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
The dire consequences of the Balfour Declaration have not been confined to Palestine and the Middle East. Its painful legacy has been passed to each Palestinian generation, to the British who created it and to the Americans who sustain it. The Balfour Declaration is the story of the forceful importation of European Zionist ideology into the Middle East.
It is the story of the determination of a small group of British Zionists to expropriate the land of Palestine for Jewish settlement – a goal set out by the first Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist national movement, made clear in his diary that "At Basel I founded the Jewish State." It is the story of a land acquired through guile, intrigue and then by force.
World War I dramatically transformed the map of Europe and the Middle East. With the Allied victory, territories previously controlled by the Ottoman Turks were transferred to Britain and France. A League of Nations was formed to oversee the transfer. It also opened the door for political Zionism’s first diplomatic victory.
Palestine was to be under joint Allied control. France’s mandate encompassed Syria and Lebanon, while Britain acquired the mandates over Iraq and Palestine. The imperial ethos was evident in the mandates, which judged the inhabitants of Syria, Iraq and Palestine to be backward, requiring the tutelage of a superior foreign power.
A small cadre of single-minded Jewish intellectuals and businessmen in Manchester, England, used the discord and upheaval of the war to convince the British government that it would serve Britain’s wartime aims to officially sanction a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
The British Zionists, particularly Chaim Weizmann, built strong ties with influential politicians, such as Balfour, a Christian mystic (who would be called a Christian Zionist today), and Winston Churchill, one of the first to identify with the Zionist cause. They also cultivated friendships with establishment figures such as C.P. Scott, powerful editor of the Manchester Guardian, whose newspaper was key to their success, and David Lloyd George – the future prime minister.
Concurrently, government officials were using the Jewish national movement to secure Palestine for Britain. It was viewed as serving the strategic aim of protecting and keeping Egypt, the Suez Canal and India within Britain’s imperial sphere of influence, as well as countering France’s presence in the Middle East. Balfour’s 1922 statement to parliament – "Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land" – reflected these sentiments.
Although they professed to represent Jewish interests worldwide, Zionist efforts to establish a homeland were hugely controversial. Jewish groups such as the Central Conference of American Rabbis, were fiercely anti-Zionist, as were the indigenous Jews of the Middle East. Members of the British Jewish elite, such as Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India, were wary of the idea of setting Jews apart, fearing that a separate homeland threatened successful integration into Britain and other European countries. In August 1917, Montagu charged the British government with anti-Semitism for supporting the "mischievous political creed" of the Zionists.
British support for the Zionist movement emerged from its growing uncertainty surrounding the war’s direction, and the geopolitical benefit that Zionism might bring to the British Empire. Against this backdrop, and as the new prime minister, Lloyd George, along with his foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, decided to champion the Zionist cause.
Over the course of 1917, a determined anti-Zionist contingent in the War Cabinet and Foreign Office delayed the progress of the declaration. Lord George Curzon, familiar with the Middle East, expressed concerns about Britain’s commitment to a Jewish state in a land already inhabited, emphasizing the inevitability of conflict. Montagu claimed that the majority of British Jews were anti-Zionist, and that it endangered the citizenship of British Jews. As foreign secretary to India, Montagu also worried about how the Muslim population there would react.
The Cabinet decided that a pro-Zionist declaration required American support. Weizmann reached out to Zionist and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to exert his influence over an apprehensive President Woodrow Wilson. After soliciting the consent of the United States, France, Italy and the Vatican, on October 31, 1917, the War Cabinet approved the final wording of the declaration. Three days later, Balfour sent to Lord Walter Rothschild, a prominent Zionist and Weizmann friend, the 67-word declaration that bears his name:
"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."
The declaration was a carefully considered and worded policy statement. Weizmann’s preference in the initial draft of a home for the "Jewish race" was changed to "Jewish people." Zionist leaders intentionally used the phrase "the national home of the Jewish people" to imply prior residence, and to insure that the whole of Palestine would be exclusively Jewish. The declaration stated that the British government would do its best to "facilitate" not "secure" or guarantee the outcome.
Conspicuous in the declaration is its arrogant presumption that the British government had the right to give away another people’s land; as British author Arthur Koestler cogently observed: "One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third." In 1917, Arabs constituted 90 percent and Jews only 10 percent of the population in Palestine. Notably, however, in the proposed statement, the minority Jews were identified as a "people," while the majority Arabs as "communities." The phrase implied that the majority had no name and no political rights.
The Balfour Declaration was intentionally ambiguous. Although it did not distinctly promise the Zionists a state, Lloyd George, Balfour and other politicians covertly supported a Jewish state.
The British wrote the Balfour Declaration into their Mandate for Palestine. It gained the force of international law when the League of Nations approved Britain as the mandatory power in July 1922. Yet it contradicted the Covenant of the League of Nations, whose Article 22 established the principle of eventual self-determination for former colonized people, and required that the mandatory power develop the territory for the benefit of its native people. Neither was adhered to.
The Mandate set in motion the colonizing adventure laid out by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Weizmann associate. Jabotinsky argued that morality and conscience could not dictate Zionist policy, and that Zionists had to accept the fact that extremism and force were integral to accomplishing Jewish statehood.
In 1919, a Commission of Inquiry was sent, at President Wilson’s request, to ascertain the opinions of the inhabitants of Syria and Palestine. Henry C. King, president of Oberlin College, and businessman, Charles R. Crane stated that nearly nine-tenths of the non-Jewish population of Palestine were emphatically against the entire Zionist program. The report corroborated Palestinian allegations that, contrary to Zionists’ public statements, Zionist policies were intended to purge non-Jewish Palestinians from the land:
"…To subject a people…to steady financial and social pressure to surrender the land, would be a gross violation of the peoples’ rights….The initial claim, often submitted by Zionist representatives that they have a ‘right’ to Palestine, based on an occupation of two thousand years ago, can hardly be seriously considered."
The commissioners recommended limiting Jewish immigration, and that they give up making Palestine a distinctly Jewish commonwealth, noting that implementing the Zionist plan would eventually require the force of arms. The report was buried until President Wilson released it to the New York Times in 1922.
In 1923, the British Cabinet concluded that it could not, at once, promote a Jewish national home and protect the rights of the Arabs – that the aims of the Mandate were irreconcilable. It refused, however, to renounce the Balfour Declaration.
Between the two world wars, support for the Mandate waned. John Chancellor, High Commissioner for Palestine, reached the conclusion in 1928 that the Balfour Declaration had been a "colossal blunder," unfair to the Arabs, and harmful to British interests. The 1937 Royal Peel Commission, appointed to investigate unrest in Palestine, recommended it be divided into two states. A subsequent policy document of May 1939, known as the White Paper, which called for an independent Palestine with shared government, was abandoned after fierce Zionist opposition.
No longer seen as strategically important, costing manpower and money, the British government ceded its Mandate, described as a "wasps’ nest," to the United Nations in February 1947; it officially ended on May 14, 1948.
To rectify the injustices that have come from establishing a Jewish state out of Arab land, they must first be acknowledged. The statelessness, exclusion and repression of the Palestinians must end. The Zionist intent to create a state only for Jews, not Arabs, was destined to fail. To be a Jewish state is to give preference to Jews over other people, which is correctly defined as racism or apartheid.
Zionist leadership and policies are trapping Israel and the region in unending hostilities and wars. For Israel to endure in the region as a neighbor, it cannot remain an occupying power. The very nature of the Zionist state must change.
The imperial design of 1917 has inextricably connected the fate of two peoples, each with their own narrative of suffering. With all its prejudices and inherent flaws, the Balfour Declaration realistically cannot be reversed. The only just and sensible solution for this century-old political calamity, engineered by European Zionists, promoted by Balfour and emboldened by America’s blanket reassurance, is coexistence. For Israelis and Palestinians to have any future, they must share political, economic and military power in a single inclusive democratic state with equality of rights, justice and dignity for both.
(c) 2017, Dr. M. Reza Behnam
M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., is a political scientist specializing in the politics, history and governments of the Middle East. He is the author of the award-winning book, Cultural Foundations of Iranian Politics.