The Balfour Declaration: a statement of hope and belonging - By Ben Swartz


Centenaries invariably invite discussion of the events they commemorate – indeed, it is a mark of the latter’s significance that they are remembered a century later. Such was to be expected regarding the Balfour Declaration and its relationship to the founding of Israel. Historical perspective can help us to make sense of the present, but only if the historical record is properly respected. 

Regrettably, this is not the case with Iqbal Jassat’s piece, “Balfour Declaration: it’s time to reverse the gross injustice” (5 November 2017). A version of the past in the service of an ideological agenda, it brings to mind nothing so much as the observation of the historian Herbert Butterfield, that “when we organize our general history by reference to the present we are producing what is really a gigantic optical illusion.”

In Jassat’s narrative, the Balfour Declaration represents a monstrous wrongdoing, the product of imperial machinations. “With the stroke of a pen,” he writes, “the British handed over land which didn't belong to them, over the heads of its rightful owners, to a people who had no claim to it.” This is well-trod territory for anyone familiar with the Media Review Network. 

The reality is quite different. The Balfour Declaration was but one of many milestones marking the long road to Israel’s founding. Published in November 1917, some three years into the Great War, its 67 words read: “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.” 

Note that the declaration spoke of a “national home”, and not even necessarily of a state. This would be located “in Palestine”, not necessarily encompassing the whole territory. And this was premised explicitly on respect for the rights of other communities. Hardly a mandate for ethnic cleansing. In fact the 12th Zionist Congress of 1921 passed a resolution noting the desire of the movement “to live in relations of harmony and mutual respect with the Arab people”. 

The real significance of the Balfour Declaration was that it recognised a bond between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Jews had retained a strong attachment to it, despite the enforced exile of the greater part of the Jewish population at the hands of the Romans in the 2nd century CE. A continuous, well-documented Jewish presence of varying sizes has been a part of the land and its history since ancient times, while Jews in the diaspora had yearned to re-establish a national home – numerous attempts, both failed and successful, by groups of Jews to return to their ancestral land over the centuries testify to this. Jassat’s bizarre denial of any prior Jewish connections to the land thus amount to little more than a clumsy attempt to write the Jewish people out of history, which is as much of an affront to historical scholarship as it is insulting to Jews.    

The Balfour Declaration represented not only the position of the British government but a growing consensus by the wartime allies, and beyond. Its key provision – the right of the Jewish people to a national home – was recognised by the League of Nations. It became a matter of international law.

Britain stepped into the debris of the Ottoman Empire in Palestine, with a “mandate” to govern the region and support the development of the Jewish national home. What was unfolding in that corner of the world mirrored what was taking place elsewhere, as the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed. The national aspirations of small countries (“national minorities”, in the parlance of the time) needed to be accommodated. The claims of the Jews – no less than the Poles, Czechs, or for that matter Arabs – were morally and legally valid. This was the case even if meeting them was complex, and subject to diplomatic chicanery and outright prejudice in practice. Indeed, Britain proved a rather ambivalent friend to Jewish hopes. Far from “handing over” territory, it ultimately cracked down on Jewish immigration (thereby condemning many to the Holocaust). Tensions became so severe that parts of the Zionist movement took up arms against the British administration. Britain abstained in the 1947 vote at the United Nations on the partition plan, which recommended the division of the territory into Jewish and Arab states.

The Balfour Declaration “handed” very little to the Jews, but it endorsed an inalienable principle: as Winston Churchill said, the Jewish community was there “as of right and not on sufferance”.

Creating a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land was seen as rectifying an ancient historical injustice against the Jewish people, for so long condemned to live in exile as a persecuted minority while their ancestral territory remained under the domination of a succession of colonial powers.

And thus, the need for the optical illusion. For if there is no Jewish claim on the territory (Jassat defines the indigenous population as Muslim and Christian - by implication, with no Jewish component that need be considered), and if Israel itself is the product of callous imperial machinations, then there is no “right” – legal or moral – for modern Israel’s creation. Reversing the “gross injustice” necessarily means ending Israel’s existence. And at best there might then be “sufferance” of a Jewish presence.  Such ahistorical, zero-sum thinking has to this day dominated the way the Palestinians see the conflict, and is the root cause of why to date no lasting peace agreement between the two peoples has been possible. 

This is deeply ironic, since the Balfour Declaration set out some simple but powerful principles that would have served the cause of peace, goodwill, compromise and mutual benefit – for both Jews and Arabs. Perhaps the time has come to embrace them?

Ben Swartz is the Chairman of the South African Zionist Federation.

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