When we realize that the Jewish state is essentially a result of World War I, we much better understand the justice of our cause. Unfortunately, today’s media never explain this, so I will here.
At the end of WWI, Britain and its allies defeated the Ottoman Empire and were willing to give to the Arabs almost all of the vast territories liberated so they could set up their own states. There was an initial interim period with Mandates set up so that the new states could be nurtured to independence by Britain or France. This is the story of the creation of the new states of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. (As to Arabia, it was too big for a Mandate. Egypt too achieved independence without a Mandate.) Of these vast liberated territories, Britain’s plan was to reserve one to two percent to create a region where the Jews could grow into a majority and set up their own state.
There were no “Palestinian” people at the time. There were Arabs in Palestine, admittedly more than there were Jews. (The Jews were about one sixth of the population.) But Palestine was undeveloped and underpopulated and there were millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who had no future and needed a place to live. The Arabs were going to be given vast regions where they would be the majority. They had no reasonable grounds to complain that in one tiny area they would not be the majority. As Foreign Secretary Balfour wrote in 1919: “Zionism…is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.” World Jewry needed one place where we would be a majority. The Arabs had “desires and prejudices.” They already had and would now be getting many more places of majority rule. But they desired to be a majority everywhere. By any sense of justice, “needs” trump “desires” and it was correct for Britain to create this affirmative action for world Jewry and carve out one small region for the Jews to become a majority, given Britain’s generosity to the Arabs in the other areas.
As one League of Nations official put it: “Was not consent to the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine the price—and a relatively small one—that the Arabs paid for the liberation of lands extending from the Red Sea to the borders of Cilicia…for the independence they were now winning or had already won, none of which they would ever have gained by their own efforts, and for all of which they had to thank the Allied Powers and particularly the British forces in the Near East?”
The Balfour Declaration was issued in 1917. It was a statement of future policy by the government. The prime minister at the time was David Lloyd George, and the foreign secretary was Arthur James Balfour.
Here is the language of the Declaration: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour 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.”
That the vision of the Declaration was to create a Jewish majority is seen from the sentence: “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…” There was no reason for that sentence unless the goal was to create a Jewish majority. Moreover, Britain would have had no reason to create a conflicted state in Palestine, one with Jews and Arabs vying for control. How would that have helped Britain? Critically, the Declaration said nothing about protecting the “political rights” of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That was the entire point, to override the political rights of the Arabs in Palestine, in one small corner of the region. Looking at the entire picture of the Mideast, this was more than fair, given that Britain and the Allies were giving the Arabs majority rule throughout 98-99% of the liberated territories.
If there was a plan for a Jewish state at the end of WWI, why did it not come into existence?
Essentially, the period from 1917-1922 took us to point 9 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being an actual Jewish state. Indeed, after the war, in 1922, the text of the Balfour Declaration was incorporated into Britain’s legal obligation to the League of Nations. This was approved by the League, representing 52 nations. The U.S. (not a member of the League) approved it separately.
But around this same time in 1922 Britain issued a “White Paper” and reinterpreted its obligation under the Declaration. Here they suddenly declared that the purpose of the Declaration had never been to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Rather, the goal had been merely to create a national home for the Jewish people within Palestine, a center that world Jewry could take pride in. They also began to severely limit Jewish immigration to Palestine.
So even though the Declaration and its incorporation into Britain’s obligations to the League of Nations took us to point 9, this 1922 White Paper knocked us a few steps back. It was only with the UN approval of the Partition Plan in 1947 that we got to point 10 (a state that we still had to defend with a military victory, when it came under attack by the surrounding Arab states trying to extinguish it). During the period from 1922-1947, the Jewish population in Palestine grew significantly and there already was a de facto Jewish state in large areas of Palestine by the time of the 1947 UN vote legitimizing it.
Even with the reinterpretation in the 1922 White Paper, the ramifications of the Declaration being incorporated into Britain’s obligations to the League of Nations is that all Jewish settlement on the entire West Bank up to the Jordan River was within the area designated for the Jewish national home with the approval of the League of Nations. (Initially, Britain was even willing to include a large section east of the Jordan River in the area of the Jewish state. But by 1922, it was decided that the Balfour Declaration would not apply east of the Jordan River.)
All rights of states and peoples granted via the League of Nations are preserved today under Article 80 of the U.N. Charter. So today, when Jews live on the “West Bank,” this is not merely an ancient claim to Biblical lands. Rather, it is a settlement on lands that were already designated with international approval for Jewish settlement.
It was very important for Herzl at the end of the 19th century that the Jews acquire their territory with international permission. He did not want a state based largely on “infiltration.” Herzl died in 1904. But when Weizmann was able to have Britain issue the Declaration, and then have it approved by the League of Nations, this was in essence the international approval that Herzl envisioned. It is tragic that people today don’t know any history and don’t know the big picture from the end of WWI, and imagine a completely different origin story.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]