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The Balfour Declaration and Its Implications Today

The Balfour Declaration has been in the news recently. Palestinian officials announced that they are planning to sue Britain for the damages they suffered as a result of its issuance 99 years ago! I thought this would be a good opportunity to review the background of the Declaration and some of its implications for today.

At the time it was issued on Nov. 2 1917, it was a statement of future policy by the British government, issued on the eve of their invasion of Palestine. At the time, Palestine was under the control of the Ottoman Empire (the Turks). The British Prime minister at the time was David Lloyd George. The foreign minister was Arthur Balfour. Before it was issued, the declaration had to be approved by the special British War Cabinet composed of Lloyd George and a few other members. The main Zionist leader involved in the negotiations for it was Chaim Weizmann.

Here is the precise 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.”

Why was this declaration issued? What motivated the British Prime Minister was the goal of setting up a state in the area that would be loyal to Britain. At the time, there was a British Empire. Access to the Suez canal, and the paths to India were all highly important to Britain. The British government looked at the Arabs in the region of Palestine at the time and felt, to quote one government memo, “there is no visible indigenous elements out of which a Moslem kingdom of Palestine can be constructed,” i.e., there was not a sufficiently populated and organized Arab community there at the time (even though the Arab population in Palestine at the time far exceeded the Jewish one). It was thought better to focus on the Jews, and help them become a majority. Then Britain would have the loyal state or British protectorate in the area that they needed. The Jews, especially in Eastern Europe, were a persecuted people at the time, in dire need of relief.

That the vision of the Declaration was to create a Jewish majority is seen from the phrase: “ 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 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? The language of the Declaration was not as explicit as it could have been because it had to satisfy every member of the War Cabinet, not all of whom shared the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister’s goals. Also, the language needed to be ambiguous, so it could be reinterpreted if necessary, in the event circumstances changed (as later happened).

The reason I am writing this column is to explain what happened after World War I concluded. Britain, France and Italy decided that the Ottoman Empire should be broken up. (The US was not directly involved in the post-war settlement of the Ottoman Empire because the US had not declared war on it.) A concept called “mandates” was created. There were three types of mandates: class A, B and C. Class A mandates were established for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. Under a Class A mandate, the area was to be developed by the mandatory power into an independent state. France accepted the mandate for the regions of Syria and Lebanon, and Britain accepted the mandate for the regions of Iraq and Palestine. (At the time, these were just regions that had been cut from the corpse of the Ottoman Empire.) The mandate was a contract between the mandatory power and the newly formed League of Nations. Not only did Britain accept the mandate for Palestine, Britain also agreed that enforcing the Balfour Declaration would be part of its legal obligation under the mandate. The agreed text of Britain’s obligations was confirmed by the Council of the League of Nations (representing 52 nations) on July 24, 1922. In this way, the Balfour Declaration, which was initially merely a statement of policy, became part of Britain’s legal obligation to the League of Nations.

Iraq became an independent state in 1932, as did Syria and Lebanon in 1941. So why did Palestine not become an independent Jewish state during this period? In 1922, at the same time that they accepted the mandate for Palestine and agreed to enforce the Balfour Declaration, they also issued the first White Paper and re-interpreted their obligation under the Balfour Declaration. (By then, in 1922, the leaders of the government were not the same as the ones in 1917.) In this first White Paper, they declared disingenuously that the purpose of the Balfour Declaration had never been to create a Jewish majority in Palestine. Rather, they declared that the goal of the Balfour Declaration and of Britain’s mandate would merely be to create a national home for the Jewish people within Palestine, a center that world Jewry could take pride in. Britain also began to severely limit the Jewish immigration to Palestine.

Britain also did something else at this time. They put language into the text of the mandate that enabled them to limit the application of the Balfour Declaration and the national home for the Jewish people to the area west of the Jordan River. (In the Balfour Declaration itself, “Palestine”had not been defined, and for a time Britain had considered including a large section east of the Jordan River as part of “Palestine” and within the scope of the Balfour Declaration.)

But even with the re-interpretation in the first White Paper, the ramifications of the Balfour Declaration being incorporated into Britain’s obligations under the mandate is that all Jewish settlement on the entire West Bank up to the Jordan River was within the area designated for theJewish national home with the approval of the League of Nations. (And all rights of states and peoples under the League of Nations are preserved today under Article 80 of the UN Charter.)

So today, when Jews settle on the “West Bank,” this is not “Israeli expansionism” or merely an ancient unsupported claim to Biblical lands. Rather, it is a settlement on lands that were already designated with international approval for Jewish settlement. (By the way, the US, which never joined the League of Nations, ratified the text of the British Mandate for Palestine in 1925.)

The average person today thinks that Israel was a creation of the Holocaust. But as I have shown, the story of the Jewish State is one that has its roots at the end of World War I, when Britain allocated vast territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire to create Arab states and attempted to reserve one “small notch” (a term used by Balfour, and reflecting about one percent of the territories liberated from the Ottoman Empire) for an area where the Jews could develop into the majority.

I would like to close with the inspiring words of Hayyim Nahman Bialik in his speech at the inauguration of the Hebrew University in 1925: “The Books of Chronicles, the last of the Scriptures, are not the last in the history of Israel. To its two small parts there will be added a third, perhaps more important than the first two…The first two books of Chronicles… end with the Proclamation of Cyrus…The third will undoubtedly begin with the Proclamation of Balfour and end with… redemption to the whole of humanity.”

Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press, 2015) is available at the Judaica House in Teaneck and at amazon.com. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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