April 9, 2024
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April 9, 2024
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The Balfour Declaration and Its Importance

Since it is now the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of Nov. 2017, everyone has been writing about it. Even a new book came out, “The Balfour Declaration: Sixty-Seven Words, 100 Years of Conflict,” by Elliot Jager. I will now add my contribution.

Even though I went to Modern Orthodox day schools (and many pro-Israel rallies at the UN while attending Ramaz), I was never taught the story of the creation of the Jewish state. (But maybe I just wasn’t paying proper attention the one day or week that it was taught!) Like most people, I thought that Israel was a post-WWII creation by a world that felt guilty about the Holocaust. I had heard of the declaration but had nothing more than a minimal understanding of it. Then about 15 years ago, while in my 40s, I went to a rally and heard Rabbi Shlomo Riskin declare that the plan for a Jewish state was one of the results of the post-war resolutions that concluded World War I. I had never heard this interesting idea before. Then I began to research exactly what he meant. When one realizes that the Jewish state is essentially a result of the post-war resolutions after WWI, one much better understands the justice of our cause.

Very briefly, the background to the creation of the Jewish state is as follows. 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 a temporary period with a mandate set up so that the new states could be nurtured toward independence by either Britain or France. This is the story of the creation 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 territories liberated from the Ottoman empire, Britain’s plan was to reserve one “small notch,” 1 to 2 percent, to create a region where the Jews could grow into a majority and gradually set up their own state.

There were no “Palestinian” people at the time. There were Arabs in Palestine, admittedly many more than there were Jews. (The Jews were about one sixth of the population.) But Palestine was vastly undeveloped and underpopulated and there were millions of Jews in Eastern Europe who had no future there and needed a place to live.) Given that the Arabs were going to be given vast regions where they could be the majority, they would have 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.” I.e., world Jewry had “needs.” We needed one place where we would be a majority. The Arabs had “desires.” 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 attempt this affirmative action for world Jewry and attempt to 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 high-ranking League of Nations official put it at the time: “Was not consent to the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine the price—and a relatively small one—which the Arabs paid for the liberation of lands extending from the Red Sea to the borders of Cilicia on the one hand, Iran and the Mediterranean on the other, 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?”

What primarily motivated the declaration was Britain’s goal of setting up a state in the area that would be loyal to Britain. Access to the Suez Canal and the paths to India were all important to Britain. If Britain could help the Jews become a majority, Britain would have the loyal state/protectorate in the area that it needed. With regard to the Arabs in Palestine, to quote one government memo from this time, “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 outnumbered the Jewish one.

At the time the declaration was issued, it was a statement of future policy by the British government, issued on the eve of their invasion of Palestine. The prime minister at the time was David Lloyd George, and the foreign secretary was Arthur James Balfour. Before it was issued, the declaration had to be approved by a special war cabinet composed of Lloyd George and a few other members.

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 percent of the liberated territories.

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 secretary’s goals. Also the language needed to be ambiguous, so it could be reinterpreted if necessary in the event circumstances changed.

So if there was a plan for a Jewish state at the end of WWI, why did it not come into existence?

Essentially, the declaration and the period from 1917-1922 took us from point zero to point 9 on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the goal of a Jewish state. Indeed, after the war, in 1922, the text of the declaration was incorporated into Britain’s legal obligation to the League of Nations. This was approved by 52 nations.

But around this same time in 1922, Britain issued a “White Paper” and reinterpreted its obligation under the declaration. In this White Paper (with different British leaders now running the government), 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 the 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 U.N. 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). Of course, during the period from 1922-1947, as a result of the declaration and the period of British governance under the mandate, 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 U.N. 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 settle 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.

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.”

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected].


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

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