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 will never explain this, so I will. I am submitting this column now, because Nov. 2 is the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
At the end of World War I, 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, and Jews were about one sixth of the population. 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 they 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. (Of course, the Jews would still have to buy the land from willing Arab sellers in this permitted area. Britain did not make a gift of the land to the Jews!)
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 — which 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 …?”
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 its language: “His Majesty’s Government view with favor 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 which needed a stable ally there? 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 its 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 World War I, why did it not come into existence? Essentially, the period from 1917-1922 took us to point nine on a scale of one to 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 United States (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 United Nations 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). 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 1947 when the United Nations vote legitimized it.
Even with the reinterpretation in the 1922 White Paper, the ramifications of the Declaration that were being incorporated into Britain’s obligations to the League of Nations was 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 United Nations 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 acquired 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 Balfour Declaration, and 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 World War I, and imagine a completely different original story.
P.S. One who did not know the true history was former President Obama. This is all documented in Dov Lipman’s 2021 book: “Fact Over Fiction: A Challenge to Barack Obama’s History of Israel.”
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected].