Prime Minister Theresa May declared at a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel on 12 December that this year’s centenary of the Balfour Declaration would be marked by Britain ‘with pride’.
This sets out an important marker for how Britain will handle an anniversary which, let’s face it, must look to many in Whitehall like one big headache. Not a word can be spoken about the document – which left indelible British fingerprints all over the Jewish-Arab struggle in the Middle East – without angering someone, or several million someones. Ministers could be forgiven for wanting to hide under the bed until it’s all over.
But the anniversary, and Britain’s historical legacy, cannot be avoided. For Jews around the world the Balfour Declaration, and its role laying the groundwork for the establishment of Israel, is something to be celebrated with pride. Whilst for the Arab and wider Islamic world, and for Palestinians in particular, the Balfour Declaration is a mark of shame against the British. The Palestinian Authority has threatened to sue Britain for its ‘crime’, and anti-Zionist campaigners will seek to tar Zionism, once again, with the brush of imperialism and colonialism.
How then should British politicians and leaders handle this thorny subject this year? What is a reasonable and balanced way to relate to, and talk about, the Balfour Declaration one hundred years on?
Millions of words have been written, and millions more will be written, about what the Balfour Declaration was about from a British perspective, seen through the lenses of Britain’s ambivalent relationship with its imperial and colonial past.
What British leaders across the spectrum need to recall in the face of the conflicting emotions of Jews and Palestinians and their respective supporters, is what the Balfour Declaration means for the nations whose destiny it has touched.
For Jews, the Balfour Declaration is part of its narrative of salvation. Simply put, hundreds of thousands of Jews who fled from Europe to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s, and their descendants, owe their lives to it. The family members they left behind perished in the Shoah (Holocaust). For Jews it is the 1939 White Paper, in which Britain cancelled its commitment to a Jewish national home, all but halted Jewish immigration, and closed off one of the last escape routes from the Europe, that is the mark of British betrayal and shame. These events touched most Jewish families in Britain in one way or another.
Not only did the creation of the Jewish national home provide a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Jews before the war, but it enabled the establishment of the State of Israel after the war. For Jews, Israel’s establishment – restoring Jewish sovereignty in what Jews consider their historic homeland – was the anti-Shoah, giving Jewish identity a positive future.
By understanding this, it can it be appreciated how clankingly offensive the demands for Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration are for Jews. Though perhaps understandable from Palestinians, from others it reflects a conspicuous disdain for Jewish sensitivities and Jewish history. It is no surprise that a recent Parliamentary event launching a ‘Balfour Apology Campaign’ became a shameful forum for antisemitic bluster.
That said, everyone who cares about Israel must also recognise that the process that created the State of Israel – the Jewish narrative of salvation – is for Palestinians their narrative of catastrophe, or ‘Nakba’. The extent to which the declaration is responsible for their loss is open to historical debate, but the loss and suffering of the Palestinian people is undeniable.
This is the minefield that Britain must navigate, and a notable gap has already emerged between Number 10 and the Foreign Office. May’s commitment to mark the anniversary with pride jars with the position taken by Middle East Minister Tobias Elwood in a recent Parliamentary debate, in which he declared that Britain will mark the centenary, but ‘will neither celebrate nor apologise’.
Certainly the answer for British representatives is not to attempt to retrospectively rewrite the Balfour declaration, as Elwood awkwardly appeared to do in that debate, stating that the Balfour Declaration should have asserted the political (rather than only civil and religious) rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine.
Redrafting a century-old letter to assuage today’s political sensitivities can only distort the historical picture. Rather than rewrite the past, Britain should use the spotlight to increase understanding of it, and promote a positive vision for the future, using a vocabulary that is sensitive to the conflicting emotions on both sides of the dispute.
1917 AND ALL THAT
Arthur Koestler witheringly summarised the Balfour Declaration as document in which ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third’. This is pithy, but no more helpful as a history than the Zionist slogan of ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’. A balanced account of the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires looking simultaneously at two overlapping but different perspectives: of Jewish-Zionists and Palestinian-Arabs. It is like staring at stereogram. If you can avoid going cross eyed and getting a headache, a picture with depth begins to emerge.
Zionism as a modern political movement gained momentum at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of the failure of the Jewish emancipation to end antisemitism in Europe. The founder of political Zionism Theodor Herzl witnessed as a journalist the 1895 Dreyfus trial, in which a French Jewish army captain was falsely convicted for spying and publicly disgraced before a Parisian crowd chanting ‘death to the Jews’. Meanwhile in the Russian empire Jews were scapegoated for political unrest, and subject to waves of murderous antisemitic riots and punitive legislation restricting their freedoms.
In his famous pamphlet. ‘The Jewish State,’ Herzl lamented the fact that ‘we have honestly endeavoured everywhere to merge ourselves in the social life of surrounding communities and to preserve the faith of our fathers. We are not permitted to do so.’ His plan was, ‘perfectly simple … Let sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the rightful requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves’.
Herzl was not the first to reach this conclusion. It was hardly surprising in a Europe filled with ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups seeking national self-determination, that Jews would seek the same solution to their own situation.
Indeed, a movement to establish modern Jewish settlements in Palestine had begun in the Russian empire in response to a wave of pogroms of 1881. Whilst hundreds of thousands left the empire to find new homes – mostly in North America but also in Britain and other places – a smaller number went to the ancient homeland known to Jews as the Land of Israel, inspired by the vision of a new Jewish centre of life where Jews could emancipate themselves.
The territory they reached was an underdeveloped and relatively underpopulated part of the Ottoman Empire. Though the area was known as Palestine, there was no such place on the Ottoman administrative and political map, being divided into various smaller administrative units, and its half million Arab inhabitants had no notion of Palestine as political unit or ‘Palestinian’ as a national identity. There was a small, educated, urban Arab elite, but most of the population were rural tenant farmers or Bedouin, with illiteracy estimated at 95 per cent.
Life in Ottoman Palestine was harsh. Many Jews gave up; some died. But this unpromising territory is central to the Jewish collective identity, being at the core of its biblical and historical narrative, its theology and daily liturgy. And it was over this territory that the Zionist movement lobbied the great powers for a charter to establish a Jewish state.
By the outbreak of World War I, the Jewish population of Palestine had swelled from around 20,000 to around 90,000: buying land; establishing agricultural communities, including kibbutzim; and building new towns, like Tel Aviv. This was the original start up nation. Leon Pinsker, one of the early Russian-Zionist ideologues, called it ‘Auto-emancipation’. However, by 1914 Jews were still a small minority, with Arabs numbering around 590,000.
Why Russian-born chemist Chaim Weizmann and his small group of British Jewish supporters was successful in convincing the British cabinet to back the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine in 1917 is the subject of endless historical curiosity, especially given how much of a burden this promise later seemed. Did ministers hope, as they claimed, in their desperation to break the tie in the Great War, that the support of American and Russian Jewry would strengthen their positon? Were they swayed by altruistic motives, recognising the plight of world Jewry? Were they inspired by biblical prophecy of the Jewish people’s restoration to their land? Did they hope for a reliable British dependency to hold key strategic ground protecting Suez, Haifa and the overland routes to the Gulf, and to keep at bay the French and Russians?
Whatever their motives, they carefully considered the wording, with the outcome a masterpiece in brevity, but also ambiguity. The goal was vague with respect to geography and political status: ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.’ The British commitment was imprecise: ‘to use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.’ And there were caveats: ‘nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’, intended to satisfy pro-Arab voices; nor to prejudice ‘the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country,’ to satisfy non-Zionist Jews in Britain who feared harm to their status as equal British citizens.
Nonetheless, for Zionism the declaration was a game changer, not because it was unique as a statement of support: French and American leaders also expressed support for Zionism, but because the outcome of the war made it possible for support became policy. Within weeks of the declaration, General Allenby has captured Jerusalem. The British commitment to the Jews was upheld in the post-war peace settlement, and transformed into an internationally endorsed legal Mandate by the League of Nations.
PROMISES AND BETRAYALS
Whether or not this was wise policy for the British, it was the opportunity for the Zionist movement, and they took it. Under the protection of the British sovereign and backed by international law, the Zionist movement spent the next twenty years establishing the foundations of a Jewish state: buying and cultivating land; bringing in Jewish immigrants; building communities; developing industries; establishing social services and cultural institutions. They absorbed waves of new immigrants leaving behind discrimination in Europe. A great surge of refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s buoyed the Jewish population to around 350,000 by 1939, around one third of the population.
Yet in the Arab world, the Declaration came universally to be seen as a case of British betrayal and double dealing: evidence of Western disregard for Arab rights and even a cynical agenda to keep the Arabs weak and divided. The British had made a separate commitment in 1915 to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca, to support his aspiration for an independent Arab kingdom in return for his rebelling against the Turks. This commitment was also laced with ambiguity and qualification, explicitly excluding regions that ‘cannot be said to be purely Arab’, but imprecisely describing their geographical extent. These commitments were complicated by a third agreement between Britain and France, to divide the Ottoman territories of the Middle East into areas of their control and influence.
Whether or not the promises were consistent with one another is debated by historians. It is worth recalling of the three agreements, only the Balfour Declaration was not a secret, being issued in a letter that was intended to be made public.
After issuing the Balfour Declaration, the British tried to reassure Hussein, and even brokered a signed agreement between Chaim Weizmann and Faisel, Hussein’s son and representative at the Paris peace conference, in which each committed to support the aspirations of the other.
How the two movements were to be reconciled remained unclear. As Colonial Secretary in 1922, Churchill tried to draw a line under the matter by drawing a line in the sand. He partitioned Palestine along the Jordan River, and barred Jewish settlement east of the river, where he created Transjordan as he would later boast, with ‘one stroke of a pen, one Sunday afternoon’. Allowing Faisel’s brother Abdullah to rule it, he considered the British commitment to the Sharif and his sons with respect to Palestine fulfilled.
Of course Abdullah was not fulfilled, cut off from Jerusalem, and frustrated in his aspiration to lead an Arab kingdom of greater size and significance. But the more immediate concern was the majority Arab population of the area now defined in international law as a Jewish National Home. Arabs in Palestine had a mixed response to the arrival of Jews at the turn of the century. But unease at the threat to their political and economic position grew in parallel with the size of the Jewish community, and with the increasing influence of nationalism in the Arab world. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Arab nationalists in Palestine hoped that they would become part of newly formed wider Arab state, most likely part of a greater Syria. But the publication of the Balfour Declaration, and then the loss of Syrian independence to French control in 1920, catalysed the emergence of a distinct Palestinian national identity, of which resistance to the establishment of a Jewish national home was a core component. From then on, Jewish and Arab claims to sovereignty in the territory west of the Jordan River were irreconcilable.
Arab resistance to British rule and Jewish settlement burst into increasingly bloody rounds of violence over the 1920s and 1930s, culminating in a broad based Arab revolt in 1936. In 1937 the British proposed reconciling the two competing populations by partitioning Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab states – the first emergence of what today we call the two state solution. Jews were open to partition, albeit rejecting the proposed borders, whilst the whole enterprise was rejected by the Arab side.
By 1939, with war in Europe looming, the British decided, in Chamberlain’s words, that it was better strategy ‘to offend the Jews rather than the Arab’. To calm the Arab revolt and placate surrounding Arab states, it issued its White Paper capping Jewish immigration.
Six years later, two in every three Jews in Europe had been murdered, six million in total. For their survivors, living in displaced persons camps across Europe, their hope for salvation was invested in the promise for a new life in the new Jewish society in Palestine. But the British barred Jewish entry, turning back refugee ships like the famous ‘Exodus’. With 100,000 British troops struggling to keep control in Palestine, the British gave up, turning the issue over to the newly formed UN, whose commission proposed a two state solution. The proposed borders satisfied no-one, but the Jews reluctantly accepted the compromise, whilst the Arabs unequivocally rejected it.
The War between the two communities that followed led to the flight and displacement of around 600,000 Arabs. Their descendants today number in the millions. Many remain stateless. Who was to blame for their flight, and for the perpetuation of Palestinian refugee status is a dispute where history intertwines almost inseparably with the political dispute. What is beyond debate however, is that for Palestinians the ‘Nakba’, is a defining moment in their national identity. The key is the symbol of the homes they lost. From their perspective, their land was taken from them by the Jews, and British imperial power made it possible.
WHAT TO SAY?
At the time of the Balfour Declaration, the idea of a Jewish nation state divided Jews, after the Holocaust, it united them. According to a 2015 survey of British Jews conducted by City University, ‘The vast majority of our respondents support its right to exist as a Jewish state (90 per cent), express pride in its cultural and scientific achievements (84 per cent), see it as a vibrant and open democracy (78 per cent) and say that it forms some part of their identity as Jews (93 per cent).’ No wonder that the Balfour Declaration, and the British role in laying the groundwork for the State of Israel is something that British Jews want to celebrate with pride.
But equally, it is little wonder that this is something that Palestinians and their supporters want to denigrate. At this moment the Palestinian voice and narrative should also be heard.
Reconciling these voices however, cannot be done in the past. That is why Britain should take the opportunity of the spotlight to speak about the future. The Balfour Declaration was a statement of aspiration. It declared what Britain viewed with favour, and what it would use its best endeavours to bring about. What should Britain view with favour today?
Firstly, that with Israel’s establishment, centuries of Jewish homelessness and persecution have ended; that Israel is democratic, affirms the rights of non-Jewish citizens, and is an extraordinary engine for creativity; and that it has a fruitful relationship with Britain based on shared interests and values.
But Britain should also view with favour – indeed reaffirm with vigour – the urgency of establishing a Palestinian state that would afford long overdue self-determination, due dignity, and economic and political opportunity to the Palestinian people.
Perhaps most importantly, it should affirm that these goals are mutually reinforcing. The surest way to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish national home – in terms of demography, security, and legitimacy – is through the creation of a separate Palestinian state. Many Israeli politicians, including at times Prime Minister Netanyahu, have acknowledged this. At the same time, a conflict ending agreement will require the Palestinians to agree to a refugee solution that is consistent with two states – two ‘national homes’ – for two peoples, and does not undermine Israel’s Jewish character.
Yet Britain must also recognise that today, it does not have the power to carve borders in the desert and create states with the stroke of a pen on a Sunday afternoon. Those with the power to determine the fate of the Jewish national home and the Palestinian national home for the generations to come are the two populations themselves. In that respect, all peoples can draw inspiration from what the Zionist movement achieved. The Balfour Declaration created the opportunity, but it was the endeavour of the Jews themselves who built the groundwork for what many had previously thought impossible, a fully sovereign Jewish state. Seeing a piece of paper turn into a living state is an invitation to all peoples, Israelis and Palestinians alike, to become authors of their own destinies.
The future will be shaped by Israelis and Palestinians. Britain should use ‘its best endeavours’ to improve the chances of the pragmatists among them, who recognise that two national homes is the only way to reconcile the demands of two nations, and end a century of conflict.
Toby Greene is Senior Resarch Associate at BICOM.