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The Balfour Declaration was the British government’s pledge to help the Jewish community build a national home in Palestine and took the form of a letter penned on November 2, 1917 by British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, leader the Zionist Federation of Great Britain. In it, Balfour wrote that “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.”
Although Jews throughout history had hoped and prayed for a return to their Biblical homeland, this was the first specific endorsement by a major power of this aspiration as a practical political possibility. Therein lies its historic importance.
By 1917, Zionism had cross-party support in Britain as well as government backing in France, America and other countries. Even some Arab leaders, including Emir Faisal ibn Husain, the leader of the Arab delegation to the post World War I Peace Conference, welcomed it.
However, Arab opposition to Jewish emigration to Palestine grew in the 1920s and 1930s. A major Arab revolt against the British from 1936-39 caused thousands of casualties and persuaded the British to essentially renege on the commitments in the Balfour Declaration.
In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British issued a White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to 75,000 people over the next five years, effectively trapping millions of Jews trying to escape Nazi persecution in Europe.
Ultimately, the Balfour Declaration did not create the state of Israel. A desperate people reeling from the greatest disaster in their history did that on their own with the approval of the United Nations. They provided a refuge for survivors of the Holocaust and a homeland for the entire Jewish people where they could fully express their national determination and identity.
In Israel’s 1948 Declaration of Independence, the Balfour Declaration — which was made one hundred years ago today — was presented as one of the major internationally recognized foundations for the establishment of the state of Israel.
Indeed Balfour paved the way for the creation of the homeland of the Jewish people, but it did not define the borders of the territory on which that state was to be established. Furthermore, the Declaration didn’t explicitly mention the rights of the indigenous Palestinian people who had inhabited the land for centuries and, most importantly, failed to recognize the Palestinian right to self-determination in a national home alongside the Jewish state. In many ways, these omissions laid the groundwork for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It’s not this year’s only major milestone, either. 2017 also marks the 70th anniversary of UNGA Resolution 181, which terminated the powers of Great Britain in mandatory Palestine and paved the way for its partition into a Jewish and an Arab state. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territory.
Each of these anniversaries should spur us to action to address their unfinished legacies. A two-state solution is the only way to live up to both Balfour’s commitment to a Jewish homeland and declaration that “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
One hundred years later, governments world over should make clear that both the Jewish and the Palestinian people have equal rights to self-determination in two states – Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace, security and prosperity.
Acknowledging the European Roots of Middle Eastern Turmoil
Growing up in a Revisionist Zionist home, it was an article of faith that the Jewish people had been promised by the British not simply the land that ultimately became the state of Israel but the land on both banks of the Jordan River. The Balfour Declaration was cited often and with reverence for its important recognition of the cause of Jewish nationalism. There was also, however, an element of scorn over the sense that a promise had been broken.
Little discussed in my house were the conflicting promises made to Arab leaders 100 years ago of their own independence in the same land.
It has only been in my adult years that I came to fully understand the games that European diplomats – in particular the British – played 100 years ago as they sought to carve up the Ottoman Empire. In fact, the conflicts of the past two decades in the Middle East and the pain and suffering both of local populations and foreign armies (including our own U.S. forces) are but the latest chapter in an ongoing tragedy whose roots can be traced to the actions of European diplomats a century ago.
As we mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration and even celebrate the first international recognition of the cause of Jewish national independence in the modern era, there seems to me to be good reason to take equal notice of the century of violence and the ongoing conflicts that trace their origins to the mistakes and gamesmanship of the Balfour era.