This is another guest post by frequent contributor Brian Goldfarb. The timing of this article is perfect, coming as it does a day after Yom Ha’atzmaut when Israel celebrated its 69th anniversary. That anniversary was possible due in very large part to the Balfour Declaration, which the Palestinians – as is their wont – are trying to undo. (They are in the business of undoing history after all). At the very least the Palestinians are demanding an apology from the British for the Balfour Declaration and are threatening to sue if they don’t get their apology – which the British assure them they will not receive.
This demand would be hugely laughable if it were not so dangerous and if it did not occur against a background of constant delegitimization of Israel. Just see what happened yesterday at UNESCO!
So let Brian take us back in history to the very beginning, and have a look at what the Balfour Declaration is all about.
As we approach the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, although it is six months away (see below), it seems to me that it is important to start talking about it and what it does say and what it doesn’t say, as well as trying to make clear its status and impact.
The actual Declaration itself is but one sentence in a letter sent to Baron Rothschild: brief to the point of being easy to miss. As Wikipedia notes:
The Balfour Declaration was a single paragraph in a letter dated 2 November 1917 from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It read:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.
The text of the letter was published in the press one week later, on 9 November 1917. The “Balfour Declaration” was later incorporated into both the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire, and the Mandate for Palestine.” [Wikipedia]
It was, of course, the culmination of a long campaign by the Zionist Federation (ZF) (and by Chaim Weizmann in particular). Weizmann was especially influential in this, largely because of his scientific work, as a research chemist, and especially his development of the extraction of acetone (vital for the munitions industry) from maize during the First World War on behalf of the Allies. This meant that the British Government of the day was particularly beholden to him, and Weizmann used this influence wholeheartedly on behalf of the Zionist Federation. (The Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Weizmann is particularly informative on this period of his life.) It is important to note developments such as the San Remo Conference of Allied Powers (1920), which confirmed the Balfour Declaration and awarded the Palestine Mandate to Great Britain (Britannica, ibid).
It is as important, at this point, to remember that phrase from the Declaration 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.” This will be returned to below.
To move on, it is possible to argue that the Peel Commission recommendations of 1936 come close to allocating much the same territory to each side as did the 1947 UN Resolution on the ending of the British Mandate. Remember: I said “much the same” not exactly the the same, though it’s a moot point, as the Arab side rejected the Commission’s recommendations outright, despite earlier agreements between at least some Arab leaders and the Jewish Agency.
All that said, the British Government failed, consistently, to live up to the wording of the Declaration. From the San Remo Conference onwards, despite that Conference’s agreement that
Britain was charged with establishing a ‘national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine [although] Terroritorial boundaries were not decided until four years after (http://www.cfr.org/israel/san-remo-resolution/p15248),
Britain did nothing to establish any boundaries, then or later, including after World War 2 and, indeed, after the 1947 UN Resolution ending the Mandate. The British didn’t even take steps to establish Transjordan, although they much favoured its creation. As a result, it is hardly surprising that the Arabs, both those in the Mandate territory and the independent nations outside it, utterly rejected the 1947 Resolution.
This background is important because of what happened next. We know that, as Weizmann later said, (paraphrasing his words) the Jews would accept any state, even if it was only the size of a tablecloth, whereas the Arabs (Palestinians weren’t invented until the early 1960s) rejected the whole idea of an Israel of any size at all. What happened next has been well written about by Benny Morris in “1948: The First Arab-Israeli War” and I have summarised it several times in these pages: the Arab militias, from the passing of the ’47 resolution until May 1948 attempted to throw the Jews into the sea, and failed miserably, losing land and men. Then the armies of 5 surrounding Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq), from the Declaration of Independence on, attempted the same and also failed (except for the Jordanians, who took the land the Resolution assigned to them, more or less. If you go back to Morris, he notes, more than once, that it was never policy, official or unofficial, of the Jewish Agency (the Sochnut), effectively the government of Israel in waiting, to deliberately displace the Arab population of what became Israel. The most public “expulsion”, that of Deir Yassin, was carried out by Irgun, never an official part of the Israeli state.
It is only the anti-Zionists who wish us (and themselves) to believe otherwise.
However, for the Israelis, the cost was horribly high, despite the cost to the world-wide Jewish population of the Holocaust:
4,000 Israeli soldiers and 2,000 Israeli civilians lost their lives fighting for Israeli independence. That number amounted to one percent of the Israeli population at the time. Considering the size of the Israeli population back then, this number amounted to triple the percentage of American causalities during World War II. (https://unitedwithisrael.org/israels-war-of-independence-remembering-the-losses/)
Note that this quote says “casualties” for the USA, not deaths.
All this history is, for many, and, I’m sure, the vast majority of visitors to this site, well known, so why visit it again? For a very simple reason: with the approach of the centenary of the Declaration, many of those who oppose the very existence of Israel are demanding an apology from Britain for the Declaration, as though, were this to be provided, all would, in their eyes, be put right.
In their dreams.
It’s not going to happen, probably ever, because even if Labour under Corbyn were to win the election on June 8 ( a remote possibility), a majority of the MPs in the House of Commons would reject such an apology being delivered. As it already has. Just note the following, from Honest Reporting’s Israel Daily News Service (IDNS) of 26/4/17:
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Authority ambassador to the UK, said on Tuesday that unless Britain apologized, canceled planned celebrations and recognized a Palestinian state, the Palestinians would go ahead with plans for a lawsuit against the British government for issuing the Balfour Declaration.
The British government are in fact proud of their role in the Balfour Declaration (from the ToI link):
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which HMG (her Majesty’s Government) does not intend to apologise,” the response began. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
Honest Reporting notes:
But why stop with Balfour? The PA should also sue Britain and France (for the the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement), Britain and the Husseini family (for the 1922 Cairo Conference, which created an independent Transjordan), and the UN (for the 1948 Partition Plan). The Palestinians can even sue themselves for signing the 1993 Oslo accords . . .
The UK government’s announcement was made on a petition page where Palestinian activists seeking an apology are collecting signatures.”
The British Government, under the leadership of Theresa May, is, of course, quaking in its collective boots at this threat.
Anne adds: Brian, thank you for this comprehensive look at the historical context of the Balfour Declaration. It is of the utmost importance that Israel and her supporters stress over and over again the historical background to the Declaration and to Israel’s ensuing Declaration of Independence. So many people, even well-meaning ones, labour under the impression that Israel was created as a result of the Shoah, or that the Jews suddenly turned up and “stole Palestinian land”, when nothing could be further from the truth.
I’m sure the media and airwaves will be laden with articles on this subject in the coming 6 months, even more so because of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. We have to be on our guard and keep on message.
On this subject it is worth reading “Could the Palestinians actually sue the UK for the Balfour Declaration?” from Jews Down Under. (Hint: The answer is “probably not”).