Thursday is Balfour Day: Marking 100 years since British Foreign Secretary Lord Walter Balfour wrote a letter on behalf of the British government to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain.
“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish People.”
It is difficult to state definitively what the motivation of Balfour and the British Cabinet was, in making this Declaration. Some sources say there was a good deal of pro-Jewish sentiment in the Cabinet at that time. Others see political motivation as the rationale behind the Declaration. We must remember that Britain was at war when the Declaration was released.
Chaim Weizmann’s name is forever linked with the Declaration. This Zionist leader – who was born in Russia but had moved to England – is attributed with having had much influence behind the scenes in the matter, and is said to have worked for years to achieve this goal.
Weizmann in his writings at various times referred to the Balfour Declaration as an “act of restitution” and “the righting of a historical wrong.”
One well known story is that Weizmann, who was a chemist as well as a leading Zionist, had developed a new way of producing acetone that would have considerable benefit for Britain in its manufacture of explosives. Weizmann reportedly surrendered his patent for this new process to the British without charge, in exchange for British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Whatever the motivation, the British came forward at this moment in time and must be recognized for having done so. With that Declaration, they changed the course of history.
International lawyer Ambassador Alan Baker explains that:
“According to international law and practice, any unilateral declaration issued properly by a foreign minister of a state, authorized by that state, is binding on that state.”
You can see short video of that explanation here:
Thus, says Baker, the Balfour Declaration, although it was a letter, was immediately binding upon Britain.
The declaration was the first modern recognition of the right of the Jews to reconstitute their homeland in Palestine.
Subsequent conferences convened after WWI drew upon the Balfour Declaration; most notable in this regard was the Resolution issued at the San Remo Conference in 1920 – with Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan actively participating and the United States present as observer.
The Conference was concerned with allocation of territories previously controlled by the defeated Ottoman Empire. During the conference, the Mandate system was set in place; it provided for the administration of these territories, for a period of time, by Allied nations. Britain was appointed as the mandatory power in Palestine. The Resolution drew precisely on the words of the Balfour Declaration:
“The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 8, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other allied powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…”
(I do not know how to account for the slight discrepancy in the date.)
The San Remo Resolution was the first international legal document that recognized the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
In 1922, the League of Nations, putting into effect what had been passed at San Remo, unanimously approved the British Mandate for Palestine, rendering it an article in international law. This has never been superseded.
The Mandate called for close settlement by Jews on the land and acknowledged civil and religious – but not political – rights for non-Jews in Palestine. The political rights were assigned exclusively to the Jews.
See the Mandate here:
Thus do we come to the present:
For Zionists and supporters of Israel everywhere, this is a time for celebrating, and for expressing gratitude to Britain for that pivotal Declaration issued 100 years ago.
But when it comes to Jewish rights, the matter is never simple.
The PA’s Mahmoud Abbas is playing his typical games: at various times, he has demanded that the British rescind the Balfour Declaration and pay reparations. He has also insisted that Britain acknowledge the “historic crime” they committed again the Palestinian people and atone for it by apologizing and recognizing a Palestinian state without delay. He has threatened to sue if the British do not respond.
Attempting to make as much of this as possible from a PR perspective, Abbas arranged for a petition to be sent to the British government, has asked Palestinian Arab high school students to write to the British, and is calling for “popular demonstrations” on Balfour Day.
This day provides him with an excellent opportunity to speak about the “eternal suffering of his people,” and there are those who are always prepared to be sympathetic.
The British government has absolutely no intention of apologizing or providing reparations. They do not seem unduly upset by the prospect of being “sued” by Abbas, either. In fact, the foreign ministry issued a formal response to the petition (emphasis added):
“The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologise.
“We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel…”
This is great, as far as it goes. But there is more: After expressing pride for the government’s role in creating Israel, the statement continues…
”The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”
For the British Foreign Ministry, peace will come via a two-state solution: It speaks in its response of the need to create a “viable and sovereign Palestinian state” based on the 1967 borders (sic).
And it allows that the Declaration
“should have called for the protection of political rights of the non-Jewish communities in Palestine, particularly their right to self-determination.”
This is called having your cake and eating it too.
And it doesn’t work.
In point of fact, there is tremendous irony in the Foreign Ministry’s statement about the right to self-determination for non-Jewish communities in Palestine:
When the Balfour Declaration was written, Palestine was part of the . There was no “Palestinian Arab” community. There were just some Arabs who happened to be living there, but who identified with the Arab nation as a whole. And there were others such as Turks.
And so this posting.
I write it, my friends, so that you will be well-informed on the issues. I ask you to share this, and to promote the information in a variety of venues in the coming days.
Additionally, I ask that you to write British Prime Minister Theresa May. Remember that numbers count: your participation would be most welcome.
You can write to her here:
Messages are limited to 1,000 characters; communication from non-British citizens is accepted. I ask that you remain courteous as you make your points:
1) That you appreciate the British involvement in issuing the Balfour Declaration, which was the beginning of the process that led to the founding of the modern State of Israel.
2) That pride in the Declaration should not be undercut by support for a two-state solution.
You might want to utilize the sample below that I have drafted.
To the Honourable Theresa May:
I wish to thank you most sincerely for Britain’s historic role in helping to bring about the creation of the modern State of Israel. The Balfour Declaration gave recognition to Jewish rights to a national homeland in Palestine.
The British Mandate for Palestine, an article of international law, drew directly upon the Balfour Declaration. In spite of current claims to the contrary, it recognized ALL of Palestine as Jewish homeland. Britain was mandated with supporting close settlement of Jews on the land. Non-Jews were given civil and religious – not political – rights in the land.
There is an inherent contradiction in supporting the Jewish rights in the land and a two-state solution at the same time.