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Friday, November 02, 2007

The 90th anniversary of the Balfour declaration

Today, November 2, is the 90th anniversary of the Balfour declaration. The declaration that was signed on November 2, 1917 was a short letter issued by British foreign secretary James Arthur Balfour to Lord Rothschild, a scion of the wealthy Rothschild family. The text of the letter is below; a copy of the original appears at top left.
Dear Lord Rothschild,

I have much pleasure in conveying to you, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, the following declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations which has been submitted to, and approved by, the Cabinet.

"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."

I should be grateful if you would bring this declaration to the knowledge of the Zionist Federation.

Yours sincerely,

Arthur James Balfour
There are a number of points about the Balfour declaration that are important to know. I've highlighted some of the key phrases above and I will go through them with you.

First, the declaration refers to "the establishment in Palestine." The word "in" was later used to justify the severing of what was then known as Transjordan (now Jordan) from the British Mandate. But, according to the Peel Commission, appointed by the British Government to investigate the cause of the 1936 Arab riots, "the field in which the Jewish National Home was to be established was understood, at the time of the Balfour Declaration, to be the whole of historic Palestine, including Transjordan."

The Mandate itself had other important references to the Jewish connection to Israel:
The Mandate for Palestine's purpose was to put into effect the Balfour Declaration. It specifically referred to "the historical connections of the Jewish people with Palestine" and to the moral validity of "reconstituting their National Home in that country." The term "reconstituting" shows recognition of the fact that Palestine had been the Jews' home. Furthermore, the British were instructed to "use their best endeavors to facilitate" Jewish immigration, to encourage settlement on the land and to "secure" the Jewish National Home. The word "Arab" does not appear in the Mandatory award.
The wording of the Balfour declaration was heavily negotiated. I should hasten to add that the excerpts that follow come from a site that characterizes itself as 'neutral' and the historical account may not accord entirely with reality as we know it. Nevertheless, the background is fascinating and the article - from which I will only quote the parts that deal with the declaration's test - is worth reading entirely.
As the proposal took shape and began to be known, it invited intense opposition from a small group of rich and influential assimilated Jews, who felt threatened by the possible implications of double loyalty. In particular, the idea was opposed by Edwin Montagu, who made a bitter attack against the declaration. In August of 1917, Montagu presented the government with a memorandum claiming that the declaration was "anti-Semitic" and would result in the expulsion of Jews from Europe. The Jewish problem, Montagu believed was being solved by "progress."

The original text of the declaration had read "Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people." After Montagu's attack, the text was changed to read "the establishment in Palestine of a Home for the Jewish people." A clause was also added protecting the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine and more curiously, a clause was added protecting the rights of Jewish communities outside Palestine.

In his memoirs, Lloyd George wrote:

The Balfour Declaration represented the convinced policy of all parties in our country and also in America, but the launching of it in 1917 was due, as I have said, to propagandist reasons. (David Lloyd George, Memoirs, page 724)

In other words, the policy was backed because of the traditional support of many Britons for Jewish restoration, a support echoed by several US Presidents as well. However, there were specific reasons for issuing the declaration in 1917. That is, as noted, the British believed, without much foundation, that "the Jews" were influential in Bolshevik Russia and likewise that Jewish financiers controlled untold wealth that could be put at the disposal of the allies or the Central powers depending on which government would support a Jewish state or national home in Palestine. In his memoirs, Lloyd George continued to exaggerate the power of the Jews and the help that they rendered:


Some attention has been paid to the phrase "national home for the Jewish People" because it has been subject to various interpretations. In 1922, Churchill tried to hint broadly that a "national home" was not necessarily a state. According to Lloyd George, however, the meaning was clear:

There has been a good deal of discussion as to the meaning of the words "Jewish National Home" and whether it involved the setting up of a Jewish National State in Palestine. I have already quoted the words actually used by Mr. Balfour when he submitted the declaration to the Cabinet for its approval. They were not challenged at the time by any member present, and there could be no doubt as to what the Cabinet then had in their minds. It was not their idea that a Jewish State should be set up immediately by the Peace Treaty without reference to the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants. On the other hand, it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity afforded them by the idea of a National Home and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish Commonwealth. The notion that Jewish immigration would have to be artificially restricted in order to ensure that the Jews should be a permanent minority never entered into the heads of anyone engaged in framing the policy. That would have been regarded as unjust and as a fraud on the people to whom we were appealing. (Memoirs, pp 736-7)


As the document evolved, it was altered, mostly owing to the pressure of Mr Edwin Montagu, an anti-Zionist Jew who had been appointed Secretary of State for India. Montagu tried to block the declaration entirely, and when that failed, succeeded in inserting significant changes. The following wording appeared in a telegram from Weizmann to Justice Brandeis as approved by the Foreign office and Prime Minister:

1. His Majesty's Government accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people.

2. His Majesty's Government will use its best endeavours to secure the achievement of this object and will discuss the necessary methods with the Zionist Organization.

(Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, 1949, p 257)

According to Weizmann, all the opposition to the declaration came from Jews. [As you can see, Jews being our own worst enemies is a tradition that goes back quite some time. CiJ] Two major changes were made. The first one changed the declaration to call for a national home in Palestine, rather than making all Palestine a national home. The single word "in" was used subsequently to justify removing all of Transjordan from the British Mandate that resulted from the Balfour Declaration.

The second change added the following wording:

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."

This wording was at least in part, a reflection of Edwin Montagu's conviction, shared by other influential British Jews, that the very existence of a Jewish state would call into question the loyalties of Jews living in other countries and be a source of antisemitic persecution. The clause concerning the rights of existing non-Jewish communities was used in the Churchill White paper and more particularly in the Passfield White Paper to justify limitations on Jewish immigration, which, it was claimed, was threatening the economic rights of the Arabs by causing unemployment and dispossession. [In From Time Immemorial (a book I recommend that you all read), historian Joan Peters presents extensive evidence that the Arab population of what was then Palestine was quite small when large numbers of Jews started arriving, and that the Arabs - mostly Bedouin - flocked to Palestine because with the Jews' arrival it became the only place in the area in which employment could be found. So the claim that the Jews were "threatening the economic rights of the Arabs by causing unemployment and dispossession" is quite farcical - and continues to be so today. CiJ] The Passfield White Paper seemed to adopt the principle that Jewish development required equal development in Arab communities to protect the position of the existing inhabitants. The British government even considered that this clause might obligate a Jewish state to subsidize an Arab state! (see 1938: Disposition of the Peel and Woodhead reports ).

However, it is likely that even if the Balfour declaration had not contained that wording, the League Mandate would had added some clause to protect the rights of existing minorities because the purpose of mandates under the League Charter was after all to prepare existing inhabitants for self determination. In any case, the protection of rights of existing inhabitants was expanded under the provisions of the Mandate.

The declaration spoke of a "national home" for the Jewish people, which might be construed as a British protectorate where Jews could live, an autonomous Jewish region, or a Jewish state. Haim Weizmann jumped the gun a bit by referring to a "Jewish Commonwealth" and thereby incurred the ire of the British. It was not until 1942, in the Biltmore Program that the Zionist movement clearly declared their express intention of forming a Jewish state in Palestine, with or without British agreement. [The State of Israel gained its independence from Britain in 1948. CiJ]
Again, the lengthy article from which this passage was taken should be read in its entirety.

Israel Radio reported today that most Israeli Jews do know what the Balfour declaration was in general terms. I wonder how many will know ninety years from now.


At 9:31 PM, Blogger Daniel434 said...

Good read, good post.
"Israel Radio reported today that most Israeli Jews do know what the Balfour declaration was in general terms. I wonder how many will know ninety years from now."
Scary thought, we have the same issue here in the states and part of it is poor teachers and revisionist history. One teacher in California had kids dress up as Muslims to see how it would 'feel'. Bizarre, and I wonder if that same teacher spent time teaching non-revisionist history on the founding fathers. It seems as if Israel is suffering the same trouble, and with liberal revisionists even in Israel, it is no surprise.

At 7:10 AM, Blogger Batya said...

great post


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