Monday, November 2, 2009

2 November 1917: The Balfour Declaration Paves the Way for a Jewish National Home

The declaration by the British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, addressed to Lionel Walter Rothschild, honorary president of the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland, paves the way for the creation of a modern Jewish state.

Medal issued to commemorate the 50th
anniversary of the Declaration

November 2nd, 1917

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
In this age of growing global "buyer's remorse" concerning the creation of the State of Israel, the Declaration has been subject to increasing criticism. Most of it, of course, is not as vulgar as the statement by the official Palestine News Agency (WAFA), which today called the occasion "black day in the history of the Palestinian people, also in the history of humanity, and a blow to justice and international legitimacy," and in addition criticized the UN Partition vote:
Jews have been able to exploit that clip from Arthur Balfour known proximity
of the Zionist movement, and then the Mandate, and the decision of the
General Assembly in 1947
though failing to note that the latter would have created the longed-for Palestinian state more than 60 years ago. (An interesting lens on the prospects for dialogue, peace, and reconciliation, incidentally.)

Still, the document and the motives behind it are rather more complex than even less crude interpretations might suggest. Far from giving the Zionists carte blanche, the Declaration in its final form was a carefully worded, deliberately ambiguous text, intended to serve, first and foremost, British imperial interests—which themselves were more subtle and multifaceted than many commentators imagine. More on all that later, perhaps. In the meantime, one example.

Nowadays, with the presumed benefit of hindsight, we probably tend to focus on the phrase, "it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine," while passing over, unthinkingly, the subsequent phrase: "or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country." The difference is instructive—and elusive. The first reference is deliberately and explicitly to civil and religious rather than national rights. In other words, the document sees a national home for one people and the human rights of peoples of another nationality living within it as entirely reconcilable. This was an article of faith, indeed, a matter of necessity in the attempt to remake the post-Great War world, whether on the basis of Wilsonian principles or Realpolitik. Because national-political and ethnic boundaries could not be identical and at the same time yield functional states with contiguous territories, attempting to apply the vaunted principle of self-determination for any given people in the lands of the former multi-ethnic empires of the Central Powers necessarily led to the presence of national minorities. Hence, minority rights, sometimes codified by treaty, became a prominent issue. In that sense, the future Palestine Mandate was really no different from Czechoslovakia or Poland.

The second phrase, however, presents a somewhat different challenge. Why should support for Zionist goals and creation of a Jewish "national home" prompt a statement about Jews living elsewhere? The original draft language proposed by the Zionist leaders Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow referred to "the national home of the Jewish people," in keeping with established doctrine. The British government insisted on the indefinite article. One of the implicit issues here was one that the Zionists had always had to contend with: the prospect that, if a Jewish state were established, either the Jews living elsewhere would be suspected of dual loyalty, or the existing states might seize the opportunity to expel them against their will. Some Jews feared that the clause might in fact embolden antisemitic expulsionists. Balfour himself evidently thought that the action and the clause would improve and clarify matters: Jews who wanted to emigrate to a national home could do so, while those who chose to remain where they were would in so doing incontrovertibly demonstrate their loyalty and, accordingly, assimilate all the more rapidly and fully.

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