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Balfour Declaration of Support for Jewish Homeland Still Divisive at 100

As much as the Balfour Declaration became a cornerstone of the creation of Israel four decades later, it also earned the undying enmity of Palestine’s Arab population — which it referred to obliquely as “the existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine.”

At the British Consulate in East Jerusalem, a group of teenage Palestinian schoolgirls delivered hundreds of letters to Prime Minister Theresa May as part of a campaign, led by the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, to get Britain to “make it right” and recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders.

Mr. Abbas has been demanding lately that Britain apologize for the Balfour Declaration. No apology is expected, though the artist-satirist Banksy arranged for a look-alike of Queen Elizabeth II to offer one, along with cake, on Wednesday in Bethlehem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to ring in the occasion at a dinner on Thursday in London with Mrs. May, arranged by Baron Jacob Rothschild, whose great-uncle was the recipient of Balfour’s famous letter.


Arthur Balfour, the British foreign secretary, in 1930. Credit Associated Press

For a 100-year-old artifact, the declaration remains very much a live issue between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between the Israeli left and right. Politicians, pundits and academics are wielding it to score points both historical and contemporary.

A right-wing commentator, Shimon Riklin, wrote on Twitter this week that if the Palestinian national movement truly wanted a state along the 1967 borders, “it would not be challenging the Balfour Declaration.”

“They want it all,” he said. “Get used to it.”

Yousef Jabareen, an Arab member of Knesset, noted that the Balfour Declaration’s reference to “civil and religious rights” of Arabs had stopped short of granting them national or political rights.

“One hundred years later, I see a similar attitude,” he said in an interview. “The dominant political discourse in this government guarantees self-determination only for Jews, and what is left for Palestinians is some kind of civil and religious rights.”

Another Arab member of Knesset, Zouheir Bahlool, said he would boycott the parliamentary ceremony marking the declaration’s anniversary, and threatened to leave his left-of-center party, the Zionist Union.

In an interview late Wednesday, Mr. Bahlool spoke of the Balfour Declaration as if it were a fresh wound. “This declaration virtually buried the existence of the Palestinian people, which I am a part of,” he said. The document, he said, promoted self-determination for the Jewish people “while completely ignoring the fact that there were Palestinians here.”

But then, a century is not so very long in the Holy Land.

The fundamental problems the Balfour Declaration raised — as “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third,” in the author Arthur Koestler’s memorable formulation — have not been resolved in the intervening years but rather compounded and complicated.

It is going too far to say the Balfour Declaration alone paved the way for the creation of Israel, but it is not an exaggeration to say that without it Israel probably could not have come to be, said Martin Kramer, a history professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of an exhaustive retelling of the document’s genesis and aftermath in Mosaic magazine.

“What Palestinians do when they focus on the Balfour Declaration as the root cause is to absolve themselves of all they did after,” he said. “They could have tried to reach an agreement with the Zionists. But they wanted zero immigration of Jews. That put them in an untenable situation.”

Dated Nov. 2, 1917, the letter was delivered to the leaders of Britain’s Jewish community at the height of World War I, when Britain was driving the Ottomans from Palestine and seeking Jewish support in the United States to spur the American war effort. It did not gain the force of international law until 1920, when the remains of the Ottoman Empire were divided into mandates by the League of Nations, and the British inserted the Balfour Declaration into the text for their mandate for Palestine.


A copy of the Balfour Declaration. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Arabs of Palestine were overmatched in the diplomatic realm, offering only feeble attempts at rolling back the declaration, said Mahmoud Yazbak, a history professor at the University of Haifa. “They thought that by sending a letter to the prime minister or the queen, it would be enough,” he said, but they failed to grasp that Britain’s allies had also endorsed its position on supporting the Zionists.

Even as the document’s centennial has triggered a new cacophony of political debate, it has also generated fresh scholarship that is sure to inspire even more debate.

One of the more intriguing findings to emerge recently focuses on Sephardic Jews native to Palestine, some of whom found the declaration a needless provocation. The historians Hillel Cohen and Yuval Evri say many Sephardic Jews enjoyed close ties to the Arabs and correctly feared how they would respond to the Zionist project.

One Sephardic Jewish leader, Hayyim Ben-Kiki, railed against the Zionist movement, with its European foundations, as an unwelcome imposition on an Eastern culture by Westerners who had “treated Arabs prejudicially and dismissed them.” Another, Yosef Castel, argued to Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, that a young Arab movement was on the rise, that it would “never give up their demands for the Balfour Declaration to be annulled,” and that the document should be rewritten to assure the Arabs that Palestine should be developed as their own national home, too, alongside the Jews.

“They believed they understood the Middle East much better than the Jews who came from Russia or Poland,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview, “so why separate ourselves to establish a Jewish, Western state?”

That early plea from Jews in Palestine for a binational state, however, elicited not so much as a response from Weizmann, Mr. Cohen said. Still, he said, its existence raises a haunting question: “How might Jewish-Arab relations have developed differently?”

Source: NYT > World

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