A declaration thrice violated: Balfour and Israel

A declaration thrice violated: The shadow and legacy of the Balfour declaration


Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington recently to meet US President Barack Obama.  As usual neither man seemed comfortable.  The Obama administration had recently conceded that there would likely be no progress on peace talks before his term comes to an end. Rob Mailey, a senior advisor to the President, told media that “The main thing the president would want to hear from Netanyahu is that, without peace talks, how does he want to move forward to prevent a one-state solution, stabilize the situation on the ground and to signal he is committed to the two-state solution.”  Netanyahu obliged and told Obama on November 9th that he still wants two-state. “I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

 The Netanyahu-Obama meeting came a week after the anniversary of the approval of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.  In many ways the current situation owes much to the legacy of this document. The declaration is still celebrated as a source of the moral, legal and political rights of the Zionist movement to rekindling a Jewish state in the Land of Israel.  The declaration itself was issued as a letter, approved by the war cabinet (Britain was in the midst of the Great War), on November 2, 1917 from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Baron Lionel Walter Rothschild.

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Lionel Walter Roshschild

 The text approved was a result of some haggling.  Jerome Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at CUNY, claims the declaration had “dark forces” behind it that dated back to the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and included anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews controlling the world.  If Zionism would be supported the British Empire would rule the waves and win the First World War.

 More prosaic issues bothered British leaders.  Lord Curzon, who was Lord President of the Privy Council (Balfour would succeed him in 1919) wondered what would happen to Arabs in Ottoman Palestine who had “occupied it for the best part of 1,500 years” and who would not agree to become “hewers of wood and drawers of water to [Jewish immigrants].” Among the foremost critics of issuing a declaration was Lucien Wolf, a leader of the Conjoint Committee of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. An author of the 1903 article, ‘The Zionist Peril’, Wolf believed  that Zionism was an “abiding ally of anti-semitism and its most powerful justification.”

 In 1915 he wrote that a Jewish state would “aggravate the difficulties of unemancipated and imperil the liberties of emancipated Jews all over the world…in Palestine itself it would make for a Jewish state based on civil and religious disabilities of the most mediaeval kind.”  The various concerns of British officials and Jewish anti-Zionists were incorporated into the final text which notes; “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.”  It has four parts, a national home (1), an endeavor to create it (2), no discrimination against non-Jews (3), no discrimination against Jews (4).

 We can see how the vague text mentions a “national home”, which posed a problem for leading Zionists.  At the Paris Peace Conference the Zionist Organization submitted a text asking that the parties “recognize the historic title of the Jewish people to Palestine and the right of the Jews to reconstitute in Palestine their National Home.”  But even the Zionists were unclear on what that mean, considering the creation of an “autonomous commonwealth” which would not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”  When the British Mandate for Palestine was affirmed at the League of Nations, the Balfour Declaration text was incorporated into it and additional provisos added.  Nothing would “confer upon the Mandatory authority to interfere with the fabric or the management of purely Moslem sacred shrines, the immunities of which are guaranteed.” Furthermore “No discrimination of any kind shall be made between the inhabitants of Palestine on the ground of race, religion or language. No person shall be excluded from Palestine on the sole ground of his religious belief.”

 WHEN WE look back today at these provisions it is striking how much the Balfour Declaration was never fulfilled.  From its inception its drafters feared it’s legacy.  David Lloyd George, who was Prime Minister from 1916-1922, feared that Jewish immigration (he estimated there were 14 million Jews in the world) would overwhelm the capacity of the country. In a 1919 meeting of the cabinet Lord Robert Cecile declared “We shall simply keep the peace between the Arabs and the Jews, we are not going to get anything out of it, whoever goes there will have a poor time.”  A British general present worried that if they didn’t cater to Zionists enough then the “whole of world Jewry [will turn to] Bolshevism.”

 We now know the Palestine Mandate became a headache for British authorities and their commitments to the Jewish national home were seemingly backtracked as they increasingly restricted Jewish immigration and then put forward various partition schemes for the country. Partition was a British favorite solution, one dating back to Lord Curzon’s 1905 partition of Bengal into its largely Muslim eastern component and its more Hindu western areas.  It had a lasting impact in the creation of East Pakistan in 1948, now Bangladesh.  So we should not be surprised that Curzon and his devotes of partition, would play a role in Mandate Palestine.

 When the State of Israel was declared on the 14th of May 1948, it’s declaration incorporated some of the concepts found in the Balfour Declaration and the Mandate, arguing that the country “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”  The text is an interesting compilation, because rather than forbidding discrimination or prejudice against civil and religious rights of non-Jews, or guaranteeing non-discrimination based on religion, race or language, it guaranteed only equality of “social and political” rights, there would be freedom of culture, but it seems to accept that Jewish culture will have primacy.  The Jordanian occupation of the West Bank and Egyptian occupation of the Gaza Strip did not guarantee rights to Jewish communities who had existed there.  Between the creation of Israel and the conquest of the rest of Palestine by these two Arab countries, the Balfour declarations third and fourth sections were mostly negated.

 In a tragic way, the declaration’s final section that dealt with the “rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” has been systematically violated by much of the world. First to come were the numerous clauses passed in Hungary in 1920 and later in other parts of Central Eastern Europe, such as Poland in 1937.  Then came the extermination meted out by the Nazis.

 When the European Holocaust was over, the ethnic-cleansing of Jews from the Islamic world began. On the anniversary of the Balfour declaration Muslim mobs carried out a pogroms in Tripoli (Libya) in November of 1945, and on the same day in Alexandria and Cairo.  Already the excuse that rampaging through Jewish areas of town, murdering dozens of Jews, for being Jews, was acceptable because it was Zionist.  Gudrun Kramer, a German professor of Islamic studies wrote in her history of the Jews of modern Egypt that despite “the anti-Zionist campaign of militant nationalist and Islamic groups, with its anti-Jewish overtones did not seem to affect the general public.”  When Jews are massacred for being Jews, it is only “overtones” of anti-Jewish behavior, as long as it is couched in “anti-Zionism.” After the “Balfour day” riots, the next great pogroms came in December and July of 1947 in Aden, Aleppo, Manam (Bahrain), Cairo, Tripoli and Jerada (Morocco).  In August a grenade was thrown at the Menarsha synagogue in Damascus.

 Turkey, which was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, also wrestled with its Jewish minority. In 1934 pogroms broke out in Thrace and Prime Minister Ismet Inonu did not condemn them. In 1941 Jews were forced into non-Muslim “labor battalions” and much of their property was confiscated in 1942, resulting in 37,000 Jews emigrating to Israel soon after 1948.  Islamic parties, such as that led by Necmitten Erbakan in the 1980s, blamed “international Zionism” for the economic crises in the country, a prelude to current President Reccep Tayyib Erdogans anti-Zionist views.  Laws passed in Iraq in July 1948 and 1950 in Egypt led to confiscation of Jewish property and citizenship.  Egypt’s law specifically targeted “Zionists” as a way to remove rights from Jews.

 The Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia followed on the heels of the anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist attacks in the Islamic world. Anti-semitism in the communist parties of the east is thought to date from the time of Stalin’s “Doctor’s Plot”, but in fact began in Czechslovakia in 1952 with the trial of “Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionists” where 11 prominent Jews in the communist party, including Rudolf Slansky, were arrested. From then on the communist states used “anti-Zionism” as a way to label Jews, who were suppressed. In the 1968 in Poland, in the wake of the 1967 war and the breaking of relations between the USSR and Israel, a vicious purge was launched against Jews in the communist party in Poland.  A list of 382 “Zionists” was invented and citizens were encouraged to shout “Zionists go to Zion.”

The Balfour declaration still haunts the situation of Israel in the Middle East.  Although there are no longer “Balfour day” pogroms, because there are almost no more Jews to pogrom in the region except those protected by Israel, and although the Soviet Union has fallen and Jewish life has been rekindled in some places, the pure violation of the rights of Jews outside of Israel has been violated.

 Israel has also not held up completely its end of the bargain.  There is discrimination against the civil rights of non-Jewish communities living under Israeli rule in the West Bank, and many Arab citizens in Israel feel they suffer many abuses to their civil rights.  The argument that Zionism has violated these rights was at the basis of the 1975 UN debate over Zionism is racism, 40 years ago this week.  Then Israeli President Chaim Herzog told the UN, “you dare talk of racism when I can point with pride to the Arab ministers who have served in my government…as it is incongruous to think of a Jew serving in any public office in an Arab country, indeed being admitted to many of them…we in Israel have endeavored to create a society which strives to implement the highest ideals of society…for all inhabitants of Israel, irrespective of religious belief, race or sex.”  Since 1917 this is the model that Israel has aspired to.  It is also the one it has been held up to.  Unfortunately the world powers did not act to preserve the other aspects of the Declaration.  Israel’s desire to keep its end of the bargain, in providing civil rights to the local inhabitants is embodied in Netanyahu’s supposed claims of commitment to a two-state solution, even as that solution looks more and more less likely under the current Israeli political system.

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