Last year, on the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the former Palestinian minister, Nabil Shaath, wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph attacking Britain for issuing its famous statement of support for the establishment in Eretz Yisrael of a national home for the Jewish people. Shaath called the Balfour Declaration, which was issued by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, the beginning of “British imperialism” in Palestine.
At the heart of what he called Britain’s “sins in Palestine” was the promise of this territory to the Jewish people, who, in the words of Shaath, “did not even live there.” For him there was no Jewish history in Palestine, that needed to be acknowledged but only “colonial conspiracies” against the Arab residents living there. The rise of the Jewish national home, in short, was the product of external manipulations by outside powers, like Britain, and not the result of any authentic yearning of the Jews themselves. With the anniversary of the declaration again upon us, it is important to understand how Balfour’s act still confounds Palestinian leaders who are prepared to distort its significance.
What Shaath and other Palestinian spokesmen found so objectionable about the Balfour Declaration was that it constituted the first step in a long effort to get the historical rights of the Jewish people to their homeland acknowledged by the international community. That recognition actually required a tough diplomatic struggle by the leaders of the Zionist movement during the First World War and in the years that followed.
Britain was not the only state involved. For example on June 4, 1917, they received a letter from the French foreign minister, Jules Cambon, who wrote: “…it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.”
It turned out to be much more difficult to extract language that strong in the British cabinet at that time. What became the Balfour Declaration went through a number of drafts during the summer and fall of 1917. The original language of the declaration that was approved by the British foreign office and Prime Minister Lloyd George on September 19, 1917 specifically stated that Britain accepted the principle that “Palestine should be reconstituted as the national home of the Jewish people.”
Use of the term “reconstitute” meant that the land was once their homeland before and should now be restored to them. It meant that the Jews had historical rights. For that reason, this language had been sought by the Zionist leadership led by Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow who wanted it indicated that the Jewish people had a historical connection to their land. This original formula had been approved by President Woodrow Wilson, to whom the text was submitted in advance.
It was not such a far-fetched goal to seek formal acknowledgement of Jewish historical rights. A little over two decades earlier a well-connected Protestant clergyman from Chicago, Reverend William Blackstone, received broad backing for a petition for a Jewish homeland signed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the speaker of the House of Representatives, university presidents and the editors of The New York Times and The Washington Post. Top industrialists, like John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan, also lent their support. In short, the idea of the Jewish people re-establishing their country had become acceptable in the elite sectors of the American establishment.
Blackstone’s petition specifically characterized the connection of the Jewish people to Eretz Israel as “an inalienable possession from which they were expelled by force.” In other words, the Jewish people had not willingly given up their claim to their land. Indeed, there was no act in which they relinquished title to the Romans or their successors; in fact from the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 C.E. until the Muslim conquests, there were Jewish resistance movements that tried to recover Jerusalem, and afterwards a constant stream of Jewish immigrants followed.
Blackstone may have not known all this but he touched upon the idea that there were historical rights of the Jewish people, which were recognized at the time he sought signatories to his petition. The petition was submitted to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 and in another version to President Wilson in 1917, with the aim of influencing his attitude to the Balfour Declaration.
Despite the growing popularity of the idea in the West, there were British opponents to making any commitment to a Jewish national home. This group sought to water down the language of what was to become the Balfour Declaration. Edwin Montagu, the secretary of state for India and the only Jewish member of the British cabinet ironically lead the internal fight against what Balfour was doing.
Montagu feared that acknowledging Jewish rights in Eretz Israel would lead to the denial of Jewish rights to live in Britain or elsewhere in the Diaspora. He was also ideologically committed to Jewish assimilation. So under his influence all references to the Jewish people “reconstituting” their homeland were dropped. He announced at the time: “I assert that there is not a Jewish nation.” He moreover insisted: “I deny that Palestine today is associated with the Jews.” Montagu could not stop the Balfour Declaration, so he tried to weaken its contents. It is not surprising that Shaath makes Montagu the hero of his analysis.
In any case, the Balfour Declaration was basically a statement of British policy; it did not establish legal rights. This first occurred with the meeting of the victorious allied powers at San Remo, Italy in 1920, where they adopted the Balfour Declaration in an international agreement. Then in 1922, 51 members of the League of Nations approved the document for the Palestine Mandate.
The Mandate document restored important elements that had been taken out of the Balfour Declaration as a result of the debate in the British cabinet, for it stated: “…recognition has thereby been given to the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine and to the grounds for reconstituting their national home in that country.” The British Government issued a White Paper in 1922 that further clarified this point by saying that the Jewish national home “should be formally recognized to rest upon ancient historic connection.”
Nabil Shaath wanted his British readers last year to believe that the process that began with the Balfour Declaration in 1917 and ending up with the British Mandate in 1922 created the Jewish claim to a homeland. For him the Jewish homeland was entirely invented by British imperial interests and had no historical roots. In short, it was an illegitimate claim.
But that is a distortion of what happened for what was involved at the time was a British recognition of a pre-existing right. Moreover that British recognition was fully accepted by the international community by 1922, through the League of Nations. Finally, it must be added, that those rights were not suspended when the League of Nations was disbanded, but rather they were transferred to the United Nations, which replaced it.
In summary, Shaath refuses to acknowledge the steady buildup of the Jewish national home over the centuries; the Ottoman census already showed a Jewish majority in Safed in the 16th century. European consular reports in the 19th century showed that by the 1860s the Jews re-established their majority in Jerusalem — decades before British armies took over the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration reflected a historical trend that was already underway, but it did not launch the Jewish return to Eretz Israel. This return was a product of the national will of a people which Shaath and his colleagues still refuse to recognize, thereby perpetuating the conflict with Israel to this day.