There was never anything like it: an empire promising a land that it had not yet conquered to a people not living there, without asking the inhabitants. There’s no other way to describe the unbelievable colonialist temerity that cries out from every letter in the Balfour Declaration, now marking its centenary.
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The prime ministers of Israel and Britain will celebrate a huge Zionist achievement this week. Now the time has come for some soul-searching as well. The celebration is over. One hundred years of colonialism, first British and then, inspired by it, Israeli, has come at the expense of another people, and that is its endless disaster.
The Balfour Declaration could have been a just document if it had pledged equal treatment of both the people who dreamed of the land and the people dwelling there. But Britain preferred the dreamers, hardly any of whom lived in the country, over its inhabitants who had lived there for hundreds of years and were its absolute majority, and preferred to give them no national rights.
Imagine a power promising to turn Israel into the national home of the Israeli Arabs and calling for the Jewish majority to suffice with “civil and religious rights.” That’s what happened then, but in an even more discriminatory way: The Jews were an even smaller minority (less than a tenth) than Israeli Arabs are today.
Thus Britain sowed the seeds of the calamity whose poisonous fruits both peoples are eating to this day. This isn’t a cause for celebration; rather, on the 100th anniversary of the declaration, it's a call for repairing the injustice that was never even recognized, not by Britain and of course not by Israel.
Not only was the State of Israel born as a result of the declaration, so was the policy toward “the non-Jewish communities” as stated in the letter by Lord Arthur James Balfour to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild. The discrimination against the Arabs of Israel and the occupation of the Palestinians are the direct continuation of the letter. British colonialism prepared the way for Israeli colonialism, even if it didn’t intend for it to continue for a 100 years and more.
Israel 2017 also pledges to grant “civil and religious rights” to the Palestinians. But they don’t have a national home. Balfour was the first to promise it.
Sure, Britain spread these promises around in those years, the years of World War I, contradictory promises including to the Arabs, but it fulfilled them only to the Jews. As Shlomo Avineri wrote in Haaretz’s Hebrew edition on Friday regarding the context and implications of the Balfour Declaration, its main purpose was to minimize American-Jewish opposition to U.S. participation in the war.
Whatever the motive was, following the Balfour Declaration, more Jews immigrated to this country. Immediately on their arrival they acted like overlords, and they haven’t changed their attitude toward the non-Jewish inhabitants to this day. Balfour let them do this. Not by chance did a small group of Sephardi Jews living in Palestine oppose Balfour and seek equality with the Arabs, as Ofer Aderet wrote in Haaretz on Friday. And not by chance were they silenced.
Balfour let the Jewish minority take over the country, callously ignoring the national rights of another people that had lived in the land for generations. Exactly 50 years after the Balfour Declaration, Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. It invaded them with the same colonialist feet and it continues its occupation and its ignoring of the rights of the inhabitants.
If Balfour were alive today, he would feel comfortable in the Habayit Hayehudi party. Like MK Bezalel Smotrich, Balfour also thought the Jews have rights in this country and the Palestinians don’t and never will. Like his successors on the Israeli right, Balfour never concealed this. In his speech to the British Parliament in 1922, he came right out and said it.
On the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, the nationalist right should bow its head in thanksgiving to the person who originated Jewish superiority in this country, Lord Balfour. Palestinians and the Jews who seek justice should mourn. If he hadn’t formulated his declaration the way he did, maybe this country would be different and more just.