Opinion

Balfour Declaration's Legacy Is Toxic for Both Israelis and Palestinians

One short letter looms large in the Israel-Palestine conflict's mythology. But it's just that: A myth, but also a bluff, a betrayal and a gift to propagandists on both sides

The Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917.
The Balfour Declaration, written by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917.

Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president and the leader of the Zionist movement in the early 20th century, was not happy with the rather vague wording of Britain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild. "His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," Balfour wrote on November 2, 1917.

But there was no clear understanding about how the national home would come in to being or what exactly Britain would do to make it happen, beyond it using its “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object.”

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Weizmann had worked so hard behind the scenes, lobbying for a British statement. "I did not like the boy [declaration] at first. He was not the one I expected," he grumbled.

And yet, finally, a major world power had expressed support in the Zionist aspiration of reestablishing some form of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland, and therefore, Weizmann continuede, "I knew that this was a great event."

Little did Weizmann realize it at the time, but within a decade he would lose his dominance of the Zionist movement. Not only was he soon to be relegated to the position of figurehead and occasional elder statesman, to be wheeled out when the cause or a delicate diplomatic mission required him, but his entire philosophy of political Zionism would be discredited.

The Balfour Declaration was Weizmann’s moment of glory, but also his political downfall. Britain had made contradictory promises to the Arab leadership, promising them Palestine, and - despite the support of Balfour, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill - the consensus among the professional diplomats at Whitehall was that the British Empire would be better off working with the Arabs. Britain never made any real steps toward implementing the Balfour Declaration.

Lord Balfour poses for camera, 1930
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Weizmann’s entire concept of political Zionism relied on support of the world powers, particularly Britain, in achieving statehood. As the years passed and the hopes that Britain would ever keep its promise declined and dwindled – so did Weizmann’s standing within the movement.

He was pushed aside by a younger generation of pioneering Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion. They believed that ultimately, only by building Jewish settlements on the ground, establishing a Zionist economy and embryo government-in-waiting, with or more likely without British blessing, would that Jewish state become a reality. And they were right.

Israel came in to being though force of arms in the 1947-9 War of Independence. If any foreign statesmen deserve some credit for its establishment, they certainly are not British.

While successive His Majesty Governments did everything possible to stymie Jewish statehood, it was Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin who, in 1947, gave the critical backing for United Nations Resolution 181 ending the British Mandate and partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. Britain, in a final betrayal of the Balfour Declaration, abstained.

But strangely, next month’s 70th anniversary of the U.N. resolution will get much less attention than Balfour’s centenary.

Despite historic reality, next month in London and Jerusalem, major events are to be held commemorating Balfour, the man and the declaration, on its one hundredth anniversary. What by rights should be a footnote to the Zionist story, another reminder of Albion’s perfidy, has somehow been resurrected as a proud moment in the history of both nations.

Of course, not all events in London will be toasting Balfour’s name. The Palestinians and their British supporters will be holding their own counter-commemoration, calling upon the current British government to repeal the Balfour Declaration which “gave” the Jews a land which was not Britain’s to give.

On the Palestinian side, at least from a propaganda perspective, it makes sense to keep the Balfour myth alive. Attaching any real importance to the Declaration helps them maintain the lie that Israel is an imperialistic creation.

A reenactment of the signing of the 1919 Balfour declaration in the Banksy-designed 'Walled-Off Hotel' in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. March 3, 2017
Dusan Vranic/AP

The actual facts – that the British empire (and other empires of the last century for that matter) tried to prevent Israel’s creation and that not only were no British Jews sent to "colonize" this imperial outpost, but the majority of Jewish Israelis are actually descended from Jews who lived in Arab countries in 1917, don’t matter. As long as Balfour looms large in the mythology of the Israel-Palestine conflict, it helps brand Zionism as just another colonialist relic.

But why are Israelis and other Jewish Zionists helping Palestinian propaganda? Why is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in his book A Place Among the Nations wrote at length of the British betrayal of the Balfour promise, flying to London especially to commemorate the event?

By all means, let the British government officially revoke the Declaration they did everything to renege on. If it gives the Palestinians any comfort. God knows, they need some.

There are two reasons Zionists cling to the Balfour Declaration. Both of them are sad.

One is the British Jewish establishment, which back in 1917 so joyously celebrated the declaration (though initially some Jewish leaders in Britain feared it would actually delegitimize them as equal British citizens), could never bring itself to admit that their own government had so completely turned its back on the Jews.

Not only did the government do nothing to fulfill the promise, but it published in 1939 the White Paper that imposed strict limits on Jewish emigration to Palestine, effectively closing it off to Jews trying to flee Nazi Europe during the Holocaust.

British Jews want to think the best of their country. Which is why, instead of telling the truth about Britain’s betrayal, they prefer to commemorate Balfour. Which is sad, because they are one of the most successful Jewish communities in history and shouldn’t have to feel they need to whitewash history.

The other reason Balfour is still venerated by Zionists is that despite the historical vindication of Ben Gurion’s pragmatic Zionism, the Zionism of facts on the ground and "it doesn’t matter what the goyim say, what’s important is what the Jews do," Weizmann’s attitude still pervades.

There remains a yearning for affirmation from the world; a belief that if only the world accepts our arguments, everything will work out. This is what is at the roots of Netanyahu’s love for hasbara: his staunch belief that propaganda is an end to itself, an existential necessity. He loves the Balfour Declaration because it encapsulates all he continues to strive for a hundred years later – the moral support of the western world. For what it’s worth.

Balfour’s legacy is toxic, both for Israelis and Palestinians. It nourishes the idea that somehow the conflict between the sides was caused by external powers and can be solved by them.

For the Palestinians, it continues to maintain the myth that the Jews are somehow a foreign transplant that must be excised. For the Israelis, it preserves the goal of convincing the world of the justice of our cause, as an alternative to actually making it in to a just one.

Lord Balfour did not give Palestine to anyone. Even if he had never written Lord Rothschild a letter, there would still be two nations with claims to this land. Their only hope of ever finding a way to share it is by letting go of these bankrupt historical myths.