Jewish and Democratic Is Indeed the Way

Before 1948, Zionist leaders conceded part of British Palestine to remain loyal to the Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish state. Unfortunately, some leaders today seek a Greater Israel.

Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli
Shaul Arieli

The Balfour Declaration, which Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour called a “declaration of sympathy with Jewish Zionist aspirations,” was sent to Lord Rothschild 96 years ago. The letter, dated November 2, 1917, was made public the following week. It granted legal and political validity to the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in Palestine.

The Palestine mandate, issued by the Council of the League of Nations, the forerunner of the United Nations, was dated July 24, 1922. It added the following: “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.”

In the minds of many in the camp that negates the idea of two states for two peoples, the mandate's calling for a single national home – a Jewish national home – affirms their demand for full Jewish sovereignty over all British Mandatory Palestine west of the Jordan River. The original mandate, it should be noted, included what is today the Kingdom of Jordan.

Some even regard the Palestine mandate as a quasi-sacred document, arguing that, in light of the Palestinian Arabs’ rejection of the UN General Assembly’s decision on November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, the mandate is still in force. Even if one chooses not to refute that position with historical, moral, ethical and legal arguments, it's clear that those who hold it ignore a significant element in both the Balfour Declaration and the Palestine mandate, an element that is a precondition of and validates these two documents.

In the Balfour Declaration, the stipulation for the British government’s recognition of Zionism’s claim to Palestine, namely, the Jewish people’s right to a national home in Palestine, is that “it … [is] clearly understood that nothing should be done which might prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” In the mandate, the League of Nations repeats this stipulation word for word, with only a minor difference: The words “might prejudice” are substituted for “may prejudice.” The significance of this “package deal” is obvious: The Jewish people have a right to a national home in Palestine, but only if this national home is democratic and all its inhabitants enjoy full and equal rights.

After the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist leaders were aware of the great tension this precondition generated regarding the implementation of the mandate, as the Palestinian Arabs were the majority in Palestine. The Zionist movement’s inability, for various reasons, to create a Jewish majority in Palestine forced it to agree to the proposals partitioning Palestine from 1937 on. The Zionist leaders chose to concede part of British Mandatory Palestine to remain loyal to the Zionist vision of a democratic Jewish state.

In view of this position, the Jewish Agency proposed a partition scheme to the Palestine Partition Commission, which was appointed by the British government in 1938. In the Jewish Agency’s version, a Jewish state would be established on one-third of the territory of the original British mandate (that is, one-third of the territory on both sides of the Jordan), and that state would have a small Jewish majority.

Similarly, the Zionist leaders accepted the UN General Assembly’s partition of Palestine in November 1947; in that decision, the Jewish state would have 55 percent of Palestine and a small Jewish majority, with 55 percent of the population. When the War of Independence ended in 1949, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion summed up the strategic Zionist decision: “Forced to choose between all of Palestine and a Jewish state, we opted for the latter.”

Unlike the position of the Zionist leaders, many ministers and MKs today conveniently seek to break up the “package deal” in the Balfour Declaration and the League of Nations mandate and annex the West Bank, without granting full civil rights to the West Bank’s Arab inhabitants. Proponents of this view ignore the fact that the Gaza Strip is also part of Palestine.

Ironically, despite their ostensible demand for all of Palestine, they are willing to see two states established in Palestine: a Jewish state on 98.8 percent of the territory of Palestine and an Arab state, which would be called Palestine, on the remaining 1.2 percent. In contrast, other members of the Greater Israel camp are willing to have an Israel that is a “state of all its citizens” - for them, the important thing is not to partition Palestine.

It can be concluded that both groups in the Greater Israel camp – which, for some reason, proudly refers to itself as the national Zionist camp – have unfortunately chosen to abandon the Zionist vision and turn Israel into one of two entities: either a state that is not democratic or a state that is not Jewish.

Harry Truman and David Ben-Gurion at the White House, 1951Credit: The Truman Library

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