The Balfour Declaration and the Holocaust

Although people may try to deny it, there is a link between the Balfour Declaration and the fate of European Jews during World War II.

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
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Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Minster Lord Arthur James Balfour sent a short letter to Baron Walter Rothschild which read: “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Since then, this letter - which came to be known as the Balfour Declaration - has, for many, symbolized one of the Jewish people’s most positive turning points, as it laid the political-legal foundations for the Jewish state that was established some 30 years later.

The Balfour Declaration is generally remembered as the beginning of the British government’s support for a Jewish national homeland in the land of Israel, but many forget the clause that stipulates that such support would not cause any harm to 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.”

The problem is that the same political logic that granted Britain and the West the power to internationally recognize the Jews’ right to a homeland in Israel after World War I, also created a new geopolitical order that made it advisable to relentlessly undermine the status of Jews in population centers throughout Eastern and Central Europe.

Whatever the political interests and motivations that pushed the British to support the Zionist national vision, the founding of a Jewish national homeland in Israel was, for the British, based on the principles of self-determination internationally implemented after the "Great War.” These principles applied primarily to the ethnic nation-states created after the Allied nations’ victory in the territories that comprised the Austria-Hungarian Empire and the western part of the Russian Empire.

Just as the British declaration brought about the beginning of Jewish hegemony over the non-Jewish populations in Israel, the right to national self-determination was a right reserved for only some of the citizens in those areas between Soviet Russia and the Weimar Republic. Those citizens were the ones considered as belonging to the nation-state - for example, in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states - or the groups that were considered superior to others, like the Czechs in Czechoslovakia or the Serbs in Yugoslavia.

There is room for hypotheses stipulating that the Western powers’ difficulties in creating single-nation states in multinational areas stemmed from their appalling ignorance of the realities on the ground in areas far removed from their borders, either in Eastern Europe or the Middle East.

When Lord Balfour decided that the Jews were the only group worthy of political superiority in Israel and arrogantly labeled the Arabs an “ethnic cluster,” he apparently was unaware of the first signs of the developing national consciousness among the Arabs in the former Ottoman empire. He also apparently believed, like Chaim Weizmann - then president of the British Zionist Federation, who was largely responsible for the Balfour Declaration - that the Arab population there was simple and some 400 years behind the times.

In similar fashion, on January 9, 1918, when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson declared that a Polish nation would be founded on European land with a clear Polish majority, it seems that he was also unaware that such a thing was impossible, and that such territories only came about after the genocides of World War II and the expulsion of many Ukrainians. Even after the war, Poland’s population was comprised of Poles, Germans, Ukrainians, Jews and Belarusians.

Either way, even as political Zionism benefited from the Western powers' ignorance of the Middle Eastern realities, that same ignorance spoiled the footing of Jewish populations in Eastern Europe. Clauses aimed at protecting minority rights added to the sovereign principles of the fledgling, ethnically singular nation-states did not make much of a difference, and even added fuel to the fire in some places. The Jews in Poland and other multiethnic states that resulted from Wilson’s declarations therefore became the most vulnerable group, the very existence of which constantly undermined national identity and pointed to the limits of cultural tolerance between rival ethnic groups, drawing fire from all sides.

During the Holocaust, the Jews paid the heaviest price for the distorted implementation of self-determination principles in Eastern and Central Europe. It goes without saying that the German Nazis were responsible for the death of millions of Jews, and not the Poles, Hungarians, Lithuanians or Ukrainians. There is no doubt, however, that nationalists in Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine in fact endeavored to assist the murderous Nazis in doing away with the people that stood in the way of their ethnocentric utopia.

The Balfour Declaration reveals more than a speck of the bitter irony to be found in the Jewish history of the previous century, in regards to the link (that we often deny) between the Holocaust and the founding of the Jewish state. In the Middle East, realization of the political ideas at the heart of the Balfour Declaration that set the founding of the Jewish state in motion, while realization of those same ideas in Eastern and Central Europe between the two wars, indirectly facilitated the Holocaust and the genocide of European Jews.

A copy of the original Balfour Declaration at the Israel Museum.Credit: Uriel Cohen

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