Behind the Headlines Lessons of the Balfour Declaration
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Behind the Headlines Lessons of the Balfour Declaration

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Middle East watchers are awaiting with growing interest the forthcoming 60th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, whereby Britain recognized Jewry as a national entity and later assumed the Mandate for the Jewish national home.

Their interest is sharpened by the news that Premier Menachem Begin of Israel may be in Britain on the anniversary of the declaration which was issued Nov. 2, 1917. The British Zionist Federation, recipient of the historic document, is hoping that the Israeli Premier will be the star speaker at its gala dinner in a London hotel.

This year, however, the anniversary will not be a straightforward festive occasion or an opportunity for hypothetical reflections. If 1917 saw the high water mark of British involvement with Zionism, 1977 is distinguished by Britain’s lack of understanding for Israel’s approach to a settlement with the Arabs. This attitude can not be explained in terms of Begin’s reputation as the leader of an armed revolt against Britain, since it pre-dates his election victory.


No leading British politician, let alone a political party, has yet said, “hear, hear” to Begin’s description of the West Bank as “liberated” portions of the land of Israel. Even pro-Israeli newspapers routinely refer not to Judaea and Samaria, and not even to “administered” territories, but to “occupied territories,” or to “Jordan’s West Bank.” A sober paper like The Financial Times accepts almost unquestioningly that the core of the conflict is not Arab hostility to Israel but the thwarted drive for a new Arab state under the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Israeli government can not draw very much comfort either from the 450,000 strong Jewish community. Staunch in its general solidarity with Israel over security, Anglo-Jewry also applauds Israel’s taboo on the PLO. But it has not yet been infected by Begin’s feelings about Judaea and Samaria.

True, there is a vociferous group of Herut followers who support him to the hilt. But their smallness merely highlights the community’s general lack of full identification with Israel’s current mood and policies.

The Zionist Federation, to which Herut belongs, has not engaged seriously in political pamphleteering since the British Mandate ended. Now, divided sharply between extreme supporters and critics of the Begin regime, it tries to concentrate all the more studiously on uncontroversial tasks like day school education and defensive public relations.

To whom, then, will Begin be able to turn in Britain in his advocacy of an undivided Eretz Israel? On the occasion of the Balfour anniversary the answer is clear: to the dead statesmen and politicians who brought the declaration into being 60 years ago


Even a cursory glance through contemporary records shows that, in their soaring enthusiasm for a Jewish national revival, these men had a vision not of a modest Jewish home in a corner of a truncated Palestine but of a Jewish Palestine undivided and undiminished. Here are some of their statements both at the time of the declaration and years later when facing the problems of Arab hostility:

David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1917, told the Royal Commission in 1937 that “it was contemplated that when the time arrived for according representative institutions to Palestine, if the Jews had meanwhile responded to the opportunity….and had become a definite majority of the inhabitants, then Palestine would thus become a Jewish commonwealth.”

Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour agreed when, in June 1919, Justice Louis Brandeis of the United States declared to him in an interview that “Palestine should be a Jewish homeland” and that the future Jewish Palestine must have control of the land and its natural resources.”

Eric Forbes Adama, one of the British experts charged with drafting the league of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, wrote that the British government had accepted “an attempt to make Palestine a state in its natural geographical and historic frontiers and by gradual immigration and special economic facilities to turn this state into a Jewish State.” In a Foreign Office memorandum, he spoke simply of “the reconstruction of a Jewish Palestine.”


A recurring theme of British statesmen was that Judaea should be for the Jews as Arabia should be for the Arabs and Armenia for the Armenians. The expression was used by Lord Robert Cecil, Balfour’s deputy at the Foreign Office, at the giant demonstration in the London Opera House hailing the Balfour Declaration one month after it was issued.

This integral vision of a Jewish-ruled Palestine persisted in the years immediately after the declaration while Britain was still angling for the Palestine Mandate against the rival claims of France and others. The Times of Sept. 19, 1919, rejecting French designs on Transjordan, went so far as to write in an editorial that the Jordan River “will not do as Palestine’s eastern boundary. Our duty as mandatory is to make Jewish Palestine not a struggling state but…one that is capable of a vigorous and independent national life.”

Herbert Samuel, shortly to become Palestine’s first High Commissioner, outlined Britain’s policy, on the Balfour Declaration’s second anniversary, as the promotion of Jewish immigration, rural settlement, cultural development and self-government “in order that with the minimum of delay the country may become a purely self-governing commonwealth under the auspices of an established Jewish majority.”

Winston Churchill, Colonial Secretary at the inception of the Mandate, envisaged “in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State…. which might comprise three million or four million Jews.” (Article in the Illustrated Sunday Herald, Feb. 8, 1920)

Balfour himself was no less emphatic about the significance of the declaration for being alert to the obstacles awaiting it. Addressing an Albert Hall rally on July 12, 1920, he reminded the Arabs that it was Britain which had promoted an autonomous Arab state in Mesopotamia and urged them “not to grudge that small notch” of Palestine “to the people who for all these hundreds of years have been separated from it but surely have a title to develop along their own lines in the land of their forefathers.”

To his colleagues at the Foreign Office, Balfour was even blunter than that. In his confidential memorandum dated Aug. II, 1919, he wrote that Zionism “is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”

Of course, these pro-Zionist politicians were soon to reduce their pristine vision of a Jewish homeland in response to Arab demands for immediate majority rule. Transjordan was detached from the provisions of the Jewish national home, even though Britain earlier employed Zionist arguments to control it.


Nevertheless, there was a feeling that this should be the final concession. T.E. Lawrence wrote in 1929 that the establishment of the Hashemite kingdom of Transjordan “honorably fulfills the whole of the promises we made to the Arabs in so far as the British spheres are concerned” (Letter to Prof. William Yale).

Lawrence’s words are worth recalling today as Israel is pressed to redivide the country west of the Jordan River, and to enact the UN partition which she herself accepted in 1947 but the Arabs rejected. Equally topical are the sober reflections of Chaim Weizmann about that earlier partition which he, Vladimir Jabotinsky and other Zionists had accepted only for fear lest Britain would otherwise spurn the Mandate.

The 1922 White Paper, removing Transjordan from the Jewish national home, “was clearly dictated by a desire to placate the Arabs as far as possible,” Weizmann wrote in his book, “Trial and Error.”

He added: “It was as little realized in 1922 as it is today that the real opponents of Zionism can never be placated by any diplomatic formula–their objection to the Jews is that the Jews exist, and in this case they desire to exist in Palestine.” Begin will be excused if he tells his British friends that the words of Weizmann, the friend of Balfour, are no less meaningful in 1977 than in the year they were written.

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