In November, 1917, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration. It is one of the key foundational documents of Israel. Yet it was so vaguely written that anyone can project what they want to see. For the Zionists it was the first definitive international support for establishing the Jewish homeland. For the Arabs it was a betrayal of their rights. For Britain, it was the beginning of a thirty-year muddle in the Middle East. Either way, it’s essential to understanding modern Israel.
The short text of the Balfour Declaration read: “His Majesty's government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice 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.”
This was the first time that a major European power had positively acknowledged Jewish national aspirations, a major goal of the Political Zionist tree branch and a huge win for the movement. But Balfour also contained a lot of ambiguities that made it hard to assess just how much of an achievement it really was.
First, Palestine wasn’t a part of the British Empire yet, and the British weren’t in a position to guarantee that it would be, so the promise of territory, let alone a Jewish home, was premature.
Second, the Declaration doesn’t say that the Jews will get a state but a “home”, making no promises about the Jews having sovereignty over that territory.
Third, the Declaration didn’t define the territorial boundaries of Palestine, so there was no determined border for the future Jewish homeland.
Finally, the Declaration refers to an understanding that nothing will done to prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine. That demographic comprised about 90% of the total population. The Declaration also doesn’t say anything about the non-Jews’ political rights in the future Jewish homeland, although it does, in the next phrase, talk about protecting the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.
Meanwhile, as the Zionists were happy to use British imperialism for their own ends, so, too, were the Arabs, who had also made a deal with the British to create an Arab empire in the Middle East. The Arabs, led by Emir Faisal bin Hussein, hoped to get Zionist support for an Arab state in exchange for Arab support for the Balfour Declaration. Weizmann agreed, and the two were prepared to present a unified front at the 1919 Paris Conference. But the French were against the Arabs, Weizmann couldn’t go to bat for the Arabs with the British, and the Arabs opposed Balfour — so Arab-Jewish cooperation came to a swift and resentful end.
One story goes that when a member of the House of Lords asked Weizmann why the Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many other undeveloped countries that would be more convenient to settle, Weizmann replied: ““That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”
The Jews and Arabs came close to a permanent agreement when Weizmann and Emir Fairsal agreed that Faisal would support the Balfour Declaration in exchange for Jewish support for the creation of an Arab state in the Middle East.
NAMES TO KNOW
Chaim Weizmann: he became the British Jewish community’s leading Zionist supporter and a confidant of the highest levels of British leadership. He weathered local Jewish opposition to the Zionist movement to convince the British that it was in their military, political, and Christian philosophical interests to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Emir Faisal bin Hussein: one of the most prominent Arab leaders, who allied with the British in the hopes of securing an independent Arab empire. A cautious supporter of the Balfour Declaration — on the condition that the Jews would support his goals — Faisal fought a war with the French over Syria. He lost, but the British made him King of Iraq in 1921.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
There is a challenge in parsing the exacting meaning of the Balfour Declaration’s reference to Jewish political rights and the civil and religious rights of non-Jews. The reference to the Jews was an effort to pre-empt any efforts, elsewhere in the world, to forcibly evict Jews or eliminate their citizenship status once a homeland in Palestine was established. The reference to non-Jews was an effort to clarify, for the Jews of Palestine, that they could not do the same to non-Jews in their future homeland. But in doing so Balfour created a contradiction in prioritizing the rights of the Jews in Palestine (the minority population) over the rights of the non-Jews who formed the majority.
Although the Balfour Declaration is commemorated as one of the essential founding documents of Israel, reducing the existence of Israel to the colonialist policies of the British invalidates the decades of Zionist development that led to this moment. Zionism wasn’t an outcome of British policies, but a liberation and justice movement organized around the right of the Jewish People to self-determination. The recognition of the Balfour Declaration, while a critical political development, was not the raison d’etre of Zionism, nor its fulfillment. The movement still had a long way to go.
Emir Faisal, having failed to secure Zionist support for his own dream of Arab independence, was the first in a long line of Arab leaders who would learn the hard way about trying to make peace with the Jews. And Chaim Weizmann, in reaching the limits of what the Jews were able to accomplish within the constraints of British policy, was the first of his people to appreciate that it just wasn’t going to be possible to join in a unified way with the Arabs. Although people on both sides wanted to find agreement, Arabs and Jews seemed destined to continuously find themselves at a disappointing impasse.