The Balfour Declaration: text and contexts
A Methodist minister who campaigns for a just peace in Palestine/Israel considers the contexts and consequences of the 67-word Balfour Declaration of November 2017 which made public the British Government’s support for the establishment of a ‘Jewish home’.
‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestineof a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.’
The Balfour Declaration
The Balfour Declaration is a text and every text has a context, sometimes more than one. If you ignore the context the text then becomes a pretext. Taken on its own, it looks like a noble attempt to provide a safe haven for beleaguered persecuted Jews who had been victims of anti-Semitic hatred across Europe which had intensified during the second half of the 19th and early into the 20th. That of course is one context and an important one.
Another significant context is suggested by the date of the Declaration… November 2nd 1917. What was happening in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa? The third year of the First World War, when thousands were still dying on the killing fields of France and Belgium and the outcome of that terrible conflict hung in the balance. How were Britain’s imperial interests served by this Declaration in the strategic battle for geo-political influence across the Middle East in the post-war settlement?
Then there is the context of Palestine itself – perhaps the most crucial of all. How did the indigenous people view the document? To what extent had their wishes been taken into account?
Let’s consider that context first. Lord Curzon, who was a member of the British War cabinet and the only senior British politician who had any personal experience of Palestine asked: ‘What is to become of the people of the country? The Arabs – and their forefathers – have occupied the country for the best part of 1500 years and they own the soil… They profess the Mohammedan faith. They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter’.
When, in a question to Balfour in 1918 Curzon again raised the issue of consultation with the 90% Arab majority, Balfour replied that in Palestine they did not propose to even go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, he said, 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.
Chaim Weizmann, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to England at the beginning of the 20th century, complained in a letter to Balfour in August 1918 about the Arabs. He said they are ‘superficially clever and quick-witted’ and worship one thing only – power and success. They have to be ‘nursed’ lest they stab the British army in the back. The ‘clean –minded English official’ is at a disadvantage, not being conversant with the subtleties and subterfuges of the Oriental mind.
So the scene was set for the troubled years of the British Mandate..
Edward Said, an acute commentator on the Middle East said of the Balfour Declaration and its consequences: ‘The Declaration was made by a European power about a non-European territory in flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in the territory and it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group so that this foreign group might quite literally make this territory a national home for the Jewish people’.
John Chancellor, one of the early British High Commissioners in Jerusalem described it as a ‘colossal blunder’ and Oxford historian Elizabeth Monroe believed that Balfour was ‘one of the biggest mistakes in our imperialist history’.
There is an Arabic saying: ‘If a thing begins crooked it remains crooked’.
In the Zionist context, the role of Chaim Weizmann is crucial to understanding the Zionist plan to secure a national home for the Jewish people and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. It is important to understand that the Jewish community in England was divided over the issue. In particular, Edwin Montagu, a leading Jewish politician and a member of the war cabinet in 1916-17, was implacably opposed to the idea. Weizmann’s single-minded pursuit of the Zionist dream and his success in persuading Balfour to identify with it was a key factor in the Declaration.
Linked to the above is the emergence from the mid-19th century onwards of the phenomenon known as Christian Zionism, which chronologically precedes Zionism. This doctrine, promoted by leading evangelical Christians in Britain, was founded on a particular reading of the Bible which saw the return of Jews to Palestine as an essential precursor of the second coming of Christ and therefore necessary in terms of the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy. A version of Christian Zionism spread rapidly in the United States in the early years of the 20th century and became influential in fundamentalist circles.
British Imperialism and WWI
The secret Sykes-Picot agreement and the McMahon Hussein correspondence reveal the contradictory promises made to the Arabs during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The British government was anxious to secure access to the Suez Canal and trade routes to Asia once the war ended. Although Russia had been on the side of the allies, the Bolshevik revolution introduced a note of uncertainty into that alliance.
In what was likely to be a volatile situation in Palestine when the war ended, the Zionists were seen as a group who would be sympathetic to British interests. Moreover, British support for the Zionist cause was seen as a way of securing American support for the war in Europe. The war cabinet feared that if they procrastinated, the Zionists might lose patience and make overtures to Germany. Was it the confluence of these Imperial interests and Zionist ambitions which led to the issuing of the fateful Declaration in November 1917?
The Balfour Declaration sowed the seeds of conflict in Palestine which continue to this day. It is noteworthy that there is no mention in the 67-word piece of paper of the national and political aspirations of the 90% Arab Palestinian population, referred to as ‘non-Jewish communities’.
Through the years of the British Mandate, marked by increasing Palestinian unrest and increasing Jewish immigration; the UN partition plan after World War II; the Arab-Israeli wars leading to three-quarters of a million Palestinians becoming refugees; the military Occupation following the six-day war in 1967; the numerous failed peace processes; the dispossession of the Palestinian people, their land and their futures –all this continues relentlessly to this day in contravention of international humanitarian law.
Warren Bardsley is a Methodist minister with extensive experience of the Holy Land. He served as a human rights observer with the World Council of Churches (WCC) Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme. He is a founder member of the Kairos Britain movement which seeks to raise awareness in the British churches and campaigns for a just peace in Palestine/Israel. He is author of Consequences: The Trial of Arthur James Balfour, published in September by Church in the Market Place. To order a copy email firstname.lastname@example.org
In the last edition, Mike Mineter recounted the Christian Palestinians’ call for us to pray, become aware, and take action to help bring about justice as a prerequisite for peace in Palestine and Israel. He has since discovered that this echoed the Bishops’ communique from January 2017 – they went to the some of the same places, saw the same things, and came to very similar conclusions. Mike wishes to draw attention to their communique, http://catholicnews.org.uk/ while noting that it was written in advance of the desperate plea to the WCC of June that sought yet greater urgency and action from the churches.