The historical significance of the Balfour Declaration
By Amb. Dore Gold
The stated purpose of the Balfour Declaration from November 2, 1917 and the circumstances under which it was published are generally known. The most common explanation was that Britain and the Allied Powers were moved by idealism and their interests. At a critical point in the First World War, the British cabinet needed to secure world Jewish support for the Allied cause and hoped at the same time to keep both the United States and Russia on their side. With time, however, the world’s understanding of the Declaration has become the subject of bitter controversy and revisionist interpretation. In fact, the Palestinian Authority of today went so far as to call it a “crime.”
It is noteworthy that the declaration was much more than a unilateral act of His Majesty’s government. On June 4, 1917, the French Foreign Minister, Jules Cambon, wrote to Nahum Sokolow that the French government felt sympathy for his cause, which Cambon defined as “the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.”
Moreover, before publishing the Declaration, British diplomacy first secured the support of President Woodrow Wilson and the American government. Having done this, the British began to build a wider basis of international support for the idea of the Jewish National Home. On July 24, 1922, the British pledge to help build the Jewish National Home was explicitly incorporated into the text of the League of Nations Mandate, which called for “putting into effect” its terms. The Balfour Declaration thus was transformed into a binding obligation under international law. Moreover, it was approved unanimously by the Council of the League of Nations, made up of fifty-one member states. This broadened consensus of international support would ultimately include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Siam, Sweden and The Vatican. Martin Kramer observed that “On the face of it, the declaration was a unilateral British letter of intent. In truth, in expressing a broad consensus of the Allies, it might even be seen as roughly comparable to a UN Security Council resolution today.”
Separately, it has become evident that the idea of the Jewish National Home developed its own momentum. Recently, Wolfgang Schwanitz reported a remarkable discovery. He reported in an unpublished manuscript, “The Ottoman Balfour Declaration,” that on August 12, 1918, two and a half months before the war ended, Talaat Pasha, the Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, issued the following declaration, “… We have resolved to do away with all restrictive measures and definitely to abolish the restrictive regulations regarding the immigration and settlement of Jews in Palestine. I assure you of my sympathy for the creation of a Jewish religious center in Palestine by means of well-organized immigration and colonization. It is my desire to place this work under the protection of the Turkish government.” The statement was striking given the Ottomans’ hostility to minorities, in particular their Armenian population.
The Balfour Declaration is important because it recognizes the historical bond of the Jewish People to the Holy Land, a bond which existed long before the declaration. What was significant was its public and formal recognition and its incorporation into international law. In his testimony before the Peel Commission on January 7, 1937, David Ben Gurion drew the distinction between the precedence of the historical facts and their modern recognition:
The Balfour Declaration is a tremendously important document because it contains world recognition of the historical rights of the Jewish People to a National Home. In the Mandate document, it is stated: “Whereas 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.” Thus, the Mandate and the Balfour Declaration, upon which it was based, did not create Jewish historical rights, but rather recognized a pre-existing right.
The Jewish claim to the Holy Land is based on facts, and we may understand from Chaim Weizmann’s language and choice of words when he explained that it was a major historical event. He called the Balfour Declaration an “act of restitution” and emphatically described it as a “unique act of the world moral conscience.” Expressing his deep awareness of historical continuity over millennia, he called it “the righting of a historical wrong” and an “act of justice.”
Writing in the 1960s, Sir Isaiah Berlin, stated that, “His [Weizmann’s] name became indissolubly linked with this [the Balfour Declaration], the greatest event in Jewish history since the destruction of Judaea.”
Further, Jacob, the fourth Lord Rothschild, now 80, and head of the family’s banking dynasty, told former Israeli UK Ambassador Daniel Taub that the declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine “was the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years, a miracle….”
The practical significance of the Balfour Declaration is that in our times it is the modern basis of the legitimacy of the Jewish National Home and the State of Israel. Winning the Balfour Declaration was a major historical accomplishment, and accordingly the enemies of the Jewish national cause have targeted the Declaration and endeavored to negate it, mainly through a campaign of falsification of history.
Efraim Karsh wrote that
The historic Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel is the real claim to statehood. The tendency to justify Zionism on the basis of the Holocaust is totally misconceived. Not only was Zionism a thriving and successful movement prior to this tragedy, but the Holocaust destroyed its largest human reservoir and severely set it back. Moreover, the Arabs have always misrepresented themselves as the Holocaust’s real victims by being supposedly forced to foot the bill for this tragedy. They, moreover, endeavor to undermine Israel’s claim by going back to 1948 and depicting it as a state “born in sin.” The Arabs and their advocates argue that Zionism aspired from its very inception to destroy the Palestinian people, to dispossess them from their patrimony, and took advantage of the opportunity availed by partition and the attendant war.
The war against the Balfour Declaration included continuous attacks on its legality and the historical bond which it recognized. This assault on Israel’s legitimacy has included the negation of Jewish history in such international bodies as the UN. Recently, it has included the Palestinian Authority’s launching a year of protest against this “crime” and demanding an apology of the British government.
Today’s assault of the Palestinian Arabs on the Balfour Declaration is not new. It has a shameful precedent. On the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, November 2, 1943, Hajj Amin-al Husseini, the former Mufti of Jerusalem and Head of the Moslem Institute in Berlin, addressed the world from Luftwaffe Hall. There, he pledged his unqualified support to the Germans, “who have definitely solved the Jewish problem.”
On this festive occasion, Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and the Leader of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, sent telegrams of support. Himmler wrote,
The Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine contributed large numbers of volunteers and committed its manpower, agriculture, manufacturing and expertise to the Allied cause. Unfortunately, this contribution was soon forgotten. When the State of Israel was born in 1948, it was invaded by a coalition of Arab armies which received their training and weapons from the main colonial powers in the Middle East at that time: Britain and France. Ironically, the rise of Israel was an anti-colonial development accelerating the demise of European colonial empires and the rise of independent states.
Our understanding of the Balfour Declaration today may be viewed as part of a political war to preserve the integrity of the historical record. In the great historical reckoning which still must take place certain historical facts need to be understood. These would include: 1) the significance of the Balfour Declaration and its standing as a commitment assured by international law; 2) The participation of the Yishuv during the Second World War on the side of the Allied Powers; 3) Great Britain’s dishonorable retreat from the obligations of the Balfour Declaration and its failure to reward its faithful ally.
During the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, our discussion has been tainted by the efforts of Israel’s enemies to misrepresent and falsify the historical facts. They try to portray modern Israel as a product of European colonialism, plain and simple, with no roots in the land and no historical rights. It is not possible to accept the myths and falsehoods of a so-called “narrative,” which supposedly can outweigh the historical facts. In simple language, modern Israel is the heir and successor to ancient Israel. The Balfour Declaration recognized this bond and in doing so showed the world “a unique act of world moral conscience.”
Ambassador Dore Gold has served as President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000. From June 2015 until October 2016 he served as Director-General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously he served as Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1997-1999), and as an advisor to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.