In the past eight centuries, England has bequeathed to the world two of the most important foundational documents in the history of mankind: the Magna Carta in 1215 and the Balfour Declaration of 1917.
On the surface, these two legal instruments would appear to have little in common. After all, the Magna Carta, which laid the conceptual basis for the idea of individual freedom against arbitrary state power, was the seed that eventually blossomed into modern liberal democracy, a political system that has brought more liberty to more people than any other thus far conceived by mankind.
Many civil and political rights that are taken for granted by hundreds of millions of people from Pasadena to Prague can trace their intellectual origins to the charter that was agreed upon by King John of England and rebel barons on the southern bank of the River Thames at Runnymede on June 10, 1215.
By contrast, the Balfour Declaration, a letter containing just 67 words issued by British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, reaffirmed the right of the Jewish people to renew their ancient biblical homeland in Israel.
What could one possibly have to do with the other? The connection is in fact quite compelling, and it is well worth pondering as we celebrate the centennial of the Balfour Declaration today.
Simply put, the Balfour Declaration is the modern equivalent of the Jewish Magna Carta, constituting a recognition by the powerful of the rights of the powerless.
It was a magnanimous act, one of those extraordinary moments in history when the ruling class musters up the will and courage to do the right thing, even if it meant shaking the established order to its very core.
For 1,900 years, the Jewish people had stood alone and vulnerable on the world stage, placing their faith in God and casting their hopes and prayers in the direction of Zion, as one nation after another took turns oppressing, murdering and expelling them.
With the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, Britain found itself in control of the Holy Land. After centuries of imperialism and colonialism, one would have expected the Brits to savor the opportunity to seize and to retain control over the Land of Israel just as they had done in various other parts of the world.
Yet, in an exceptional gesture that defied that legacy, Balfour issued the famous declaration, approved by the British cabinet, which stated clearly and unequivocally that Britain’s leaders “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.”
The statement took on further significance when the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations, approved the Mandate for Palestine in July 1922, which formally incorporated the Balfour Declaration.
In its preamble, the Mandate stated, “The principal allied powers have also agreed that the Mandatory should be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 2nd, 1917, by the Government of His Britannic Majesty, and adopted by the said powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Approved by more than 50 member nations, the Mandate also took note of “the historical connections of the Jewish people with Palestine.” In other words, the subsequent establishment of the modern Jewish state was later undertaken with the full backing and support of the international community, and it was the Balfour Declaration that laid the groundwork for that to happen.
Just as the Magna Carta came to symbolize recognition of the justness of man’s striving for freedom, so too has the Balfour Declaration come to serve as an acknowledgment by the nations of the world that Jews have every right to call the Land of Israel their home.
The main point to keep in mind, particularly now when Israel’s legitimacy is under assault in the international arena, is that the establishment of the Jewish state was neither unlawful nor nefarious.
Indeed, as Norman Bentwich, who served as the British-appointed attorney-general for Mandatory Palestine, noted in his book, Mandate Memories, “The Balfour Declaration was not an impetuous or sentimental act of the British government, as has been sometimes represented, or a calculated measure of political warfare.
It was a deliberate decision of British policy and idealist politics, weighed and reweighed, and adopted only after full consultation with the United States and with other allied nations.”
Hence, anyone who asserts that Israel is an “illegitimate state” is either ignorant of history or willfully distorting it.
Happy Balfour Day.
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