Sixty-seven words - 100 years of conflict

On the Balfour Declaration's centenary, Elliot Jager argues that while Arab opposition to a Jewish national home remains the crux of the conflict, the nature of Jewish anti-Zionism is unchanged.

Lord Balfour declares the Hebrew University of Jerusalem open in painting by Leopold Pilichowski (photo credit: COURTESY HEBREW UNIVERSITY)
Lord Balfour declares the Hebrew University of Jerusalem open in painting by Leopold Pilichowski
The Balfour Declaration was a letter dated November 2, 1917, from British foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour to preeminent leader of British Jewry Lord Rothschild that began a process by which the international community, the League of Nations and later the United Nations, came to embrace the idea of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.
The British government’s letter was the result of a confluence of factors but clearly driven by national interest.
In 1917, the world was torn asunder by World War I, a global conflict already in its third year. Scrambling for military and diplomatic allies, British decision makers hoped Jews throughout the world would champion their cause.
Within the theater of war, the Ottoman Empire – which controlled much of the Middle East including Palestine – was expected to disintegrate. Prime Minister David Lloyd George needed to ensure that Britain was in a position to influence events in strategic Palestine.
Compassion for persecuted Jewry across Eastern Europe was also of relevance, in particular for Lloyd George and Balfour, both of whom were unabashed philo-semites.
In no small measure, the British cabinet’s decision to issue the Balfour Declaration was due to the efforts of a group of indefatigable Zionist campaigners led by Chaim Weizmann and to the relationships that Weizmann had built with British leaders, in some cases as the result of his scientific work for the war.
The Great War was an era of political machinations. But for all the secret deals made, the Balfour Declaration was unique in that it was openly issued.
The most significant opposition to the Declaration came not from Arabs in the Middle East or British-based Muslims but from British Jews. They did not deny the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel nor did they oppose Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Their concern was that hard-won Jewish civil rights in Europe would be jeopardized if the Jews returned to history and sought to reconstitute their national homeland as a political entity.
Whatever the failings of British diplomacy, Palestine was never promised to anyone but the Jews. London backtracked. The Arabs became unalterably opposed. The Jews became ever more divided. And yet – incredibly – the Declaration came to fruition.
The following are excerpts from the book:
THE MORE research I did, the clearer it became that the Balfour Declaration is the alpha and omega of the Arab-Israel conflict, it gets to the crux of why the conflict has dragged on for a hundred years, and it illuminates why on July 25, 2016, Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to the 22-member Arab League asking for help in taking legal action against Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration in the first place.
An octogenarian, Abbas is chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) – and with normative international legal standards for statehood cast aside – “president of the state of Palestine,” or so say 136 countries.
In that capacity, from 2009 through 2017, he has refused to negotiate with Israel.
As Abbas explains, his hands were tied. “It was [US president Barack] Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze [as a prerequisite for negotiations]. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump.”
That’s partly true, but what Abbas and his people want (for now, anyway) is for the UN to force Israel back to the1949 Armistice Lines without concessions from his camp.
Since 2007, when Hamas (officially known as the Islamic Resistance Movement), a competing Palestinian faction, ousted the PLO from the Gaza Strip, Abbas’s influence has waned even in the West Bank where he is headquartered.
My book was coming off the presses when, on October 12, 2017, the two factions signed a reconciliation agreement in Cairo. Whether this deal – unlike the nearly dozen that proceeded it will take hold is anyone’s guess.
The PLO’s opposition to the Balfour Declaration is nothing new, having been enshrined in Article 20 of the 1968 PLO covenant: “The Balfour Declaration, the Mandate for Palestine, and everything that has been based upon them, are deemed null and void.
Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality.
Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.
The Hamas covenant of 1988 takes essentially the same anti-Balfour line – with an openly anti-Semitic twist – in its Article 22: “You may speak as much as you want about regional and world wars. They [the Jews] were behind World War I, when they were able to destroy the Islamic Caliphate, making financial gains and controlling resources. They obtained the Balfour Declaration, formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains by trading in armaments, and paved the way for the establishment of their state. It was they who instigated the replacement of the League of Nations with the United Nations and the Security Council to enable them to rule the world through them. There is no war going on anywhere, without having their finger in it.”
Both the militant Hamas and the comparatively moderate PLO oppose a national home for the Jewish people. They say Judaism is a religion and as such the Jews don’t deserve a state.
Of course, Islam is also a religion and there are 56 countries that identify as Muslim and hold membership in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. In other words, Islamic civilization and the Muslim religion merit dozens of states, but Jewish civilization and the Jewish religion do not merit a single country.
The 1993 Oslo Accords notwithstanding, the PLO covenant – with its denunciation of the Balfour Declaration – has never been legally amended, and for good reason. The problem Palestinian Arabs have with Israel is its existence – not “settlements,” “occupied” territory or the security barrier.
Abbas has consistently made the point that the Palestinians won’t recognize or accept Israel as a Jewish state. That would acknowledge the legitimacy of a Jewish national home and doing so would basically end the conflict. Granted that Arabs and Jews would still need to negotiate boundaries and such, but that would hardly be insurmountable once the Arabs genuinely renounced their obsession with wiping Israel off the face of the earth.
Setting out his reasoning for the proposed lawsuit, Abbas paints a grossly distorted account of the Arab-Israel conflict – one that holds Britain and the Jewish people solely responsible for the misfortunes that have befallen the Palestinian Arabs. He indicts the Balfour Declaration for having had catastrophic consequences for the Palestinian Arabs: It is to blame for their dispersion, and it has blocked them from creating their own Arab state of Palestine. The Palestinian Arabs will never “forgive those who conspired against” them and will remain faithful to their covenant while “working hard to end the occupation of our land and our holy places,” Abbas wrote the League.
Abbas makes plain that the “occupation” began with the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948 and only got worse after the 1967 Six-Day War. He predictably blames Israel for that war, which resulted in the Jewish state taking control of “the remaining lands of historic Palestine in the West Bank, including eastern Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”
He demands that the international community compel Israel to withdraw to the 1949 armistice lines so that Palestine can be created in the West Bank, “East” Jerusalem, and Gaza. Of course, when the Arabs held those territories (1949–1967) they did not establish a Palestinian state. But since 1974, in the wake of the Yom Kippur War the previous year, the PLO decided on a change in strategy – it would accept an “independent combatant national authority” over any territory that was “liberated” from Israel.
Recognizing that it could not wipe out Israel in one fell swoop, Palestinian leaders accepted that Israel’s destruction would have to be achieved in stages. Beginning in the late 1980s, this strategy was further adapted to allow for a potent cocktail – violence, negotiations, lawfare and suasion or imploring the international community to bring Israel to its knees.
Sure enough, in one resolution after another the UN Security Council has basically adopted the Palestinian Arab narrative that eastern Jerusalem is occupied territory and that Jews have no claim – neither historic nor strategic – to Judea and Samaria.
To reiterate, the conflict is not about “occupied” territory or settlements.
The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said plainly that his signing of the1993 Oslo Peace Accords with Israel was a purely tactical move. On May 10, 1994, speaking at a Johannesburg, South African mosque, Arafat explained, “This agreement, I am not considering it more than the agreement which had been signed between our prophet Mohammed and Koraish, and you remember the Caliph Omar had refused this agreement and [considered] it a despicable truce.”
In the Palestinian Muslim lexicon, what Arafat was signaling is that like the prophet’s deal with the Koraish tribe in Arabia, the Oslo accords would also be abrogated when the time was ripe.
The Arab-Israel conflict is an all-or-nothing (zero- sum) clash, because that is the way the Arabs are playing it. If tomorrow the PLO and Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and agreed to a demilitarized the West Bank and Gaza, Israel would help facilitate the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state.
Alternately, if tomorrow the Palestinian polity agreed to a political confederation with Jordan (whose population is overwhelmingly Palestinian), recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and accepted demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza, no Israeli government would stand in its way. There would still be plenty of nitty-gritty details to work out, about strategic settlement blocs, for example, but none which are insurmountable.
This brings us back to the Balfour Declaration. Besides marking the 100th anniversary of the declaration, 2017 is the 120th anniversary of the First Zionist Congress, the 70th anniversary of the UN General Assembly Partition Resolution, the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, the 40th anniversary of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, and the 30th anniversary of the first intifada.
Let me say here that the Balfour Declaration was not a plot against the Arabs. The more you understand how the declaration came to be and how it played out between 1917 (when it was issued) and 1948 (when Israel was born), the more evident it becomes that so much of the calamity that has befallen the Palestinian Arabs has been self-inflicted. Regrettably, the Arabs have a history of “never having lost a chance to miss an opportunity,” in the words of the late Israeli statesman Abba Eban.
FOR WWI-ERA British policymakers, the Balfour Declaration was foremost a matter of wartime national interest.
For the Jewish people, it represented foremost the beginning of the end of 2,000 years of statelessness.
And for its Arab enemies – and their enablers – the Balfour Declaration was and remains the West’s never-expiated “original sin” – because it made it possible for a non-Muslim people to have sovereignty over a sliver of the “Arab and Muslim Middle East.”
This vast Middle East has been Muslim since 638 when the Arabs came up from Arabia and conquered Jerusalem. The Arabs’ evolving response to the Balfour Declaration demonstrated that they could not get their head around the idea of sharing even a tiny slice of the region with the Jewish people.
Still, I can understand why the Arabs would reject the Balfour Declaration. I do not say their antagonism is illegitimate or unfounded. I do not claim that justice is exclusively on the side of Zionism. And although this book ends more or less in 1949, I do not assert that as a polity today’s Israel is never in the wrong. However, I do contend that continued Arab rejection of the Balfour Declaration one hundred years on makes any compromise leading to a genuine conflict resolution impossible.
IN 2013, DAVID DUKE’S website carried an article by one Patrick Slattery that grappled with a quandary that old-line white supremacists and antisemites such as Duke find themselves in: How should people who despise Jews relate to Jews who despise Zionism and Israel. “Countless Jews do very important work exposing certain aspects of Zionism regarding Israel, yet at the same time defend, or at least draw attention away from, Jewish domination of the United States and other Western countries,” Slattery opined.
He cited Max Blumenthal, Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and Naomi Klein as “sincere” in being opposed to Israel’s existence. But at the end of the day, he surmised “their priority is to preserve Jewish power and privilege in the United States.”
Now, I mention this to bang home a point. While there’s no shortage of anti-Zionist Jews, today’s strain have almost nothing in common with the Jewish opponents of Zionism during the period of the Balfour Declaration.
The leading anti-Zionists of the Balfour era were mostly individuals deeply committed to Jewish civil rights. Most were, at the very least, Jewishly-literate.
Take the case of Lucien Wolf (1857–1930). A British- Jewish journalist, community activist, and historian of Anglo-Jewry, Wolf was an indefatigable campaigner for oppressed Jewry. He was also an outspoken opponent of political Zionism. He believed that the Zionists were wrong to give up on the idea that European Jews would ultimately secure full citizenship rights. Wolf became the voice of Jewish opposition to Zionism even though he was not unsympathetic to elements of the Jewish homeland idea.
In December 1915, Wolf wrote a memo to the British Foreign Office on the question of how US Jewish opinion could be harnessed to advocate for an American entry into World War I. Recognizing that Britain was looking for leverage to end Washington’s neutrality, Wolf frankly acknowledged that American Jews, largely opposed to entry into the war, were sympathetic to the Zionist idea. If Britain made it clear that were Palestine to come under its jurisdiction, it would back “a liberal scheme of self-government” for the Jews that might dampen the Jews’ predisposition to neutrality.
Philosophically, Wolf rejected the view that the Jews “constitute a separate political nationality.” Despite his opposition to Zionism, which stemmed from a genuine conviction that it would be bad for Jews, Wolf sufficiently appreciated Zionism that he was called upon to write an Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the topic. He also contributed a piece on the history of antisemitism for the encyclopedia’s eleventh edition.
Unlike the Zionists, Wolf did not want to “negate the Diaspora.” Indeed, he had high hopes for an ever more tolerant Europe. On August 17, 1916, Wolf and Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met at the home of James de Rothschild in a failed attempt to achieve a modus vivendi.
JEWISH OPPOSITION to the Balfour Declaration was usually accompanied by a genuine concern for Jews qua Jews. The Russian pogroms of 1881 had greatly affected Wolf’s psyche, leading him to devote much of his life to campaigning for Jewish rights in eastern Europe.
He developed an expertise in minority issues, including the Catholic position in Britain. Wolf’s open hostility toward the antisemitic Tsarist regime impelled him to leave the world of advocacy journalism and become the top official at Conjoint, the joint foreign committee of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In effect, he became the foreign minister of the organized Jewish community – a role for which he was admirably suited.
He was well traveled, had the benefit of a cosmopolitan education, and was fluent in French and German.
Furthermore, the anti-Zionists didn’t oppose Jewish immigration to Palestine; and they fully accepted Palestine’s special significance to the Jewish people.
Wolf’s position on Palestine was articulated in March 1916 while the country was in Turkish hands: Should Palestine come under British control, London ought to take into account the “historic interest that country possesses for the Jewish community.” He advocated for Jewish civil and religious liberty as well as equal political rights with the rest of the population.
He also favored “reasonable” facilitation of Jewish immigration and colonization.
In April 1917, Wolf complained that the Zionists “declare that where emancipation does not exist it is not worth striving for and where it does exist it is no remedy.”
Ultimately, his anti-Zionist sails were trimmed when on June 17, 1917, the Board of Deputies in a policy shift criticized him for taking his opposition to political Zionism into the pages of the Times.
After WWI, he took part in the Versailles Conference in Paris as a spokesperson for the ad hoc National Union for Jewish Rights. He helped draft the Minorities Treaties, which were aimed at protecting the civil and religious rights of Jewish communities in Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Yugoslavia and beyond.
He even briefly chaired the League of Nations committee on refugees. At home, he lobbied against Sunday closing laws which barred Jewish-owned concerns from doing business on the Christian Sabbath.
LET US end where we began – with Mahmoud Abbas’s “lawsuit.” It is premised on the view that the Arabs oppose the very idea of a national homeland for the Jews anywhere in the Middle East. On the narrow question of whether the Arab-Israel conflict is about boundaries and settlements or about the visceral rejection of even the most moderate Arab leaders to the legitimacy of a Jewish state there can be no wiggle room, in my view. Abbas’s threatened litigation regarding the Balfour Declaration makes this plain. 
Excerpted from The Balfour Declaration Sixty-Seven Words – 100 years of Conflict by Elliot Jager (Gefen Publishing House, 2017).
Q&A with the author
How did you come to write this book?
The Jewish Leadership Council in London invited me to write most of the content for a website devoted to the centenary of the Balfour Declaration and I got hooked on everything Balfour and WWI-related.
Who are your heroes in the story?
Let’s stick with the British side: Manchester Guardian editor C. P. Scott; diplomat and strategist Mark Sykes; the enigmatic Leo Amery, who was an assistant secretary to the War Cabinet; and foremost, David Lloyd George and Arthur James Balfour.
And among the Zionists?
Clearly, Chaim Weizmann was the maestro conducting with Lord Rothschild and Nahum Sokolow working in concert. Moses Gaster, Joseph Hertz, and Ze’ev Jabotinsky were principal players. There were a dozen Mancunians and Londoners – men and women – who played crucial roles. I try to mention as many as I can in the book.
What was your biggest take-away?
That it is worthwhile to read as much as possible about World War I because that conflict set the stage not just for the Balfour Declaration but for much of what happened in the course of the 20th century.
Who did you write this book for?
If I could have gotten away calling my book “Balfour for Dummies” without getting sued – I would have. I wanted my telling of the Balfour story to be accessible, especially for Millennials and post-Millennials who don’t have time for long books, but also for my own Baby Boomer generation.