Next week’s anniversary of the Balfour Declaration will once again highlight the seemingly insurmountable Israeli-Palestinian divide.
While Israelis venerate Britain’s decree of November 2, 1917, when His Majesty’s Government officially endorsed “Jewish Zionist aspirations,” Palestinians exploit the very same British pronouncement as a weapon in their war to negate Israel’s existential legitimacy.
For Israelis, Lord Balfour’s famous letter to Lord Rothschild is both an undeniable inflection point in their history and a genuine cause for celebration. It was the first time (since Cyrus the Great in antiquity) that a major world power publicly declared its support for the Jews’ desire to return and reconstitute their homeland.
The declaration also had a significant practical impact, leading directly to the pro-Zionist decisions taken at the 1920 San Remo Conference by the victorious allied powers, and to the League of Nations giving the Mandate for Palestine to Great Britain in order to “secure the establishment of the Jewish National Home.”
Unsurprisingly, Palestinians take the opposite point of view, depicting the issuance of the Balfour Declaration as a black day in history.
The eminent Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said characterized the declaration as colonialist collusion. In his words, it was “made by a European power… about a non-European territory… in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory.”
Twenty-first-century Palestinian nationalists follow Said’s lead and manipulate the contemporary post-colonial guilt widely felt across the West to assert that the Palestinian people remain colonialism’s greatest victim, and that hence, the international community owes the Palestinians an immeasurable moral debt.
Accordingly, on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017, as the current Lord Rothschild was organizing the centenary celebration at Lancaster House in London with both UK and Israeli prime ministers, Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded that Britain make a formal public apology for issuing the Balfour Declaration.
Moreover, the Palestinian Authority called upon the UK to start making amends for alleged British historic wrongs by immediately according full diplomatic recognition to the “State of Palestine.”
All too many Brits, wallowing in their own post-colonial guilt, readily embraced these demands.
Of course, Said’s anti-colonialist narrative is conveniently selective. While focusing on Britain’s 1917 support for the creation of a Jewish National Home, it downplays later British proposals to establish an independent Arab Palestine, markedly in the 1937 Peel Commission partition plan that recommended the establishment of such a state on the majority of Mandatory Palestine; and again in the Palestine White Paper of 1939, when the British called for the creation of an Arab Palestine on all the territory of the Mandate (proposals rejected by the Palestinian leadership for not going far enough to meet its maximalist demands).
Yet not only do Said’s disciples choose to overlook British benevolence toward the Palestinians; they all but ignore that the Jews ended up being primary victims of Britain’s policies. For as the Nazis were beginning their march across Europe, “perfidious Albion” violated its commitments under the League of Nations’ mandate and locked the gates of the Jewish National Home to European Jews facing Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
In the ultimate expression of cynical realpolitik, Whitehall knew that the Jews had no alternative but to support Britain in the upcoming conflict with Nazi Germany, while the loyalty of the Arabs to the Allied cause was in question. Britain needed to ensure control of the Suez Canal, protect the Middle East oil fields, and maintain its support across the Moslem world (including the loyalty of millions of Muslims in the British Raj), and those British interests demanded the Arabs be appeased.
In The Revolt, Menachem Begin’s account of the Irgun’s struggle against the British Mandate, the man who went on to become Israel’s sixth prime minister places indirect responsibility for the Holocaust on the British. Begin argued that by closing Mandatory Palestine to the millions of Jews desperate to flee the Nazi inferno, Britain helped seal their fate.
During this horrific period in Jewish history, far from being the beneficiaries of British largesse, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine were forced to fight for their national freedom.
In the final years of the Mandate, the Jewish underground conducted an armed struggle against British rule, targeting the Mandatory regime and its British personnel. Most famously, Begin’s Irgun conducted a devastating attack in July 1946 on the Mandate Government Secretariat and British Armed Forces Headquarters located at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.
When the armies of seven Arab states invaded the territory of Mandatory Palestine in 1948 to destroy the Jewish state at birth, those Arab forces were armed with British weapons, and in the case of Trans-Jordan’s Arab Legion, commanded by British officers. There was even a dogfight in the skies over Sinai between the RAF and the newly established Israel Air Force (the Israeli pilots were victorious).
In the early years following independence, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, feared what he believed to be the very real prospect of British military action against the Jewish state on behalf of the Arabs.
Author Amos Oz captured the spirit of the time in his autobiographical A Tale of Love and Darkness. Emblematically, Oz described how as a boy growing up in Jerusalem he built a toy rocket in the back yard of his apartment block, threatening to launch the fictitious missile against London unless King George VI reversed Britain’s anti-Jewish stance.
Proponents of the Said thesis deride the Jewish struggle for statehood. For them, the State of Israel will forever be an illegitimate European implant, and the Balfour Declaration’s endorsement of a Jewish National Home camouflage for a nefarious anti-Arab imperial conspiracy. The truth is very different.
In the long history of the British Empire, there were many occurrences over which modern-day Brits are justifiably ashamed. The Balfour Declaration does not fall into that category.
Like the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that sought to eliminate a great injustice, the Balfour Declaration expressed support for the legitimate national aspirations of a long-persecuted people. All Britons should be proud of that. That Britain later reneged on its commitments to the Jews is, of course, quite another matter.
The writer is former Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom, and currently a senior visiting fellow at the INSS. Follow him at @MarkRegev on Twitter.