Misplaced rage against the Balfour Declaration

Lord Balfour is admired by some for legitimizing the idea of a Jewish state in the modern world. He is loathed by others for having smugly assumed the right to determine so many fates.

Palestinians protest the 100th anniversary of Britain's Balfour Declaration (photo credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
Palestinians protest the 100th anniversary of Britain's Balfour Declaration
(photo credit: ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
He was a Christian Zionist, unremarkable but for his long-term affair with a married woman.
And then, 100 years ago, he penned a letter, with his imprimatur as British foreign secretary, and sent it off to Lord Rothschild.
We know it today as the Balfour Declaration, a statement of support, on behalf of the British Parliament, for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the territory of Mandatory Palestine. Lord Balfour is admired by some for legitimizing the idea of a Jewish state in the modern world. He is loathed by others for having, in classic imperialist, colonialist fashion, smugly assumed the right to determine so many fates. How dare this British aristocrat “declare” that Mandatory Palestine be granted to the Jews? Palestinian nationalists and their supporters revile the man and his gesture.
Fair enough. Hindsight is what history is all about; looking back through a more objective lens and assessing what happened, and why, and retelling the past in the present.
Imperial meddling had been the way the world worked for several hundred years by 1917. Acknowledging the nationalist aspirations of various peoples was not at all out of step with the times, politically speaking. In fact, what is very peculiar is the selective outrage of Balfour detractors. One assumes, of course, that they are angered by the promise of a Jewish country on what they consider to be Palestinian land. So, there is the uniquely Jewish aspect of the promise. The specific.
And there is the more general issue: the assumption of imperialist prerogative to draw lines on maps and then declare it to be thus.
This is where it all breaks down, because it seems that the anti-Balfour camp is motivated not by principle but exclusively out of opposition to the idea of a Jewish state. Otherwise, they would oppose the existence of Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and many other states in the Middle East. In particular, they would question the legitimacy of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
Why? Because it encompasses even more land that was part of Mandatory Palestine than does present- day Israel, and because Jordan stands out as an especially extreme imperialist incident.
Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France swiftly carved up the Levantine territories, drawing lines on maps and installing kings and assorted nation-state arrangements. Countries and protectorates were created. Just like that.
Yet, curiously, those who are outraged by Balfour’s support for Israel are not equally outraged by the colonial imposition of other states in the region.
Surely there were people already living on the land within the lines marking today’s Jordan. In fact, many of them were Palestinian. This likely goes some way to explain why 70% the inhabitants of modern- day Jordan identify as Palestinian. Their ancestors were not all from Jaffa and Haifa.
Last week, as UK Prime Minister Theresa May marked the Balfour centenary with pride, refusing to condemn the Balfour Declaration as yet another black stain on British honor, protesters in London raged at the continued occupation of the Palestinian homeland by the racist, colonialist, Zionist aggressor.
Yet they were silent about Jordan. Is Jordan also not an occupier of Palestinian land? Is that kingdom – with those very straight lines drawn in the sand demarcating its borders, that follow no natural landmarks or barriers – any more “legitimate” than Israel? Of course, the principled answer is “no.” But why let intellectual discipline or reason get in the way of unbridled rejection of the existence of a Jewish state? We can only conjecture as to what Lord Balfour may have thought of the enduring Arab rejectionism of Israel. We do know, however, that his descendant, Lord Roderick Balfour, a banker, finds the failure of Israel to share the land more peaceably with the Palestinians to be inconsistent with the terms of his great uncle’s endorsement of the Zionist dream.
He draws attention to the following sentence in the Declaration: “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
He has clearly stated that Israel has failed to live up to this standard. What he is silent on, however, is how to achieve harmony when so much Palestinian capital is allocated to supporting the tenacious commitment to Israel’s destruction.
The British are prone to invoke their hard won truce with the Irish Republican Army in recent decades as proof positive that this can be done. Any analogy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, is false. The IRA was bent on sovereignty from the ruling British.
It was not committed to the destruction of the United Kingdom.
I prefer to think that Lord Balfour today, projecting out another 100 years, would see coexistence having developed, steadily and slowly, to a reasonably stable and peaceful status quo. It may seem a tepid hope, but it is possible. One-sided responsibility and pipe dreams are not.
The author, a lawyer and businesswoman, was the former Canadian ambassador to Israel. She resides in Tel Aviv.