The Balfour Declaration
November 2, 2017, marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, a historic statement of sympathy issued by the British government for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. Lord Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, penned the historic letter on behalf of the British Government, to Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild, a prominent leader of Britain’s Jewish community. The Declaration expressed the British government’s recognition of and support for the inalienable right of the Jewish people for self-determination in their historical homeland, the Land of Israel. The Declaration was closely coordinated by Britain with the other great powers, and indeed well represents the will of the international community at the time. As David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1917 later testified: "It [the Balfour Declaration] was prepared after much consideration, not merely of its policy but of its actual wording, by the representatives of the Allied and Associated countries, including America." The specific text of the Declaration was approved by U.S. President Wilson before its publication, while the French and Italian Governments publicly endorsed it on February 14 and May 9, 1918 respectively. This broad international endorsement of Jewish national self-determination was formally ratified on July 24, 1922, when the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) recognized the “historic connection of the Jewish people” to the Land of Israel and appointed Great Britain as Mandatory power responsible for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
The Balfour Declaration recognized not only the inalienable rights of the Jewish people, but it also stipulated that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The Balfour Declaration made clear that supporting Jewish rights did not preclude the rights and liberties of the Arab side. In similar vein, throughout the decades, the Zionist dream encompassed respect for and coexistence with all people in the region, including the Palestinian Arabs. This vision was most clearly outlined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that all citizens, irrespective of race, religion or gender, have equal rights. Today, some 20% of Israel’s population is comprised of Arab citizens, who enjoy full rights and liberties and serve in prominent positions in law, politics, medicine and other fields. The Jewish leadership at the time of the Balfour Declaration, as today, sought to cooperate with their Arab neighbors. Chaim Weizmann, who represented the World Zionist Organization, and Emir Feisal (one of the most prominent Arab leaders) signed an agreement in 1919 to work together to bring about the aspirations of both the Jews and the Arabs of the region. Unfortunately, this precedent did not last long. Throughout the
20th century, extremist Arab leaders rejected Jewish rights, promoted an exclusivist worldview that the land only belonged to them and encouraged violent attacks on the Jewish population. This rejection of the legitimate and internationally-mandated and recognized claim of the Jewish people to a national homeland in the Holy Land is the bedrock – the ground zero - of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Here then lies the explanation as to why the Balfour Declaration is of such historic import. Not only is it the first internationally endorsed recognition of the Jewish people’s inalienable right to return to their ancient homeland. It is also a simple statement of truth, which lays bare the heart of the conflict, that too many in the Arab world have been waging against Israel for too long: the refusal to accept the truth of the Jewish people's connection to the land, and the national rights, which accrue as a result. All agree that the Balfour Declaration was a milestone on the modern journey towards the establishment of the State of Israel. For Israel and its friends, its centennial is a cause for celebration and profound gratitude to the international community. For Israel's opponents, it is proving to be yet another opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past and sacrifice the benefits of co-existence and cooperation on the altar of a false historical narrative, which brings no benefit to anyone, least of all the Palestinians themselves. British Prime Minister Theresa May has described the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most important letters in history.” Meanwhile, the British government recently stated that, “establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.” As Israel – the nation-state of the Jewish people - marks with gratitude the endorsement of its national story embodied in the Balfour Declaration, it looks to its Palestinian and Arab neighbors with its hand outstretched in peace and cooperation, urging them to accept, once and for all, the legitimacy of Israel's membership of the family of nations. Only thus will the peace we all yearn for be able to come into being.