The year 2017 is replete with centenary anniversaries, many recalling events which still have reverberations that affect the world we live in today, one hundred years later. The United States of America declared war on Imperial Germany in April 1917, for example, which tipped the scales against the Central Powers in the First World War; the battle of Passchendaele was fought between July and November, leading to over half a million casualties; the Russian Revolution broke out in St Petersburg in November 1917, which led to Marxist-Leninist rule over Russia for the next three-quarters of a century. There will therefore be no end of significant anniversaries that will be remembered this year, therefore, several of them highly controversial despite the long distance of time since the events they commemorate.
None will be more controversial, however, than the centenary of the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917, the statement made by the British government that paved the way for the Jewish state of Israel three decades later in May 1948. In it, the British foreign secretary and former prime minister, Arthur Balfour, wrote that ‘His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’
The reason that the Declaration is so controversial is that although it promised a nation state of their own for the Jews – the most persecuted race in the history of Mankind – it also, seemingly contradictorily, said that nothing should be done to harm the rights of the majority of people who were also living there at the time, the Palestinian Arabs. The struggle between Jews and Arabs over the Holy Land has continued for almost seventy years after the State of Israel was finally created, and indeed sadly continues to this day. Many opponents of the existence of the State of Israel blame the Balfour Declaration for this long period of strife, which is why the centenary will certainly be controversial. They are wrong to, however. If ever a document needs to be seen in its proper historical context, it is this one.
In order to understand the causes of today’s Arab-Israeli conflict over who should control the Holy Land, we need to consider the very unusual circumstances that gave rise to the Balfour Declaration. Britain was by no means certain of winning the First World War in the period from June to November 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was being discussed in the British Cabinet. The battle of Passchendaele was ending in a bloody stalemate; unrestricted U-boat warfare by the Germans was bleeding Britain dry; the Austrians had nearly knocked the Italians out of the war at the battle of Caporetto in October; Russia was in ferment after the Kerensky Revolution in February and was only days away from the Bolshevik Revolution in November, which opened the terrifying prospect of a Russo-German peace that would throw dozens of German divisions onto an already exhausted Western Front. In short, Britain wasn’t quite losing the War, but neither could she be said to be winning.
The Balfour Declaration offered an appeal for Jewish statehood in the Holy Land that British statesmen, rightly or wrongly, thought might be attractive both to Russian Jews – who were thought to be influential in both the Kerensky and Bolshevik movements – but also to Austro-Hungarian, American and other Jews worldwide. Furthermore, although admittedly Democracy was not much of a factor in British imperialist thought, it was the case that development and economic progress assuredly were. The Palestinian Arabs had sided with the Ottoman Empire which had ruled over Palestine for four centuries, and so their views were not given any more weight than the views of any enemy peoples in wartime. By contrast with the inefficient and corrupt Ottoman government that had done nothing to develop Palestine, British statesmen rightly assumed that the Jews would develop the Holy Land in the same astonishingly productive and impressive way that British settlers in East Africa, South Africa, Malaya, Australia and New Zealand had over the previous century, at a time when the Left had not turned the word ‘settler’ into a pejorative term.
When ‘settler’ was still a term of approbation rather than abuse, it was recognized that amongst those who most benefited from the work of settlers were the native populations, in terms of shared communications, irrigation projects, employment, transport infrastructure, food production and so on. Balfour assumed the Jews would make the desert bloom in the Holy Land, and that the Palestinians would jointly benefit from that. He was right. Although today the word ‘settler’ is used negatively, we must not impose modern-day political concepts onto the actions of the Lloyd George War Cabinet of 1917 that meant nothing to them at the time. Moreover, the majority of the Jews were not settlers, but the descendants of the tribes of Israel that had lived in the Holy Land for over 3,500 years, as numerous archeological discoveries have made abundantly clear over the centuries.
Of course, in 1917 Britain was encouraging right nationalism across the Middle East, not just amongst the Jews of Palestine. The British-backed Arab Revolt against the Turks was a nationalist one, and Zionism was hoped to be part of and not antithetical to it. Unlike Bedouin nationalism, however, which was an established fact by 1917, the Palestinian Arabs had shown no propensity to assert any self-determination against the Ottoman Turks. Indeed the only time in history that they have ever vigorously asserted it has been against the Jews. Religion was if anything made to take a back seat by the British, for the obvious reason that hundreds of thousands of devout Muslims were at that time serving the British Crown loyally and fighting against the Turkish (ie Ottoman) Caliphate, the same Caliphate that Osama bin Laden swore to reinstate and that ISIS is trying to revive today.
The Balfour Declaration thus has a rich, complex, multi-causal explanation; it came about as the result of an historically unique set of personal, political and geostrategic circumstances, which defies the simplistic, monocausal explanations given by many of Israel’s enemies today. For example, many of the key senior British decision-makers in 1917 were Zionists intellectually and religiously. Balfour himself showed what one historian has described as ‘a fierce opposition to anti-Semitism and a recognition of Christian Civilization’s huge moral, philosophical, intellectual, cultural and spiritual debt to Judaism.’ The then prime minister, David Lloyd George, claimed to know the story of the Jewish people as well or better than that of his native Welsh, and noted that when the Jews’ leader Dr Chaim Weizmann, ‘was talking of Palestine he kept bringing up place names which were more familiar to me than those on the Western Front’
Another member of the Cabinet, Winston Churchill, was to write in 1920 of how: ‘We owe to the Jews a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all wisdom and learning put together.’ Compared to that extraordinary contribution, the Palestinian Arabs have produced very little of note for civilisation. For the Jewish contribution to finance, science, the arts, academia, commerce and industry, literature, philanthropy and politics has been astonishing relative to their tiny numbers. Although they make up less than half of one per-cent of the world’s population, between 1901 and 1950 Jews won 14% of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Literature and Science, and between 1951 and 2000 Jews won 32% of the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, 32% for Physics, 39% for Economics and 29% for Science. This, despite so many of their greatest intellects being murdered in Hitler’s gas chambers during the Holocaust in the Second World War. Civilization owes Judaism a debt it can never repay, and support for the right of a Jewish homeland to exist is the bare minimum we can provide.
As an Englishman, I feel great pride in the British Empire that twenty-five years before the Holocaust the British promised a national homeland for the Jews in Palestine. It was a decent attempt to help a monstrously injured people. As Balfour argued in 1920, if one believes in Palestinian national self-determination, then that also extended to the Jews and, as he put it, ‘I am convinced that none but the pedants or the people who are blinded by religious or racial bigotry would deny for one instant that the case of the Jews is absolutely exceptional, and must be treated by exceptional methods.’
Furthermore, the Lloyd George Cabinet of 1917 didn’t believe they were taking away Palestinian sovereign rights. Over the previous centuries, Jerusalem has been controlled by the Byzantines, Mecca Arabs, Seljuks, Fatamids, Crusaders, Ayubbids, under Saladin, Crusaders again, Tartars, Ayubbids again, Mamluks, and then from 1517 for four hundred years the Ottoman Turks. The region was then controlled by the British, then by the League of Nations, and now finally the State of Israel. One group that had never controlled Palestine were the Palestinian Arabs themselves. It was the defeated Ottomans who handed over Palestine to the League of Nations, and the Balfour Declaration was therefore not an attack on the Palestinian Arabs, who had made no attempt to liberate themselves from the Ottoman yoke.
While huge territories covering modern-day Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan and Syria were being transferred from the Ottoman Empire to the Arabs in the early 1920s, Balfour could not believe that, as he put it, the Arabs would mind a ‘small notch … being given to the people who have for hundreds of yeas been separated from it.’ Balfour believed it would revitalize Palestine economically, reunite Jews in their ancient homeland and give Jews a place of refuge from global anti-Semitism.
The men who passed the Balfour Declaration believed that they were not taking away one ethnic community’s land to give to another; instead they were taking away land that had for four centuries since 1517 belonged to the Ottoman Turks, and giving it to a national homeland for the Jews, without prejudicing the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. Both communities were native to the land for centuries, after all.The way that it would work, as Churchill pointed out in his 4 July 1922 speech as Colonial Secretary, was by the development of the League of Nations’territory through irrigation of the Red Sea and electrification of the region, making it for the first time economically and agriculturally possible for everyone to live there. One might today think in the light of later events that that was naive, but it was the way the Cabinet felt about the future of the Mandate. It was idealistic rather than, as anti-Israel activists try to argue, cynical.
By February 1918 Balfour was telling a friend: ‘My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish state.’ To his relation Lady Rayleigh he said that July: ‘The Jews were too great a race not to count and they ought to have a place where those who had strong racial idealism could develop on their own lines as a nation and govern themselves.’ And that ‘nothing but the Holy Land would satisfy their aspirations.’ When she pointed out that the ‘the Arabs will make difficulties: they say the land is theirs, they are three to one of the Jews’ he answered ‘But there are difficulties in whatever you do.’ He was even more explicit in August 1919 when he wrote: ‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-old traditions, in present need, in future hopes, of far profounder importance than the desires and prejudices of the seven hundred thousand Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.’ At the end of his life he said that on looking back it was the thing he was proudest to have done.
Today, from Morocco to Afghanistan, from the Caspian Sea to Aden, the 5.25 million square miles of territory belonging to members of the Arab League is home to over 330 million people, whereas Israel covers only eight thousand square miles, and is home to seven million citizens, one-fifth of whom are Arabs. The Jews of the Holy Land are thus surrounded by hostile states 650 times their size in territory and sixty times their population, yet their last, best hope of ending two millennia of international persecution – the State of Israel - has somehow survived. A century on, the Declaration stands as a righteous blow for genius, development, progress and freedom. Foremost among the types of people who admire these phenomena are the Chinese, who should therefore also celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration.