Thursday, March 16, 2017

Balfour, A Century Later

Last week, I wrote to you about the various issues I see hiding behind the assertion I hear made constantly that the only path forward to peace in the Middle East is the so-called two-state solution. Today I would like to go back even further in time than the Transjordan Memorandum of 1922 that I mentioned in passing last week, and consider the document upon which the two-state solution itself rests, the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Nor is this just ancient history: as its one hundredth anniversary approaches this fall, the Declaration was suddenly back in the news last summer when the foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority, Riyad al-Malki, told Muslim leaders gathered in Mauritania that the Palestinians intend to sue the United Kingdom in international court to force it to rescind the Declaration and to indemnify those who suffered financial damage because of its promulgation. At first, this sounded more amusing than sinister, something like some white supremacist group suing the federal government to force them to void the Emancipation Declaration—or, even more amusingly, the Thirteenth Amendment—and indemnify all those poor slaveholders who suffered financial distress when their “property” was summarily taken from them. Or, even more to the point, like a teary nine-year-old with a skinned knee threatening to sue Sir Isaac Newton to compel him posthumously to withdraw the laws of gravity that drew him to the ground when he fell off his bicycle and hurt himself…without realizing that the laws of gravity are no more dependent on Sir Isaac than the inalienable right of the Jewish people to thrive as a free people in its own national home were dependent on Arthur James Balfour.

Clearly, the suit won’t go anywhere. It isn’t even obvious in what court such a case could, or would ever, be tried. But the Palestinian leadership was right about one thing, though: the Balfour Declaration—and all it implies—is in many ways at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

It would be easy to wave it away as nothing more than a late expression of British colonialist imperialism: if the British Empire could seriously talk about its “ownership” of countries all over the globe like India or Kenya to which it had no moral, legal, or historical claim without feeling foolish, so why should they have felt odd announcing that they look with favor on efforts to realize the nationalist ideals of the Jewish people in its own homeland as though this were a point in need of British endorsement? But, as usual, there is more here than meets the eye…and a reasonable case can be made that the Balfour Declaration retains, even a century later, its importance as an important stepping stone towards the eventual founding of the State of Israel.

Of all the world’s wars, World War I remains the most confusing for most of us. It appears not to have been fought over any serious issue. Its alliances seem more like arbitrary couplings of nations than the thoughtful affiliation of nations with similar ideals and agendas. The casualties were almost unbelievable—about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians killed, another six million (soldiers and civilians) missing and presumed dead, and about 20 million (also a combined total of civilians and soldiers) wounded in some serious way. It ended, as everyone knows, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, and was formally wrapped up (at least as far as our country was concerned) with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. And then came the divvying up of the losers’ territory, both at home and overseas.  Austro-Hungary was dismembered entirely. German overseas colonies like Tanganyika, Togoland, Namibia and Cameroon went to the British and the French.  And the part of the Ottoman Empire that wasn’t Turkey itself was parceled out to the victor nations as well: France received League of Nations mandates to run Syria and Lebanon and the U.K. received mandates to run Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan. It was all much more complicated than that…but the basic principle is that the Land of Israel, dominated by the Ottoman Turks since Selim the Grim defeated the Egyptian Mamelukes in 1516 and added Israel to his empire, was placed under the governance of the British.

An interesting question to ask is why the United States, which more than happily acquired bits and pieces of the Spanish Empire after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, did not have any of the territories taken from the loser nations placed under its authority. That too is a complicated issue, but it mostly has to do with Woodrow Wilson, who had no interest in taking on the governance of foreign lands to which the United States had no moral or legal claim. This, of course, suited the other victor nations just fine!) And so the Brits came to Israel.

What exactly they thought they were getting themselves into, I have no idea. They knew plenty of the place, because they had participated in battles against the Turks in Palestine starting with the First Battle of Gaza in 1917 and continuing up until the final fall of Jerusalem to General Edmund Allenby in December of that same year. Or perhaps that’s exactly the point—because they had fought the Turks on the soil of the Land of Israel, they came away feeling entitled to add its territory, if not precisely to the empire as a colony, then at least to their in-those-days vast sphere of global influence as land under the legal stewardship of Great Britain. The locals were not consulted, not the Arab ones and surely not the Jewish ones.

Jewish immigration was well underway as the First World War was wrapping up—the so-called First Aliyah began as early as 1882 (in the wake of the anti-Semitic agitation that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881) and had melted seamlessly into the wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah around 1904. Indeed, about 70,000 Jews came to Ottoman Palestine between the early 1870s and the end of the First World War. (Just as an aside, that figure can be very interestingly compared with the fact that about 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe during those same years; the rest, my ancestors among them, headed west, not east.) Added to that figure were, of course, the small number of Jewish souls who simply lived in Israel, whose families hadn’t ever fled, who didn’t need to realize their Zionist longing by immigrating to Palestine because they hadn’t ever lived elsewhere. And, of course, there were also the descendants of earlier waves of Jewish immigration—those who came with Rabbi Yehudah He-hasid in 1700, for example, or the thousands who came in the 1740s along with Rabbi Moshe Ḥayyim Luzzatto and Rabbi Ḥayyim ibn Attar. So the Jews of Ottoman, now British, Palestine were well established in their ancestral homeland as the First World War came to its eventual end and had no intention of renouncing their dream of an independent Jewish state in the Land of Israel.

There were, of course, also Arabs living in the land and they were actively hostile to the notion of a Jewish state. It was already clear in the 1920s that this was going to lead either to peaceful compromise or endless friction, and it was in the context of that morass of mutual mistrust and apprehensive suspicion that U.K. Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour sent his now-famous two-sentence letter to Walter Rothschild, the 2nd Baron Rothschild, on November 2, 1917. The letter read as follows:

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.

It was already a jam-packed month for the Brits. The Battle of Beersheva, in which the British eventually beat the Turks soundly, was still underway. The Battle of Mughar Ridge, victory in which was considered indispensable if the British were to fulfill their plan of seizing Jerusalem by year’s end, was about to begin. Clearly, the British felt that they needed the support of the yishuv more than they needed to worry about irritating the Arabs…and that, rather than a sudden surge of unprecedented philo-Semitism, was surely what motivated the British to make their unexpected “declaration” when they did.  And that is exactly what did happen. The Jews of Turkish, soon to be British, Palestine were
energized. They clearly understood that their future lay with the land passing from Turkish to British rule, which is why General Allenby was greeted by the Jews of Jerusalem as a conquering hero when he, combining the role of military hero with pilgrim, got off his horse and walked almost humbly on foot through the Jaffa Gate into the Old City on December 11, 1917. The Arab population, needless to say, was not at all pleased and saw the British move as a craven effort to win the support of Jewish residents as they attempted to secure Palestine for themselves in the post-war period. Craven, it surely was. (They have that part right.) But what if the British, acting wholly in their own best interests, also came down on the side of reasonableness and justice? Does one necessarily preclude the other?

It was a time of new ideas. As noted in passing above, President Wilson was personally responsible for insisting that the treaties that ended the First World War grant self-determination to the peoples of the losers’ empires rather than merely award new baubles to the victors’ own colonial holdings. His nation—our nation—wanted nothing of other people’s countries. But Wilson was thwarted in the end by allies who were prepared to concede the right of self-determination to the peoples of Europe, but not the Middle East or Africa.  And it was thus as a kind of a compromise that the notion took hold that the territories of the vanquished should be awarded not as colonies to the victors, but as temporary mandates, in effect as trusteeships of the League of Nations, until the people of those places could be trained to govern themselves. Leaving aside the almost surreal paternalism, racism, and chauvinism hiding behind such an idea, the foundational idea—that nations have the right to govern themselves—is not only sound, but entirely so. And so the San Remo Conference of 1920 awarded the “mandate” to rule over Palestine to Britain.  Two years later, the League formally included the Balfour Declaration in its formal vision for the future of Palestine, thus charging the British with working towards the creation of a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.

And so things worked out that Lord Balfour, with two brief sentences, altered the course of world history by indicating that his government would shoulder the burden of governance in Palestine until the Jews were deemed capable of governing themselves. Eventually, the League of Nations endorsed the notion that the Jewish people, like any people, is entitled to govern itself on its own land and in its own place. And this just and reasonable policy was eventually transmitted to the United Nations which, before it turned away from its own ideals and became a grotesque caricature of its former self, ended up promoting its own version of the two-state solution when it ordered that Palestine be partitioned into two states, one Arab and one Jewish. And that is how the two-state solution ultimately has its origin in the Balfour Declaration.

And then, less than two decades later, came the Shoah—the ultimate demonstration of the consequences of Jewish powerlessness in the world. The blood of the martyrs called out then and still calls out…inviting all who dare to ponder their fate and determine in its light whether or not the League of Nations was right in adopting the Balfour Declaration as the basis of its own policy with respect to Jewish self-governance in the Land of Israel. The Balfour Declaration was key in giving Zionism a respectable home among the political philosophies that the world brings to bear in determining which peoples’ right to self-govern are given international credence and which not. To imagine that the British weren’t acting in their own best interests would be naïve in the extreme. But, at least for once, their own best interests led them to help actualize the Jewish dream of a free Jewish state in the Land of Israel…and we should applaud, and not cynically, a remarkable and remarkably daring statement that, in a few lines, granted to the Jewish people the natural right of all peoples to chart their own future forward in their own place and according to their own lights.

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