Ask A Jew: The Balfour Declaration

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By Neal Schindler

What relationship does the Balfour Declaration have with Hitler’s hatred of Jews and the creation of the nation of Israel?

The Balfour Declaration turned 100 a little over a year ago. As an Associated Press article that marked the occasion put it, the historic declaration was “Britain’s promise to Zionists to create a Jewish home in what is now Israel.” In the article, historian Jonathan Schneer, who wrote “The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict,” is quoted as saying the declaration remains:

divisive even today because Zionists think that the Balfour Declaration laid the foundation stone for modern Israel – and they’re right to think that – and by the same token non-Jewish Palestinians and Arabs see it as the foundation stone of their dispossession and misery.

Since the British government issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917, long before Hitler came to power, the document itself didn’t have anything to do with Hitler’s hatred of Jews. However, Hitler’s genocidal fervor and its devastating consequences emphasized, in the minds of many, the need for a Jewish homeland. And of course Israel became a sovereign nation in 1948, just three years after Hitler was defeated and World War II ended.

The Balfour Declaration — as it appeared within a Nov. 2, 1917, letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to one of the leaders of Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Rothschild — reads 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.

The story of the Balfour Declaration is a complicated one, in terms of both Britain’s and other nations’ motivations at the time and the uniquely tragic predicament — the Israel/Palestine conflict — that arose following Israel’s establishment 70 years ago and that continues to this day.

What the declaration means a century later depends, to a significant extent, on your point of view. If you’re Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Balfour Declaration is something to roundly condemn. If you’re Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,

the Balfour Declaration laid the international foundation and the support for Zionism [in] Europe and America and in other parts of the world, and by doing so it contributed greatly to the resurrection enterprise of our People. … The fact that we were not sovereign until 1948 prevented the rescue of millions of Jews who were annihilated in the Holocaust. The tragedy of Balfour Declaration is that it took 30 years to implement it.

I would imagine many Palestinians and Palestinian rights activists contend that a particular portion of the Balfour Declaration (“nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”) has been violated egregiously. People more sympathetic to Israel’s plight might point out that “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country” were soundly trampled through mass expulsions of Jews from Arab countries around the time of the Jewish state’s founding.

Like so many other pieces of the historical and political puzzle that is Israel/Palestine, what a 21st-century learner may make of the Balfour Declaration is likely to depend on the perspective he or she brings to the larger issues of Jewish nation-statism and the movement for Palestinian rights.

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