By Elliott Jager ~
There are no uneventful months in the tortured history of the Arab-Israel conflict. November is no exception. It was on November 2, 1917 that British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour sent Lord Rothschild, titular head of the British Jewish community, a letter—the Balfour Declaration—expressing the backing of the British government for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” And, as if to bookend the month, November 29th will mark the 64th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly’s adoption of the 1947 Partition Plan, the two-state solution that was recklessly spurned by the Arabs in a rebuff that presaged the Arabs’ rejection of a Jewish homeland ever since.
Between these two November dates—specifically, on November 9— Israel, Britain, and the Commonwealth Association held a gala anniversary dinner in Tel Aviv to mark Balfour’s pronouncement. Guests included Britain’s ambassador to Israel, the head of the European Union delegation, and ambassadors from several commonwealth countries (including those that reflexively vote against Jerusalem at the UN). In general, the Israeli government does not make too much of the occasion, though Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon addressed the Tel Aviv banquet. But Hamas makes it a point to issue an annual denunciation of the declaration, accompanied this year by a montage featuring photos of Israel’s leaders splattered with blood and a picture of Balfour wearing a devil’s horns and vampire’s fangs. Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the official daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, routinely condemns the Balfour Declaration’s grant of rights to “those who had no connection” to the land—meaning the Jewish people.
This November also marks the 59th yahrzeit and the 137th anniversary of the birth of Chaim Weizmann, the distinguished chemist who was instrumental in fashioning the Zionist-British alliance that produced the Balfour Declaration. As Jonathan Schneer, not a Zionist sympathizer, notes in his book The Balfour Declaration, Weizmann’s achievement was never preordained. He had to overcome the influence of important assimilationist Jews like Edwin Montagu, who strenuously urged their government not to cooperate with the Zionists, and Grand Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his sons, the Emirs Abdullah and Faisal, who lobbied through British proxies. The Palestinian Arabs had scarcely any unique identity at the time, but Arab intellectuals in Syria argued against Zionism on grounds that Palestine was an integral part of Syria and could not be excluded from the magnanimous territorial bequest that Britain had made to the Arabs.
At the end of the day, Britain promised a sliver of the Middle East to the Jews and everything else to the Arabs. After World War I, the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the San Remo Conference in 1920 ratified Britain’s plans for Arab and Jewish self-determination in Palestine. Balfour expected that the Arabs would be willing to share a small sliver of the vast Mideast landscape with the Jews, and in 1919 Faisal wrote encouragingly to Zionist leader Felix Frankfurter, “We Arabs, especially the educated among us look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement.”
Tragically, pragmatists like Faisal did not carry the day. Instead, anti-Zionist Arab riots, instigated by the fanatical Husseini clan, were launched in 1920. London immediately went wobbly and embarked on a series of moves that first backtracked and then reversed its Balfour Declaration commitments. To assuage Arab demands, Britain brought Abdullah from Arabia (where the family ultimately lost control to the Saudis) to Eastern Palestine in November, 1920. By 1921, this immense area—today’s Jordan, 80 percent of Palestine as defined by the League of Nations and promised to the Jews by Balfour—had been ceded to the Arabs, leaving the Jews only the area between the Jordan River and Mediterranean.
In 1937, in response to intensified Arab violence, Britain’s Peel Commission called for further splitting even the 20 percent of Palestine still left to the Jews so as to create an additional Arab state within what was originally supposed to be Jewish Palestine. The Zionists reluctantly acquiesced, but the Arabs said no. By 1939, with the Nazi killing machine getting into lethal gear, Neville Chamberlain had completely reneged on the Balfour Declaration and blocked Jewish immigration to Palestine.
None of this can be blamed on Balfour, who deserves to be remembered as a friend of the Jews. True, statesmen do not act purely out of altruism; Balfour, like other British politicians, was partly motivated by an exaggerated sense of Zionist influence in the international arena, which the British hoped to exploit for the war effort. But Balfour also believed that Christian anti-Semitism had been a “disgrace” and, according to his biographer R.J.Q. Adams, hoped to make amends by providing the Jews with a “small notch” of territory. In 1925 he helped dedicate the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Like Theodor Herzl, Balfour may have assumed that British Jews would either thoroughly assimilate or choose to live in the Jewish homeland.
Ninety-four years after Balfour’s declaration, the right of the Jewish people to re-establish their national homeland is still rejected even by Palestinian Arab “moderates.” The unremitting threat of renewed violence remains the Arabs’ default position. Sparked by the Gilad Shalit deal, Arab violence in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza has seen an upswing. Cairo’s renewed efforts to bring Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas together this week will likely entail more militancy from Fatah, not greater flexibility from Hamas. In the words of Mahmoud Zahhar, the notion that Hamas will ever make peace with Israel is “insane.”
Sixty-four years after Palestinian Arabs rejected the partition plan, Abbas claims to be having second thoughts. Yet instead of negotiating with the Jewish state, he is forging ahead at the UN for unilateral statehood without making peace with Israel. Sadly, Abba Eban’s 1973 quip that the Arabs “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” holds stubbornly true. To be fair, time does not stand completely still: Abbas-like moderates are operating only 64 years behind real time. For the “militants” of Hamas, though, it is perpetually 1917.
Elliott Jager writes for Jewish Ideas Daily (www.jewishideasdaily.com) where this first appeared.