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The Balfour Declaration…100 years later

Prof. Jonathan Schneer discusses the British document that laid the foundation for a “home” for Jews in Palestine

By Stacey Dresner

On Nov. 2, 1917, the British government publicly stated that it would facilitate “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” What became known as the Balfour Declaration was sent in a letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Lord Rothschild, the unofficial leader of the British Jewish community.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Balfour Declaration – an historic document that many consider to be the diplomatic cornerstone of the state of Israel – Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, Massachusetts is hosting a talk given by Professor Jonathan Schneer entitled “The Making of the Balfour Declaration” on Sunday, Nov. 19, 3 – 4:30 p.m.

Schneer’s talk will examine the sequence of events leading up to the signing of the letter, as well as what Schneer considers to be the duplicity of the British government in its dealings with all parties concerning Palestine and the Middle East.

Schneer, who holds a B.A. from McGill University and a Ph.D. from Columbia University, is a modern British historian in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s School of History, Technology, and Society. In addition to authoring numerous articles and essays, he has written seven books and co-edited two. His book The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict won a National Jewish Book Award in 2010.

Recently, Prof. Schneer discussed the Balfour Declaration and its implications with the Ledger, in advance of his appearance at CBI.


Jewish Ledger (JL): First, can you explain to us just what the Balfour Declaration was and its significance in the formation of Israel?

Jonathan Schneer (JS): The Balfour Declaration was a letter, dated November 2, 1917, from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community. The letter promised that Britain would support the establishment of a home for the Jewish people in Palestine so long as that did not prejudice the rights of non-Jews living there.

It was of enormous significance to the formation of Israel because by it Zionists gained support from the most important power in the world at that time. But note: whatever Zionists and British leaders may have said in private, they mentioned in the Balfour Declaration only a “home” for Jews in Palestine. They did not mention the word “state,” because that would have alienated too many people.


JL: Would the formation of Israel have been possible without the Balfour Declaration?

JS: Historians don’t like to answer hypothetical questions. Israel is the product of all sorts of factors: World War I – maybe most important of all because it led to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire – Zionist determination, the rise of fascism, the Holocaust, and so on. The Balfour Declaration was a foundation stone, but there could have been another.


JL: Explain what you mean by the duplicity of the British when it comes to the Balfour Declaration.

JS: During World War I, British and French diplomats assumed the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and divided up its territories to suit themselves. They agreed that France would control northern Palestine, Britain would control southern Palestine, and an international condominium of powers would govern Jerusalem. This was part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But simultaneously Britain was encouraging an Arab leader, the Grand Sharif Hussein, to rebel against the Ottomans, their common enemy. The British promised that if Hussein’s rebellion succeeded he would become leader of an independent Arab kingdom that included Palestine.

Then Britain decided that it needed the support of “international Jewry,” and so issued the Balfour Declaration, promising Palestine to the Zionists. A little later, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George tried to induce the Ottomans to betray Germany by making a separate peace with the Allies. One of the inducements he offered was that Britain would not take Palestine away from them; the Ottoman flag could continue to fly there. So Britain promised parts of Palestine to France, to an international condominium, to Arabs, to Jews and to Turks.


JL: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn turned down an invitation to dinner with Benjamin Netanyahu marking the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Do you think that many Brits feel similarly about the Declaration? Do they regret it?

JS: Zionists celebrate the Balfour Declaration as a foundation stone of their country; Arabs deplore it as a foundation stone of their dispossession and misery. Of course, the Declaration is controversial in the country that made it and thereby helped trigger a hundred years of conflict. That people in Britain must choose one side over the other today is just one of the tragedies that have followed.


JL: Would you say that anti-Balfour Declaration sentiment by the British is tantamount to being anti-Israel?

JS: Absolutely not. The Balfour Declaration was the product of a tortuous and deceitful process, and its results were not simple. One must view the document critically, but that hardly means one must deny the right of Israel to exist.


“The Making of the Balfour Declaration” with Prof. Jonathan Schneer: Sunday, Nov. 19, 3-4:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel, 253 Prospect St., Northampton, Mass. Co-sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Western Mass., the Springfield JCC, JCA, Beit Ahava, Sinai Temple, Temple Beth El, Temple Israel, Sons of Zion, Betsy and Richard Gaberman and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, all in Massachusetts. Admission is free; reservations are not needed.

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