Promising everything and nothing: Balfour’s fractured letter, 100 years on

This comment piece was first published by The Norwich Radical.

The Balfour Declaration carries the same incendiary charge as when it was first published a century ago this week.

For most Israelis the short letter expressing British sympathy for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine continues to be venerated as the first formal recognition from one of the world’s great powers of the legitimacy of the Zionist enterprise.

For the Palestinians it still stands condemned as an act of imperialist chauvinism according to which, in the withering assessment of the (Jewish) writer Arthur Koestler, ‘one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.’

The Declaration, so the conventional narrative goes, ignited a slow-burning process of settlement that had been edging forwards since the late 19th century.

Before its publication there were only 90,000 Jews amongst Palestinian’s overwhelmingly Arab population of 700,000. Some 20 years later there were 350,000, more than a third of the total. And the Declaration formed the political basis of the Mandate for Palestine passed by the League of Nations in 1922, which sanctioned the settlement to expand under the protection of international law. The Mandate charged its British overseers with holding Palestine in ‘sacred trust for civilisation’ by facilitating the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland and the rebirth of the Hebrew language. It made no mention of the Arabs.

It is little wonder, then, that responses to this centenary year diverge so sharply. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to London this week to attend one of many commemorative events. A few months earlier, a Palestinian delegation told Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee that ‘the Balfour declaration is the root cause of our destitution, dispossession and the ongoing occupation.’

And yet the letter and its subsequent influence upon the conflict are more complex than its legendary status might suggest.

The 67 word sentence at the heart of the Declaration is a masterpiece of equivocation, promising both everything and nothing. Its opening words commit ‘His Majesty’s Government to view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’, but fail to define the geography of the ‘Palestine’ referred to or the nature of the ‘national home’ in question, which could be taken to imply an independent Jewish state, an autonomous region within a wider Arab state, the Jewish component of an Arab-Jewish confederation, or some other arrangement.

It goes on to commit the British ‘to use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object’ with no hint of what they might amount to. And the (in)famous caveat ‘that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ does not indicate whether those ‘rights’ should be taken to encompass political recognition, let alone how the significant migration the letter sanctions could be managed so as not to ‘prejudice’ the the land’s existing inhabitants.

The finely crafted text exemplified the gift for elegant paradox associated with its author, the Foreign Secretary and former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour.

Balfour had honed his facility with words in the course of a parallel career as a respected philosopher, during which he refined a capacity to weight and navigate a course between the seemingly irreconcilable. He acknowledged Darwin’s theory of evolution while retaining a traditional Anglican faith. He explored the edges of radical thought but was a staunch defender of the establishment. And he articulated a corrosive epistemological scepticism while regularly attending spiritualist meetings.

The Declaration was pure Balfour, shimmering with multiple interpretations. Was it motivated by a genuine sympathy for the ancient plight of the Jewish people? Or an apocalyptic Christian desire to hasten the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy by facilitating the restoration of Israel? Or even to temper the most militant Zionist aspirations by highlighting Palestinian ‘civil and religious rights’?

The letter managed to suggest a range of altruistic interpretations while keeping an unsentimental eye on the interests of the British state. It could be read as an appeal to Russian and American Jews to support Britain in the First World War, whose outcome was still uncertain at the time of the Declaration. The encouragement of a pro-British Jewish presence in Palestine would help protect Britain’s access to vital resources such as the Suez Canal and the port of Haifa. And its ambiguity regarding the ultimate form such a presence might take and the extent of what Britain might ‘endeavour’ to realise it offered a get-out clause should mediation of the evolving Jewish-Arab conflict require too much sacrifice.

And sure enough, as the conflict worsened through the 1920s and 30s, Britain exploited Balfour’s subtleties to downplay the Declaration’s promises.

The 1937 Peel Commission established in response to the convusive waves of violence that culminated in the 1936 Arab revolt was the first British report to recommend a two-state solution, insisting that Balfour’s letter had never intended to imply that the Jews were entitled to the whole of the territory of Mandate Palestine. And a White Paper published two years later went further, capping migration to Palestine at the very time the extent of fascist persecution of European Jewry was becoming evident, prompting Zionist militants to seek to drive the British out of the land altogether. When the United Nations passed Resolution 181 dividing Palestine into Jewish and Arab states the British didn’t even vote.

The fact is, that for all the mythology surrounding the Declaration, the state of Israel was carved out by the Israelis themselves, with little help from the British. Israel’s existence owes much more to the pragmatic Zionist strategy led by David Ben-Gurion to create ‘facts on the ground’ – the cities, towns, industries, farms, kibbutzim and public services that were to serve as the foundation of the future Israeli state – than any substantial British intervention.

Indeed, given the fierce determination of both the Jews and Palestinians, it is likely that the bitter conflict would have developed in much the same way had the Balfour Declaration never been written. Maybe, as Balfour himself was once reported to have said, ‘Nothing matters very much and few things matter at all.’

And yet that doesn’t seem right. It is a brute fact that when Balfour sat down to write his letter nine-tenths of the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River was occupied by Palestinians. A hundred years on, that same land now hosts a thriving Israeli nation, and two impoverished enclaves, the West Bank and the Gaza strip confining millions of Palestinians. Now, as then, the Declaration is recognised as having enormous symbolic and psychological significance. Britain’s Declaration is intimately interwoven with the history of the conflict.

So what, in this centenary year, should today’s British government ‘view with favour’ in regard to Israel and Palestine? An apology would be an unlikely and incendiary move, more likely to inflame established sentiments than encourage meaningful progress. But a firm declaration of support for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would seem a pragmatic and moral imperative capable of speaking to the many moderates on both sides.

A new declaration would be just another set of words, perhaps. Certainly it is unclear what material agency Britain has in 2017 to influence a conflict that has long outlasted her influence. But as Balfour well knew when he drafted his letter so many years ago, words matter, and they can matter a lot.