The mounting debate in Israeli society concerning the demand and need for Palestinian recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people has turned the issue into a profound dispute among the Israeli public and world Jewry.
However, we should remember that this debate is ancient, and examine its implications over many years. The Jewish people have never stopped considering the Land of Israel their homeland, have prayed for it during millennia of exile, have mentioned it on holidays and joyous occasions, as well as in moments of grief and mourning. Remembering the Land of Israel served as a national preserver of an exiled nation that kept up a continuous connection to its homeland.
The 1917 Balfour Declaration, which declared that the British – at the time the greatest world power – favored a Jewish homeland in Palestine, was an unprecedented political achievement. Lord Balfour’s declaration, which was supported by Lloyd George’s government, caused great joy among Jewish communities all over the world, but even then, some parts of the Jewish nation objected to it. Edwin Montagu. Member of Parliament and Secretary of State for India, a cousin of Herbert Samuel, the first High Commissioner of Palestine, led the opposition, claiming that establishing a Jewish state would create double loyalty among world Jewry, and would impair the rights of Jews in various countries. He believed that Jews should find a solution wherever they resided, but not in the ancient homeland.
Therefore, from the beginning, different Jewish groups – each for their own reasons –opposed the Balfour Declaration, which recognized the right of the Jewish people to establish a national home in Palestine. The declaration was ratified by the British parliament on October 31, 1917, and confirmed by the League of Nations in 1922, which gave it the validity of a binding international document.
The Arab world was divided at that time. Some, like King Faisal who supported the idea of a national Jewish homeland in discussions with Weitzman, thought that it was a good opportunity to introduce political change throughout the region, on condition that Arab nationality was recognized internationally and political solutions were provided for Arab countries. The Arabs in Palestine were adamantly opposed to this definition, to the document, and to the solution, and eventually dragged the entire Arab world to oppose the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people. In fact, the front that totally negates Israel’s right to exist, and obligates the Arab nations to oppose it, was created with the Balfour Declaration.
Britain’s decision and that of the League of Nations were not enough. Incessant pressure caused Britain and international bodies to reduce the declaration to the point of absurd, and to prevent the use of the declaration to save European Jewry that was denied the right to find asylum in Israel, so as not to offend the Arabs – ideas that were expressed in the three White Papers issued by the British government.
The White Paper became one of the documents most hated by the Jewish people, as His Majesty’s government issued increasing limitations on the return of the Jewish people to their homeland, claiming reasons that included denying Arabs jobs, creating hunger conditions in Palestine, and harming the veteran residents and the new immigrants. The entire Jewish population eventually joined the struggle for the right of the Jewish people to establish their homeland according to the Balfour Declaration. The bloody clashes, which were in fact the war before the War of Independence, were about the Balfour Declaration and the historic rights of the Jewish nation in the Land of Israel.
The Arabs, with the help of their advisors throughout the world – some of them avid anti-Semites – found the most important points in the struggle against the State of Israel, namely that without waging a war against Jewish history, heritage, and rights, they did not stand a chance to win – in public opinion, in world support of Israel’s annihilation, and in establishing an Arab state in its stead ‘from the sea to the river’.
The struggle, which included the Palestinian Arabs led by Hajj Amin al-Husseini, was part of a worldwide campaign, which started with pogroms and murder of Jews, and eventually became part of Hitler’s Final Solution to eradicate the Jewish people, when they volunteered to join his army and helped plan the concentration camps they would build in Israel, when Germany won the war against the Allies. Ever since, uncompromising work has been done by hundreds of Arab journalists, scholars, publicists, writers, and politicians, to portray Israel as a country without rights. Historic sites that always had been the greatest assets of the Jewish people were questioned by the Palestinians – even the Holy Temple and the Temple Mount, which they claim were never in Jerusalem or in the historic Israel.
The present argument between the Palestinian movement and the Jewish-Zionist movement is not only about the 1948 or 1967 borders. It is an all-encompassing argument about the history of both nations. Is the Jewish nation really a people returning to their historic homeland, or imperialistic conquerors of territories while expelling the other nation that lives here? The facts do not confuse the various debaters. The Nakba, the so-called Palestinian narrative, is to them a historic story that refutes the Jewish claim to the land of their ancestors, the Jews’ ongoing affinity with the land, and the conditions that brought the Jewish people back to their homeland.
The parties’ disregard of this controversial point is ignoring any ability to reach a real solution of the issue of a Jewish state in Israel, and no concession can be real to the other side as long as it is convinced and manages to convince the world that its land was stolen. Any solution that is suggested now has to be a partial solution vis-à-vis their (so they claim) irrefutable historic right to sole possession of the Land of Israel.
The two-state solution is difficult for both nations, but if it does not include shared agreements of mutual recognition, peace will never be established here. A Jewish state, founded on the historic principles of caring for the other and reaching out to a neighboring sister-nation, and being mutually recognized – is the only possibility to attain an accord between the two nations. The other solution is occupation and war, in which one of the two entities is wiped out by the other. Whoever supports this solution should bear in mind that except the two solutions of two states or a state of all its citizens, there is a third solution that the Syrian citizens are now attempting to present to the world. That is what peace between two groups that do not recognize each other would look like.
The Balfour Declaration reminds us that throughout its 65 years of independence, Israel faced objections to any move that was concerned with its Jewishness. The Arab states appealed to the Soviet Union not to allow the immigration of Jews to Israel. Palestinian and Arab pressure on the Austrian government forced the closing of the Schenau transit camp for Soviet Jews en route to Israel. Anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish organizations such as HIAS and others encouraged Jews to emigrate to Germany, Canada, and the US, while refusing to help them immigrate to Israel.
Any effort to play down the issue of recognition of a Jewish state is an attempt to cancel the international consensus reached after the Balfour Declaration about the right to establish a Jewish state in our historic homeland. Anyone who tries to present this as a whim or as an issue that could hinder negotiations is in fact ignoring the principle of the matter, and the years-long experience as the world tried to ignore the Jews’ right to live in the Land of Israel.
Even after the Holocaust, Jews and non-Jews alike believed that the solution for the Jews was assimilation in their countries rather than immigration to Israel. In November 1945, Ernest Bevin, British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave a speech in Parliament, presenting the issue of Jewish refugees and displaced persons in Europe and the question of Palestine after WW2. He said that the problem of Jewish Holocaust survivors was a human problem, but it had to be solved in Europe; the Jewish problem in Europe had been created by the Nazi regime, and was terminated with its defeat. It would be a shame to expel the Jews from Europe, because they can contribute to its prosperity. Some Holocaust survivors could be absorbed in Israel, but that is not the solution for all Jewish refugees. Britain has an obligation towards the Arabs and the Jews, and any decision regarding that region should be made jointly with the Arab world. He said further that Britain invited the US to come up with solutions – keep in mind that this was 1945 – and the solutions would be brought before a committee that would recommend what to do about the survivors and the problem of Israel, while preserving British interests. He repeated the 1500 immigration certificates limit, and mentioned the 1940 Land Law, which prohibited sale of land to Jews. Bevin exempted himself from the commitments of the Balfour Declaration, and opposed the establishment of a Jewish state, saying that he saw a difference between a national homeland and a state.
Apparently, everything that is happening today exists on the same continuum as the arguments in 1917, 1922, 1929, 1939, the pogroms and murder of Jews by Arabs in Palestine, the Holocaust, Arab collaboration with the Nazis on the Final Solution, the War of Independence, and the prolonged struggles ever since. If one truly seeks a comprehensive solution to this issue, one cannot ignore these questions.
The identity of the peoples that live here is an exceedingly important subject, not to be ignored or deferred, because the immediate and future peace in our region depends on it.