100 anniversary is surely a symbolic number, a good occasion for reflection and commemoration, but what about 22?. Well the historic sad truth is, that the Balfour Declaration was no more on 17 May, 1939, 22 years after the initial declaration. It was so, because on that day, the White Paper of the the men of Munich, the Chamberlain government stripped the declaration of its meaning, in fact, brought about the actual abrogation of the promise to establish a Jewish National Home. The White Paper was about a Palestinian State to be established within 10 years, with a guaranteed Arab majority, the exact opposite of Balfour. In simple terms, , the White Paper put to rest the declaration. Let us remember the date-few months before 1 September 1939, the beginning of WW2, the beginning of the Jewish Holocaust. The men of Munich were thrown out of 10 Downing Street in disgrace, and their nemesis, the great Winston Spencer Churchill came to power, a friend of Zionism, and yet, the White Paper policy was in full force. The gates of the Jewish homeland were closed for the Jews in their greatest moment of need. Just the thought of how many of our persecuted people could be saved by having the gates open so long as Jews could still leave Europe , is enough to send shivers in my body, i hope also in that of many of my readers. So, let us be realistic, let us be truthful, let us say the obvious-the White Paper was the great betrayal, whereas the Balfour declaration was the great promise.
That said, let us put the declaration in a proper historic context. It was the first international recognition of the historic rights of the Jews over their homeland, coming from the greatest world power at the time. That is definitely a testimony of the importance of the statement , but it came when there was already a Zionist movement, albeit small, and so it is clear, that the statement itself did not create Zionism, rather was a result of the existence of the Zionist idea and movement .Throughout the 19th Century, the sense that the Jews needed to be able to return to their homeland was very popular in England. Religious leaders , men of the nobility, great politicians and writers propagated for the restoration of Jews to their homeland. Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Palmerston, Benjamin D’israeli, George Eliot and many other prominent names expressed their voice in support of that idea. Balfour and his PM, David Lloyd George were also supporters of that vision,and so it has to be stated categorically, that there could not have been such a declaration if it was not mainly based on deep ideological convictions about Jewish rights. This is where the greatness of Balfour is, the ability to inject morality and historic justice into the strategic considerations of the war. This is highly significant to emphasize all that, because the narrative of the Palestinians , as so clearly stated in the PLO Covenant, is all about the declaration being the beginning of the ”Zionist invasion’, whereas in reality it was the beginning of the realization of the long standing Jewish attachment to Zion, which is what Zionism is all about.
Balfour and his peers had also politics, diplomacy, PR and strategy in mind when issuing the declaration, perhaps also a measure of gratitude to Chaim Weitzman for his contribution to the British war effort, and all this is so obvious and justified in the calculus of the then British government, but there was also this overwhelming sense of morality involved, the correction of a long historic injustice inflicted on the Jews. No morality at all in 1939, when the shameful appeasers of Munich had a simple , clear , one-sided strategic calculus on their mind . The Jews were in ”our” pocket, they had to go with us against Hitler, while the Arabs, much larger in numbers and already with oil, were not. They could go with Hitler, so they needed to be appeased , even though prior to that, they conducted the rebellion in Eretz Israel, and so the Jews had to be sacrificed, and they were.
The historic irony is, that the British were right, and the Jews had to swallow the bitter pill , for some years at least, but not beyond 1944, which is when the Jewish struggle for national liberation was resumed, and it had to be directed against the British occupiers, exactly because they renounced Balfour. So, Israel is NOT the product of Balfour, and even after 1945, the then Labor government [Corbyn has his predecessors to learn from…] did its best to prevent the Balfour declaration from being fulfilled.
Honey and sting are so prevalent in our long history, the combination of memory, sorrow , pride and achievement. Nothing special therefore about the Balfour declaration. We are grateful for the historic recognition, but we are also angry about the historic betrayal.