(Bloomberg View) -- On Thursday evening, British Prime Minister Theresa May will attend a banquet in London honoring the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the first written promise by a European country to create a Jewish homeland in the Levant. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be at her side. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn won’t be there. He is boycotting the event.
Palestinian activists plan to demonstrate the streets of London; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to sue the U.K for failing to apologize. They hate the Balfour Declaration because they hate the Jewish State it made possible. They want the U.K. to beg forgiveness.
May isn’t in an apologizing mood. “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologize,” she said. “We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel.”
While this affirmation may seem a pro-forma to an American audience, in the European context it is an extraordinary statement, and an exceptional victory for Israel. Palestinian propaganda has long attempted to isolate and delegitimize Israel, and there have been times in recent years that this narrative has gained currency in elite European circles.
That time is passing. Germany’s Angela Merkel continues has been adamant that her country cannot afford neutrality toward the Jewish State.
French President Emmanuel Macron recently called out anti-Zionism as just another kind of anti-Semitism. And now, May has resuscitated the Balfour Declaration.
Arthur Balfour was the British Foreign Secretary during World War I. On November 2, 1917, he sent this letter to Walter Rothschild, the head of the British Jewish community:
His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
I put the first clause in bold letters because it was the headline. Britain, at the time the world’s most powerful nation, was actually proposing to recreate a Jewish national entity in the Holy Land after 2,000 years!
The rest of the declaration was mere rhetoric. No Arab community anywhere in the Ottoman-ruled Middle East enjoyed autonomous “civil rights” or benefited from democratic self-determination. Since 1917, more than 20 Arab countries have emerged. None has provided its citizens with self-determination or basic civil rights. This is not the fault of Arthur Balfour.
Why did Balfour think a Jewish entity would be different? Historians debate this, but certain things are clear. Balfour, like Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George and American President Woodrow Wilson, was a devout Protestant Christian. All three believed that helping the Jews return to their ancestral land was a way of fulfilling biblical prophecy.
Of course, other less elevated motives were also in play. Balfour thought the declaration would inspire the Jews of Russia and the U.S. to support the allied war effort. In this he was mistaken. Five days after the declaration, Russian communists seized power and began leaving the war. There were many Jews among the Bolsheviks, but they were not the kind who felt affection for the Holy Land.
As for America, few of its Jews were Zionists. In any case, Wilson didn’t need prodding to deploy more troops to Europe. And he had another motive: Nativist sentiment was running high in America, and there was a growing call to shut down mass immigration. The Balfour Declaration offered an apparent solution: Divert the Jews of Eastern Europe to Palestine.
In 1919, Lord Curzon succeeded Balfour as Foreign Secretary. By then, Great Britain had captured the Holy Land from the Ottomans and was preparing to administer it along the lines of the declaration. Curzon challenged the wisdom of the self-determination doctrine.
Balfour responded by reminding Curzon that the other allied powers had all signed off: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land."
This blithe reply sounds politically incorrect to modern ears. But it made sense to contemporary statesmen. The declaration was adopted by the League of Nations in 1922. The U.S. was not a member of the League, but that year both Houses of Congress unanimously voted to accept it.
Palestinian Arabs resisted violently. Britain eventually lost its appetite for shepherding a Jewish national home into existence. In 1939, it acceded to Palestinian demands and closed the gates of Palestine to new Jewish immigrants, effectively repealing the Balfour Declaration. Millions of Jews were trapped in Hitler’s Europe.
After the war, the Jews waged their own terror campaign against British rule. Public opinion in England was embittered. How ungrateful these Jews were. In 1947, the U.K. was the only European state that voted against the creation of a Jewish State in a partitioned Palestine. The Royal Family has, ever since, declined to pay a state visit. Prime ministers have usually ignored the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
Until this year.
A mix of sentiment, realism and strategic considerations has gone into the British turn-around. Israel is now a respected member of the international community, a key ally in the fight against Islamic terrorism and Iranian aggression. It is closer than ever to the U.S., always a British consideration when maps are being redrawn. It is an irony that, as the post-World War I order in the Middle East is being remade again by the superpowers, Israel is the most viable and successful nation in the region.
In attacking the Balfour Declaration, the Palestinians have overplayed a weak hand. It reveals that even supposed moderates still do not accept Israel’s right to exist. Yes, the U.K., like other Western countries, still supports a Palestinian State in Israeli-occupied territory. But the calamities of the Arab Spring have brought a new understanding of what such a state might look like. And, post-Brexit, the British (and the rest of Europe) have other, more pressing priorities.
And so, 100 years after the fact, the Balfour Declaration is back in style. It is not an “original sin” but a farsighted act of statesmanship. It is wrong to say that the Palestinian Arabs were unharmed. But Balfour was right about the balance of harms. The stateless Jews of Europe were in far greater danger. Hitler proved that.
That is the meaning of a statement published by the British government in the run-up to the centennial: “Establishing a homeland for the Jewish people in the land to which they had such strong historical and religious ties was the right and moral thing to do, particularly against the background of centuries of persecution.”
Lord Balfour himself couldn’t have put it any better.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Zev Chafets is a journalist and author of 14 books. He was a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the founding managing editor of the Jerusalem Report Magazine.
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