Column: Importance of Balfour Declaration

John O'Neill

It is now 100 years since the Balfour Declaration was issued. In a letter dated Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour submitted a letter to Walter Rothschild, the leader of the British Jewish community which declared: His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors 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.

The importance of this declaration cannot be overstated. It marked the first time a world power had expressed support for Jewish nationalism (Zionism). It also marked a turning point insofar as it laid to rest noises made in Zionist communities about building a Jewish state in British East Africa. Indeed, when Balfour once asked Rothschild about his opposition to the East Africa scheme, Rothschild responded that the Jews are to Jerusalem what the English are to London.

Prior to the declaration, there was a large contingent of the world Jewish population opposed to Zionism. This segment of the Jewish community feared an anti-Semitic backlash. But having behind it the weight of the British Empire, the anti-Zionist segment of the world Jewish population was rendered minimal. Even most religious Jews, opposed to the creation of a Jewish state on theological grounds, now threw their lot in with the largely secular Zionist movement.

Of course, there was the reality of the majority Arab population (later to adopt a Palestinian identity). This community viewed with disfavor the migration of Jews into Palestine. Earlier this year, the government of the United Kingdom officially declared that the well-being of the Arab population of Palestine in 1917 should have been taken into account.

But the Balfour Declaration did take into account the well being of the Arab population. The declaration was explicit in preserving the rights of non-Jews in Palestine. Though that portion of the declaration seemed vague to critics, the declaration could not elaborate any more on the rights of non-Jews in Palestine because the Arab population in Palestine in 1917 lacked identify and organization. Aside from the Mufti of Jerusalem (who did not embrace a Palestinian identity), there was no one in the Arab community to deal with in Palestine. Indeed, the region was still technically under the rule of Ottoman Turkey. Moreover, though a minority in Palestine, the Jewish presence in the region was more grounded than the Arab population, as the latter was largely nomadic.

Of course, to this day the aspirations of Palestinian Arabs remain elusive, as they remain without a state of their own (despite Jordan being a Palestinian state). But considering that the Balfour Declaration did indeed account for the rights of the Arab population in Palestine, it is erroneous to cite the Balfour Declaration for planting the seeds of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In any event, the Balfour Declaration made a Jewish state in Palestine inevitable (despite British back-pedaling in subsequent years). It laid the groundwork for the only democracy in the region (where even the Arab population enjoys more rights than Arabs in the neighboring countries). And it united Jews worldwide to realize their dream of a Jewish state.

The world owes Balfour a debt of gratitude in paving the way for the birth of the only democracy in the Middle East.

John O'Neill is an Allen Park freelance writer.