While the Israelis revere Britain’s decree of November 2, 1917, when Her Majesty’s government officially approved “Jewish Zionist aspirations,” the Palestinians exploit the same British pronouncement as a weapon in their war to deny Israel’s existential legitimacy. .
For Israelis, Lord Balfour’s famous letter to Lord Rothschild is both an undeniable turning point in their history and a true cause for celebration. It was the first time (since Cyrus the Great in ancient times) that a great world power publicly declared its support for the Jewish desire to return and reconstitute their homeland.
Unsurprisingly, the Palestinians take the opposite point of view, describing the issuance of the Balfour Declaration as a black day in history.
The eminent Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said characterized the declaration as colonialist collusion. In his words, it was “made by a European power … on a non-European territory … in absolute disregard for the presence and wishes of the native majority residing in that territory.”
Palestinian nationalists of the 21st century follow Said’s lead and manipulate contemporary postcolonial guilt that is widely felt in the West to assert that the Palestinian people remain the greatest victim of colonialism and that therefore the international community owns the Palestinians. an immeasurable moral debt.
Consequently, on the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in 2017, as the current Lord Rothschild organized the centennial celebration at Lancaster House in London with Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Israel, Theresa May and Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas demanded for Britain to make a formal public apology for issuing the Balfour Declaration.
Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority asked the United Kingdom to begin to amend the alleged British historical errors by immediately granting full diplomatic recognition to the “State of Palestine”.
Too many British, wallowing in their own post-colonial guilt, readily accepted these demands.
Of course, Said’s anti-colonial narrative is conveniently selective. While focusing on Britain’s 1917 support for the creation of a Jewish National Home, it downplayed later British proposals to establish an independent Arab Palestine, notably in the Peel Commission’s partition plan of 1937 which recommended the establishment of such a state in most of the obligatory Palestine; and again in the Palestine White Paper of 1939, when the British called for the creation of an Arab Palestine throughout the Mandate territory (proposals rejected by the Palestinian leadership for not going far enough to satisfy their maximalist demands).
However, Said’s disciples not only choose to overlook British benevolence towards the Palestinians; They are almost unaware that the Jews ended up being the main victims of Britain’s policies. Because as the Nazis began their march through Europe, “perfidious Albion” violated its commitments under the League of Nations and closed the doors of the Jewish National Home to European Jews facing Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
At the height of cynical realpolitik, Whitehall knew that the Jews had no alternative but to support Britain in the upcoming conflict with Nazi Germany, while the loyalty of the Arabs to the Allied cause was in question. Britain needed to secure control of the Suez Canal, protect the oil fields of the Middle East, and maintain its support throughout the Muslim world (including the loyalty of millions of Muslims in the British Raj), and those British interests demanded that the Arabs be appeased.
On RevoltMenachem Begin’s account of the Irgun’s fight against the British Mandate, the man who became Israel’s sixth prime minister, attributes indirect responsibility for the Holocaust to the British. Begin argued that by closing compulsory Palestine to the millions of Jews desperate to flee the Nazi hell, Britain helped seal their fate.
During this horrible period in Jewish history, far from being the recipients of British generosity, the Jews of Mandatory Palestine were forced to fight for their national freedom.
In the final years of the Mandate, the Jewish underground waged an armed struggle against British rule, targeting the Mandate regime and its British personnel. More famously, Begin’s Irgun carried out a devastating attack in July 1946 against the Mandate Government Secretariat and the British Armed Forces Headquarters located in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.
When the armies of seven Arab states invaded Mandate Palestine territory in 1948 to destroy the Jewish state at birth, those Arab forces were armed with British weapons and, in the case of the Trans-Jordanian Arab Legion, commanded by British officers. There was even a dogfight in the Sinai skies between the RAF and the newly established Israel Air Force (the Israeli pilots were victorious).
In the first years after independence, Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, feared what he believed to be the very real prospect of British military action against the Jewish state on behalf of the Arabs.
Author Amos Oz captured the spirit of the age in his autobiographical book. A story of love and darkness. Emblematically, Oz described how as a child growing up in Jerusalem he built a toy rocket in the backyard of his apartment block, threatening to launch the fictional missile at London unless King George VI reversed Britain’s anti-Jewish stance. .
Proponents of the Said thesis scoff at the Jewish struggle for statehood. For them, the State of Israel will forever be an illegitimate European implant, and the Balfour Declaration’s endorsement of a camouflage of the Jewish National Home for a nefarious anti-Arab imperial conspiracy. The truth is very different.
In the long history of the British Empire, there were many events of which the British today are justifiably ashamed. The Balfour Declaration does not fall into that category.
Like the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that sought to eliminate a great injustice, the Balfour Declaration expressed support for the legitimate national aspirations of a long-persecuted people. All British people should be proud of that. Whether Britain later defaulted on its commitments to the Jews is, of course, another matter.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to the UK and is currently a senior visiting member of the INSS. Follow him @MarkRegev on Twitter.