Is the Balfour Declaration a colonial document?

“His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This is the operative sentence in the Balfour Declaration, issued 103 years ago on November 2 by British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour on behalf of the British government, and transmitted by Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild for passing along to the British Zionist Federation.

In 2017, on the centenary of the declaration, the anti-Zionist Oxford historian Avi Shlaim described it, more than once, as “a classic colonial document.” No doubt many today are inclined to see it the same way. And indeed it does have some of the external trappings of a “classic colonial document,” addressed as it was by one lord (Balfour) to another (Rothschild) and delivered, one can easily imagine, by a white-gloved emissary from the Foreign Office to the Rothschild palace in an envelope to be presented to the recipient on a silver platter.

Another, similar hint of imperial presumption can be detected in the way the declaration appears to dispose of a territory, Palestine, that Britain didn’t even possess. After all, as Shlaim correctly notes, this was still the “colonial era,” and over the course of World War I the British did author other “classic colonial documents” relating to the future disposition of the Middle East.

But was the Balfour Declaration really such a document? To answer that question…

To read the rest, go here to Mosaic, or download.

Postcard cover commemorating the Balfour Declaration, by artist Shmuel Ben David, Bezalel Academy, 1918. Wikimedia.
Postcard cover commemorating the Balfour Declaration, by artist Shmuel Ben David, Bezalel Academy, 1918. Wikimedia.

The Balfour Declaration and the “Jewish problem”

The anniversary of the Balfour Declaration falls on November 2 (it’s 102 years), and I mark it with an essay on a neglected question. The record shows that British issuance of the declaration originated in the necessities of war. After the war, what kept Britain from throwing the declaration in the trash bin? Especially since it had already become a burden, poisoning Britain’s relations with millions of Arabs?

It’s a question that weighed very much on the mind of Chaim Weizmann, the chief Zionist lobbyist for the declaration. Fearing that the end of the war would erode support for the declaration, he made a provocative rationale for Britain to honor it. If millions of desperate Jews weren’t given a place in Palestine, they would turn into a violent, wandering horde, which would prevent the world from ever knowing peace. To learn how this argument evolved, and ultimately collapsed, read my latest at Mosaic Magazine, right here.

Balfour and Weizmann on Balfour’s 1925 visit to Palestine.

The rise of Israel in three acts

On Israel’s 71st anniversary, I offer a reflection on the incredible (some might say, miraculous) appearance of the leaders who steered the Zionist project through three crucial turning points. Most national movements have one paramount hero. Zionism has at least three: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion.

Why so many? Given the anomalous situation of the Jews, dispersed for two millennia, creating a Jewish state from scratch couldn’t have happened without preliminary and intermediate stages that most national movements don’t require. At any transitional stage, things could have gone wrong (and almost did). That they went right is due to the perfectly timed interventions of these three men. Were these leaders flawed? In some ways, yes. Were they a team? In most ways, no. Yet their flaws seem smaller at a distance, and their actions seem part of one inspired plan.

Israel doesn’t have the equivalent of a Presidents’ Day. All the more reason to take a few moments this day to ponder the role of individual will in the rise of Israel. Do just that at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.