A Reflection on the Balfour Declaration Part 1

12 June 2017

This year is the centenary of the Balfour Declaration in which a safe haven was promised for persecuted Jews. Many people have sought to criticise the declaration and blame all the recent ills of the Middle East upon it. They assume that there was some kind of idyllic state that existed in the Ottoman Empire before the British Mandate and the eventual founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Such claims are historically inept.

Long before the Balfour Declaration the writing was on the wall. Both Arabs and the 85,000 Jews (out of the whole population of 689,000 based on 1914 figures), living in what is now modern day Israel, dreamt of being liberated from Ottoman occupation and turning the land into a new nation state. In 1905, observing this developing clash of dreams, Azoury, an antisemitic Christian Maronite, predicted a coming war between Jews and Arabs that would not end until one had beaten the other.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Jews, who had outnumbered others in the Old City of Jerusalem since at least 1850, had faced hostility from their Arab neighbours. Al-Khalidi preferred those Jews fleeing European pogroms to be settled anywhere other than Palestine.

Long before the Balfour Declaration Orthodox Clergy contributed to Jew-hatred by exporting from Europe and Czarist Russia antisemitism into the Arab countries. As the land became more open to travel German Protestants also brought with them abhorrent hard-line Lutheran theology that claimed Jews were destined to suffer as a consequence of failing to accept the Messiah.

By 1908 an anti-Zionist daily began to be published in Haifa – edited by a Protestant of Greek Orthodox origin. Two years later Muslim opposition to legitimate land purchases by Jews led to increasingly frequent acts of sabotage on their property and the following year, in 1911, an economic boycott of Jews was proposed; all this long before the Balfour Declaration.

For centuries under Ottoman rule, despite being the poorest of the poor, Jews were taxed heavier than the Muslims and Christians; they were jostled in the streets, on their way to the Western Wall broken glass was scattered across their path, and when they arrived there they found the wall stinking of urine and faeces that had been smeared across it. They were forced to pass Muslims on their left side because that was the side of Satan. They were segregated and the synagogues had to be hidden in out of way places.

So it is absolute nonsense to suggest that under Ottoman rule, Muslims, Christians and Jews existed side by side in some kind of idyll and that the Balfour Declaration was the originator of the Middle East crisis. To do so is either naïve or dangerous partisanship. Indeed it could be argued that Balfour may have been seeking to resolve the escalating conflict by creating a safe haven for Jews in much the same way as the Dayton Agreement sought to settle the Balkans conflict eight decades later.

By all means criticise British policy in the Middle East if you must but let’s not lose sight of the whole picture. The land had been occupied by Ottomans for centuries, conflict between Jews and Arabs was long-standing and during the British Mandate there were attacks from both sides on each other. If only we could spend our energies seeking a more sophisticated understanding of the historical facts and work towards solutions instead of taking sides.

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