The Balfour Declaration and Its Significance – Perspectives and Contradictions

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In November 2017, we will mark the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. In this short document, Lord Balfour, on behalf of the British Government, made a pledge to the Jewish people that Great Britain will work toward the establishment of their national home in Palestine. This short document set in motion a chain of events, which in 1948 led to the restoration of the Jewish state, Israel.

Last week, I attended one of the events that marked the centennial, organized by Canadians for Balfour 100 and sponsored by the Speakers Action Group, the Mozuud Freedom Foundation and Muslims Facing Tomorrow. Named “The Balfour Declaration – Its Significance for Christian, Muslim, Jew”, it featured three speakers: Prof. Salim Mansur, Ezra Levant, Prof. Jordan Peterson. The choice was good, because all of them are iconoclasts whose views are often seen as non-traditional and controversial. That ensured a fresh perspective in the discussions and definitely helped to fill the large theatre hall. Still, the absence of Salomon Benzimra, one of the leading experts on the Balfour Declaration and the legal rights of the Jews, who passed away last year, was acutely felt.

You can see highlights from the presentations in the video, but I will also summarize them here. I also have a few critical comments that I will add later.

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Prof. Salim Mansur

Prof. Salim Mansur stated that the Balfour Declaration was the keystone of the foundation that led to the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948. He wanted to place it in a historical context, with an emphasis on the missed opportunities. The document was a letter of Minister Balfour to Lord Rothschild, which stated UK’s intention to establish the Jewish state. At the time, secret negotiations were being held between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in Vienna to pull the latter out of the war and concentrate the efforts on defeating Germany. That was a big “if” – what could have happened to the intention, if the Ottoman Empire had withdrawn from the war?

Despite that, the Balfour Declaration survived and later led to international agreements endorsed by the League of Nations and the creation of the Mandate for Palestine. In 1922, Balfour fought a motion in the British Parliament to reject the Mandate for Palestine. He emotionally supported the right of the Jews to create their state, due to the contributions of the Jews to the world civilization. The motion was defeated and later a government White Paper divided the mandate and transferred the territories east of the River Jordan to the Arabs (70% of the mandate), creating Transjordan. What remained, was a small part, which served as a territory of Israel and a subject to political maneuvering for decades.

The historical context of the declaration was tied to the 1916-1917 revolt in the Arab Peninsula, in which the UK and USA were trying to engage the Arabs against the Turks and eliminate the latter from World War I. At that time, Jews met with the UK government and asked for the establishment of a state in Palestine. The man most responsible for the government decision, was Theodor Herzl, who started the process in 1896, his work brought the issue to international attention. He met European leaders and Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Muslim Caliph, but didn’t go very far. The Pope was against the idea, wanted to baptize the Jews, but the Sultan was willing to provide charter for Mesopotamia, although he was reluctant about Palestine, and give Herzl a license for mining the natural resources. Islam and the Caliph had no theological objections against the Jews’ return. There was a Jewish population of 85,000 on both sides of the Jordan River. What could have happened, if Arabs, instead of launching a war against the Jews in 1920, followed the Koran’s points of the rights of Jews in Palestine and Caliph’s opinion and embraced the Jews? The possibility was very much there. But the Jewish nationalism clashed with the Arab nationalism with disastrous consequences for Arabs and Muslims. It could have been different, if the Arabs accepted the idea of the Caliph of Islam, expressed in his talks with Herzl.

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Ezra Levant

Ezra Levant’s focused on political issues. He brought up a previous event, where he appeared with Jordan Peterson. The event was attacked by masked leftist thugs and sabotaged. That happened despite the fact that Peterson and Mansur are not controversial in any way other than disagreeing with the official narratives, for which they have been marginalized. Prof. Mansur has been demonized in Muslim circles for not taking an anti-Israel stand, while Peterson has been denied funds to conduct his research.

Levant read the Balfour Declaration the previous day for the first time and found it unremarkable – maybe the Jews would find it interesting for historical reasons. Still, it refutes the claim that the creation of Israel was a gesture of appeasement of the Jews for the Holocaust and counters the claim that there is no connection between Jews and Jerusalem. It is unremarkable, because it exists in the context of the process of decolonization, which has affected many nations, every emerging nation has its own Balfour Declaration, so the document was not controversial in any way. Israel is like the other decolonized nations, only more successful than many of them.

During a recent trip to Israel, he learned that in all wars and riots in the area for the last 100 years, the casualties on both sites were just over 100,000. Every death is a tragedy, but in Syria hundreds of thousands died because of the regime or the terrorists, yet still, the establishment is disproportionately focused on Israel. Take a look at Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, in comparison Israel is a peaceful place and a possible model for a solution. The numerous lawsuits by Arabs against the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territories have always demanded that their village be included on the Israeli site, not leaving them under Palestinian authority.

On campuses and in the media, the Palestinian issue is overblown, which is a result of rebranding of Marxism as environmentalism and anti-Western activities. It doesn’t make sense that in the campuses it can be the most important issue. He had an affection for Taiwan, because the country is delegitimized in the world, but you don’t see an anti-Taiwanese hysteria among students and politicians. Nobody tries to renegotiate the Alaskan border or other agreements from the past. However, foundations, like the Tides Foundation, continue to support leftist causes and single out Israel.

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Prof. Jordan Peterson

Prof. Jordan Peterson began with a question: what in the world am I doing, speaking on this topic? He said he could give a short historical coverage, but this was not what he should be doing. He was willing to cover the psychological aspects – problems must be formulated and stated before finding a solution. Why is this desert part of the world subject to such obsession? Maybe Jews have become so successful that they are annoying. Israel is shining beacon on the hill in many aspects. Israel is a small place with small conflicts, but the spiritual size of the conflict is much larger. Jerusalem is considered a holy city and that causes the clash of the three major religions. The idea of a holy city is very old – it’s the idea of refuge and perfection surrounded by disorder. All three religions see it this way. The problems probably come from the idea about how to rule such a holy city. It becomes the centre of an intense drama.

So, what are the problems? There are plenty of lies based on ideology and all three religions demand control over the city. This is based on group thinking. That was also the consequence of the problem about what to do with the collapsed Ottoman Empire, which was resolved to the best of the situation, though imperfectly. The problem of group identity and the state as a solution, which is present in both Judaism and Christianity, though it is seen differently with respect to individual rights. Israel is a first-world country, allied with the West, with high education, stuck in that backward part of the world. Israel is attacked by the Left, along with the West, accused of stealing the achievements of other nations. The oppressor-oppressed mythology of the Left is another tool that obscures the problems in the Middle East. But that approach is dominant in the academia, which encourages intellectual laziness and following of ready-made narratives, instead of analyzing reality.

The discussion, which followed, was based on questions from the audience. There was a question about the relevance of history and its different interpretations, which often reflect current positions and distort the past.

Salim Mansur saw two beasts that distort history – anti-Semitism and Islamism. They caused many conflicts in the Middle East, including the specific partitions, which affected the final size of the territory allocated to Israel. Islamism often obscures the real meaning of Islam and that is rarely discussed – there is no theological objection to Jews in Islam. Prof. Mansur reiterated that there were negotiations between Theodor Herzl and the Caliph of Islam, the Sultan. The latter was willing to provide concessions to the Jews to revive the desert in his empire. We don’t know what could have happened, Herzl died in 1904 and later the empire collapsed, along with other powerful countries. The Koran says to the Jews, come back to your land, it is the land that God has given you. The hatred and bigotry toward Jews in the Middle East is fueled by Islamism.  The Muslims need to examine the Koran and remember that the Caliph of Islam was negotiating with Herzl about providing land to the Jews. That’s why history is so important.

Ezra Levant’s take on historical issues focused on the definition of anti-Semitism. There is difference between criticizing Israel and anti-Semitism, but the difference often is blurred, there is a double standard. To illustrate the absurdity, he gave an example with Italy. It will look odd, if there were pathological emotional hatred for Italy and Italians, coming from people who have little or no knowledge about the country and its people. Yet in the case of Israel, this is considered acceptable.

Prof. Peterson noted that there is no clear reason for anti-Semitism, maybe it exists because Jews are a successful minority. They are a tiny minority, yet they have high achievements in science, arts, etc. Ezra Levant agreed – the same could be said about the Japanese and Hindus, two very successful minorities in North America.

Further, Prof. Mansur observed that the West creates better condition for Muslims to practice their religion than most Muslim countries, and gave an example with blasphemy charges and atrocities in Pakistan against free-thinking bloggers. Those people are driven by bigotry and ignorance. Later he noted that it took several centuries for Christianity to transform itself, while the battle for re-interpretation of Islam is still in its initial stage. Though the media doesn’t talk about it, the women in Islam will lead the change.

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The speakers delivered engaging presentations and discussions, but a few questions remain and I would like to comment on them.

I am skeptical about Prof. Mansur’s statement that the Islamic theology does not object to Jews returning to Palestine and forming a state. The scriptures of Islam are contradictory and there are many anti-Jewish points in the Koran and especially in the Hadiths. Different commenters and practitioners of the religion pick different points that suit their agenda.

Besides, since its beginning, Islam has been a deeply politicized doctrine (its founder was simultaneously a theologian and a head of a state that expanded aggressively).  Islam is a complete package – its expansion as a religion always comes with deep legal and social changes in the affected society, which don’t benefit outsiders. As an example, yesterday it was reported that Muslim students at a New York school demanded that the prom date be changed because it is during the Ramadan. Any other group will choose not to participate or use other options, but Muslims want others to bow to their demands.

If such things happen in countries where Muslims are a minority, things were much worse where they are a majority. The Ottoman Empire was a prime example of such domination, where all minorities were oppressed on the basis of Islamic supremacy and the autonomy of Jews or the different Christian nations was never considered.

The Islamic inflexibility begs the question: was Theodor Herzl really successful in his negotiations with Sultan Abdul Hamid II?

Herzl left behind extensive records of his activities of promoting the Zionist idea. They were published later as “The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl” (in five volumes, published by Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, New-York – London, 1960). In the record for June 19, 1896, Volume 1, he describes his meetings with the highest Turkish officials in Istanbul.

His plan was to propose substantial financial help to the Ottoman Empire (to be provided by wealthy Jewish bankers) in exchange for Jewish autonomy in Palestine. The empire has been in a catastrophic financial situation for the most of the 19th century. Herzl explains his proposal [all emphasis in the quotes is mine]:

[p. 377] When we were alone, I told Nuri Bey what I wanted. His eyes lit up. He got the point right away.

“C’est superbe [That’s splendid],” he said when I told him – as I had told the Grand Vizier previously – that we wanted to liberate Turkey from the Debt Control Commission. Then there would be the means to carry out all the needed reorganization.

Nuri was delighted and sold on it. But he had grave doubts regarding the Holy Places. Who is to administer them? “That can be arranged,” I remarked; “just consider that we are the sole purchasers of an article that is worthless to everyone else and unproductive—and purchasers at a stiff price.”

Thereupon Nuri Bey took me to Davout Efendi, who is a Jew, but also First Dragoman and thus the Foreign Minister’s right-hand man, regarded as the most influential person in the Foreign Office.

I recognized his high position by the low salaams of those who enter. The officials deposit the documents at his feet, so that he always has to stoop and therefore is less comfortably served. He works seated in an armchair, with no table in front of him, and as he writes he holds the paper in his hand unsupported.

He is a tall, fat man with a short, grey beard. His eyeglasses are perched on a curved, fleshy nose in front of bulging eyes. He understood me at once. But he was visibly afraid. He saw the tremendous benefits to Turkey, but as a Jew he must impose the utmost reserve upon himself.

There would be enormous difficulties, he said; in fact, he thought the matter impracticable. Soon he was speaking to me like a brother, with earnestness and concern. He said I should have someone else introduce me to the Foreign Minister, but he accompanied this refusal with an amiable glance that begged my [p.378] forgiveness. I am supposed to come and see him again before my departure. The Jews are doing well in Turkey, he said, and they are good, loyal patriots.

It is not hard to notice that even one of the highest-ranked Jews in the empire was afraid to agree on or promote Jewish independence.

Later that day, Herzl’s associate returned with a message after his meeting with the Sultan:

[p. 378] In the evening Newlinsky returned from Yildiz Kiosk with a long face and bad news… I took the blow stout-heartedly. 

“The Sultan said:

‘If Mr. Herzl is as much your friend as you are mine, then advise him not to take another step in this matter. I cannot sell even a foot of land, for it does not belong to me, but to my people. My people have won this empire by fighting for it with their blood and have fertilized it with their blood. We will again cover it with our blood before we allow it to be wrested away from us. The men of two of my regiments from Syria and Palestine let themselves be killed one by one at Plevna. Not one of them yielded; they all gave their lives on that battlefield. The Turkish Empire belongs not to me, but to the Turkish people. I cannot give away any part of it. Let the Jews save their billions. When my Empire is partitioned, they may get Palestine for nothing. But only our corpse will be divided. I will not agree to vivisection.’

Herzl was impressed with Sultan’s resolve, but the refusal to provide any land to the Jews was more than clear. Abdul Hamid II ruled with an iron fist over numerous peoples and the prospects for their independence were dim, achievable only in bloody rebellions. As an illustration of that point, I can use Sultan’s reference of the battle of Plevna (a.k.a. Pleven, a Bulgarian town), part of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

The war followed the Bulgarian uprising of 1876, during which the Turkish army and ordinary armed Turkish looters (bashibozouk) massacred as many as 100,000 Bulgarians. The genocide was condemned around the world by people like William Gladstone, Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, and even Queen Victoria. A notable exception was the British cabinet of Lord Beaconsfield (a.k.a. Benjamin Disraeli), which opposed any action against the Ottoman Empire. After Russia invaded, another 30,000 Bulgarians were killed by the Turks; 15,000 of them were massacred in one day in the town of Stara Zagora. Only the military fleet sent by Lord Beaconsfield in 1878 to Istanbul saved the empire from total collapse. He also made sure that less than half of Bulgaria was liberated, the rest remained under Turkish occupation.

I am bringing up these atrocities to make it clear that the Turks were ready to destroy everybody who tried to get away from the clutches of Islam. The Sultan meant every word in his message to Herzl and a Jewish state was impossible. After Abdul Hamid II was deposed in 1909, the new rulers, the so-called Young Turks, maintained the same position.

The defeat didn’t stop the relentless Theodor Herzl from trying again. He came up with a new idea – forming the Ottoman-Jewish Colonization Co., a joint venture that would allow Jews to immigrate to Palestine and invest in agriculture and industries. The record for February 17, 1902, in Volume 3 of the diary, describes the Sultan’s reaction:

[p.1222] [Izzet Bey asked] Was it [the company] to have a choice of places for settlement, that is, be able to buy areas anywhere at all, and gather the Jews under it?

“Yes!” I replied. “That is indispensable. After all, we are not concerned with protection individuelle [individual protection] — which we have in all civilized countries even now—, but with protection nationale [national protection].”

What did I mean by that, Their Excellencies asked.

I explained: a great public gesture in our favor, such as an invitation to immigrate without any restriction.

Thereupon Izzet took my letter to the Sultan. While we were waiting, Ibrahim and Ghalib raved about the happy conditions to come: how it would be when the Jews came. They dreamed aloud of the improvement of agriculture and industry, of banks which would not serve foreign interests, etc.

But then Izzet returned with the Sultan’s decision, and it was unfavorable. The Sultan is willing to open his Empire to all Jews who become Turkish subjects, but the regions to be settled are to be decided each time by the government, and Palestine is to be excluded. The Comp. Ott.-Juive is to be allowed to colonize in Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, anywhere at all, with the sole exception of Palestine!

A Charter without Palestine! I refused at once.

A few months later, the Sultan hardened his position even more (Diaries, Volume 4, record for August 3, 1902, pages 1340-1341):

Tahsin left and then came back.

He brought me a message from the Sultan which Ibrahim dictated to me in translation, whereupon I had to acknowledge its receipt. Here it is (in French in the original):

“The Israelites can be received and settled in the Ottoman Empire under the condition that they be installed, not together, that is, dispersed, in the places adjudged suitable by the government, and that their numbers be fixed in advance by the government. They will be invested with Ottoman citizenship and charged with all the civic duties, including military service, as well as being subject to all the laws of the land like Ottomans.”

In other words, Jews were expected to become Turkish subjects. This is far cry from the statement that Islam and the Muslim Caliph had no objections to them returning to Jerusalem.

The tribulations of Theodor Herzl are part of my objection to Ezra Levant’s statement that the Balfour Declaration was unremarkable and was of interest only to a few Jews. I understand that he wanted to emphasize that the Jewish decolonization shouldn’t be seen as something exceptional.

However, the Jews were in a unique situation. Peoples like Greeks or Bulgarians were concentrated in certain territories and the goals for their statehood were clear. Jews were scattered all over the world and in many places, they were treated with resentment and hostility due to prejudice, despite their enormous contributions to civilization.

In that sense, the Balfour Declaration was the final result of an uphill battle for recognition of the rights of the Jewish people. That long process is described well by Herbert Sidebotham in his book “England and Palestine: Essays Towards the Restoration of the Jewish State” (published by Constable and Company Ltd., London, 1918).

The support for the Zionist idea started to grow in England in 1830s. Many journalists and statesmen supported the restoration of the Jewish state (pages 118-119). In 1840s, with the rise of the separatist Mohammad Ali of Egypt, who occupied Syria, Lord Shaftesbury and Mitford proposed the occupation of Palestine and “the establishment of the Jewish nation in Palestine under British protection. [Mitford’s] plan was “the re-establishment of the Jewish nation in Palestine as a Protected State under the guardianship of Great Britain; secondly, their final establishment as an Independent State, whensoever the parent institutions shall have acquired sufficient force and vigour to allow of this tutelage being withdrawn, and the national character shall be sufficiently developed and the national spirit sufficiently recovered from its depression to allow of their governing themselves.” (pages 138-139)

Unfortunately, England sided with the Ottoman Empire and the idea was abandoned and even treated with hostility under Lord Beaconsfield’s government, which saw the Ottoman Empire as a key ally against Russia. Only the imminent defeat of the empire revived the idea during World War I. It was a long and bumpy road and Great Britain found ways to do even more damage by botching the Mandate for Palestine.

Through all those problems, Jews have continued to withstand hostility and thrive despite everything. Theodor Herzl expressed the strong side of his people in an eloquent way (Diaries, Volume 4, entry for August 22, 1902, pages 1347-1348):

August 22, Alt-Aussee

Another letter of amicable opposition from Lord Rothschild, dated August 18, to which I am replying as follows:

“Dear Lord Rothschild:

This is to acknowledge, with thanks, your letter of friendly opposition of the 18th. I cannot agree that the Jewish commonwealth which I would like to set up will have to be small, orthodox, and illiberal. I worked for three years on a coherent reply to this and similar misgivings.

It has turned into a book with the title Altneuland [Old-New-land] which will appear in a few weeks; you shall be among the first to whom I shall send it.

There is just one thing I would like to say now. Were the founders of the states which now are great mightier, cleverer, better educated, wealthier than the Jews of today?  Poor shepherds and huntsmen have founded communities which later became states. In our own time, Greeks, Rumanians, Serbs, Bulgarians have established themselves – and should we be incapable of doing so?

Our race is more efficient in everything than most other peoples of the earth. This, in fact, is the cause of the great hatred. We have just had no self-confidence up to now. Our moral misery will be at the end on the day when we believe in ourselves. Naturally there will always be fights and difficulties, internal and external ones. But what country, what state does not have them? And we shall always produce the men to grapple with these difficulties.

The coming into being of the Jewish commonwealth, the Jewish colony – call it what you will at the beginning – will not be regarded by the Powers with repugnance or mistrust. For this I have much and sufficient proof.”

And the success of Israel has proven Herzl right…

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