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Palestinian Jews aghast at Balfour

Palestinians marched on Thursday (November 2nd 2017)in the West Bank city of Ramallah to protest the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Photo by Abbas Momani/ AFP – Getty Images

Balfour Declaration of Support for Jewish Homeland Still Divisive at 100

By David M. Halbfinger
November 02, 2017

Some well-known information at the beginning of the article has been excised.

The Balfour Declaration, the pivotal, 67-word assurance by the British foreign secretary that promised support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” turned 100 on Thursday, meeting with tributes in Jerusalem and London, and tear gas in Bethlehem.

Demonstrators marched in nearly every major West Bank city. In Ramallah, thousands of flag-waving Palestinian Authority employees, Fatah youth guard members and schoolchildren, streamed to the mausoleum of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and then to Al-Manarah Square, chanting “Balfour falls” and “We will not give up our right to exist.”

In Bethlehem, where protesters on Wednesday burned an effigy of Arthur James Balfour, the declaration’s author, and then beat it with their shoes, demonstrators on Thursday were met for the second straight day with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired by Israeli soldiers.


Duelling academic conferences at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in central Jerusalem and at the Palestinian National Theatre in East Jerusalem offered sharply different takes on the document’s meaning, genesis and historical consequences. The former emphasized World War I-era geopolitics and international law, and the latter keyed on imperialism and racism.

As much as the Balfour Declaration became a cornerstone of the creation of Israel three decades later, it also earned the undying enmity of Palestine’s Arab population — which it referred to obliquely as “the existing non-Jewish communities of Palestine.”

This is a document produced by the Israel Forever Foundation, which has offices in Washington DC and Jerusalem. 

Protect its legacy as an affirmation of our ancestral rights and heritage in the national homeland of the Jewish people.

Explore the reasons Balfour remains relevant today and to the future.
Join us in commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the Declaration and revive our collective commitment and affirmation of its legacy
At the British Consulate in East Jerusalem, a group of teenage Palestinian schoolgirls delivered hundreds of letters to Prime Minister Theresa May as part of a campaign, led by the Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, to get Britain to “make it right” and recognize a Palestinian state based on the pre-1967 borders.

Street sign in Tel Aviv

Mr. Abbas has been demanding lately that Britain apologize for the Balfour Declaration. No apology is expected, though the artist-satirist Banksy arranged for a look-alike of Queen Elizabeth II to offer one, along with cake, on Wednesday in Bethlehem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to ring in the occasion at a dinner on Thursday in London with Mrs. May, arranged by Baron Jacob Rothschild, whose great-uncle was the recipient of Balfour’s famous letter.

For a 100-year-old artifact, the declaration remains very much a live issue between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as between the Israeli left and right. Politicians, pundits and academics are wielding it to score points both historical and contemporary.

Moshav Balfurya

A right-wing commentator, Shimon Riklin, wrote on Twitter this week that if the Palestinian national movement truly wanted a state along the 1967 borders, “it would not be challenging the Balfour Declaration.”

“They want it all,” he said. “Get used to it.”

Martin Kramer, a history professor at Shalem College in Jerusalem said,

“What Palestinians do when they focus on the Balfour Declaration as the root cause is to absolve themselves of all they did after,” he said. “They could have tried to reach an agreement with the Zionists. But they wanted zero immigration of Jews. That put them in an untenable situation.”

The Arabs of Palestine were overmatched in the diplomatic realm, offering only feeble attempts at rolling back the declaration, said Mahmoud Yazbak, a history professor at the University of Haifa. “They thought that by sending a letter to the prime minister or the queen, it would be enough,” he said, but they failed to grasp that Britain’s allies had also endorsed its position on supporting the Zionists.

Praying at Western Wall, c. mid-19th century

Even as the document’s centennial has triggered a new cacophony of political debate, it has also generated fresh scholarship that is sure to inspire even more debate.

Mizrahi Jews at the Western Wall, Palestine, 1870. Photo by Felix Bonfils

One of the more intriguing findings to emerge recently focuses on Sephardic Jews native to Palestine, some of whom found the declaration a needless provocation. The historians Hillel Cohen and Yuval Evri say many Sephardic Jews enjoyed close ties to the Arabs and correctly feared how they would respond to the Zionist project.

One Sephardic Jewish leader, Hayyim Ben-Kiki, railed against the Zionist movement, with its European foundations, as an unwelcome imposition on an Eastern culture by Westerners who had “treated Arabs prejudicially and dismissed them.” Another, Yosef Castel, argued to Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, that a young Arab movement was on the rise, that it would “never give up their demands for the Balfour Declaration to be annulled,” and that the document should be rewritten to assure the Arabs that Palestine should be developed as their own national home, too, alongside the Jews.

“They believed they understood the Middle East much better than the Jews who came from Russia or Poland,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview, “so why separate ourselves to establish a Jewish, Western state?”

That early plea from Jews in Palestine for a binational state, however, elicited no response from Weizmann, Mr. Cohen said. Still, he said, its existence raises a haunting question: “How might Jewish-Arab relations have developed differently?”

Elderly residents of the Sephardic Old Age Home (Beth Zakenim Hasephardi). Jerusalem, Palestine. 1921

Rami Nazzal contributed reporting from Ramallah, and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem. Myra Noveck contributed research.

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