The New York Times had an article on this month’s 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British government promised its support for Zionism. The Times describes the document as controversial, with one side hailing it as “the moment of conception” for the state of Israel, while on the other it was “the original sin in which Israel was conceived”.
The rest of the article feigns to present the Palestinian perspective. We learn that, to the Arabs, the Balfour Declaration represents “imperialism and racism”. We learn that an Arab member of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, views a similar situation today, in which the dominant political discourse in Israel “guarantees self-determination only for Jews”.
Then the Times cites history professor Martin Kramer asserting, “What Palestinians do when they focus on the Balfour Declaration as the root cause is to absolve themselves of all they did after. 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.”
Following that, the Times claims that the Balfour Declaration gained the “force of international law” in 1920, “when the remains of the Ottoman Empire were divided into mandates by the League of Nations, and the British inserted the Balfour Declaration into the text for their mandate for Palestine.”
As is frequently the case with the Times, the most informative part of the article is in the last few paragraphs, where it explains how new scholarship has shed light on how native Jewish Palestinians were actually opposed to the Zionist project. These Jews got along fine with their Arab neighbors and agreed with the Arab Palestinians that the Zionists “treated Arabs prejudicially and dismissed them.”
That’s about all you’ll learn about the Arabs’ perspective from the New York Times, which will never tell you the primary significance of the Balfour Declaration. On the contrary, the Times is only misleading you.
The Times reports as though fact Martin Kramer’s claim that the Arab Palestinians refused to try to reach an agreement with the Zionists because “they wanted zero immigration of Jews”. The implication is that the Arabs just didn’t like Jews.
But what, then, of those Jews who got along with the Arabs and opposed Zionism? The Times doesn’t bother to try to explain. Which is natural since Martin Kramer is a Zionist propagandist and the Times is serving its own usual propaganda role.
Here’s one clue, an excerpt from the report of a British commission of inquiry tasked in 1921 with determining the underlying cause of Arab growing unrest and hostility toward Jews:
[T]here is no inherent anti-Semitism in the country, racial or religious. We are credibly assured by educated Arabs that they would welcome the arrival of well-to-do and able Jews who could help to develop the country to the advantage of all sections of the community. Zionists, for their part, dwell freely on the theme that the realization of the policy of the “National Home” will benefit Arabs as well as Jews; but we feel bound to express the opinion, arrived at in the course of the inquiry, that the Zionist Commission, which is the representative of the Zionist Organisation in Palestine, has failed to carry conviction to the Arabs on this point.
To say the Zionists “failed to carry conviction” that their intentions were benevolent was a grave understatement. Actually, the Zionists had been quite open about their intent to politically disenfranchise the Arabs and, ultimately, to displace them — which is exactly what happened, with British support.
The Times‘ claim that the Balfour Declaration gained the “force of international law” in 1920 implies that the British had some kind of legal authority for the policy it implemented. This is absolutely false.
The purpose of the Balfour Declaration was propaganda. It was intended to garner Jewish support for the war effort. But the British had also promised the Arabs that if they supported Britain in its war effort against the Ottoman Empire, they would be able to gain their independence. That, too, was just propaganda. The only promise the British intended to keep was the one to the Zionists, to support their project for the European colonization of Palestine.
What happened in 1920 was that the Allied Powers, victorious in the First World War, convened a conference in San Remo, Italy, to determine what should be done with the former territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Part of the discussion was how duplicitous Britain would carry out its policy of supporting the Zionist project to reconstitute Palestine into a demographically Jewish state.
The conferences resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Sèvres on August 10, 1920, which abolished the Ottoman Empire and, in accordance with the aim of breaking the promise to the Arabs of Palestine that they would have independence, also incorporated the text of the Balfour Declaration. The treaty was ultimately rejected and never ratified by the Turkish government.
Moreover, it wasn’t until July 1922 that the League of Nations formally adopted the Mandate for Palestine, which essentially recognized Britain as occupying power there. This was done despite being contrary to the League’s own Covenant, which stated that the will of the inhabitants of the formerly Ottoman territories should be a primary consideration in the selection of the Mandatory Power.
As stated by British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, after whom the Balfour Declaration got its name, “in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country”. That was because Britain was already determined to facilitate the Zionists’s colonization project, which depended upon oppressing the inhabitants in order to prevent them from being able to exercise their right to self-determination, as well as to deprive Arab peasants of their property rights.
The Arabs of Palestine were of course not party to either the Treaty of Sèvres or the Mandate for Palestine, which was in fact drafted by the organized Zionists and designed specifically to facilitate their colonization project.
Neither Britain nor any of the other Allied Powers, individually or in unison, had any authority to deny the right to self-determination to the Arabs of Palestine so that their land could be taken over by immigrants from Europe. The League of Nations had no authority to confer to Great Britain any right to govern Palestine against the express wishes of the majority of its inhabitants. And neither the Balfour Declaration, the Treaty of Sèvres, nor the League of Nations’ Palestine Mandate conferred any legal authority to the Zionists for the establishment of their “Jewish state” with great prejudice to the rights of most of Palestine’s inhabitants.
Far from Martin Kramer’s propaganda account, far from refusing to reason with the Zionists, the Arabs had demanded that the independence of Palestine be recognized and a democratic government be established under a constitution that would protect the rights of the Jewish minority and guarantee Jewish representation. It was the Zionists who flatly rejected the democratic solution, since to respect the right of the Arabs to self-determination would be to nullify the purpose of the Zionist movement.
Self-governance was rejected to the people of Palestine by the British occupation regime specifically because it was contrary to the goal of the Zionists. As British officials observed, for the Arabs to have been allowed to exercise their right to self-determination would have been to nullify the Zionist project.
No, you are certainly not going to learn the significance of the Balfour Declaration from the New York Times.
So what is it?
The significance of the Balfour Declaration is that it determined a course of policy for the government of Great Britain that ultimately facilitated the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in order for the Zionists to establish their demographically “Jewish state” of Israel.
Learn the facts about this from my essay “What Was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and Why Was It Significant?“, published in Foreign Policy Journal on November 2, one-hundred years to the day since this “original sin” was committed.