The Balfour Declaration a Century Later: Accidentally Relevant

Ian S Lustick. Middle East Policy. Volume 24, Issue 4. December 2017.

The 2017 centennial of the Balfour Declaration has been observed with great fanfare. The theme of the 2017 annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies was “A Century after Balfour: Vision and Reality.” In February 2017, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exulted in the British government’s invitation to him to attend its celebration of the centenary: “While the Palestinians want to sue Britain for the Balfour Declaration, the British prime minister is inviting the Israeli prime minister to an event to mark the hundredth anniversary of the declaration. That speaks volumes.” Israel reciprocated by inviting the royal family to visit the Jewish state to honor the anniversary of the declaration.

The Palestinians, for their part, have marked the centenary by demanding an apology from Great Britain. “We call on Her Majesty’s Government to openly apologize to the Palestinian people for issuing the Balfour Declaration. The colonial policy of Britain between 1917–1948 led to mass displacement of the Palestinian nation,” read the petition, according to WAFA, the Palestinian news agency. “HMG should recognize its role during the Mandate and now must lead attempts to reach a solution that ensures justice for the Palestinian people,” it added.

As with every anniversary associated with the Arab‐Israeli conflict, one side’s celebration is the other side’s occasion for mourning and protest. That is perfectly understandable, and the Balfour Declaration is, rightly, considered a major step toward an ultimate aim of Zionism—establishment of a Jewish‐dominated state in the Land of Israel and, accordingly, toward the catastrophe of destruction and displacement visited upon the Arab inhabitants of Palestine. Nevertheless, both those who venerate the declaration and those who hold it in contempt are mistaken insofar as they imagine it to represent a deep logic of international law, Western culture or historical rights, on the one hand, or, on the other, the diabolical logic of European imperialism dedicated to exploiting Middle Easterners and Middle Eastern resources.

Both sides would be well to remember Kurt Vonnegut’s explanation, in his novel The Sirens of Titan, for the rise and fall of hundreds of human civilizations. In that tale, there is no profound meaning to the history of mankind, no transcendental purpose to the rise and fall of cultures, states or civilizations. All of that history was rather the result of a travel delay. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, a messenger of the advanced race of Tralfamadorians was traveling from one galaxy with a simple greeting for representatives of another race in another galaxy. The messenger suffered a transportation breakdown in our galaxy, indeed our solar system. The Great Wall of China, the Roman Empire, and hundreds more human accomplishments, and many more failures, were just messages sent by the Tralfamadorians to their stranded messenger that the spare part he needed was on its way. From a Middle Eastern point of view, the origins and consequences of the Balfour Declaration are, in their way, exactly as orthogonal, banal and arbitrary as were the consequences of the Tralfamadorian mishap for earthlings. In the case of the Balfour Declaration, the aliens are the European imperialists. Their interests, passions and concerns, trivial or important to them, are not at all related to the concerns, passions, aspirations, beliefs, norms and realities of the Middle East—the disposition of which occurs as an arbitrary function of the accidents of European, not Middle Eastern, affairs.

Most crucially, in the second decade of the twentieth century, a great and terrifying war pressed leaders of European states to fear for their lives and the survival of their states. It was upon one another that their attention, their real attention, was focused. The categorical imperative was to prevail in the war, and nothing less. No matter how flimsily justified or farfetched, no matter how duplicitous, no matter how contradictory to other commitments by other officials, anything that any person in a position of influence might imagine could aid in the struggle was highly likely to be done. Balfour’s own words about the attitude of the Great Powers toward Palestine register the casual cynicism toward those whose lands would be forever marked by the decisions about their future incidental to the European conflagration or the organization of its aftermath.

Whatever deference should be paid to the view of those living there, the Powers in their selection of a mandatory do not propose, as I understand the matter, to consult them. In short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate…” (August 11, 1919)

Arthur Koestler captured this same attitude in his characterization of the Balfour Declaration as “one of the most improbable political documents of all time. In this document one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

It was not simply the fact of the Balfour Declaration or its timing—before Britain had even taken control of Palestine—that were accidental, which is to say, the contingent by‐product of contending forces. The declaration’s content, indeed its precise wording, was also, in this sense, thoroughly accidental. As Leonard Stein, Jonathan Schneer and others have shown in detail, the wording of every sentence, and even every phrase, of the declaration reflected bargaining processes among Zionists, between Zionists and the British government, and within the British government itself (that is, the War Cabinet).

In 1917, the horrors of trench warfare, the disaster at Gallipoli, uncertainty about the strength of America’s commitment and revolution in Russia inclined British leaders to grasp at whatever straws of support might be available. In his detailed treatment, Schneer comments that, more than anything else, “the Balfour Declaration sprang from fundamental miscalculations about the power of Germany and about the power and unity of Jews.” Indeed, bizarre beliefs were held by some that international Jewish power could be the difference between defeat and victory over the central powers. They combined with the millenarianism of Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour, and the excellent connections and diplomacy of Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, to make Zionist demands appear as a priority for desperate British leaders.

Yet the geopolitical imperatives were not completely clear. With Russia weakened and out of the war, a deal with the Ottoman Empire seemed possible, since the Russian demands for Constantinople could be ignored. But that would mean betraying the Zionists by leaving Palestine under Turkish control. No matter. All would be promised to all—the Ottomans, the French, the Jews and the Arabs—anything to keep in play the possibility of marginal assistance to the war effort and to rule out the phantom threat of Germany’s rallying world Jewry to its side by forcing the Ottoman Empire to accept mass immigration of Jews into Palestine.

The Declaration as Conceptual Equipment

It is accordingly correct to say that the Balfour Declaration was entirely “accidental”—a reflection of contingencies and concerns afflicting Europeans that had absolutely nothing to do with the realities and inhabitants of the region as a whole or Palestine in particular. Despite the elaborate negotiations surrounding the phrasing of the declaration, its exact wording was also, in this sense, “accidental,” a highly contingent by‐product of intensive negotiations among interested parties. What is fascinating is to notice how artful and largely uninformed turns of phrase by ex‐Etonians had massive ripple effects in the Middle East, effects similar to those apparent in the Middle East map as a result of Churchill’s apocryphal hiccup.

To understand the odd wording of the Balfour Declaration, one must add to this cacophony of interests, fantasies, false beliefs, grinding imperatives and hair‐raising fears the traditional anti‐Semitism of British leaders such as Herbert Asquith and Robert Cecil, and the raw disputes among British Jews over Zionism as a possible threat to an assimilationist program. This latter split was rendered obvious to the highest levels of the British government by the confrontation between two high ranking British Jews, the secretary of state for India, Sir Edwin Montagu, who opposed Zionism, and Sir Herbert Samuel, who ardently supported the movement. Samuel had refused Prime Minister Lloyd George’s request to remain as home secretary, but did accept his appointment after the war as Britain’s first high commissioner of Palestine.

After months of wrangling and revisions, and amid ferocious opposition by anti‐Zionist British Jews, the declaration was approved by the Cabinet. Dated November 2, 1917, it was issued as a letter from the foreign secretary to Lord Walter Rothschild. But drafts of what would emerge as this letter had been solicited from the Zionists by the British government five months earlier. Multiple versions were circulated and massaged, based on Zionist efforts to get as firm and as great a commitment from Britain as possible toward the ultimate ambitions of the movement (a Jewish state in all of Palestine) without sabotaging the entire effort by asking for too much. The draft submitted to the government would have had Britain accepting the “principle” that “Palestine should be reconstituted as the National Home of the Jewish people” and committing itself, via its “best endeavors,” to “secure the achievement of this object.” To do so, the draft committed the British government to “discuss necessary methods and means with the Zionist Organization” (thereby recognized as the official representative of Jewish interests in Palestine).

Important to note is that the final declaration 1) omitted endorsing the Zionist ideological position that a Jewish entity in Palestine would be a “reconstitution” of a historical precedent; 2) referred to Palestine, not as “the National Home of the Jews” (capitalized and with the definite article), but to “a national home for the Jewish people” that would be located within it; and 3) added four lines (50 percent of the text) on two topics wholly omitted from the Zionist proposal: an admonition that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non‐Jewish communities, or the rights and political status of Jews in any other country.”

Arabs angrily portrayed the declaration as the promise of a state for the Jews. Publicly, Zionists celebrated the declaration as the long‐awaited charter, what the Basel Program had described as a “homeland” for the Jewish people in Palestine “secured by international law.” But, privately, many Zionists and Weizmann, in particular, felt differently. They were disappointed in every one of changes made to their draft—so much so that, when the declaration was translated into Hebrew, it was impossible to resist the temptation to restore at least some of the lost wording. In any case, Zionists took heart from, and used as guidance, Herbert Samuel’s 1915 proposal to make Palestine a protectorate within the British Empire so that, eventually, it might evolve into a Jewish state.

In the event, those Zionists who believed even this sort of halfway British support could be exploitable for the purpose of building a “state‐on‐the‐way” were correct. The history by which that objective was obtained is familiar and need not be repeated here. What is of interest is the sudden and surprising relevance of what would normally be imagined as the archaic and stilted text of the declaration.

The 1917 Balfour Declaration can now be seen to describe a new approach: a peace based, not on two states in one country, but on two national homes in one state.

Leaping from one century to another, let us now consider how the arbitrary and convoluted wording of the 1917 Balfour Declaration can now, in 2017, be seen to describe a new approach to peace between Arabs and Jews in Palestine/the Land of Israel—a peace based, not on two states in one country, but on two national homes in one state. In other words, out of accident and confusion of forethought has come real and valuable conceptual equipment for addressing the central dilemmas confronting all the inhabitants of the country. The Jewish state arose within the context of British and European authorization of the evolution of a national home for Jews within a single politico‐administrative unit. A century later, the terms of that authorization can be understood as supporting further processes of political change that could result in two national homes, one Jewish and one Arab, within a single politico‐administrative unit, each bound to operate in ways that do not “prejudice the civil and religious rights” of others in the country.

The most unusual word in the declaration was “home.” As Arthur Koestler observed, the term had no clear or legal meaning. Even when incorporated after World War I in the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine, it remained “a complete novelty, a term with a curiously sentimental ring, undefined by international law and yet the object of an international treaty of far‐reaching importance.” The Basle Declaration, issued (in German) 20 years before Balfour’s letter to Lord Rothschild, described the Zionist Organization as committed to the cause of establishing a heimstatt “for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law.” Often translated as “home,” heimstatt is also rendered as “homestead” or “homeland.” Herzl’s contemporaneous diary entry in which he predicted that he had, in Basle, “founded the Jewish state,” was a more accurate depiction of what the delegates who approved the declaration believed they were doing. However, for public consumption and for diplomatic purposes, explicit references to statehood would be deferred and ambitions to that effect even, on occasion, denied.

In that context, the English term “home” offered a perfectly ambiguous, hearteningly warm, and conceptually expansive alternative. That evocative term lives on. Instructively, Naftali Bennett’s party, Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), is committed to the most expansive conception of Zionism’s ambitions entertained by any leading Israeli political party. In the vocabulary of Israel’s extreme right, distrust of the State of Israel and a desire to subordinate raison d’état to raison de Tsionut—allegiance to the building up of the Jewish National Home in the Land of Israel—is imagined as a more fundamental commitment than is a simple patriotic allegiance to the civil “state” of Israel (which may or may not be considered a useful instrument for that purpose). This is the message as well of the nearly 100–meter collage that covers the towering wall of the entry and exit hall at Ben‐Gurion Airport. Celebrating the accomplishments of the Zionist movement, it concludes with a slogan taken from Herzl. Whatever has been accomplished with or without the state, the mission of the movement continues, for “Zionism is an infinite ideal.”

We must, however, remember that the Balfour Declaration was a British document. In that context, the political genealogy of the word “home” (as opposed to “homeland” or “state”) is instructive. The demand by (mostly) Irish Catholics for “Home Rule” (first called “Home Government”) developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries into the single most dominant political issue in British politics. When Parliament passed the Third Home Rule Bill in in 1913, the prospect of establishing an Irish parliament in Dublin pushed the country to the brink of civil war—avoided only by Prime Minister Asquith’s decision to back down and by the outbreak of World War I, which then deflected attention from the issue. One of the main contributors to the detailed preparation of the Third Home Rule Bill was “Home” Secretary Herbert Samuel. So it is not at all a stretch to imagine that “home” in the Balfour Declaration was a term easily understood by British politicians and statesmen as an arrangement, short of a state, that would yet honor the desire for national political autonomy and cultural self‐expression.

In the event, Home Rule was not implemented. The law became a dead letter after World War I. The (small‐scale by comparison) Anglo‐Irish War from 1918-21 produced partition. Instead of Home Rule, the south of Ireland (all but nine heavily Protestant counties in Ulster) became “the Irish Free State” and then, via self‐proclamation, “The Republic of Ireland.” What is of particular interest is the extent to which the conception of a national home in a country, be it Palestine or the United Kingdom, offers a model for the future of life in the country Jews call the Land of Israel and Arabs call Palestine. For if there can be “a” national home for Jews in that country, there is no reason there could not also be “a” national home for Arabs there as well. The focus of this model is on the non‐exclusivist satisfaction of desires for self‐expression and self‐determination within a separate overarching political framework—or state, a state that itself is not the locus of political self‐determination by either party. For an example, one can point to Canada, with a maple leaf on its flag rather than the Union Jack, as a state framework within which two national homes coexist, one for Anglos and one for French Canadians. In the Canadian case, there is a provincial territorial boundary that has meaning, but a Quebecois or an Anglo citizen of Canada can choose to live anywhere in the state.

A possible precedent was the proposal, during the Home Rule controversy in Britain, to finesse the Irish demand for a national home by establishing “home rule all round.”

A possible precedent for this kind of arrangement, and one that may have had much more to do with the approach of British imperialists to the idea of a “home” for Jews in a British Palestine than has been heretofore noted, was the proposal, during the decades of the Home Rule controversy in Britain, to finesse the Irish demand for a national home by establishing “home rule all round.” Under this plan there were to be separate national legislatures in Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland, each of which would have autonomy but be under the overall state sovereignty of the United Kingdom’s Parliament at Westminster. This idea—also known in various guises as devolution or federalism—arose as early as 1830, received support from Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s, and then was revived amid the 1913–14 Home Rule crisis by a variety of leading British imperialists, including Robert Cecil, Leo Amery and Alfred Milner. Indeed, it was Milner who was personally responsible for changing the Zionist proposal in crucial ways to produce the wording of the Balfour Declaration as we know it. According to Schneer, Milner personally “removed the word ‘reconstitute’ from the statement. Instead of terming Palestine ‘the National Home of the Jewish people,’ he called it in his new draft ‘a National Home for the Jewish people.’” Subsequently, again at Milner’s request, “Leopold Amery, an undersecretary to the War Cabinet…excis[ed] any reference to the Zionist Organization and incorporated language, employed by Zionists in letters to The Times…denying they would damage Arab interests in Palestine.” Balfour himself endorsed the “vision” of home rule all round, imagining it not only as applicable to the United Kingdom, but as a mechanism that could accommodate nationalist desires for autonomy throughout the entire British Empire.

Two National Homes in One State

In our own time, it is striking to notice the increasing salience of this vision of multiple administrative, political and legislative semiautonomous authorities operating within a single non‐nationalist state framework. Most, but not all, of those seeking to promote this kind of approach are former two‐state‐solution advocates who no longer believe partition of the country into two states is possible but can imagine no route to the transformation of the entire country into a single democratic state. The result is a host of new formulations for “squaring the circle” by designing a political framework for Israel‐Palestine that is neither one nor two states. Oren Yiftachel and his collaborators have done a great deal of work to develop the confederation idea, imagining a just peace as achievable via “bottom‐up” mechanisms “through gradual integration by means of two sovereign entities, within a confederation format.” The arrangements described are complex and in many respects unsatisfyingly delineated, but the overall rationale is fairly clear:

maintaining the logic and significant symbolism of two sovereign spaces for two national communities, while developing a “layer” of joint administration on key matters that may include: environment, external security, economy, transportation, immigration, and even a joint body to protect human rights. The confederation model creates a single economic market and freedom of movement for purposes of employment, tourism, trade and even limited residence. The model, in accordance with international law—can rely on the foundation of two states. On this basis, progress can be made to create a functioning system that will not only be economically beneficial for the two nations, it will also advance historical justice for Palestinians and Jews.

A detailed description of the architecture for such a confederation was published by IPCRI under the title Two States in One Space: A New Proposed Framework for Resolving the Israeli‐Palestinian Conflict. In the introduction to this 250–page document, the authors (including both Israelis and Palestinians, with Yiftachel listed as a member of the project’s steering committee), although without citing Balfour, evoke its language:

Geography, history and demography dictate that Palestinians and Jews need to live in this land together and separately. Together, because both people share the same homeland, separately because each of them needs their own independent national home. In a nutshell: two states, one space, one homeland. An Israeli‐Palestinian union.

In their edited volume One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, Mark LeVine and Matthias Mossberg make a similar argument. One of their contributors, Peter Wallensteen, not only evokes the “national home” concept, but cites the Balfour Declaration while doing so. He depicts the existence of two states in the same land—“parallel” statehood—as “constituting a national home for each of the Jewish and Palestinian populations.” “Home” is also the term used by Teodora Todorova to summarize suggestions by a variety of authors who imagine how the attachment of two “collectivities” to the whole land could be satisfied. She describes the thrust of this work as centering on “the notion of ‘home’ as opposed to ‘homeland’ in thinking through post/decolonial cohabitation.”

Yet another example of this approach has been offered by Nathan Witkin, who describes an “interspersed nation‐state” model as including two sovereign states operating across the same territory but administering the lives, and responding to the national sentiments, of different but commingled nations. According to Witkin, a variety of complex issues, including criminal extradition and property rights, can be addressed via bilateral treaties analogous to those guiding the operation of sovereign states that accommodate the requirements and respect the legal status of non‐nationals within their borders based on principles of reciprocity. The theoretical basis of Witkin’s argument builds on the work of the international lawyer Gidon Gottlieb, whose 1993 book, Nation against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty, explicitly developed and applied the concept of multiple “national homes” located within a single state as reflecting both the implications of a post‐Westphalian world and as offering new opportunities for resolving protracted ethnic conflicts over state control.

The basic idea was to shift focus from “states” to “nations,” casting the state as an administrative framework within which multiple nations can find non‐exclusivist opportunities for self‐governance, cultural expression and national‐pride identification.

Gottlieb’s basic idea was to shift focus from “states” to “nations” as the constitutive units of world politics, casting the state as an administrative framework within which multiple nations can find non‐exclusivist opportunities for self‐governance, cultural expression and national‐pride identification. Imagining (in contrast to Witkin) at least some territorial basis for intrastate national homes, Gottlieb suggested the appropriateness of separating (as Israel does) “nationality” from “citizenship.” Gottlieb described “National Home Regimes” as involving “the issuance of two sets of passports to the inhabitants of a country: a set of national passports to the inhabitants of the national‐home areas, and a set of citizenship passports to the citizens of the states.” While avoiding any direct reference to the Balfour Declaration, Gottlieb argued that the concept of a “national home” was not new. “The common national home is a concept that has its roots in history, culture, and myth. The limits of a national home (patrie in French or heimat in German) are derived from ancient traditions rather than from juridical title.”

Accidental but Exploitable Truth

An essential meaning of imperialism is that what is fate for the imperialized (however much it may seem to some like destiny) is accidental and fundamentally meaningless for the imperial power. Understanding the Balfour Declaration means keeping in mind what obsessed British elites during World War I and with what categories they naturally thought about the political world. That means tracing the role played by desperation in the struggle against Germany, the failure of efforts to achieve a separate peace with Turkey, highly parochial and personal conflicts between Indian Office bureaucrats and those colonial officials based in Cairo, and weird but prevalent anti‐Semitic or philo‐Semitic beliefs about Jewish power and influence in Russia, Germany and the United States. It also means that understanding the origins and contemporaneous meaning of the Balfour Declaration requires ignoring what it has meant for the past and present inhabitants of Palestine.

Nevertheless, we can use the conceptual equipment provided by the declaration to pursue new and positive futures for Palestine/the Land of Israel. A century ago, some of its framers, and certainly many Zionists, imagined that the wording and political and legal contexts provided by the declaration could be used eventually to achieve a Jewish state that would rule the entire country. Other Zionists, however, were enthusiastic about the declaration precisely because it separated “nationality” from “citizenship” in a manner deemed both more honorable and more civilized than ethnonationalist formulas of national state power.

One of the most influential Jewish and Zionist thinkers in America, Horace Kallen, hailed Britain’s wisdom precisely because it did not call for a Jewish ethnonational state in Palestine. Kallen saw the catastrophe of the Great War as springing from the ethnonationalism of Germany and the Slavic countries. The movements represented a “venomous infection” of national statism. In Europe, “England alone,” he wrote, immediately following the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, “escaped the evils of infection.” But, along with England, it was also America that taught the world the truth:

that there is no more necessary connection between nationality and citizenship than between religion and citizenship. A nationality is a very intimate form of historic and cultural creative association, related to the group as personality is to the individual. To function effectively, it must be even freer and more self‐governed than a church. A state is a secondary form of association designed by those who participate in it….A nationality is creative, a state regulative.

It was, according to Kallen, precisely a home for the Jewish nation that Zionism wanted, not a state. Echoing, if not explicitly endorsing, Ahad Haam, Kallen declared that what

the Jewish nationality has ever asked for…has been not the sovereignty that constitutes a state, but freedom to achieve those excellences appropriate to its nature, and through this achievement to make its contribution to the free‐trade of the spirit among nationalities we call civilization.

The recovery of “national home” or “national homes” in Palestine/the Land of Israel as a potentially more attractive picture of the future than one or two national states is one payoff of the analysis I have presented. But careful consideration of the Balfour Declaration and its effects does more than that. It also highlights a possible route to that future. Instead of imagining that negotiations will lead to a prettier picture than the conflict‐fear‐and‐resentment‐saturated political landscape of 2017—whether to one state for one people, one state for two peoples, two states for two peoples, or two homes for two peoples in one state—the history of Palestine in the decades after the Balfour Declaration forces us to consider that the more likely route to whatever future the country will inhabit, whether pretty or not, will not be negotiations. Much more likely is that the country’s future will emerge as the by‐product of competition among political forces, including Zionists, non‐Zionists and anti‐Zionists, as well as Jews, Arabs and non‐Jewish non‐Arabs. The forms this competition will take will be both civilized and savage, and they will produce alliances that past patterns of affinity and enmity would not encourage one to think likely. What can be said with certainty is that no order will be stable that does not reflect the resources and sentiments attached to all the people who live in the land and those, worldwide, for whom the future of the country has profound or trivial, but nonetheless real, meaning.