Balfour Declaration centennial honors Jewish peoples’ rights in their ancient homeland

The Balfour Declaration expresses the recognition by the international community of the inalienable rights of the Jewish people in their ancient homeland. The Palestinian leadership's denial of the Balfour Declaration reflects its persistent refusal to recognize Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. Attempts to undermine the Balfour declaration are tantamount to rejecting Israel's right to exist.

On November 2, Israel, Britain and many others will mark the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, a short letter from the British Foreign Secretary in which Britain officially recognized the Jewish people's historical rights in the Land of Israel.

The Declaration was closely coordinated by Britain with the other great powers, and indeed well represents the will of the international community at the time. As David Lloyd George, Prime Minister in 1917 later testified: "It [the Balfour Declaration] was prepared after much consideration, not merely of its policy but of its actual wording, by the representatives of the Allied and Associated countries, including America." The specific text of the Declaration was approved by U.S. President Wilson before its publication, while the French and Italian Governments publicly endorsed it on February 14 and May 9, 1918 respectively.

This broad international endorsement of Jewish national self-determination was formally ratified on July 24, 1922, when the League of Nations (the precursor to the United Nations) recognized the “historic connection of the Jewish people” to the Land of Israel and appointed Great Britain as Mandatory power responsible for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” (At the time, the name "Palestine" referred to the geographical area in question, without any national, political or ethnic connotation. All people living in that area were called "Palestinian" - Jew and Arab alike).

For Israel's opponents, it is proving to be yet another opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past and sacrifice the benefits of co-existence and cooperation on the altar of a false historical narrative, which brings no benefit to anyone, least of all the Palestinians themselves.

For the first time in the modern era, the international community formally recognized, in writing, a simple - but as time has worn on, oft challenged - truth: that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people.

This sentiment is well expressed in a Joint Resolution of the U.S. Congress from June 30, 1922, signed on September 22, 1922 by President Harding acknowledging that: "The Jewish people have for many centuries believed in and yearned for the rebuilding of their ancient homeland." […] "The Jewish people are to be enabled to recreate and reorganize a national home in the land of their fathers which will give to the House of Israel its long-denied opportunity to reestablish a fruitful Jewish life and culture in the ancient Jewish land."

The Balfour Declaration and the international ratification that followed validated Zionism as the legitimate expression of the inalienable rights of the Jewish people in their historical homeland. It proclaimed loudly that the Jewish people's right to a homeland was historically valid and morally sound. But the Declaration also recognized the rights of the non-Jewish population of the area. Balfour wrote explicitly that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

Indeed, the Zionist leadership at the time, as today, was looking to cooperate with their Arab neighbors.  Chaim Weizmann, who represented the World Zionist Organization, and Emir Feisal (one of the most prominent Arab leaders, whose father Emir Hussein of Mecca led the Arab tribes that rose up against the Ottoman Empire), acting on behalf of the Arab Kingdom of Hedjaz,  signed an agreement on January 3, 1919. The Agreement stated that "the surest means of working out the consummation of their [the Arabs and Jewish people] national aspirations is through the closest possible collaboration." Feisal explicitly acknowledged that there was room for both Jewish and Arab national movements in the Middle East and that "neither can be a real success without the other."

Nevertheless, denunciations of the Balfour Declaration from those opposed to the Jewish national movement appeared soon after and have continued to this day. Indeed, the Balfour Declaration is often seen and presented by these critics as the “original sin” that led to the creation of Israel in 1948. Most recently, at the July 2016 Arab League Summit, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to sue Britain for issuing the Balfour Declaration.

At the heart of this rejection of the international community's endorsement of Jewish national rights is a fundamental denial of the Jewish connection to the land. During 800 years of Muslim rule, Arabs in Ottoman-controlled Palestine had become accustomed to seeing Jews only as marginal and despicable followers of an inferior religion.  The vehement Palestinian Arab opposition to the Balfour Declaration was and has remained rooted in the anti-historical view that Jews were aliens, with no connection to the land and no right of any kind to live there as a people. This spawned an Arab exclusivism and sense of supremacy, which continues to drive the Arab-Israel conflict to this day.

Here then lies the explanation as to why the Balfour Declaration is of such historic import. Not only is it the first internationally endorsed recognition of the Jewish people’s inalienable right to return to their ancient homeland. It is also a simple statement of truth, which lays bare the heart of the conflict, that too many in the Arab world have been waging against Israel for too long:  the refusal to accept the truth of the Jewish people's connection to the land, and the national rights, which accrue as a result.

All agree that the Balfour Declaration was a milestone on the modern journey towards the establishment of the State of Israel. For Israel and its friends, its centennial is a cause for celebration and profound gratitude to the international community. For Israel's opponents, it is proving to be yet another opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past and sacrifice the benefits of co-existence and cooperation on the altar of a false historical narrative, which brings no benefit to anyone, least of all the Palestinians themselves.

Israel in 2017 has to live with the violent consequences of this Arab rejectionism: from the Palestinian Authority that unapologetically rewards the murderers of Jews as well as Christian tourists, Druze and Arab policemen, and anyone else deemed to be "collaborators" with Israel; to the unremitting wars of annihilation waged by Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, and a panoply of Islamist terror groups. One hundred years after Balfour, the conflict caused by Arab rejection of Jewish rights continues unabated, and the hopeful vision of a Jewish homeland living in peaceful cooperation with its Arab neighbors remains just that. We can only hope its realization will not require a second century of conflict and suffering for Jews and Arabs alike.