Independent Jewish Voices in Britain has produced a great new video explaining the Balfour Declaration, whose 100th anniversary we commemorate next month, and calling on Britain to reckon with the document at last so as to honor Palestinian rights.
It is an extremely thoughtful presentation about the problematic resolution featuring searing judgments from Jacqueline Rose, Avi Shlaim, Brian Klug, and Miri Weingarten.
Most of the video describes the history and consequences of the declaration: the higher status granted Jews over Palestinians in the document (Palestinians are cited as among “existing non-Jewish communities,” not by name, and possessing “civil and religious rights”; while Jews are named and given national rights), the dispossession of Palestinians (Shlaim mentions 730,000 refugees of the Nakba), the reification of the Jewish religion by Zionism as a set of beliefs attached to actual lands, and the disaster of the ’67 war and occupation.
The several voices join in a crescendo, condemning the declaration personally.
Klug says, even if your definition of Jewishness is national, one of peoplehood– “You should only wave the flag if you can hold it with the confidence that it stands for justice.”
Rabbi Howard Cooper emphasizes the division inside Judaism. “As we approach the 100th anniversary… it is really important that people realize that there is a passionate debate inside the Jewish world around Israel.”
Klug: “The worst phase of the Arab Jew confrontation in modern times begins with the Balfour declaration.”
Rose: “This is for me a tragedy. The Jews went through one of the worst traumas in history… The tragedy is that it has led to a historic injustice against another group of people.” Rose acknowledges the “existential crisis” that Jews faced in Europe and their legitimate desire for self-determination. But she says “the spirit of justice and righteousness which is also part of Jewish history” makes it imperative that Jews speak out now.
Shlaim: “Today Britain should do a reckoning about its failure to protect Palestinian rights. And Britain should come to terms with the fact that it enabled a Zionist minority to begin a systematic takeover of the entire country. I have nothing to celebrate.”
Klug: “We need a future that caters for everyone, and that’s not in the Balfour Declaration… What is being celebrated is a document that points in the wrong direction for any kind of viable future for all the people who are living in Palestine and Israel.”
Miri Weingarten, who served in the Israeli army and regrets doing so, says that nothing will change until the Declaration is “unlocked,” and Israelis are taught that Palestinians have rights. As it is, Balfour is taught in a triumphalist way in Israel; and Israelis fail to see other human beings as people with rights.
Antony Lerman: “This is a blot on Judaism, and on Jewish history and on Jewish ethics. What came out of Balfour is something which I think we Jews should be ashamed of. And we should be able to do something about it, to put things right, in terms of giving Palestinians the rights they deserve.”
While young Barnaby Raine says we are seeing a “sea change” in Jewish life, in which there’s a “rift” on generational lines. Young Jews see a “gaping exception” to the Jewish values of standing with the marginalized: the treatment of Palestinians.
My objection to the video’s historical content is my objection to the conference on Balfour at Princeton last May: it leaves out the belief on the part of imperial powers in the role of Jewish influence at a time of world war, the perceived need by imperial leaders to get Jews on their side as an asset. Rose offers three reasons for the declaration: colonial/imperial motivation to have a footprint in the Mid East, some anti-semitism (get rid of British Jews); and “also some respect for minority status.” There is no sense here of Jewish agency; no mention of the fact that the Germans and the British were in competition for Jewish support, no sense of the role Jewish financiers had played in liberating Jews, including my grandfathers, from eastern Europe. And as for the colonial impulse, Britain wanted out of Palestine by ’47. But Jewish support for Zionism, and western Jewish lobbying on its behalf, often involving big political donors, is with us to this day.