Today marks 100 years since the British Empire made a half-hearted, vague commitment which it almost certainly did not intend to keep.
On November 2, 1917, the British government issued a statement saying that it "viewed with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and would "use... [its] best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object".
The language is deliberately obtuse, as the existence of other drafts makes clear. There is a mention of a “national home”, but not an actual state. There is no indication of how such a thing might be brought about, and how Britain might “facilitate the achievement” of such a goal. Yet, a month later, British forces under General Allenby entered Jerusalem, with Britain subsequently embarking on a three-decade long period of direct control over the area.
Britain’s actions over the next thirty years suggested little inclination to fulfil the vague half-promises of the Balfour Declaration, as it became known. After all, the declaration had been in the name of a specific government – and governments change.
Jewish immigration (or, as many Jews saw it, their return) to the region, was severely limited by following British administrations. Tens of thousands of Jews who subsequently lost their lives in the Holocaust were prevented by Britain from emigrating prior to World War Two to the “national home” Britain had pledged to establish.
After the war, thousands of Jews who had been through the hell of the Shoah were locked up by Britain in displaced person camps to prevent them trying to get the Holy Land. Ships attempting to land Jews there were seized by the Royal Navy, with the Holocaust survivors on board forcibly returned to Europe. A furious unofficial war, in which many people were killed, was fought between the British army and Jewish resistance fighters determined to achieve the goal of a homeland for their people by force. There are also documented accounts (such as the Arab murder of 79 people in a convoy of Jewish doctors and patients travelling to the Hadassah hospital), where the British army was on hand, but stood by and let the massacre of Jews happen. Britain did not support the UN Partition plan in 1948, which created a nascent Jewish state; it abstained.
The UK is now, however, in a remarkable position, worthy of a comic opera. It once signed a vague agreement pledging do something. The result it had pledged to facilitate then came about, despite Britain in fact doing very little to help achieve it. Now, a century on, there are people who wish to lavish praise on it, while others are keen to heap opprobrium. And all for a few grudging lines containing no tangible promises.
However, the importance of the Balfour Declaration cannot be denied, for one very important reason. It was the first time in almost two millennia that a colonialist, imperialist system had done something to benefit the Jewish people, and to right an ancient, but never forgotten, wrong.
The history of the Jews over the last two millennia has been one of great tragedy. The destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 was followed, some fifty years later, by the mass murder and subsequent dispersal of the Jewish people from the land of Israel by the Emperor Hadrian, who is bitterly cursed in Jewish texts from the following centuries. It was around this time that the province of Judea was subsumed into a new, larger province, named Syria Palaestina. The very name of Palestine is one forced upon a land by the Romans – the original Western colonialist power.
While Christians and Muslims fought over the Holy Land, the Jews – always discriminated against, never accepted - eked out a half-life in Europe, North Africa and Asia. There were brief periods of tranquillity and security, but the overwhelming narrative is one of oppression and subjugation. The suffering of Jews in Christian Europe is well documented. Romanticised accounts of Jews in Muslim lands do not match the reality, where Jews were second class citizens, entirely dependent on the local ruler’s goodwill for their continued survival. The enlightenment, while helping emancipate Jews in Western Europe, did very little for Jews elsewhere.
The Balfour Declaration was the first time in almost two millennia that a powerful Empire had issued public support for the concept of a Jewish homeland in their ancestral region. The subsequent surge in support for Zionism among Jews shows how much such a statement meant. There were instances of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe dressing up in their festive finery to attend public readings of the declaration. For the first time in almost two millennia, Jews were daring to dream. In order for them to do so, they needed a sign that they were not alone. However half-hearted the declaration may have been, Britain provided this sign.
The UK does not deserve the criticism heaped on it by some due to the declaration. Nor does it deserve the effusive praise which may flow from others. But this week, myself and many others will quietly thank Britain for a statement issued at the height of World War One, largely for its own politically motivated reasons, which nonetheless gave new energy and impetus to a people who had never given up the desire to return to their homeland.