THE Arab League and leading Palestinians have condemned the British Library for deciding to lend Israel the original Balfour Declaration – the document issued in 1917 that more than anything else set in motion the Jewish state’s establishment.
“Britain should not be proud of this declaration,” said Palestinian Legislative Council member Abdallah Abdallah, from president Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement. “It is a declaration which deprived Palestinians of their national home and led to the expulsion of two-thirds of the Palestinians.
“Britain should be apologising to the Palestinian people for the Balfour Declaration rather than sending it to Israel.”
Israeli officials announced last week that they had elicited approval from the British Library for the Balfour Declaration to be temporarily displayed alongside Israel’s Declaration of Independence at the 2015 opening of a museum in Tel Aviv on the site where Israeli independence was declared in 1948.
The controversial declaration’s motives are still debated today by historians. Possibilities include eliciting Jewish support for the Allies during the First World War; securing the approaches to the Suez Canal for the British empire, and keeping the French out of Palestine.
Christian Zionist sympathies on the part of prime minister David Lloyd George and the contribution of Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann to the war effort – he was a chemist who researched explosive materials – may also have contributed.
Whatever its motives, the Balfour Declaration – which was issued in the name of the cabinet by foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour on 2 November, 1917 and addressed to Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community – was a breakthrough diplomatic achievement for the fledgling Jewish nationalist movement. The document promised British support for the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine, whose inhabitants at the time were almost entirely Arab.
The Rothschild family gave the original Declaration to the British Museum, which transferred it to the British Library, where it remained in storage until the government of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently took an interest.
Cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser said: “Displaying the Balfour Declaration in the building in which the Jewish state was declared will close a historic cycle. We will do our utmost so that Israelis may view with their own eyes a piece of history that changed our reality.”
But the Arab League, in a statement condemning the library’s decision, said Palestinians were in control of 98 per cent of the territory at the time of the Declaration. And the League noted that in 1917 the Declaration had been opposed by the only Jewish member of the cabinet, Lord Edwin Montagu.
In a memorandum to the cabinet, Lord Edwin had prophesied doom ensuing from the Declaration, both for Jews throughout the world whose countries would tell them they are unwelcome and that they should go to their designated national home, and for the Arabs in Palestine, who would be expelled.
A clause was added, saying support was based on the understanding that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.
But in the Palestinian view, this formulation tellingly failed to address the political rights of Arabs – and in any event was not enforced by British policy.
Britain crushed an Arab revolt against the transformation of Palestine during 1936 to 1939. But on the eve of the Second World War, as it was seeking to court the Arab world, Britain restricted Jewish immigration and promised instead that an Arab state would be created in Palestine within a decade.
However, the Declaration is still viewed – and is taught in Israeli schools – as a landmark that enabled Israel’s emergence.