Balfour’s Message

Published November 03, 2006, issue of November 03, 2006.

This Thursday, November 2, marked the 89th anniversary of the historic Balfour Declaration, the British government statement that marked the first international recognition of the goals of Zionism. It was a simple letter, addressed from the British foreign secretary, Arthur James Balfour, to a Jewish community leader, Lord Rothschild, expressing sympathy with the goal of Jewish national return to the Land of Israel. But since Britain was just weeks away from capturing the territory from the Turks, it was a statement with teeth.

“His Majesty’s Government,” Balfour wrote, “view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood 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.”

Israel’s opponents have argued ever since that Britain had no moral authority, as a conqueror, to grant rights in Palestine to Jews or anyone else. But five years after Balfour’s letter, its spirit was written into international law by the League of Nations in its mandate to Britain to administer Palestine as a dual Jewish and Arab national home. A quarter-century after that, in November 1947, the United Nations ordered the creation of Palestinian Arab and Jewish states living side by side. That might have settled things. But it did not.

Nine decades later, the job is half-done. Jewish national rights have been achieved in the sovereign state of Israel. Israel has a booming economy, a seat at the United Nations, cultural institutions of world renown and, not least, a powerful army.

Still unfulfilled is the other half of the deal: a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Indeed, the world has yet to agree on the very meaning of Balfour’s “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” On the contrary, the conflict over that question seems to be growing more poisonous with time, threatening to undermine Balfour’s signal achievement, the granting of international legitimacy to Jewish nationhood.

It’s past time to sit down, hammer out a deal and finish the job.



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