The Balfour Declaration: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict
By Jonathan Schneer.
(Publisher Random House, 2010)

Reviewed by Asaf Romirowsky, Ph.D. Candidate, King’s College, London

On October 31, 1917, during the conquering of the Ottoman Empire the British Cabinet approved the following policy statement regarding Palestine, “His Majesty’s Government 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.”

Consequently, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour relayed this message in a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, the head of Britain’s most prominent Jewish family and a week later the Balfour Declaration was born. Zionists in England and around the world were elated. Rothschild got the letter two days later so the accepted date for the declaration became November 2, 1917. It was the first time, a great power had committed itself to Zionism and Theodor Herzl’s dream of establishing a Jewish homeland in the biblical land of Israel.

To this day, the Balfour Declaration is still regarded as one of the great landmarks in Jewish history as the unofficial beginning of the modern State of Israel.
Enter, Jonathan Schneer, professor of modern British history at Georgia Institute of Technology, who explores and analyzes the fervent debates between Zionist and non-Zionist Jews following the publication of the Balfour declaration. The Zionists spoke in the name of Jewish nationhood; their Jewish opponents denied that Jews even constituted a separate nation.

According to Schneer, the Arabs were as invisible to the early Zionists as Africans had been to Boers in South Africa. This world view was galvanized by the Arab narrative that the Zionists viewed the Land of Israel as a “land without a people,” that is to say, the Zionist ignored or disregarded the Arabs living in the land at the time. The late Palestinian professor of English literature, Edward Said took it one step further and shortened the phrase to “a land without people” to imply that Zionists actually believed there were no people in Ottoman Palestine.

The author does indeed highlight the work, and that Chaim Weizmann, the leading spokesman for Zionism in Britain and his colleagues including Nahum Sokolow, the Zionist movement’s chief diplomat, and less famous figures like Harry Sacher, Israel Sieff, and Simon Marks, had more than enough reason to rejoice. They were finally seeing the fruits of their labor persuading her Majesty’s Kingdom that Jewish settlement in Palestine would advance British interests in the Middle East in addition, to providing an historical understanding of Jewish rights to the land. They lobbied everyone from politicians to the Prime Minister himself, David Lloyd George and even found a degree of passion from the British Foreign Office, namely, Britain’s chief Middle East expert, Sir Mark Sykes. It was Sykes who informed Weizmann about the Declaration, greeting him with the words, “It’s a boy.”

Amongst the British elite, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Balfour himself, there was great sympathy and awe for Jewish heritage and history. These deeply devout Christian Zionists grew up with the Bible and with a clear understanding that the Holy Land was their spiritual home. In their minds, Modern Zionism would fulfill the ancient prophecies – resettling the Jews in the land of their fathers. Facilitating this was spiritual and monumental. Unfortunately, Schneer neglects to explore this angle which played a significant role in issuing the Balfour Declaration.

Finally, mutual recognition is still at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2010 on U.S.-Muslim concerns, including the Palestinians, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his own speech at Bar Ilan University stipulating that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

He said a “basic condition for the termination of the conflict is honest and public recognition by the Palestinians of Israel as the Jewish people’s nation . . . we need the Palestinian leadership to get up and say, ‘We’ve had enough of this conflict.’”
Historically, Palestinian society never saw Israel’s existence as a “right.” The only right in the Palestinian narrative is their own connection to the land, although they do see Israel as a temporary military fact. There will come a day, the narrative goes, when they will be able to defeat the Israelis. So although, it has been 93 years since the Balfour Declaration and 62 years of Jewish Independence in Israel, Zionism is still fighting for global recognition.