The Balfour Declaration did not determine, in any way, a Jewish right to establish Israel. That right pre-existed this Declaration.

As this year celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, this famous document has been the focus of much attention. This focus, though, has actually not all been positive. While Jews and supporters of Israel have, of course, marked this year appreciatively as a proper anniversary to be acknowledged, the opponents of the Jewish State have tried to use this document and its anniversary as another media weapon against Israel. This, in turn, has led supporters of Israel to challenge such arguments and point to the significant value of this Declaration. Unfortunately, though, many of these arguments in defense of Israel have really been detrimental to the Jewish cause.

What is important to recognize is what the Balfour Declaration truly stated and the idea that it enunciated. To many, it is perceived to have granted to the Jewish People – by Britain and, then, building upon it, by the League of Nations — a right to Palestine as a Jewish homeland. This, however, is actually how the opponents of Israel’s very right to exist want you to define the matter. They want the argument to be that international law, as expressed in the Balfour Declaration and then in the actions of the League of Nations, gave a right to the Jewish nation to create a homeland in Palestine. The question can then emerge: who gave Britain and/or the League of Nations the right to give over this land to the Jewish nation? The reality is that the world, at the time, recognized value in colonialism – and that would be the presented answer. The problem with that argument then being used today is that the modern world now rejects colonialism.

Since Balfour the world has gone through a transformation: nations, subject to colonial rule, have exerted their independence and established their own governments reflecting the wishes of the indigenous population. The modern value that permeates the basis for the value of sovereignty is the right of an indigenous population to determine its own fate. This is precisely why opponents of the Jewish State like to refer to Israel as the creation of the forces of international law of the time, as that law was based on colonialism. The result, they say, is that Israel is thus a product of colonialism: Britain and the League of Nations ignoring the rights of the indigenous population and giving the land to whomever they chose, i.e. European Jews. Supporters of Israel are thus mistaken, falling into the trap laid out for them, when they argue that the international law of this period established a Jewish right to Israel.

Not Granting, but Recognizing a Right

But what did the Balfour Declaration state? Its actual language was: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” It did not create a right. In fact, Britain, at the time when this Declaration was written, did not even have the colonial right to do so. What it actually was stating was that it recognized the already existent desire of the Jewish People to establish a homeland in Palestine, effectively to return to their ancestral homeland. In other terms, in language that would properly reflect modern international legal sensitivities; it recognized the right of an indigenous population — who was exiled from its land but continuously maintained a desire to return to its land — to return and establish a homeland there. It did not create a right, but recognized an existent right. (Interestingly, see WATCH: Israel is Not an Occupier, Says Kuwaiti Writer where a Kuwaiti intellectual presents this very argument, to the surprise of his Arab hosts, for why Israel is legitimate. Israel is a country founded by an indigenous population in its ancestral homeland.)

Of course, it is still proper to acknowledge and celebrate the Balfour Declaration,as it did recognize the Jewish People’s connection to a homeland in its ancestral land. That was noteworthy — for a country such as Britain to recognize this truth and state it. It, however, did not determine, in any way, a Jewish right to establish Israel. That right pre-existed this Declaration. No doubt, though, it was helpful that this right was finally being recognized – for this, we can be thankful to the British government of the time. But its true meaning must still be recognized.

Perhaps this is especially important, at this time, in regard to Jerusalem. Our response to the claim that there is no historical Jewish connection to Jerusalem is mostly based on the offensiveness of such an assertion. The claim is so ludicrous that it inherently brings out from us an emotional response to simply dismiss it. We cannot believe that any thinking person could take it seriously. Yet there is a reason why opponents of Israel try to make such an assertion: for thereby they can further argue that Jews only gained a right to Palestine through the Balfour Declaration and the colonialism of the age, saying, “They never were in Jerusalem; they are not an indigenous people.” But we are – and this is also marked by our historical presence over the millennia in our holy city of Yerushalayim. Our right to the land clearly preceded Balfour.

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Article by Benjamin Hecht

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the founding director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.