Sunday, June 30, 2013

Apologising For The Balfour Declaration


We should take a special interest in a pending centenary  I suggest because some others are taking an interest in another centenary almost to the day and in a very real way especially for Australians they are closely related. The Battle of Beersheba  on 31 October 1917 when the Australian Light Horse  took the town in what would have been the last successful cavalry charge in military history but for it having been carried out by an infantry regiment.

Two days later the Balfour Declaration was signed.

Now Beersheba  is a thriving city of 200 000 in the south of Israel with ambitious urban plans. Most are Jews driven from Muslim lands and their descendants.  These people are now free and equal citizens in a free state. Since the coming of Islam to the lands where they had lived for generations before the birth of The Prophet that had not been possible. They lived at a formally imposed inferior status or they lived not at all. Where pogroms were a frequent problem they might live not at all anyway.

There is a movement in Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration.  There has even been suggestions that the long overdue apology to indigenous Australians is some sort of noble precedent for such a craven rebuttal of truth and history. That is another reason to take an interest in any link. Such a thing strikes as a grave insult to indigenous Australians. Indeed surviving indigenous peoples everywhere. I expect many will agree.   

Richard Millet has a post about a history teacher at a British university who is pushing the case for an apology under the auspices of the usual suspects. This gentleman. Dr James Renton. The teacher has invited comment on his proposal and the theory behind it. How could I decline? Where can I start?

Renton says that as the Declaration refers to a "national home" and not a "state"  Britain should apologise for creating a false expectation of a "state" among Zionists that is the source of the ongoing misery of the "Palestinians". The Brits had something else in mind all along and it was a deception to win over antisemitic  notions of "Jewish power" to the war effort.

That's about it really. Oh, and the Jews were not all Zionists anyway and the Brits didn't know that.

If you think I'm being unfair to Dr Renton  read the article. If you do not want to pay Haaretz anything Richard Millet will email it to you as he did to me. Or I will of course  if you have my email address. 

First of all . it rankles that issues like this are always cast as an entirely British affair and very often as a projection of Britain as an imperial power. I think we need to be clear about this. This land fell to British and French administration as a consequence of the Ottomans being on the losing side of a war that engulfed scores of countries big and small and the Declaration was made when it was known this was likely no matter what happened in Europe. You can call this an imperial war if you want but it is just weasel words. It was a world war.

Moreover the Declaration was enshrined in international law  by formal convention of the nations including those that actually fought in that part of the war. At that point the Balfour Declaration became something else and not just in a formal legal sense. Britain was in Palestine not as an imperial power but by global license subject to a formal mandate that defined the parameters by which she had any right to be in Palestine at all. It was not the British Mandate. It was the League of Nations Mandate. It is unacceptable to breeze over this as a technicality.  Dr Renton refers to this  "as the rental contract, if you will, for ruling the Holy Land". I'm not quite certain what is meant by that but those who speak like this should not expect to command much respect when they  invoke allegations of contempt for principles of international law in any other context.

It should take only a moment's reflection how fatuous a demand for a British apology is and on so many levels. How can a British apology mean anything at all without that of all the powers at San Remo and in the League of Nations? Including Australia. Don't hold out for that one.

But it gets worse. Although Britain was the Mandate authority obligated to carry out the terms of the Mandate, and not as an imperial power administering a colony,  it does not follow that she did not behave as an imperial power. She most certainly did. Old habits die hard. 

Notoriously the British never delivered on the terms of the Mandate. It is the mother of moot points whether the obligation was for a Jewish national home or Jewish state (as if there is any material difference but let's indulge this for moment). The British never delivered either. They blocked it.  A country from which Jews were blockaded  by the Royal Navy on the eve of the Second World War, and even after when survivors were in desperate need of a place to live, by no stretch qualifies as the Jewish national home.   

The British failed miserably on their obligations under the Mandate. They sold out the Jews in the most terrible way in a futile rush to appease violent  Arab extremism at exactly the same time as they were appeasing the Nazis. In the case of the Palestinian Arab leadership they could appease both together.   Why would  the Palestine Return Centre  demand an apology for that?

The distinction between a Jewish state and a Jewish national home is an illusion. It is merely a reflection of the language of the era. Is Dr Renton suggesting that the Arab leadership was violently hostile to a Jewish state but would have come smiling bearing gifts for the Jewish national home? If that is the case then it behoves him to define what he means by a Jewish national home. 

For certain the British and Zionists would stretch for a broad concept and of course the British would have been considering options that embraced a permanent place within the British empire and Commonwealth as they should have. Something similar to the self governing dominions of the time and a political evolution similar to that of Australia or Canada may well have been very attractive to the Zionists who prominently included Anglophiles especially if it came with British protection. It would have been very nice for it to have been offered I expect. 

 Dr Renton cites every reason for why the Declaration was made but the obvious one. The British were considering the shape of the world post war at a time when nations locked in moribund and collapsing empires were asserting self determination across three continents. One of those national groups was the Jews. Their case was compelling and urgent and won the support of important politicians who supported the dream because it was the right thing to do. One of them was Winston Churchill who was a passionate and effective advocate of Zionism throughout his career. The Jews in Palestine had fought with the allies to liberate the land.  For certain there would have been be policy noise around Whitehall about its impact on war strategy  and some of it would have been harebrained. This is the Foreign Office after all. 

We know what Dr Renton would like to see by 2 November 2017 but I have a very different proposal for 31 October 2017. A celebration in Beersheba of the event that saw the town  become a city of free people in their own homeland in a free state and which helped  make possible the Declaration. Although the British were to betray that it did not kill the dream.

Could things have worked out any other way given the measure of Arab self destructive intransigence, then as now? Perhaps not but the administration of Palestine couldn't have been worse.  It would have helped not to have made a Nazi civil head of the Muslim population. There could have been a real attempt to take power from the hate fill clerics rather than give it to them and it is a curious fact that is exactly what was going on in Turkey as it dramatically transformed itself into a secular Muslim state that was later to become a firm ally of Israel. Perhaps that was the greatest irony of all.  Turkey would have made a much better job of the Mandate than Britain. The "rental contact" should have been leased back to Istanbul. Ataturk would have delivered on a Jewish national homeland. He would have understood the need for it and how to deal with the rank and medieval opposition.

hat tip CiFWatch

cross posted  Geoffff's Joint


  1. Two points in response to Dr. James Renton:

    1) It was Jewish blood, sweat and tears that made the League Of Nations Mandate possible. Without Jewish support for the Allied cause in World War I, particularly for Great Britain, the Balfour Declaration would never have come about.

    2) The Jewish State was born despite British opposition. The Jews built their own state. No British apology for Balfour would ever undo the fact the original indigenous people of ancient Israel recovered their national independence in their ancient homeland by themselves.

    To look at history the way Renton does overlooks the fact that what happened in the Twentieth Century was never a gift from the British to the Jews; it was the Jews fulfilling their age-old aspirations as an independent historical actor. The Jews simply refused to be shoved off the stage of history.

    That is why Israel exists in large part because of that today.

  2. Revisionism is antizionism. Antizionism is holocaust denial. Holocaust denial is the holocaust. The point to revisionism is to rewrite the past in order to further today's political agenda. So intellectually and spiritually, antizionism is the same thing as holocaust denial and the point of that is to foment the holocaust.

  3. It is just the move of another antisemite. Who really cares what he thinks? Israel IS a state and it cannot be declared a non-state. Anyway, the UK will increasingly have its own problems to deal with in remaining a British state.

  4. It also lead to the creation of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan so let's do away with them all and revert them to Ottoman provinces.

  5. What next? Apologize for the Renaissance? Burn the collected works of Aristotle?