Many Christians are joining with Israel in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration on November 2 of this year, and with good reason. The Balfour decree was forged by leading British Christian statesmen who contributed a key link in modern Israel’s legal chain of title to sovereignty in its ancient homeland.
Yet not everyone is hailing the centenary of Balfour. In fact, Palestinian leaders have assailed it as a “criminal injustice” against their people and are demanding that Britain apologize and even pay compensation for what they consider a disgraceful act of colonialism.
Yet such claims are untenable and even counterproductive. First of all, because Balfour actually represents a self-imposed end to the colonialist era. And secondly, challenging the Balfour decision actually undermines the claims to sovereignty of numerous Arab states in the region.
Great Britain’s motivations in issuing the Balfour Declaration have always been a subject of much debate. Was it to win Jewish favor during World War One? Was it to repay Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann for his valuable contributions to the war effort? Was it issued in remorse for centuries of Christian antisemitism? Was it an act of British imperialism? Or was it a valid and noble expression of Christian Zionism?
The truth is that the Balfour Declaration was the crowning achievement of Britain’s “Restorationist” movement, which had been advocating since the early 1700s for a Jewish return to the Land of Israel according to the divine promises of Scripture. Endorsed by Queen Victoria and other leading figures, Restorationism had become a widely accepted view even within the Anglican Church by the time the Zionist movement was birthed by Theodor Herzl in 1897.
When it became clear during WWI that Britain and its allies could roll back Ottoman rule in the Middle East, the government of David Lloyd George recognized it had an historic opportunity to help the Jewish Zionists finally regain their homeland. The majority of his war cabinet were avowed Christians with Zionist sympathies. This was especially true of Lloyd George himself, as well as his foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour and Jan Smuts, who together pressed the full cabinet to commit to restoring the Jews to Eretz Israel. The resulting Balfour Declaration would later give the League of Nations the basis to grant Britain a mandate to help build a Jewish state in the liberated province of Palestine.
Up until then, the victorious European powers normally would have just claimed the vacated Ottoman territories as part of their own empires. However, American president Woodrow Wilson was pushing for the right of “self-determination” among the native peoples of such liberated lands, in order to spread democracy and secure the peace in the post-war era. At the same time, key British Christian statesmen like Jan Smuts and Mark Sykes developed the mandate strategy, arguing that the Western powers had a moral duty to assist these native peoples on their way to independence and self-rule. They viewed the mandate system as a “sacred trust” meant to free foreign lands and peoples from imperial rule.
These Christian architects of the mandate system supported both Zionism and Arab nationalism as equally valid and mutually reinforcing causes. Sykes even designed the four-colored flag of the Arab revolt – which served as the model for the flags flown by numerous Arab states today. Most importantly, they viewed the Jewish people as indigenous to the Middle East, just as much as the Arabs, and thus entitled to reconstitute their historic nation back in their former homeland.
The League of Nations would duly adopt their concept of trusteeships in the Middle East and elsewhere as a way of nation-building and granting self-determination to the native peoples of liberated lands. Britain was granted a temporary mandate in Palestine and Iraq, while France was to oversee nation-building in Lebanon and Syria. In fact, every Arab nation in the Middle East today traces its legal claim to independence back to the same series of decisions and decision-makers that created modern Israel. This all begins with the Balfour Declaration, when British Christian statesmen began to close the door on the age of colonialism, a self-imposed end by the Western nations themselves.
So to assail the Balfour Declaration as an act of colonialism is not only historically inaccurate, it would also call into question the claims to sovereignty of a number Arab nations.
That is not something the Palestinians should really be pursuing.
The writer is a vice president and senior spokesman for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. (www.icej.org)