A guest post from Irene:
If you don’t understand what the question is, your answer will be wrong.
The question is not “Why are we celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration?” The question is, “What gave the British the right to give land that was not theirs to people who did not live there, ignoring the wishes of indigenous people?”
That’s the question the average person will have after reading almost any one of the recently numerous articles extolling the Balfour Declaration (and more will follow in the coming year), including most of those written by persons friendly to Israel. And it’s exactly the question that Arabs want people to ask, knowing that it leads the average person to conclude that Israel has no right to exist.
The Arabs use the Balfour Declaration as a potent weapon against Israel. Balfour conjures up images of the world’s foremost colonial power using force to impose its will on lands thousands of miles away with arrogant disregard of the native peoples. It is an image so vivid, so powerful, that it burns its way through the minds of the uninformed with lasting effect.
That is why I recommend that writers defuse the weapon by immediately putting the Balfour Declaration in perspective as an historically interesting letter that was almost immediately superseded by international law. I would dismiss Balfour in five sentences or less. That is all it deserves. If you spend any more time on it, you are playing into Arab hands.
All of the emphasis of articles should be on the international law that followed Balfour and that formed the basis for Israel—the decisions of the winning powers (not just the British) at San Remo and the unanimous decision of the 51 members of the League of Nations to issue the Mandate for Palestine. The League issued the Mandate pursuant to Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, which provided a path towards statehood for peoples previously under Ottoman rule who were not immediately able to stand up a nation of their own. Although it does not use these specific words, the Mandate in effect recognized the Jews as an indigenous people with aboriginal rights.
Emphasis should also be given to the fact that the decisions regarding Palestine were made at the same time that decisions were made to carve five Arabs nations out of the carcass of Ottoman Turkey’s Empire and mirrored decisions redrawing boundaries and changing sovereignties in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific at the end of World War I.
Some people may quibble with my statement that Balfour was “superseded by international law” because both the San Remo decision and the Balfour Declaration refer to it and quote from it. Balfour was a very short and very vague document. The Mandate for Palestine is a long and detailed document that provides for encouragement of Jewish immigration and close settlement on the land. It specifies a Jewish governmental body (but no Arab governmental body) with which the British would interact during the period of the Mandate and which would be the basis for the new state. It addresses a long list of other concerns, for example, access to holy places. So I stand by my statement. A few vague sentences issued by the British were supplanted by a detailed international law adopted unanimously by the League of Nations.
The answer to the question of “What gave the British the right to give land..." is that the British did not give away any land. The disposition of conquered lands at the end of World War I was addressed by international laws that recognized five Arab nations and a single small Jewish nation in the Ottoman Middle East. Few nations on earth have such a nice pedigree in international law as does Israel.
If you are a writing a scholarly paper, then yeah, spend a lot of time on Balfour. It was an interesting document. But it you are writing for the popular press, be aware that your words go out to people who already think Israel is illegitimate and are looking for memes to prove it. The Balfour Declaration, issued by a colonial power about a faraway land, is the perfect meme for that purpose. These people will not reach paragraph 18 of your article, when you finally get around to mentioning the Mandate.