Event Reports

100 Years Since the Balfour Declaration

KAS Israel and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA) dedicated their mutual annual conference on the 28th of January to a special date – the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation Israel and the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA) dedicated their mutual annual conference on the 28th of February 2017 to a special historic date – the 100th anniversary of the Balfour-Declaration. The Declaration presented a milestone for the recognition of the Jewish people’s right of existence in the Holy Land. Rightly, the declaration is considered to be one of the decisive steps on the way towards the creation of the state of Israel. Experts from different disciplines analyzed the Balfour Declaration while looking at its implications from a historical, juridical and political perspective.

The Konrad Adenauer Foundation Israel and the Centre for Public Affairs (JCPA) dedicated their mutual annual conference on the 28th of February 2017 to a special historic date – the 100th anniversary of the Balfour-Declaration. On the 2nd of November in 1917, the British secretary of state, Arthur Balfour, wrote a letter to the British Zionist Lord Rothschild. In this letter he argued in favor of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Hence, the declaration was a commitment to the Zionist project. The declaration is up until today a very controversial topic. The following questions did come up: Is the declaration legally binding? What was Lord Balfour’s intention behind his commitment for a Jewish homeland? To what extent was the British promise part of British Realpolitik? In how far did the declaration contribute to the creation of the state of Israel in 1948?

Dr. Michael Borchard, head of the Konrad Adenauer foundation in Israel, opened the conference and welcomed around 300 guests. He indicated that the Balfour Declaration was either glorified or portrayed as the absolute evil. Within this context he pointed out that simplification was always problematic and that he considered it to be a decisive obstacle on the way to peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Furthermore, Dr. Borchard emphasized the German responsibility for the creation of Israel. Amb. Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, said in his welcoming speech that the Balfour Declaration was often neglected and that there was a “war of ideas” against the document from 1917. According to him, the Balfour Declaration was the legitimation for Israel’s existence.

Panel 1: The Balfour Declaration: Past, Present and Future

The first panel about the historical background of the Balfour Declaration was opened by Prof. Andrew Roberts, a historian at the War Studies department at Kings College London. He explained the circumstances at the time: The British wanted to win over Jews from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Russia at the time of World War I. He indicated that Arab - and especially Palestinian - nationalism was not yet existent. In 1917, the British assumed that peaceful coexistence between Jews and Arabs was possible by referring to the times of the Ottoman Empire. The former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp, put an emphasis to the important role that the Jewish pioneers had played during the British Mandate Period and groups such as NILI at the time of Ottoman rule. Both were, according to Col. Kemp, detrimental for British strategic assets. He criticized the West for its apparent “appeasement politics” that would stab Israel in the back. He said the time was ripe for a second Balfour Declaration. Prof. H. Julius Schoeps, haed of the Moses Mendelssohn Centre in Potsdam called the Balfour Declaration an important milestone on the road to a Jewish state. But he pointed out to the fact that Theodor Herzl had linked moral obligations to Zionism. The current construction of settlements was profoundly different from what Herzl expected from the Zionist idea. Prof. Mendelssohn asked who the legitimate heirs to the early Zionists were. He also emphasized that the Balfour Declaration mentioned the rights of the Arab population. Prof. Schoeps expressed his commitment to a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and demanded a stronger will for compromise from both sides.

Panel 2: Legal Aspects

At the beginning of the second panel, Prof. Ruth Lapidoth, one of the most renowned Israeli experts for international law, asked how binding the declaration was. Was it legally binding or was it a political promise? From a legal perspective, the declaration poses the problem that it is not very precisely and clearly formulated. Furthermore, Prof. Lapidoth stated that the British did not have the mandate over Palestine in November 1917 which was problematic too. She concluded that a state could have many different forms and facets. The next speaker was Prof. Nicholas Rostow form Colgate University. He stressed the continuing relevance of the Balfour Declaration for today and argued that the Israelis had a solid and legitimate claim to the land. Finally, Dr. Jaques Gauthier, lawyer for international law, argued that Lord Balfour meant with the term “Palestine” the territory of the biblical Palestine. At the San Remo conference in 1920, the five powers of the League of Nations promised the biblical Palestine to the Jews, so Dr. Gauthier. He criticized David Ben Gurion for not having understood the fact that the Zionists had the full right to the biblical Palestine after San Remo.

Panel 3: Diplomatic and Political Aspects

In the third panel, the German ambassador Dr. Clemens von Goetze referred to the roots of the Zionist movement in Germany. He expressed that it was Germany’s historical responsibility to uphold and support the Jewish homeland in Israel. Moreover, he stated that Germany also thought about the other people in the Holy Land. Former Israeli minister for defense, Moshe Arens, said that Britain had moved away from its commitment to the Balfour Declaration, especially after the UN resolution in December 2016. His hope was for the future was Prime Minister Theresa May. Amb. Daniel Taub, the director for strategy and planning at the Rothschild foundation in Jerusalem mentioned the fact that many Jews in Great Britain were against the Zionist project at the beginning of the 20th century. They supported the idea of assimilation in Europe instead of founding a Jewish homeland. Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser finished the conference with a radical Palestinian perspective in the declaration.

In summary it can be said that the Balfour Declaration still represents a much debated topic. The conference revealed to the audience how multifaceted the interpretation of the Balfour Declaration can be and how many implications derive from it for the current situation and the politics in Israel. When examining the Balfour Declaration, one does not get around analyzing the important role Great Britain has played in shaping the Middle East.