The Balfour Declaration at 100 and How It Redefined Indigenous People

November 3, 2017

It has been 100 years since the Balfour Declaration – issued by the British government on Nov. 2, 1917 – offered the first international recognition of Jewish national aspirations. In many ways, its importance is obvious: it encouraged some 400,000 European Jews to emigrate to Palestine in the years 1917-1940, and made it possible to lay the groundwork for the State of Israel.

But there is another significance that has not been fully recognized among modern historians, even though it tells us more about the current obstacles to peace than any of the usual explanations. I am speaking of the politico-philosophical precedent set by the Balfour Declaration regarding national identity, land ownership, self determination and the notion of “indigenous people.”

On the surface, the declaration’s text touches on none of these issues. Known as “history’s most famous letter,” this 67-word text actually reads like a holiday greeting card: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice that civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

A close examination, however, reveals two asymmetries which, by today’s standards, would probably evoke bitter objections. First, the words “people” and “national” are attached to Jews, not to the non-Jewish inhabitants of Palestine, who are referred to as “communities.” Second, the non-Jewish communities are assured “civil and religious” rights, not national rights, let alone a “national home.”

This asymmetry is probably what infuriated Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi who, in an emotional lecture on Sept. 25 this year, reportedly pounded the table and blasted the Balfour Declaration as “a declaration of war by the British Empire on the indigenous population of the land it was promising to the Jewish people.”

Khalidi’s outrage at former British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and his Declaration is hardly justified. First, the idea that the Arab population of Palestine harbors national aspiration would have been news to Balfour, just as it would have been to any political observer in 1917. Khalidi admits as much in his book, “The Iron Cage,” in which he labors to explain why Arabs did not develop a ripe sense of national identity until the late 1920s, when it was too late to “crush the Zionist Movement.”

Second, the Balfour Declaration did not preclude the creation of a “national home” for other national groups in the region, side by side with the Jewish polity. Ottoman Palestine, as we recall, embraced a huge territory which included Jordan and parts of Syria. Various partitions and coexisting constellations were proposed in the course of time, most notably by the Peel Commission of 1937 and by the United Nations in 1947. While Khalidi’s book never mentions these proposals as options, and we understand why, it was in effect the Balfour Declaration that opened these opportunities for Palestinian statehood.

Third – and this is critical – the concept of “indigenous population” has undergone a profound transformation since 1917, which Palestinian society refuses to accept to this day. By championing the Jewish plight for a homeland, the Balfour Declaration made it absolutely clear that there are other claimants to the title “indigenous population of the land” and that the arguments of those other claimants are no less defensible and no less supported by hard evidence and trust deeds.

The Balfour Declaration overturned the narrow conception of “indigenous people” as a group of tribes or families who happened to own land in a particular geographic location and pass it to their heirs over a number of generations. By focusing on the Jewish narrative, the declaration broadened the concept of indigeneity to include peoples who have maintained vivid collective memories of past civilizations and who shaped their identity through dreams of returning to the cradles of those civilizations.

This shift in the definition of indigineity was only implicit in the 67-word declaration. It was made explicit two years later, however, in Balfour’s introduction to Nachum Sokolow’s book, “History of Zionism, 1600-1919. ”

“The position of the Jews is unique,” Balfour wrote. “For them race, religion and country are inter-related, as they are inter-related in the case of no other race, no other religion, and no other country on earth. … In the case of no other religion is its past development so intimately bound up with the long political history of a petty territory wedged in between States more powerful far than it could ever be; in the case of no other religion are its aspirations and hopes expressed in language and imagery so utterly dependent for their meaning on the conviction that only from this one land, only through this one history, only by this one people, is full religious knowledge to spread through all the world.”

A man of wisdom and character, Balfour considered himself primarily a philosopher, not a historian or a statesman. It is amazing how this multifaceted individual managed to take time off his duties as Britain’s Foreign Secretary and study carefully the role that the Land of Israel had played in Jewish life through the ages. He captured this essence better than some of our most revered history professors, for whom Zionism is a 19th century invention that started with Theodor Herzl in 1896 and ended with the Six-Day War of 1967.

Balfour understood that Eretz Israel is an inextricable part of Jewish identity. Accordingly, he also understood that indigeneity is based on intellectual attachment and historical continuity no less than on physical presence or genetic lineage.

In 2014, when peace negotiations seemed somewhat hopeful, Palestinian chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat was reported in The New York Times as saying: “the Palestinians could never accede to Israel’s demand that they recognize it as the nation-state of the Jewish people. … I cannot change my narrative.” A few months later, when pressed to explain what narrative defines his position Erekat told the Times of Israel: “I am the proud son of the Netufians and the Canaanites. I’ve been there for 5,500 years before Joshua. ”

On this centennial celebration of the Balfour Declaration it is worth reminding Erekat and Khalidi that the declaration’s most profound imprint on the world’s conciousness has been a universal understanding that the essence of indigineity is cultural and intellectual, not genetic or geographical.

Palestinian resistance to accepting their neighbors as equally indigenous to the region has been so obsessive and so counter-productive that it begs to be enlivened through a hypothetical scenario, however imaginary. I can’t resist imagining Balfour attending Khalidi’s lecture at Columbia, raising his hand and asking politely:

“Professor Khalidi, can you name a Canaanite figure that you are proud of? A Canaanite poem that you enjoy reciting? A Canaanite holiday that you celebrate? A Canaanite leader who is a role model to your children?

Replace the word “Canaanite” with “biblical” and you will find four questions that every Israeli child can answer half asleep.

There is merit and wisdom in hypothetical scenarios. In this case, I would hope it could mitigate the Palestinian claim to exclusive ownership of the title “indigenous people” and, God-willing, usher a genuine reconciliation effort based on mutual recognition and shared indigeneity.

JUDEA PEARL is Chancellor’s Professor of Computer Science and Statistics at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

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