“The BBC Radio Four ‘Sunday’ programme on October 1st included this very fair and balanced report on the forthcoming centenary of the Balfour Declaration. Chris Rose from the Amos Trust, speaking about the unfulfilled promises to the Palestinian people, echoed the call for ‘Equal Rights for All’ which is very much at the centre of the Balfour Project’s London event on October 31st. Given the nature of the programme the focus was on religious rights and freedoms, but there is much more to be said about civil and human rights.”
Emily Buchanan: This year marks the 100th anniversary of a letter that changed the face of Middle Eastern politics for ever. The Balfour Declaration, written by Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour in 1917, at a critical period in the First World War, expressed for the first time Britain’s commitment to a national homeland for the Jews. It paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel 30 years later. But what effect did the Declaration have on the religious makeup of the region? Trevor Barnes reports:
Trevor Barnes: Whether you celebrate the Balfour Declaration, merely commemorate it, or actively fulminate against it, depends on the political and religious position you take. Eugene Rogan, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Oxford:
Eugene Rogan: For anybody whose political aspirations are fulfilled by Zionism, then obviously the Balfour Declaration was the essential first step in that direction. But for the Palestinian Arab people, whose land was being promised away by the British government at the height of the First World War, without their consent and without consultation, it’s been an unmitigated catastrophe from the outset.
Trevor Barnes: Precise figures are disputed, but in 1917, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, the region is reckoned to have comprised some 85% Muslim, around 10% Christian and five per cent Jewish populations. Nicholas Pelham, Middle East correspondent of the Economist:
Nicholas Pelham: It was a region that was remarkably heterogeneous. It had predominance of Muslims, but there were also large Christian communities and Jewish communities, largely sharing the same cities and towns and public space. There was no real distinct sort of the Christian quarter and Jewish quarter and Muslim quarter before the Balfour Declaration.
Trevor Barnes: Relations, he says, if not always cordial, were manageable in the main. Richard Verber, Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews:
Richard Verber: Pockets of friendship and unfortunately pockets of violence. On the other hand, Jewish and Muslim friendship is not a new concept. There were times across Spain, across northern Africa, across parts of the Middle East, where Jews and Muslims lived for decades and in some places centuries, harmoniously.
Trevor Barnes: The Balfour Declaration altered that balance, promising favoured status for the Jews at a critical stage in the First World War, when Britain was looking for allies, especially those who could help secure post-war influence in this strategically vital part of the world. Nicholas Pelham:
Nicholas Pelham: I think one of the reasons that Britain was so interested in Jews was because, unlike the French and the Russians, they really didn’t have an indigenous community for which they could take our responsibility [sic]. The French had the Catholics and the Maronites in the Middle East, the Russians had the Orthodox Church, and Britain was really scraping around for a community that it could sponsor and wield influence through.
Trevor Barnes: And Professor Rogan adds that the Declaration came about not as a result of religious favouritism but solely in the context of the realities of war.
Eugene Rogan: I sympathise with the British government at the time in their willingness to promise anything to anyone who might make a material difference in winning the war. The British government was neither pro-Arab nor pro-Zionist; it was pro-British Empire, and its only objective in 1917 was to win the war.
Chris Rose: I think Britain doesn’t come out of any other time in history of Israel and Palestine in that good a light. [sic]
Trevor Barnes: Chris Rose, Director of the Amos Trust, a Christian organisation working in the West Bank and Gaza.
Chris Rose: Even Balfour himself a couple of years later on said: Zionism, be [it] right or wrong, is more important than the wishes of the 700,00 Arabs. Our call to the British Government now is, determined to celebrate the Balfour Declaration, to do so in the only real meaningful way by working tirelessly for full equal rights for everybody who calls it a home.
Trevor Barnes: His claim is that the second half of the Declaration has still to be honoured. While the first half favoured a Jewish homeland, the second reassured explicitly, quote, “that nothing shall be done which would prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. Which, Chris Rose says, hasn’t happened in practice. Though for the Board of Deputies, Richard Verber defends the Jewish record on religious freedom post-Balfour.
Richard Verber: Well, there are many cases in Israel proper where the religions do indeed coexist in harmony. Jerusalem has its flashpoints, but you go and you see Jews, Muslims, Christians, Baha’i, Druze, walking around, many have their own areas and places of worship. Israel of course is the only place in the Middle East where Christians are free to worship without persecution.
Chris Rose: If you live in Bethlehem you may well not be able to go up to Temple Mount for prayer or to worship. If you want to go and worship in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre you probably won’t be able to do that. And so, while yes, there is religious freedom in that respect, it has to be recognised that there are also major restrictions on freedom of movement which restricts people from having that religious freedom.
Trevor Barnes: Chris Rose of the Amos Trust. For its part the Israeli Government has repeatedly said that such restrictions as there are, are driven solely by security concerns and by the imperative legitimately to ensure the country’s survival. And in essence, says Richard Verber, the right of Israel to exist in the first place is at the heart of any religious definition of that hotly contested concept, Zionism.
Richard Verber: Zionism is a religious imperative. It’s a core belief in Judaism today. The word Zionism is clearly a newer invention. We’re talking here 19th century; but the idea of there being a desire among Jewish people to have autonomy in their own homeland dates back 3,300 years, when the Jewish people first entered what was then the land of Canaan, Kanaän. I think Jewish people have long understood the importance of living alongside their religious brethren, whether that be Christian or Muslim, or indeed any other stripe or people of no faith at all.
Trevor Barnes: From its inception, Zionism itself did not have the backing of all Jews, especially religious Jews, who argued that the return to the Land of Israel would be the work of the Messiah and couldn’t be engineered by any human agency. Events of the Second World War and the Holocaust, however, put paid to many reservations, and the promise of the Balfour Declaration was made actual in 1948. Indeed, Richard Verber for the Board of Deputie,s argues that the founders of the State of Israel referenced the Balfour Declaration, repeating and reinforcing a commitment to civil and religious freedom. The Amos Trust, however, isn’t convinced, and they’ve launched a campaign, “Change the Record”, calling for equal rights for all in the Holy Land. [Audio clip of music and various voices repeating in their different accents: “change the record”] Those celebrating rather than mourning the Balfour Declaration dispute that reading of events. But either way, Nicholas Pelham says it changed the religious makeup not just of Palestine but of much of the Middle East.
Nicholas Pelham: Until the Balfour Declaration, under the Ottoman Empire religious communities had lived exactly as that, holy communities. And what the Balfour Declaration does is to transform religious communities into religious-national movements, so that instead of sharing space, they have conflict over space. Instead of having holy communities in the region we have holy lands and a battle between sects for control of land.
Emily Buchanan: Nicholas Pelham, ending that report by Trevor Barnes.