Colin Chapman, author of Whose Promised Land: The Continuing Conflict Over Israel and Palestine (Lion, 5th fully revised and updated edition, 2015, conclusion on Fulcrum here) offers a short briefing paper for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration. His 10 page summary of the major recent study of the Declaration by Jonathan Schneer can be downloaded as a PDF here.
UNDERSTANDING THE HISTORY
Motives behind the Balfour Declaration
- to weaken Turkey, an ally of Germany, at time when the war in Europe ‘a bloody stalemate’
- to keep France out of Palestine - to forestall Germany which wanted to win Jewish support
- to ensure a friendly power on banks of Suez Canal to protect the lifeline to the Empire
- to encourage Jews in America, Russia, and Europe to support the allies in WW1
Arthur Balfour (writing to Lord Curzon, 1919):
For in Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country … the Four Great Powers are committed to Zionism. And Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires or prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land … I do not think that Zionism will hurt the Arabs … in short, so far as Palestine is concerned, the Powers have made no statement of fact which is not admittedly wrong, and no declaration of policy which, at least in the letter, they have not always intended to violate.
Chaim Weizmann (in a speech):
Palestine must be built up without violating the legitimate rights of the Arabs – not a hair of their heads shall be touched.
(in his diaries):
We shall have to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries … Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.
Sir Edward Grey (Foreign Sec 1905-16; speaking in House of Lords 1923):
… I think it will be very much better that … we should state frankly that, in the urgency of the war, engagements were entered into which were not entirely consistent with each other …
Sir John Chancellor (Britain’s High Commissioner in Palestine, 1930.):
The facts of the situation are that in the dire straits of the war, the British Government made promises to the Arabs and promises to the Jews which are inconsistent with each other and are incapable of fulfilment.
… a document in which one nation solemnly promises to a second nation the country of a third nation.
Elizabeth Monroe (historian):
Measured by British interests alone, it is one of the greatest mistakes in our imperial history
ASKING THE CRUCIAL QUESTIONS AS CHRISTIANS
- Given that the land was promised by God to Abraham and his descendants ‘as an everlasting possession’ (Gen 17:8), does a Christian reading of the Hebrew scriptures encourage us to believe that the Jewish people have a divine right to the land for all time?
- If prophecies of a return to the land after the Babylonian exile were fulfilled in the return in 536 BC, should Christians today see the return of Jews to the land since the 1880s and the establishment of the state of Israel as a further fulfilment of these same prophecies?
- In our eschatology, do these events point to the imminence of the Second Coming?
- How do we understand the whole range of Christian approaches to these issues – from Christian Zionism (often unquestioningly supportive) to anti-Zionism (highly critical)?
- Does engagement in Jewish-Christian dialogue today require or encourage Christians not only to support the Zionist vision but also to support the state of Israel?
- If we are concerned about Jewish-Christian relations, do we have equal concern for Muslim-Christian relations, and do we understand Muslim feelings about Zionism?
- How do we respond to the idea of Israel as ‘a Jewish state’ or ‘the Jewish state’?
- How important is it to listen to the voices of Christians in Israel/Palestine today?
- How should we respond to the issues of justice and human rights?
Sources and Further Reading:
Jonathan Schneer, The Balfour Declaration: the origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Bloomsbury, 2011. Summary here.
James Barr, A Line in the Sand: Britain, France and the struggle that shaped the Middle East, S.Schuster, 2012
Colin Chapman has worked with CMS in the Middle East for 18 years and in his last post he was teaching Islamic Studies at the Near East School of Theology. He has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and was principal of Crowther Hall, the CMS training college in Selly Oak, Bristol. He is now enjoying semi-retirement in Cambridge. His books include Whose Promised Land?, Whose Holy City? Jerusalem and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict, Christianity on Trial (Lion), Cross and Crescent: responding to the challenges of Islam (IVP), and “Islamic Terrorism”: is there a Christian response? (Grove).