A Century to Celebrate
Marking 100 Years since Balfour
In the new year of 2017, we will pass several important milestones for Christians who support Israel. For instance, it has been 500 years since the start of the Protestant Reformation in October 1517, when Christians could read the Bible in their common languages once again and rediscovered that God still had plans for the Jewish people back in their ancient homeland. Meanwhile, it has been 100 years since the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 committed Great Britain to establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine. Finally, we will mark fifty years since the city of Jerusalem was reunited under Israeli rule during the Six-Day War of June 1967.
The anniversary of Balfour is especially significant for the state of Israel and her Christian friends. The Balfour Declaration, issued on the 2nd of November 1917, is a key document in modern Israel’s legal chain of title to the land. From this decree by the British cabinet flowed a series of international decisions to restore the Jewish nation, including the San Remo Conference of 1920, the League of Nation’s mandate over Palestine in 1922, the UN Partition Plan of 1947, Israel’s own Declaration of Independence in May 1948, and Israel’s admittance into the United Nations one year later.
The Balfour Declaration was the crowning achievement of the “Restorationist” movement in Great Britain. As early as the 1700s, leading Christian figures in England had advocated for a return of the Jews to the Land of Israel according to the divine promises of Scripture. This movement featured such noted clergymen as Charles and John Wesley, Charles H. Spurgeon, and Bishop Ryle of Liverpool, as well as prominent government leaders like William Wilberforce, Lord Palmerston and Lord Shaftesbury. As a result of their preaching and activism, Restorationism had already become the prevailing view even within the Anglican Church by the time the Jewish Zionist movement was launched by Theodor Herzl in 1897.
When it became clear during World War I that Britain and its allies would be able to free the Middle East from Ottoman rule, the government of David Lloyd George recognized it as an historic moment to assist the Jewish Zionists in regaining their homeland. Six of the nine members of his war cabinet, including Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, were openly professing Christian Zionists and they seized the opportunity to issue the modern equivalent of the ancient decree by King Cyrus for Jews to return and rebuild their nation. Because of this solemn commitment, which came to be known as the Balfour Declaration, Britain was granted a mandate to help create a Jewish nation in the liberated province of Palestine.
So, we have much reason to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration this year. This coming November the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem will be sponsoring events and joining with Jewish and Christian friends to commemorate Balfour, including observances in London and Jerusalem.
Yet, not everyone will be hailing the centenary of the Balfour Declaration this year. In fact, Palestinian leaders will be using their internationally-funded PR machinery to assail this “criminal injustice” against their people. They are demanding that Britain apologize for Balfour and are even threatening to bring a lawsuit against the United Kingdom for all the damages caused to the Palestinians ever since. Yet such moves would be untenable and even counterproductive.
The reason is that these actions against Israel would actually undermine the claims to statehood of numerous Arab nations in the region.
Britain’s motivations behind the Balfour Declaration have always been a subject of debate. Some say it was meant to win Jewish favour during the war, or to repay Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann for his valuable contributions to the war effort. Others say it was a gesture of remorse for centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, or simply an act of British expansionism.
The truth is that Balfour was a valid and noble expression of Christian sympathy for a just cause. It also was part of a series of decisions made by the victorious powers during and after the war to create trusteeships in the Middle East and elsewhere as a way of nation-building and granting self-determination to the native peoples of liberated lands. So, Balfour actually is a pivotal marker for the closing of the age of colonialism, a self-imposed end by the Western nations themselves.
One of the architects of this mandate strategy was Jan Smuts, an avowed Christian Zionist. Until that time, the European powers would have just claimed the vacated Ottoman territories of the Middle East as part of their own empires. But Smuts and others felt it was time to let native peoples rule over their own lands and that the role of Western nations was just to assist them on the way to independence. This new approach was inspired in part by American president Woodrow Wilson and his fourteen points for spreading democracy and securing the peace in the post-war era. But, Smuts also described the mandate system as a “sacred trust” meant to free various lands and peoples from foreign rule.
Thus, Britain was granted a temporary mandate in Palestine and Iraq, while France was to oversee nation-building in Lebanon and Syria. In fact every Arab nation in the Middle East today can trace its legal claim to independence back to some of the same documents and decisions which created modern Israel. This was not a case of creating a Jewish state out of nothing. The Jews, like the Arabs, were viewed as indigenous to the region and thus entitled to reconstitute their ancient nation. So, to undermine Israel’s legal chain of title by assailing the Balfour Declaration would also call into question the claims to sovereignty of all its surrounding Arab neighbors. That is not something the Palestinians should really be pursuing.
The Balfour Declaration of 2nd of November 1917 was a letter signed by Lord Balfour which conveyed to British Jewish community leader Baron Walter Rothschild the cabinet’s decision to support the Zionist cause. It stated:
“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 the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”