t has been 100 years since the Balfour Declaration — issued by the British government on November 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.”