The battle over the memory of Balfour

Prof. Elie Podeh December 2016
Op-eds / The Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process

The centennial of the Balfour Declaration will be marked on November 2, 2017, and preparations in Israel and among various Jewish organizations worldwide are underway. However, on the Palestinian side, a media campaign of a very different nature focusing on this event has already been launched, and it will certainly intensify as the centennial date approaches.

Countries throughout the world make use of special dates to celebrate their origins, in order to strengthen their national identity and the legitimacy of their government.

Such dates become part of a country’s national calendar, which is part of a nation’s collective memory.

For example, the US celebrated the bicentennial of its Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1976; Australia celebrated its bicentennial year on January 26, 1988; and France – with much festivity – marked 200 years since the French Revolution on July 14, 1989.

As it happens, the centennial year of the Balfour Declaration overlaps with several other landmark anniversaries of special events in the history of the Zionist movement and of the State of Israel: 2017 will mark 120 years since the first Zionist congress, 70 years since the UN’s partition plan, 50 years since the unification of Jerusalem and the Jewish return to holy places in the West Bank (or 50 years since the occupation, depending on one’s perspective).

This overlap creates a holistic connection between these events, which are considered by Jews to be part of an ongoing and inevitable process of national revival.

In contrast to some accepted commemorative events (such as Independence Day, Memorial Day, Holocaust Remembrance Day), the Balfour Declaration was controversial from the very beginning. Both the revisionist Right and the radical Left identified it with Britain’s hated imperialism. Following Israel’s independence and the institution of a new national calendar, commemorating the Baflour Declaration seemed superfluous, and its memory was relegated to textbooks.

Nonetheless, the Balfour Declaration was the focus of much celebratory attention in November 1967, 50 years after it was issued, shortly after Israel’s grand victory in the Six Day War. These celebrations were part of the wave of euphoria that swept through Israel at the time, but were also used by the Levi Eshkol-led government to entrench its hegemony in response to the legitimacy crisis triggered by the 1967 war and the occupation of the territories.

Secular Israelis were in need of an international sign of approval regarding the Jewish claim of ownership over the entire Land of Israel, and the Balfour Declaration served this need. For religious Jews (both Zionists and ultra-Orthodox), this claim was grounded in the biblical promise and therefore they had no need to resort to such external legitimacy. As a result, the celebrations marking 50 years to the Balfour Declaration unintentionally highlighted the rivalry between the conflicting national narratives in Israel’s Jewish society.

After the jubilee year celebration in 1967, the Balfour Declaration disappeared once again as a national day of commemoration. It seemed to be forgotten. In November 2007, 90 years since the declaration, a public opinion poll in Israel revealed that 34% of the public did not know who Lord Balfour was. Approximately half of the respondents under 29 were unable to state who Balfour was and what his declaration was about.

In tandem, the Balfour Declaration holds a significant place in collective Palestinian memory. Every November 2 since the declaration was issued in 1917, demonstrations and strikes have been held in Palestinian cities and even in other Arab countries. Arab textbooks continue to highlight the betrayal of Britain, which granted territory that “it did not own” (the Ottoman Empire was still the sovereign power) to the Jews “who did not deserve it” (in view of the Arab majority in Mandatory Palestine).

It is therefore not surprising that as early as 2016 Palestinian voices have begun marking the upcoming Balfour “memorial day.” In March 2016, Helena Cobban, a renowned Palestinian researcher, published a post titled “2017: A crucial year for the Palestine question,” in which she addressed the combination of three landmark anniversaries: 50 years to the 1967 occupation, 100 years to the “dictate” of the Balfour Declaration and 30 years to the Palestinian intifada. The terms used by Cobban, as well as her emphasis on the third event, highlights the key points of the Palestinian counter-narrative.

In July 2016, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called on Britain to apologize for the Balfour Declaration or to stand trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas adopted this idea in his speech to the UN General Assembly the following September. He reiterated the Palestinian narrative, saying that “100 years have passed since the notorious Balfour Declaration, by which Britain gave, without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people. This paved the road for the Nakba of Palestinian people and their dispossession and displacement from their land.”

On the 99th anniversary of the declaration, in November 2016 a group of Palestinian activists rallied around that date with a British MP, in efforts to collect 100,000 signatures on a petition to force the British Parliament to debate the Palestinian demand for an apology for the Balfour Declaration. In Israel, the date attracted little attention, apart from a symbolic release of 99 balloons by Israel’s ambassador to London.

The unique overlap between all the special dates in 2017, with no diplomatic breakthrough in the Israeli- Palestinian peace process in sight and a new American President – who does not hold favorable position towards the Palestinians – taking office, promises a collision between the Jewish narrative and the Palestinian/Arab one. The connection between two key dates in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – 1917 and 1967 – is explosive: the symbols and myths related to these dates have the ability to mobilize masses. Battles over collective memories usually do not cost lives, but they establish an ideological foundation that can trigger the outbreak of violence. Both sides in this conflict need responsible leaders who are capable of preventing such developments.

Alas, based on past experience, we currently do not have anyone to count on to do just that.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

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