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Bryan SchwartzBy BERNIE BELLAN
As much as it was interesting to hear Dr. Bryan Schwartz, Professor of Law at the University of Manitoba, expound upon the significance of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration at an event held Monday, November 27th, what was also noteworthy about this particular event was the size – and nature, of the crowd that turned out.


Until now events that had been sponsored by the now almost three-year-old group, Winnipeg Friends of Israel, had been  held  largely in people’s homes (although two events had been held at Temple Shalom). This time around though, the venue was a meeting room in the Clarion Hotel (which not only donated the room, it also provided refreshments free of charge). As the room began to fill up, it was clear that more chairs were going to be needed. All told, there were close to 100 people gathered this warm November evening to hear from Bryan Schwartz.
Prior to hearing from the main speaker, we heard from Yolanda Papini-Pollock, who has been the driving force behind Winnipeg Friends of Israel. During her remarks Yolanda noted that WFI has been given a grant by the Jewish Foundation in support of its Israel advocacy work. (Interestingly, as I have noted in previous issues, it is new organizations, including WFI and the just-formed Winnipeg chapter of StandWithUs Canada that have taken over the lead in advocating on behalf of Israel in Winnipeg – filling a gap left by other organizations that seem to have lessened, if not totally abandoned, their own advocacy efforts on behalf of Israel.)
Following Yolanda’s remarks, we heard from Peter Fast, Deputy National Director, Bridges for Peace. That organization has also taken upon itself a much more active role in advocating on behalf of Israel. Although BFP is a Christian organization, it has forged strong ties with the Jewish community here. (As a matter of fact, if you are reading this on Dec. 6, there will be an event tonight at 7:30 pm at the River Heights Community Centre, sponsored by BFP, in which the dire situation of the Jews of France will be discussed by a panel including two experts on the situation.)
Following an introduction by WFI board member Miriam Bronstein, Bryan Schwartz took the podium. Admitting that he is hardly an expert on the history of the Balfour Declaration, Schwartz quoted from an English professor who was also once put in the unenviable position of being asked to give a lecture on a topic about which he was hardly expert: “I know nothing, but I know where to look.”
What followed, rather than a detailed exposition on the Balfour Declaration, was more a thoughtful analysis of how Israel has come to be vilified so unfairly by so much of the world. While Schwartz did offer a brief history of events that led up to the Balfour Declaration, including the desire of an important component of the British government during World War I to curry favour, not just with the Jewish population of Great Britain, but world Jewry everywhere, he didn’t spend much time attempting to present the Arab view of the Balfour Declaration.
After all, while the first part of that famous proclamation reads “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, “, the second part does read “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. “
Has there ever been a more ambiguously written statement of intentions that has led to such bitter debate over the years? While some Jews may be celebrating this, the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, for the vast majority of Arabs, the second part of the declaration is perceived as having been ignored.
Yet, in Schwartz’s assessment, “this idea that the Balfour Declaration of the great British power somehow led to the creation of the Jewish state is wrong.”
“The Jewish state exists” Schwartz maintained, “because the Jewish people continued to exist. They persisted – even after the destruction of the Jewish home by the Romans, even after the expulsion of Jews from Spain.”
Further, he argued, “not only was there a Jewish people in the world, there was a continued Jewish presence in Palestine.”
Thus, according to Schwartz, “the notion that the Balfour Declaration was a gift from Great Britain to the Jews is wrong.” It wasn’t just the British who supported the notion of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, it was all the Allied powers at the time, including the U.S., France, Russia, and Italy.”
As far as the argument advanced in many quarters that Lord Arthur Balfour (who was the British Foreign Secretary at the time) was a “Christian Zionist” – as was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Lloyd George, Schwartz paraphrased Lloyd George’s own explanation for the Balfour Declaration: Yes, there was a moral course, but that’s not why we did it. It was an opportunity to win the support of the Jewish people at a crucial time in World War I (when the U.S. had yet to suffer a single casualty, and Russia was teeming with internal upheaval). The hope was that the (perceived) powerful Jewish lobby would rally support for the war.
At the same time though, Schwartz noted that there “was emerging a large Pan-Arab state from the Ottaman Empire.” In Schwartz’s view, while “there were somewhat more Arabs living in Palestine than Jews (in 1917), the idea was that a large Arab state would emerge with a small piece for the Jewish people.”
Given the ambiguity – and, in fact, what are clearly the contradictory aims of the Balfour Declaration, Schwartz pondered how the competing goals of two different peoples could have been reconciled. The problem, as he noted, was that “the Balfour Declaration was not clear and explicit how reconciliation could occur. It seemed to be clear that there would be some sort of a Jewish state…The Balfour Declaration was a promise.”
But, as Jewish immigration to Palestine increased rapidly in the 1920s and 30s, i.e. “Between 1922 and 1935, the Jewish population rose from nine percent to nearly 27 percent of the total population (source: Al Jazeera), it led to an “Arab counter-reaction”, Schwartz noted, including rioting that occurred from 1936-39 and massacres of Jewish populations in centres such as Hebron.
As a result, the British drastically reduced the number of Jews who were allowed into Palestine, beginning in 1939, when the maximum number allowed in per year was set at 15,000. In Schwartz’s words, “when the gates of Hell were opening in Europe and North Africa, the gates to Palestine were closing.”
By this point in his talk, Schwartz had wandered from a discussion specifically of the Balfour Declaration to a much wider-ranging exposition on anti-Semitism. He wondered about the widespread contemporary ambivalence, if not outright hostility, expressed not just by non-Jews, but by so many Jews toward the State of Israel. Schwartz noted that, even at the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, some British Jews – especially such upper class Jews as Edmund Montague, opposed the Balfour Declaration, saying, in Schwartz’s words, “I’m not so Jewish”.
That same sentiment, Schwartz argued, is shared by so many Jews these days, who say, “I’m a Jew, but I don’t support Israel.”
“Why,” Schwartz wondered, “do Jews feel increasingly obliged to say that?” He went on to observe that “you can always find a Jewish group that will join in the vilification of Israel.”
“It is more than problematic to me,” Schwartz said, “that the essential right of the people of Israel to exist in their homeland is being constantly questioned.”
As Schwartz pondered the increasing levels of anti-Semitism in so many parts of the world these days, he observed that Europeans especially are intent on forgetting the past. Instead of accepting responsibility for allowing the Holocaust to occur, Schwartz suggested, the opposite has now happened, and “Europeans will never forgive Jews for the Holocaust,” implying that Europeans are angry at Jews for saddling Europeans with guilt over having stood by while the Holocaust occurred.
In Schwartz’s view, it “doesn’t feel good for Europeans” to come to the realization that it was their “civilization that allowed the Holocaust to occur.”
“How do you deal with that?” he asked. “By calling the Israelis Nazis,” he suggested.
The question and answer session that followed Schwartz’s talk strayed even further from the original subject of the Balfour Declaration, as one speaker after another wondered why Israel has become so vilified on the world stage today.
I tried to bring the discussion back to some sort of focus on the Balfour Declaration when I suggested that demographic evidence would seem to support the notion that a good part of the increase in the Palestinian Arab population between 1922-1947 was attributable to the large increase in Jewish immigration at that time – and the resultant boost to the Palestinian economy. In 1914 the Palestinian Arab population was 525,000 while the Jewish population was 94,000; in 1922 the Palestinian Arab population was 589,000, while the Jewish population was 84,000; in 1931 the Palestinian Arab population had grown to 760,000, while the Jewish population was now 175,000; and by 1947 the Palestinian Arab population had grown to 1,181,000, while the Jewish population was 630,000. In other words, the Palestinian Arab population had more than doubled from 1914-1947 – a 33-year period, whereas in the eight-year period from 1914-1922 it had grown only 12%.
While there were some improvements made to health care among the Palestinian Arabs from 1922-1947, it would seem fair to conclude, as has been the argument advanced by many historians, that the explosive growth in the Arab population of Palestine paralleled the large scale increase in Jewish immigration to Palestine between 1922-1947. One might conclude, therefore, that the Balfour Declaration was not only the most important proclamation leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel, it also led indirectly but concomitantly to the doubling of the Palestinian Arab population. That’s something you don’t see or hear when it comes to Arab denunciations of the Balfour Declaration.