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  • 1917: The Ambivalence of Empire
  • Liora R. Halperin

When the Balfour Declaration was first published on November 2, 1917, as Britain was jockeying for its position in the Levant, the significance of this nonbinding and highly vague document was unclear. It was somewhat clarified—though by no means fully so—in 1922 after Britain took control of Palestine and the Declaration was integrated into the language of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, which also included a statement of Britain's obligation to facilitate Jewish immigration. Observers in the Yishuv attached near-messianic significance to the stated British imperial commitment to the Jewish national project, despite mixed messages from the British about the extent to which the mandatory government would indeed promote immigration, given the likelihood that a Jewish influx would inflame local conflict. Many imagined that, in the aftermath of the Mandate, thousands of Jews would stream into Palestine and constitute the third massive aliyah of Jews, following in the path of those ancient Jews who returned after the Cyrus Decree (fifth century b.c.e.) and, several centuries later, in the wake of Ezra and Nehemiah within the confines of the Persian Empire.1 From Cyrus to Balfour, the affirmation of empires has underpinned visions of Jewish collective return to the Land of Israel.

The Declaration, formalized and restated in the Mandate documents, seemed to approach what Herzl had sought, unsuccessfully, in the years around the First Zionist Congress of 1897: a formal charter from an imperial power that welcomed and enabled European Jewish settlement. Attentiveness to and cooperation with world powers came to define the global project of political Zionism against the settlement-oriented "practical Zionism," which attempted to create facts on the ground (through settlement) regardless of imperial desires. The latter of these approaches [End Page 526] came to dominate Zionist historiography, which adopted a settlement-based narrative of Zionism that marked time according to immigration waves rather than political events abroad. It emphasized the independence and self-sufficiency of the Jewish national movement in Palestine. Nonetheless, international imperial approval, coupled with concrete policies in the form of immigration support and economic investment, remained central to Zionist and, thereafter, Israeli political claims. The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence, in the syncopated historical narrative that composes the first half of the document, references the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate documents, and the UN partition plan to create a Jewish State in Palestine. All are marshaled as evidence that the Zionist representatives had international—which essentially meant Western—approval as they declared a new state in the midst of war.

The Balfour Declaration marked the beginnings of Zionism as a political project authorized by a major world power rather than simply a loose complex of ideologies linked both to Jewish settlement in Ottoman Empire and national imaginings of Jewishness abroad. The Declaration would also soon delineate the starting point of Zionism as a political movement in the eyes of Palestinian Arab observers, who would state their opposition to this document in popular protests, articles, speeches, and political delegations to London throughout the Mandate period. Indeed, so great was the import of the Balfour Declaration that the prewar history of Jewish land settlement, exploitation of workers, or immigration became, in retrospect, comparatively benign, if not altogether elided. Jamal Al-Husseini, in his testimony to the 1946 Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry, said that "the Arabs had always lived in peace and friendship with the many Jews who settled in Palestine for religious reasons … It was only after the publication of the Balfour Declaration, as the Jews began to display political ambitions and to reveal their true and aggressive intention, which we consider nothing less than an invasion, that concern and opposition grew among the Arabs."2 Jews, needless to say, had displayed political ambitions decades before the Balfour Declaration. Moreover, Palestinian peasants and intellectuals responded with concern, opposition, and resistance even then, but the particular alliance of the Jewish settlement project with British imperial power effectively wiped the pre–World War I slate clean, fully aligning the Zionist project not only with its settlement project per se—which had [End Page 527] laid its foundations under...


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pp. 526-530
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