The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a crass expression of colonial thought that Canada helped realize.
Just before capturing Jerusalem in late 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour proclaimed support for a Jewish homeland on land occupied mostly by Muslim and Christian Palestinians. In a letter to Walter Rothschild and the Zionist Federation of Great Britain, Balfour wrote, “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.” Balfour later explained his thinking: “In Palestine we do not propose to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country. … The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
At war with the crumbling Ottoman Empire, in January 1916 Britain and France signed a secret accord to divvy up the Ottoman-controlled Middle East. Fresh from leading the First World War Anglo-French conquest of German West Africa, Québec City-born Lt-Gen. Charles Macpherson Dobell commanded a force that attempted to seize Gaza during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign. As many as 400 Canadians (about half recruited specifically for the task) also fought in British General Edmund Allenby’s Jewish Legion that helped conquer modern day Israel/Palestine. The Federation of Zionist Societies of Canada mobilized Jews to join Allenby’s Jewish Legion, which won sometimes beleaguered Jewish communities’ praise.
During the two decades after the Balfour Declaration, the British empire provided the Zionist movement with the necessary protective umbrella to thrive. Spurred on by British support, between 1919 and 1921, Canadians raised $458,000 ($5.8 million in 2016 dollars) to support projects colonizing Palestine. At the end of the 1920s, Canadians raised $1 million for a Jewish National Fund project to pay an absentee landlord in France for 7500 acres of coastal territory between Haifa and Tel Aviv, which would displace over 1,000 (mostly nomadic) Bedouin whose descendants had lived on the land for hundreds of years. Citizens of a British dominion, elite Canadian Jews were more active Zionists than their U.S. counterparts during this period.
Many Canadian political leaders were over- joyed by the Balfour Declaration. Several years after the First World War, Conservative Party leader Arthur Meighen, a Christian Zionist, claimed, “of all the results of the (war), none was more important and more fertile in human history than the reconquest of Palestine and the rededication of that country to the Jewish people.” A dozen years later, Prime Minister R.B. Bennett told a coast to-coast radio broadcast for the launch of the United Palestine Appeal that the Balfour Declaration and the British conquest of Palestine represented the beginning of the fulfillment of biblical prophecies.
Three decades after the release of the declaration, Canada’s representative on the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, which was dis- patched to the region to propose a solution for the British mandate, challenged members of UNSCOP who failed to recognize the legitimacy of the Balfour Declaration. In response to criticism of his proposal to give the Zionist movement a larger piece of land than they officially requested, Canadian Supreme Court justice Ivan C. Rand argued “that since Britain had not fulfilled its obligations to the Jews, they deserved to be compensated by the United Nations.”
The Palestinian Authority and over 100,000 Brits recently petitioned London to apologize for the Balfour Declaration. The centennial is also a good time to mark Canada’s contribution to Palestinians’ loss.
This article first appeared in Canadian Dimension.