November 2nd marked 100 years since the public announcement of the Balfour Declaration, which stated the British government’s support for a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine.
To this day there is quite a bit of controversy as to why Britain or Lord Balfour made this declaration. Religious motives? Colonial or empirical considerations or even a means to draw the US into the war? Whatever the reason, it can’t be denied that its effect has consequences to this day. While Israelis celebrate the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Palestinian remember it as a day of broken promises and betrayal.
In order to understand it, we must put the Balfour Declaration in a larger historical context: When it was released during World War I, the Turkish Ottoman Empire was weakening and nationalism, as well as competition between colonial empires for resources such as oil, domination and religious ideology, were on the rise. The British declaration of support for a Jewish homeland overshadowed two earlier agreements affecting the Middle East.
The first, was the 1915 McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, where a series of letters were exchanged between Sir Henry McMahon, a British Officer who served as the High Commissioner of Egypt, and Hussein bin Ali, the Sherif of Mecca concerning the political status of lands under the Ottoman Empire. The British government agreed to recognize Arab independence if they helped the British to fight the Ottomans. The Political Intelligence Department concluded, “The whole of Palestine, within the limits set out in the main body of the memorandum, lies within the limits which H.M.G have pledged themselves to Sherif Hussein that they will recognize and uphold the independence of.” The second, was the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement where Britain and France made a secret agreement to divide up the Middle East between them. This was the precursor to the division of land of the different political states we see today in the Middle East.
Quite often we hear that there is no justice when it comes to politics and that morals and ethics rarely play a role as political decisions are primarily driven by power. In the midst of conflict, military leaders and governments are under high pressure to make quick decisions. While some may be aware of the context of their decisions, they rarely look at the long-term consequences.
One hundred years later, some of what is left of these promises, declarations, and agreements that shaped the Middle East are the moral and ethical implications. The declarations were based on mixed emotions, which included racism, greed and personal motives to exalt individuals as they sought to shape history, geographics and people. They led to false promises, betrayal and deceit. While it would be too easy to lay all the blame for the problems we are facing in the Middle East on Western powers - local leaders obviously had and have their share in this painful ongoing conflict - it can’t be denied that far-reaching historic decisions were made without consulting the people on the ground. Borders were drawn according to selfish interests in the middle of another people’s land. In their Western view of the local population as primitive and uneducated, foreign decision makers saw a need to enlighten and lead the natives out of the “dark ages”.
God has appointed leaders and governments to provide earthly justice and protection, to act on behalf of the good of all people and punish evildoers (Romans 13). Scripture requires governments to do this whether they were elected democratically or not. God will hold all leaders accountable for how they use their power.
We see the devastating results of leaders who disregarded the moral-ethical element of their decisions throughout scripture. First, Ahab who sought to expand his land and therefore killed Naboth, a weaker individual to suit his own interests, which stemmed from his greed and pride. Second, King Zedekiah who ignored the prophet Jeremiah’s warnings and entered into an alliance with Egypt. He did not seek humility or regard the moral, ethical, and spiritual bankruptcy of the people. Jeremiah paid a high price for speaking up against his government.
The same is true today. Political expediency will fade away until only the ethical stand or compromise will be left. The choices we make now will have consequences in the long run.
In reconciliation one of the hardest things is looking at our own history and historical narrative. There are times when we hear the others’ narrative and immediately try to point out statements that are untrue or acts that are unjust and are quick to react without weighing moral and ethical standards. In order to have reconciliation, we need to seek how to create a new narrative which brings hope and relieves the other from guilt and blame without turning a blind eye to injustice.
It is a difficult task that not only involves Israeli and Palestinian organizations and leaders but international actors who seek to be a bridge in our conflict. While the past 100 years have brought pain and conflict, let us all find new ways to contribute towards reconciliation. We might start by praying for wise and moral leaders. The challenge is for each and every one of us as we have our own spheres of influence and a responsibility to use it and bring about change.
By Salim J. Munayer, Ph.D