Two Israeli scholars shed light on the Sephardi Jews whose perspectives were left out of the 1917 Balfour Declaration
In 1921, four years after the Balfour Declaration promised to establish a “national home for the Jewish people” in the Holy Land, Yosef Castel, a well-known public figure in Jerusalem, prepared an alternative version of the declaration. It also centered on establishing a national home, but for two peoples, Jewish and Arab, rather than one.
“Both sides are fighting each other over a single land, and they must, as a matter of historical necessity, live in it together and peacefully develop their national homes in the same land, which is destined to be one state,” he wrote. Or in today’s terminology, one state for two peoples.
Ahead of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, which was issued on November 2, 1917 and paved the way for a United Nations resolution 30 years later to establish a Jewish state, historian Hillen Cohen and sociologist Yuval Evri dug Castel’s plan out of the archives. They sought to shed light on those whose views were not reflected in the declaration – excluded, silenced or simply unheard, and still gathering dust a century later.
Primarily, these were Sephardi Jews living in pre-state Palestine. They didn’t support a “national home for the Jewish people,” but rather something that would satisfy the desires and aspirations of their Arab neighbors as well.
Castel, whose ancestors were expelled from Spain in 1492, was one of the most prominent figures in this group. In an article scheduled for publication in an upcoming edition of “Theory and Criticism,” a journal published by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, Cohen and Evri wrote that Castel “broke the taboo on what was accepted in Zionist discourse” by presenting the land as the national home of two peoples.
Castel saw the Balfour Declaration as “the principal obstacle” to cooperation between Jews and Arabs, since it “terrified” the Arabs. He therefore urged Lord Balfour to change his declaration. Whereas Balfour merely insisted that nothing be done to “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities,” Castel wanted a provision saying that Jews would “develop the other inhabitants’ current national home ... and uphold their legal rights over the land.” In other words, unlike the Zionist movement, he thought Arabs also had national rights to the land.
Reading Castel’s plan raises a troubling question: Would an “amended” version of the Balfour Declaration, which also recognized Arab national rights, have changed the Arab response to it, and thereby the bloody history of the Middle East?
“Possibly, but that’s just speculation,” Cohen said in an interview with Haaretz this week. “It’s possible that, absent the Zionist movement’s involvement, a different Balfour Declaration would have been issued” — one that would have helped Jews already in Palestine and permitted immigration, but wouldn’t have promised “a national home for Jews only.”
Just as this question will forever remain unanswered, Castel’s plan went unanswered back then. Cohen and Evri couldn’t find any responses to it in the archives.
Zionist leaders ignored not only Arabs, but also Jews who had lived alongside them in the Land of Israel, and in particular Sephardi Jews like Castel who disagreed with the Balfour Declaration. Local Jews weren’t even involved in preparing the declaration; it was drafted following negotiations between British officials and Zionist movement representatives in London.
“This wasn’t deliberate exclusion, but natural exclusion, which in practice was even more [absolute],” said Cohen, a Hebrew University professor who will lecture on the topic at a conference at the university’s Truman Center on November 1. “It never occurred to people like Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow to talk to representatives of the Chelouche family, for instance, and brief them on the negotiations with the British,” he added, referring to two Zionist leaders and a Sephardi family that helped found Tel Aviv.
When the declaration was published, in the twilight of Ottoman rule over the land, the local Jews had civic equality, Cohen said. “This doesn’t mean there weren’t tensions here and there, but the Jews got what they wanted.”
Thus the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s subsequent conquest of the land made some local Jews fear that European Zionists “were sacrificing what they had managed to build and imposing themselves,” Cohen said. “There were Jews here who felt that they, too, like the Arabs, were being trampled on and pushed to the sidelines.”
Jews of Tiberias at the entrance of their home, 1893
Orthodox Jews in Tiberias, 1927
Another vehement opponent of the Balfour Declaration was Haim Ben Kiki, the scion of a well-known Sephardi rabbinic family from Tiberias. In 1920, he criticized what he viewed as local Jews’ overenthusiastic reaction to the declaration.
“Many celebrations shouldn’t have taken place and many articles shouldn’t have been written,” he wrote in the newspaper Doar Hayom. “Boisterous celebrations and articles, which are out of place and poorly timed, merely disrupt the leaders’ activities and confuse their ‘perspective.’”
Ben Kiki viewed the declaration as a colonialist project that sought to impose European interests and culture — which he viewed as alien and detrimental to local Jews and Arabs alike — on the Middle East. He felt the Sephardi community was at home in Arab culture and the Arab world, whereas Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants from Europe brought an alien Western culture.
In another article, a year later, he was even blunter. “The Sephardi community, which came from eastern lands to an eastern land, whose soul has been intertwined for generations with the Arab people, felt that something unpleasant was happening here, that this whole movement wasn’t being done properly,” he wrote, adding that local Arabs should addressed “not from a standpoint of Western superiority, but out of an understanding that the Land of Israel is in the East, and its inhabitants are part of Eastern culture.”
Castel and Ben Kiki represented a tiny minority of Jews. Most Zionists were thrilled by the Balfour Declaration and the prospect of establishing a Jewish state. November 2 was even declared a national holiday. Even the local Sephardi community’s official leadership supported the declaration, though compared to the Zionist leadership in Europe, it was “more attentive and sensitive to Palestinian opposition to the declaration,” Cohen said.
The Sephardi community, he added, grappled with conflicting identities and loyalties. On one hand, it wanted to connect with European Zionism. On the other hand, there were efforts to establish a shared homeland for Jews and Arabs based on cooperation and equality.
Another document Cohen and Evri found in the archives shows that some British officials had views similar to the Sephardi community.
On March 12, 1916, the British Foreign Office prepared an early draft of what later became the Balfour Declaration. It made no mention of a Jewish national home, but merely called for Jews to have the same political, civil and religious rights as Arabs, along with “such municipal privileges as may be essential in towns and colonies inhabitant by Jews” and “reasonable facilities for colonization and emigration.”
It was written, at the Foreign Office’s request, by a non-Zionist Jewish journalist, Lucien Wolf. But like Castel’s plan, it is just another footnote to history.