Red tape, blunders keep Balfour Declaration away from the homeland it promised

Years after prime minister announced seminal Zionist document, issued 99 years ago today, would be displayed in Tel Aviv, dream of bringing it to Israel mired in renovations and bureaucratic snafus

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

It took decades to bring the Balfour Declaration, which enshrined London’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, to fruition. Bringing the actual document to Israel for a second visit may take even longer.

Plans to bring the Balfour Declaration to Tel Aviv for its second-ever display in Israel were announced by the Israeli government six and a half years ago, but they are held up in a dust of renovation rubble and bureaucratic misunderstandings, with no horizon for getting it to Tel Aviv for at least another year.

The document, which was issued exactly 99 years ago Wednesday, is now expected to arrive in Israel in 2018. That is just in time for the country’s 70th anniversary — but one year after the declaration’s centennial in 2017.

Originally, the Israeli government expected to host the document in 2015 on the occasion of the grand opening of the renovated Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, where it was supposed to be displayed together with Lord Arthur Balfour’s desk.

In a press release issued in April 2013, the Prime Minister’s Office announced that then-cabinet secretary Tzvi Hauser “received agreement in principle from the British Library for the original copy of the Balfour Declaration.”

The British Library, however, insists that no such agreement was ever granted. Indeed, Israel never formally asked for a loan, according to library spokesperson Ben Sanderson.

“We received an initial enquiry from the Israeli government, as to the conditions that need to be met to enable a loan of the item,” Sanderson wrote in an email to The Times of Israel. “The Library responded to this request, outlining our loans policy and indicating the issues that need to be considered in order to facilitate the loan of the Declaration. We have yet to receive a formal loan request. Any decision on a loan of the item will ultimately be made by the British Library Board.”

Once a formal loan request is made, Sanderson added, “we’ll be able to give proper consideration to whether the institution making the request is able to fulfill the requirements of our loans policy.”

The Balfour Declaration projected onto the façade of the Israeli embassy in London, November 2016 (courtesy)
The Balfour Declaration projected onto the façade of the Israeli embassy in London, November 2016 (courtesy)

Reuven Pinski, Israel’s point man in the contacts with the British Library, acknowledged that the government was incorrect in announcing an “agreement in principle” from the British Library. In fact, the library was unhappy about the misleading press release and voiced its displeasure to the Israeli authorities, he admitted.

“No agreement was reached; it was more like an informal understanding that if we fulfill all the conditions in the future they would agree to loan it to us,” Pinski, who at the time directed the the Heritage Division in the Prime Minister’s Office (which has since been incorporated into the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, headed by Ze’ev Elkin), told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

Announcing an agreement where there was none was not the only inaccuracy in the Prime Minister’s Office’s 2013 statement: It also claimed that the future exhibit would mark the first time the Balfour Declaration would be shown in Israel. In fact, the original declaration was loaned to the Knesset from October 1987 to May 1988, on the occasion of its 70th anniversary and the State of Israel’s 40th birthday.

The British Library has strict rules for lending items to institutions abroad in order to guarantee they are preserved, presented and secured appropriately, Pinski explained. “We need to show exactly where it is going to be displayed, and what efforts we are making to preserve it and what kind of security there will be on the premises.”

Therefore, Israel has decided to wait until the current renovations at the Independence Hall are completed before filing a formal loan request, he said.

Independence renovation

Following a government decision from May 2009, the preservation work started in 2011 and has since been expanded to included various stages. This major overhaul is a very complicated process, Pinski said, in part because the historic building on 6 Rothschild Boulevard — where David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in 1948 — has no foundations, entailing special zoning changes and planning approvals that took years to acquire.

The latest permit needed to advance constructions was just received this week, Pinski said.

The building is among the first five houses built on the sands of Tel Aviv in 1909, and therefore the renovations are being done in stages, explained Nirit Shalev Khalifa, Independence Hall’s main curator.

“In 2013, preliminary renovation and preservation work was conducted to allow the functioning of the building, which hosts thousands of visitors per month,” she told The Times of Israel. “In the coming year, after detailed planning, the house will be closed for about one year for thorough repair work, including the digging of a basement with an auditorium and the strengthening the foundations.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, on May 1, 2014. (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Independence Hall in Tel Aviv, on May 1, 2014. (GPO/Amos Ben Gershom)

The renovations are expected to be concluded in time for Israel’s 70th birthday in May 2018. “For the opening, we hope to showcase all original items, foremost among them the Scroll [the original Declaration of Independence], which will remain in the building for a permanent exhibition,” Shalev Khalifa said. “For short periods of time, special items from abroad — including the [Balfour] Declaration — will be exhibited. Their presentation requires special means of preservation, which will exist in the new museum.”

But next year, when the world marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration’s centennial with a host of programs and events — Israel is planning to publish a stamp to celebrate the occasion — Independence Hall will be closed.

Lord Balfour speaks at the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, April 1925 (Library of Congress)
Lord Balfour speaks at the opening of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, April 1925 (Library of Congress)

The actual letter, which Balfour wrote to the head of Britain’s Jewish community, Lord Walter Rothschild, asserting for the first time his government’s support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in mandatory Palestine, will remain safely stowed away in London. (The Rothschild family gave it to the British Museum, which later transferred it to the British Library.)

“It’s regrettable that we’re missing the 100-year anniversary,” the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry’s Pinski said. “But it’s much preferable to present the Balfour Declaration at the grand opening of the Independence Hall.”

Battling over Balfour

Notwithstanding the document’s physical location during the centennial, Israelis and Palestinians have already launched rival campaigns, each interpreting the document’s historical importance according to their respective narrative.

Top officials in Ramallah have vowed to sue the British government and are badmouthing the “notorious” document, in which Britain gave “without any right, authority or consent from anyone, the land of Palestine to another people,” as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations in September.

In a piece for Newsweek published Wednesday, Palestine Liberation Organization chief Saeb Erekat called the declaration a “grave insult to world justice” and urged the UK to apologize for it.

Even Hamas chimed in, saying in a press release Wednesday evening that the Palestinians’ right to the land “is sacred and cannot be erased by a void promise from one criminal to another.”

In Jerusalem, the Balfour Declaration is being celebrated as “one of the earliest statements by a major international actor to recognize the Jewish people’s rights to self-determination in their historic homeland,” as the Israeli embassy declared in a statement released Wednesday. Israel’s ambassador in London, Mark Regev, on Wednesday marked the occasion by releasing 99 balloons and having the text of the declaration projected onto the embassy façade.

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