Edwin Black’s ‘secret’ history of the Balfour Declaration


Investigative journalist Edwin Black led a Potomac audience through a dizzying history of the Balfour Declaration last week — it promised a Jewish national home in Palestine and was issued 100 years ago this month — by beginning the story 4.6 billion years ago.

Black, author of “IBM and the Holocaust” and “The Transfer Agreement,” told 50 people Nov. 9 at Congregation B’nai Tzedek that it usually takes him 90 minutes to cover those billions of billions of years, but owing to time constraints he would do the job in 60.

Dressed in a black suit, black shirt and black tie, he never flagged from the pace he set for himself. Balfour, far from a musty document, was the modern international endorsement of a Jewish state in their ancestral land, according to Black.

Black was also keen to settle the question of who is indigenous to the land and to reveal information his audience had not been told before. To prove how accessible such information really is, he referred in his talk to webpages he projected from his computer.


“All this stuff is on the internet,” he said. “Even Wikipedia knows it.”

The best Jewish stories start “In the beginning,” and in Black’s beginning 4.6 billion years ago, the continents were a single land mass. “Israel was the little part of land left when Asia pulled away from Africa,” he said. It was, he said, in the center of the world.

Jump ahead to about 100,000 years ago in nearby northeast Africa, and mankind is developing. By 9,000 years ago, Jericho, in the Jordan Valley, was “the first city people would die for.”

And on, through the Philistines, a nonindigenous people who were the enemies of the Israelites. (“Palestine comes from the word ‘Philistines.’”) The united kingdom of David and Solomon. The eviction of the Jews in the first century C.E. by the Romans, who then dubbed the land Palestine.

Edwin Black. Courtesy of Edwin Black

“I’m arming you with facts about who is indigenous and who is not indigenous,” Black said. “They say there were only Arabs” in the land. But in the days of the Balfour Declaration, “Greek Orthodox, German Templars, Zoroastrians, Druze and Kurds” were residents.

Black painted a dark picture of the Arabs, who swept out of Arabian Peninsula in 627. First they “exterminated the Jews in the largely Jewish town of Medina.” Then they carried on a slave trade that would have put the American sin of slavery to shame if the two were in competition.

There were 388,000 Africans brought to North America in bondage, he said. “For 1,000 years before that, 15 million Africans were killed to build the caliphate.”

Time marched on. When World War I approached, Black stopped the bus.

“You’ve been told the Balfour Declaration was some kind of British project for the Jews,” he said.

The text gives that impression:

“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The declaration, Black said, “was a joint project for many nations and was endorsed by 52 nations…. The Balfour text was sent to Woodrow Wilson, who approved … The Turks and the Germans [the enemy powers in World War I] also endorsed it.”

But what did the declaration mean? Black zeroed in on the phrase: “national home for the Jewish people.”

“It means that one group — the Jews — are getting their rights in Palestine. Not two. But everyone gets civil and religious rights,” he said.

Black pointed out instances where the meanings of words have changed from their original usages.

Palestinians, for example. Who are the Palestinians? A New York Times headline from 1945 provided Black’s answer. It reads: “Arabs to boycott Palestinian goods.”

“The Jews were Palestinians and the Arabs were not,” Black said. “Never mind what they call it today.”

In the 1920 treaty of peace ending World War I, “the Balfour Declaration is in there” in article 95, Black said. “No one told you that.”

In 1922, Congress passed a joint resolution favoring the Balfour Declaration. In article 80 of the United Nations Charter of 1945 “the Balfour process is still intact.”

“What does this all mean?” he said. “You may not be getting the true story.”

Jennifer Enig of Bethesda, came to Black’s talk with her mother and teenage daughter. “It’s important that you are armed with the facts,” she said. “Children, especially, need to be educated.”

Michael Maman of Chevy Chase said he heard a lot of things he didn’t learn in his Jewish day school. “It put things in a new perspective,” he said.

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  1. I was at Bnai Tzedek the evening Edwin Black gave his presentation. It was nothing short of spectacular. I thought I had a pretty good amount of knowledge regarding the Balfour Agreement, in reality I knew almost nothing. Mr. Black gave us an education beyond anyone’s expectations. It is a pity this article is not in the Washington Post and every single major publication in the United States. The world needs to know what Edwin Black has to say. It may not matter in the sense it probably will not change the world’s opinion on Israelis and Palestinians. Nonetheless, I would love to see more people exposed to this history.

  2. Great summary of the talk, although I would have liked to have read mention of the history of the “Arab Kingdom of Syria” المملكة العربية السورية, the state promised to King Faisal and the Arabs by the British but disrupted by the French in the Sykes–Picot agreement. Faisal said it would be an Arab government based on justice and equality for all Arabs regardless of religion. For Arab nationalists, and many of the Arabs who fought in the Arab Revolt, this was the realization of a long hard-fought goal.

    A critical piece of history I think that gets overlooked in this debate.


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