Culture

The irony contained in a piece of paper

BEIRUT: It is just a scrap of paper with some roughly scribbled words on it, written 89 years ago in a London hotel. But that scrap of paper, or lot number 217, to be sold at a Sotheby's auction of Fine Books and Manuscripts in New York on June 16, holds the founding remarks of what would become the future Jewish state of Israel.

The note reads: "H[is] M[ajesty's] G[overnment] accepts the principle that Palestine should be reconstituted as the Nat[iona]l Home of the J[ewish] P[eople]. HMG will use its best efforts to secure the achievement of this object, and will discuss the necessary methods and means with the Z[ionist] O[rganization]."

That's right. What is going under the hammer in five days time is a draft written on hotel stationery of the Balfour Declaration, the British government's statement that agreed in principle to the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

And the Sotheby's estimate? Between $500,000 and $800,000. Quite a figure for a scrap of paper - although a number of other papers from Simon's archives are also included in the sale.

The signed memorandum of the text, which would later be issued, with the war Cabinet's modifications, as the Declaration, made at the July 17, 1917, meeting of the Zionist Political Committee at the Imperial Hotel by Leon Simon, will probably fall into the hands of an interested collector.

But what exactly is it and what does it mean and for who? How important is it and what then is its value? How much indeed can such a document be worth? Is that estimate too little an amount for a founding document if we are to take Sotheby's by their word?

Essentially Simon's text is a fascinating one for the background it reveals to how Britain eventually came up with the agreement to establish a Jewish State in Palestine and how close the wording is to the final manuscript.

Yet it also indicates the difference in what the British government was willing to announce in the official text: "His Majesty's Government view with favor 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 final wording of the Balfour Declaration then, was clearly much less committal as many in the British Cabinet feared that supporting a Jewish state would endanger Jews in other countries wishing to remain in those countries, and would impose upon the Palestinian Arabs the rule of a foreign race.

Simon (1881-1965) was an English Zionist leader, Hebrew scholar and civil servant, responsible for much early Zionist pamphleteering, and was part of the circle of Manchester Zionists around Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952), a founding father of Israel, and his archives are being sold by Sotheby's from the estate of his daughter.

Prior to the end of the First World War Weizmann's group had been pushing for British annexation of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire as a mandate territory and hoped to push for the establishment of a Jewish homeland under British military protection until it could stand by itself. However, annexation was more than the British would commit to.

Weizmann knew former Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour and took advantage of the fact to seek a formal expression of sympathy from the U.K. government. A man of science, he had been helping the Admiralty and the Munitions Ministry during the war earning him the gratitude of David Lloyd George, who became minister of munitions in 1915.

By 1917, when Balfour became the new foreign secretary, he agreed to the Zionists' demands and asked Weizmann for a draft declaration that would express the sentiments of the Zionist Organization. That draft was sent by Lord Rothschild to Balfour, whose response would be in a letter containing the Declaration.

As Sotheby's have it, the scrap of paper is one of the building blocks of the state of Israel and of immense historical worth. And indeed for Jews, the Balfour Declaration itself is one of the foundation documents on which the Jewish state was created, thus giving it value.

But for Palestinians, and for numerous Arabs, the Balfour Declaration is one of the worst injustices done in history and the cause of all their troubles to date - the creation of Israel, the exodus of the Palestinian people and the four Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, -67, -73 and -82.

(Ask one of the aging Palestinian refugees who fled their country in 1948 now living in poor conditions in the Lebanese camps of Sabra or Bourj al-Barajneh in Beirut or Ain al Hilweh in Sidon and their damnation of the British and the Declaration is unequivocal.)

Not surprising when in the Israel of today those "civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" so clearly stated in the Declaration are almost nonexistent.

Yet Sotheby's are marketing the memorandum (in the catalogue for the sale), as the Israeli equivalent in import of the American Declaration of Independence.

"No other monument of the formation of Israel of this magnitude and from this early period has been offered at auction . ... The present collection (175 of Simon's papers of which the Balfour draft is the most prominent) is an exceptional opportunity to own a document of extraordinary historical significance, a document forged on the anvil of history," the entry published on Sotheby's Web site reads.

It continues: "If the Declaration of Independence can be viewed as the first formal political step in the foundation of the United States, then the Balfour Declaration can be so viewed in the history of Israel, and the present memorandum is the equivalent of an autograph draft of the text by Thomas Jefferson.

"Few documents can be owned that are more evocative of the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people for the formation of Israel, or that have had greater political impact on the present-day world."

Indeed for Jews and Israelis all of Sotheby's words are valid. The draft of the Balfour Declaration written by a leading proponent of the Zionist dream is as valuable as the American Declaration of Independence. But surely an autograph text of the Declaration of Independence by Jefferson would be worth more than $500,000-$800,000?

What does Simon's draft text mean for the Palestinians? It takes just a small leap to imagine that last sentence from Sotheby's above reading "few documents can be owned that are more evocative of the despair and crushed dreams of the Palestinian people for the end of their aspirations to nationhood, or that have had greater political impact on the present day world," highlighting the import of this document for different peoples.

Would it be so bold as to suggest that perhaps the fledgling Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas could purchase Simon's memo with some of the $50 million in aid recently promised by President George W. Bush and put it toward a "Museum of the Naqba" to be erected sometime in the future somewhere in Jerusalem.

The naqba - or catastrophe - is the term the Palestinians use for their forced flight from Palestine in 1948 when Israel was eventually established in a blaze of blood and warfare.

The point is that the draft memo of Balfour's statement is as equally important for the last 90 years of Palestinian history and Arab history as it is for that of Jewish history. The fact that the Arab-Israeli conflict is today in full swing as it has been for half a century is proof enough of that.

As recently as Monday clashes erupted in East Jerusalem when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon celebrated the 38th anniversary of Israel's capture of the holy city in 1967 promising it would stay in Israeli hands forever.

There is no guarantee that Lot 217 will sell for its estimate but it is likely. It may even fetch more. And it is the most expensive manuscript at the sale, the next in line being some handwritten text from Albert Einstein. Rarely do such "nation-founding" manuscripts come on to the market. The nearest comparison in terms of the price is one of the commemorative pens used by President Truman to sign the official United States recognition of the State of Israel. It went for a whopping $280,000 in 2002.

Still, at upward of $500,000 how cruelly ironic that this draft of scrawled words, this one piece of paper, can command such a high price, when thousands upon thousands of title deeds for property and land in Palestinian hands, became worthless because of it.

For more info on the draft goto www.sothebys.com

 

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