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Declarations of (In)Dependence: Tensions within Zionist Statecraft, 1896-1948

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Derek Jonathan Penslar

This article analyzes the relationship between dependence and independence in four foundational texts in the history of Zionist statecraft: Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State of 1896, the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the Biltmore Program of 1942, and the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. These documents differ greatly in authorship, structure, and audience, but taken together, they illustrate the Zionist project’s convergence with and divergence from anticolonial projects and postcolonial states in the first half of the twentieth century. Both the political program that Herzl sketched out in The Jewish State and Chaim Weizmann’s lobbying during the First World War depended upon the good graces of Europe’s colonial powers. After the war, jubilation among Jews over the Balfour Declaration was accompanied by displays of gratitude, an emotion associated with conditions of dependence. Like anticolonialism in India, Zionism was cautious about demanding outright independence, although the Zionists’ dependence upon Britain was far greater given their status as a minority of Palestine’s population, facing a hostile Arab majority. When the Zionists did demand independence in the Biltmore Program, they also acknowledged their ongoing dependence upon Britain, which they called upon to fulfill its Mandatory responsibilities. In 1948 the Zionists did not separate from Britain so much as Britain separated from Palestine. The Palestine war of that year was a struggle between Israel and Arabs, not between Israel and Britain. Accordingly, the state’s founding declaration was an assertion of creation, not separation, and of sovereignty, not independence from another power. Nonetheless, the document reflected dependence on the international community that had approved Palestine’s partition in November 1947.