Covenants and Contracts: Balfour and San Remo

Parashat VaYishlach 32:4 – 36:43

There are two kinds of naming, Adam names the animals, the weeds and the trees. These are class names. The second kind of naming is personal. In this parashat, God renames Jacob, Israel, a name that is confirmed later. The first time at Jabbock “a man” wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn, (32:25) but could not prevail against Jacob. The man wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket and insisted that Jacob let him go, for a whole night had passed and dawn was breaking. Jacob refused to let him go unless the man blessed him. The man asked his name. “Jacob,” Jacob replied. The man then said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and huma, and have prevailed.” (32:29)

 יִשְׂרָאֵל (Yisra’el) means “God contends”, from the roots שָׂרָה (sarah) meaning “to contend, to fight” and אֵל ( ‘el) meaning “God”. Note what happens in the fight. Abraham confronted God with moral principles over Sodom and Gomorrah and principles of just retribution for evil committed to push as low a figure of collateral damage in confronting evil. This was very different than Isaac’s total compliance with his father and with God. When we get to Jacob renamed as Israel, we get both confrontation – wrestling – and compliance – after wrestling all night, there is a tie. Jacob holds the Other down, but the other damages Jacob’s hip. Jacob lets go only when the Other blesses him and gives him a new name, as one who fought with Got but did not submit but rather prevailed.

We thus have the three very different ways of dealing with God, respectively parallel to the morning, afternoon and evening prayers: confrontation; compliance and then collaboration. Jacob becomes Israel and is now a partner with God, with He who has no name. A particular name is not a class identifier but a characterization and specification of who one should or has become. In this case, Jacob fights with God, not as a supplicant but as an equal. God becomes a man with no name, a divine being who will sometime reveal Himself, who shall be whom He shall be, but cannot be identified in the present. He is a God of revelation.

From the last parashat we learned the difference between a covenant and a contract both as nouns and as verbs. A covenant is a spiritual arrangement; a contract is a legal one. When Jacob releases “the man” in return for his blessing, this is not a quid pro quo, but an exchange in which the Other becomes like you and you become like the Other. Jacob now has a spark of the divine spirit. The covenant of the promise that “the man” made to Jacob changes his name, changes his personality and changes his destiny.

What was it before? Jacob was a very transactional fellow. All deals were conditional. Even letting God go was conditioned on getting a blessing. But this was not like the blessing Jacob tricked his father into giving him. For this blessing was not obtained by trickery but by struggle, by wrestling, by a determination to make himself he who he should be, and, in that sense, akin to God. God is released, but as we had already learned when God made a promise to Jacob beside the ladder or the staircase to heaven, the reward of material goods was promised before. The reward now is an historical destiny. It is not about what you will have but about what you will become. The agreement is asymmetrical rather than reciprocal. Further, a covenant is perpetual; it is for all time. A contract is for the time specified. One seals a covenant; a person signs a contract. A covenant goes one way; a contract goes both ways and is mutually beneficial.

Order of BeingSpiritualMaterial
Kind of ExchangeA unilateral endowmentQuid pro quo
DirectionPledgeBilateral agreement
Time LimitPerpetualTime specified
DutyObligation on giverDuties for both
RewardBenefit for receiverBoth gain

The difference between a covenant and a contract is symbolized by the two mountains in Jewish iconography. Mount Moriah is about an eternal presence. Mount Sinai is where the laws of life on earth were given. Mount Moriah is where Abraham agreed to sacrifice his long awaited and deeply loved son; it is where Abraham offered his son as a sacrifice to God. Mount Sinai is where Moses received the law. Moriah is where humans offer that for which they care the most to their God; Mount Moriah is a place of great cost. Mount Sinai is the place where man receives his greatest gift – the rule of law and his sense of justice. Mount Moriah is supposedly where the ladder to heaven stood. Mount Sinai is the mountain which Moses climbed and from which peak he returned with the tablets of the law.

We are the children of Jacob, of Israel, of a very flawed transactional individual who yet could and did wrestle with the divine. And Israel bequeathed on all his descendants a divine mission, one that would last for the rest of history. Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed. You are not only successful in dealing with money and power, but with the highest authority of all. You have come face-to-face with God.

Jacob did not give up; he persisted. He held on and he held out. H maintained his vigilance until the Other delivered a vaccine vial against evil. He both embraced God tightly and pushed Him to the ground; Jacob grounded God. That is the nature of the partnership. A man of Israel shall not shrink before an enormous challenge. But neither shall he beat the Other. Even though it pains him, even though he may limp for the rest of his life, it is important to prevail, not by imprisoning the other, but be letting go, by releasing the Other into freedom. Judaism is not a religion of shrinking violets, of extreme modesty and insignificance, but of making your name as a sign on the record of history, of leaving your heritage to others. But it is also a heritage of giving others their freedom and acting out of a sense of justice.

The world is a realm for creativity, for innovation, for embracing the Other and the strange, for welcoming and not fearing the stranger. A Covenant obligates God. We reciprocate, not as a matter of a deal made, but as we respond to love, as we respond to a gift, by acceptance, by becoming that which transformed us and made us always try to make the world a better place. We accept the obligation to be God, to give to others in turn, to pass on the legacy, to accept collective responsibility. We informed all our actions with an inner conscience that provided us with standards to dictate our behaviour and bring God closer to humankind. All must share in God’s beneficence.  

I want to translate this high falutin’ language into the practical, the political and the wrestling with power and authority by explaining the covenant made in the Balfour Declaration compared to the contract the powerful nations at San Remo agreed to that eventually brought Israel into being.

The Balfour Declaration was a public statement based on a letter written to Lord Rothschild by Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour on behalf of the British government ion 9 November 1917 during the First World War announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine, then an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population. The Declaration read: “His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours 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.”

This was a covenantal document, a promise by Great Britain with no timeline or conditions that the Jewish people had to fulfill in reciprocation. It was a unilateral pledge by the greatest world power at the time imposing obligations on Britain for the benefit of Zionists. Note, it did not promise that Palestine would be the national home, but that the national home would be in Palestine. There were two conditions – that the fulfillment of this promise would not prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities in Palestine, but nothing was said about protecting their political rights. The second condition was that the pledge would not affect the rights and political status of Jews in any other country. These were not conditions placed on the Jews or the Zionists but on Britain and others. The letter was a clear exercise in the diplomatic art of creative ambiguity very suited to a moral offer but of little use as a legal document. It would be a guide.

In San Remo on the Italian Riviera in April 1920, the victorious allies met to, among other things, divide up the spoils of World War I among the victors into mandates assigned to each of the victors by firm international agreements. One item was the assignment of Palestine to the supervision of Great Britain and the confirmation of the Balfour Declaration and translation of it into a legal international treaty. The Balfour pledge was confirmed  by Prime Minister David Lloyd George and Lord Curzon who had replaced Balfour as foreign minister to encapsulate the Balfour Declaration as a statement of British government foreign policy and “raise” it to a binding international agreement. The Balfour Declaration was included as a postscript to the San Remo Agreement on Palestine.

The High Contracting Parties agree that Syria and Mesopotamia shall, in accordance with the fourth paragraph of Article 22, Part I (Covenant of the League of Nations), be provisionally recognized as independent States, subject to the rendering of administrative advice and assistance by a mandatory until such time as they are able to stand alone. The boundaries of the said States will be determined, and the selection of the Mandatories made, by the Principal Allied Powers.[15]

The High Contracting Parties agree to entrust, by application of the provisions of Article 22, the administration of Palestine, within such boundaries as may be determined by the Principal Allied Powers, to a Mandatory, to be selected by the said Powers. The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on the 8th [2nd] November, 1917, by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favour of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, 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.

In other words, Mandatory Palestine was to be an independent state. Its borders would be defined by a separate international agreement by the parties, but, in reality, a treaty between Britain and France. The Mandate would have a time limit – until such time as the state could live on its own. In the meanwhile, Britain was charged with providing administrative advice and assistance. Britain was not granted administrative powers. Nor was Britain assigned the responsibility for the security of Palestine, functions that it assumed. Britain was to be a mentor. The Implication was that the state would be self-governing, subject to advice along the lines that Britain provided for Transjordan.

By including the Balfour Declaration as a clarificatory postscript, given that a singular state was envisioned, the logical conclusion is that it would be a Jewish commonwealth and not just a homeland within Palestine. The Jewish state would include all of Jerusalem and what became known as the West Bank. This San Remo agreement was subsequently unanimously ratified by 56 member states of the League of Nations, and later assumed as a legal obligation by the United Nations Charter and then an amendment recommended by a UN General Assembly resolution. Thus, it was not just a victors’ agreement of an imperial deal but a properly endorsed international legal treaty.

If Balfour was a covenant, San Remo was a contract subject to revision by subsequent international agreements. The United Nations partition resolution of 1947, even though, as a General Assembly resolution it was advisory and not mandatory, has been treated by the commonwealth of nations as a de facto though not de jure revision to the original treaty. Thus, we have three types of relevant and applicable documents, not just two:

  1. A covenantal obligation – the Balfour Declaration
  2. A legal international agreement – San Remo
  3. A quasi-legal international advisory position – UNGA 1947 partition resolution.

Covenants can be vague. Contracts cannot. Establishing a homeland in Palestine did not mean establishing a homeland in all of Palestine. Establishing a homeland did not mean creating a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine or a recognition of the right of the Jewish people to self determination in Palestine. It did imply no restrictions on either Jewish immigration to Palestine or on land purchased by Jews within Palestine, limitations which became part of British policy in the British White Paper of 1939 in response to the Arab riots and uprising of 1936-1937.

The reality is that two other grounded determinations were added to the moral covenantal promise (one that fulfilled God’s covenant to the Jewish people), the San Remo legal obligation, and the UNGA advisory compromise in the face of the war on the ground. The conditions were the Jewish purchases and settlement of the land and the Jewish military victories first in 1948 and then in 1967. The promise and covenant to create a a Jewish state, however, conflicted with Woodrow Wilson’s very different covenant, his thirteen principles and the pledge to create independent democracies, though this promise was subsequently clarified to apply only to European states. Nevertheless, the promise of a democratic state conflicted with the Balfour promise of a Jewish commonwealth since Jews at the time were only a small minority in Palestine.

This is not the place to adjudicate these disputes among different grounds for settling contemporary disagreements and conflicts. Instead, the analysis is offered as a frame for understanding the ancient effort of the Hebrew people, initially by Israel (Jacob) to establish a state for the Hebrew clan in what was then Canaan, which has a significant overlap with Mandatory Palestine. The question would be whether the Hebrews defined their state by God’s promise, by the contracts that Israel (Jacob) made with the resident population and the treaties entered into, the advice (and will) dominant international states like Egypt or Persia would express about the governance of Palestine in accordance with realpolitik, the actual settlement on and development of the land, or military victories.


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