The Balfour Declaration: 67 words that changed the history of Palestine
The British and Israeli governments celebrated the Balfour Declaration in London and Israel while Palestinians and their supporters marched in many cities across the world demanding an apology from Britain for its role in the creation of Israel and the dispossession and continued suffering of the Palestinian people. British Prime Minister Theresa May promised a Conservative Friends of Israel meeting in 2016 that Britain would be “marking it with pride.”
The most notable dissenting political voice was the Labour leader and long-time supporter of the Palestinian people, Jeremy Corbyn, who declined an invitation to a dinner in London with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The Balfour Declaration is a 1917 letter from British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Walter Rothschild, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. The critical part of this short letter said: “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.”
It is notable for offering the land of one people to another people without consulting the Palestinians, all British Jews or the rest of the British public. It crucially omitted reference to the indigenous Palestinian Arabs who made up 90% of the population between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It was bizarrely made at a time when Britain was not even in occupation of Palestine.
Current British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the declaration “bizarre,” a “tragically incoherent document” and “an exquisite piece of Foreign Office fudgerama,” two years ago before taking office.
However, he still wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph celebrating Israel’s creation. He said: “I see no contradiction in being a friend of Israel — and a believer in that country’s destiny — while also being deeply moved by the suffering of those affected and dislodged by its birth. The vital caveat in the Balfour Declaration — intended to safeguard other communities — has not been fully realised.”
There is much debate about Britain’s motive in offering the declaration that revolves around charges of anti-Semitic leanings against Balfour but also its seeing the creation of a state that would be loyal to it at a geographically sensitive location near the Suez Canal.
The only dissenting voice against the idea of Britain assisting the Zionist movement in creating a homeland for Jews in Palestine in the cabinet of David Lloyd George was the only Jewish member — Edwin Samuel Montagu. He was opposed to Zionism, which he called “a mischievous political creed,” and considered the declaration anti-Semitic.
He explained his position by saying: “I assume that it means that Mahommedans [Muslims] and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.”
Montagu had some influence on the final wording of the declaration but not enough to dissuade the government from issuing it. Britain then ensured it became part of its UN mandate on Palestine and Zionists began to implement its promise soon after the mandate started in 1920.
Israel’s creation in 1948 and subsequent occupation of a remainder of historic Palestine in 1967 have been catastrophic for the Palestinian people who live either as second-class citizens in Israel, as occupied people in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, or as refugees in 70-year-old camps in neighbouring countries or in the wider diaspora. Their total number is estimated at 13 million, almost half of whom live outside their homeland.
Israel’s expansionist policies continue with some 700,000 settlers residing illegally in settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The international community, including Britain, continues to say there is only one solution to the conflict, which is the two-state solution. They condemn settlement expansion, which they say is an obstacle to peace but exert no pressure on Israel to end it.
As Israel entrenches the occupation and promises to annex the West Bank formally ending the prospect of a two-state solution, Britain celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
If it were serious about bringing peace to the region, it could instead have apologised to the Palestinians for its role in their continued suffering, recognised Palestine as a state and threatened sanctions against Israel if it did not end and reverse its settlement building to comply with UN resolutions and see a Palestinian state emerge. The atonement process for its sin could then have started.