Not a Day for Celebration: 100th Year of Balfour Declaration


Arab protestors traveling to demonstrate against the Balfour Declaration. (ROGER VIOLLET/GETTY IMAGES).

Nov. 2nd, 2017 marked 100 years since the Balfour Declaration was issued. In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour composed the 67 words that would become the first official sign of international support for the establishment of a Jewish state. In this letter, addressed to Lord Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community, Balfour expressed “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” Many consider this declaration to be the true start to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In 1917, the British were immersed in the First World War. In an effort to disrupt and combat the Ottoman Empire’s dominance in the Middle East, and their German alliance in the war, the British identified that regional influence in the Middle East would be of strategic interest. From July 1915 to March 1916, the British wrote a series of letters, known as the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, which promised independence to countries under the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein bin Ali, if they agreed to rebel against the Ottoman Empire and support the British.  

With the leaking of the Sykes-Picot agreement in May of 1916, a secret agreement made between France and Britain that outlined how they intended to divide-up the Middle East following the war, it became evident that the British had no intention of giving up their chance for control in the region. The issuing of the Balfour Declaration in November represented a clear shift from the promises made in the McMahon-Hussein Correspondence. Though the British receive much of the brunt of condemnation for the recognition of a Jewish homeland from the Arab World, Britain undoubtedly had to receive consent from other allied powers including France, Russia, Italy, and the United States. Despite receiving the “go ahead” from other allied powers, the British declared their sole intention to utilize their “best endeavors to facilitate the achievement” of the State of Israel, without clear indication of how this facilitation would be executed.

Though the Balfour Declaration did not identify the economic, political, or social mechanism by which this support would be offered, this declaration was a defining moment in the history of Palestine. For the first time, a non-Jewish authority, and the greatest world power at the time, had codified the “Zionist dream” into a tangible reality.  By single-handedly issuing this letter,  “one nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.” While historians might attribute the motivation for Britain’s support of the Jewish homeland as an altruistic act, the real motive of the Balfour Declaration is nothing short of a strategic positionality in the conquest of colonialism.

In Nov. 1917, the Jewish population made up less than 10 percent of the population living in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration clearly articulates that the establishment of the Jewish home can, in no way, “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” Though this promise initially appears well-intentioned, the exclusion of non-Jewish communities from any form of political rights has led to the continued suppression of Palestinians in what became the State of Israel in 1948. The British, perhaps, could not have predicted the momentous implications this declaration would have for the future of Palestine, but the subsequent massacres, displacements, and human rights violations suggest a disregard to this portion of the declaration.

The Balfour Declaration paved the way for the League of Nations to grant administrative control of Palestine via the British Mandate of 1922, and subsequently, to establish the State of Israel in 1948. While it is unclear exactly what the British predicted would come of this declaration, its impacts are irreparable. The War of Independence from May 1948 to Jan. 1949,  concluded with the “Nakba” or disaster, of ethnic cleansing and displacement of nearly 750,000 Palestinian refugees to the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Today, there are nearly 6.5 million Palestinian refugees world-wide, and Palestinians constitute the largest single-group of refugees in the world.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and British Prime Minister Theresa May met in London last week to celebrate the Balfour anniversary and Britain’s “pioneering role” in creating the State of Israel. This meeting signifies the long-standing history of Israel’s relation to western powers and its continued efforts to garner international support for Israeli development.

Simultaneously, Palestinians worldwide met in protest and resistance to what many consider the “100 years of dispossession.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas remarked that “the Balfour declaration is not something to be celebrated” and that Britain should pay the price of reconciliation. Further, Abbas offered initial steps for reparations in which the U.K. recognizes the pre-1967 borders of Palestine and drafts an official statement of apology to the Palestinian people. While the damage of the Balfour Declaration cannot be rectified, nor the British vindicated, the United Kingdom does have the capacity to recognize Palestine and be an international leader in peace process. If this happens, perhaps, in the next 100 years, peace could become probable.


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