The Balfour Declaration – 100 years on


Cii Radio| Ayesha Ismail| 02 November 2017| 12 Safar 1439

2 November 2017 marks 100 years since the issuing of the Balfour Declaration, but the legacy of colonial repression it has left behind continues to fuel what has been described as “the world’s most intractable conflict” in the Middle East, writes Muhammad Sheik

This year marks the centenary of the infamous Balfour Declaration, a letter written in 1917 by Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur Balfour to the wealthy British banker, Baron Walter Rothschild, a leader of the Zionist movement. In the letter, Balfour stated that the British government view “with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, and would use its “best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object”.

The consequence of this declaration was best summed up by the late British author and journalist Arthur Koestler: “One nation solemnly promised to a second nation the country of a third.”

The declaration is today viewed by many as Britain’s great deception.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said last week that she will celebrate the centenary of the Balfour Declaration with “pride”. While some might view the declaration simply as the establishment of a Jewish homeland, there’s strong evidence to the contrary showing that the declaration was the single greatest act of betrayal by the British, who had initially supported the Arab movements claim to Palestine upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

As Indian politician and academic Shashi Tharoor remarked during a debate at the Oxford Union, ‘No wonder the sun never set on the British empire, because even God couldn’t trust the English in the dark’.

During the rise of the Arab Nationalist movement toward the end of the Ottoman empire, the British approached Arab leaders to spur on the revolt promising to recognize the complete autonomy of regions including Palestine. The Balfour Declaration essentially saw Britain renege on its promise of “complete and final liberation” for the Arabs if they rose up against their Ottoman rulers. However the revolt by the nationalist movement was significant leading to the weakening of the Ottoman empire.

According to some historians the British thought a declaration favourable to the ideals of Zionism was likely to enlist the support of the Jewish communities in America and Russia for the war effort against Germany.

The declaration was as much about expanding British Imperial authority across the Middle East as it was about religion. This was achieved through the so-called ‘mandate system’ which effectively facilitated the systemic transfer of former territories controlled by the powers defeated during World War I namely Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria to the victors.

As American Historian David Fromkin wrote, “As of 1917, Palestine was the key missing link that could join together the parts of the British Empire so that they could form a continuous chain from the Atlantic to the middle of the Pacific”

The primary goal of the British mandate in Palestine was to implement conditions for the establishment of a Jewish “national home” in a region where Jews constituted less than 10 percent of the population at the time.

As stated by the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, the Balfour Declaration was “made by a European power … about a non-European territory … in a flat disregard of both the presence and wishes of the native majority resident in that territory”.

Furthermore the ambiguity in the term ‘national home’ was clear with such terminology having never existed within International law, leaving the meaning open to interpretation and misinterpretation and has been a subject of debate for decades by historians.

In 1919 US President Woodrow Wilson appointed the King-Crane commission tasked with examining the mandatory system in Palestine. The commission found that the majority of Palestinians expressed a strong opposition to Zionism and not Judaism, which led the conductors of the commission recommending amendments to the mandate’s goal. This never materialized.

Whatever the twisted rationale used by Imperial powers at the time, the consequences were and continue to be brutal and unrelenting for the Palestinians.

The Balfour declaration is widely viewed as the catalyst for the 1948 Palestinian Nakba or disaster, paving the way for Zionist armed groups, who were trained by the British, to forcibly expel almost a million Palestinians from their homeland.

The Balfour declaration made one point particularly clear. All that mattered was that the ownership of land according to the British Mandate would eventually change hands on their terms. This can be clearly seen through the subsequent establishment of Israel who have designed a system of law that legitimized both a continuation and a consolidation of the nationalization of land and property, a process that began decades earlier. Much of the earlier legal framework attributed to Ottoman or British lawmakers has now been replaced with policy geared toward the sole purpose of the extermination of Palestine.

The prevailing attitude in many Israeli schools toward the Balfour Declaration and the Nakba is that one should be taught and the latter suppressed. The idea being that he who controls the land controls the historical narrative of that land. However even Israeli MP Shai Piron came under fire in 2015 when he proposed that the Nakba be taught in all Israeli schools as part of the curriculum saying that “I’m for teaching the Nakba to all students in Israel. I do not think that a student can go through the Israeli educational system … while he does not know that story.”

South African Professor of International law and former Special Rapporteur to the UN Comission on Human Rights in Palestine – John Dugard remarked during a conference in Brighton in September 2012 that;

“The Balfour Declaration was seen largely as a means for diverting Jewish immigration from Britain to Palestine and was issued by a man with known anti-Semitic views. This led the most prominent British Jewish politician of the day, Sir Edwin Montagu, to oppose it vigorously. Later, when the language of the Balfour Declaration was included in the Mandate for Palestine, the House of Lords voted to reject this in a motion passed by 60 to 29, on the ground that the Declaration was opposed to the “wishes of the great majority of the people of Palestine”.

The language of the Balfour Declaration is clear and continues to echo throughout history that human suffering is an accepted currency in the expansion and gains made by empire.

Written By Muhammad Sheik