What was wrong with the Balfour declaration?

What was wrong with the Balfour declaration?
In-depth: One hundred years on, the declaration which eventually led to the creation of Israel remains fiercely contested. Suzan Quitaz examines why.
6 min read
01 November, 2017
Palestinians in Ramallah protest against the Balfour Declaration on its 100th anniversary [Getty]
On November 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote his famous letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, who had become an increasingly staunch supporter of the Zionist cause after meeting with Dr Chaim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist delegation and later the first president of Israel.

The letter committed the British government to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people", saying Britain "will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object".

That 1917 pledge, known as the Balfour Declaration was exceptionally brief - merely 124 words long, including introductory and conclusing pleasantries - but it changed the course of history in the Middle East and had far-reaching consequences for the Jewish people and the Palestinians.

To leaders of the Zionist movement, it was an end to 2,000 years of living in diaspora. In the words of CP Scott, the pro-Zionist editor of The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), the declaration was an act of beyond generosity: "It is at once the fulfilment of aspiration, the signpost of destiny."  

To the Palestinians it came to be seen as the root of their dispossession, turning them into a nation of refugees, leading to ongoing military occupation and a new life in diaspora.
Avi Shlaim, Ilan Pappe, Jenny Tonge, Ian Black and
Leslie Turnberg speak to AlarabyTV
about the Balfour Declaration

The World Zionist Congress had been established in 1898 but its ideals and aspirations were not supported by the majority of world Jewry, argues Avi Shlaim, professor of International Relations at Oxford University.

The declaration did give the Zionist movement the legitimacy and the international recognition it needed to gain a foothold in Palestine - and to gradually turn Palestine into a real project of settlement at the expense of the indigenous people of Palestine, said Ilan Pappe, professor at the University of Exeter. Profs Pappe and Shlaim are part of the Israeli "New Historians" school of thought.
In 1918, the British military administration in Palestine counted a population of 512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews and 61,000 Christians

It is no wonder, then, that 100 years later, the story of the Balfour Declaration remains fiercely contested.

In 1918, the British military administration in Palestine counted a population of 512,000 Muslims, 66,000 Jews and 61,000 Christians.

Here lies the central issue with the declaration - why would the minority be seen as people with political rights, while the majority, the Palestinians, were seen as "non-Jewish communities" to be granted only civil and religious rights?

The declaration also failed to identify these "non-Jewish communities". If one read the declaration without having previous knowledge about the history of Palestine, one would think the Jews were the majority and the Palestinians the minority.

Read more: What was the Balfour Declaration?

Pappe said the wording was "a very weird way of looking at it", formulated around an orientalist viewpoint which doesn't regard Arabs as a nation or as part of a national movement or, indeed, people who belong to the civilised world.

Pappe continues: "I think one thing is missing in the story of the Balfour Declaration, and that is understanding that Zionism is a settler-colonial movement. And that as long as the conflict in Palestine is depicted as conflict between two national movements then the Balfour Declaration looks like a legitimate British document."

Dr Bernard Regan, the author of The Balfour Declaration; Empire, Mandate and Resistance in Palestine, argues that the declaration was issued due to Britain imperial ambitions; the desire to expand its empire beyond India and Africa, to control the Suez Canal and capitalise on oil, which had become an important factor since 1913.

He added that British officials "wanted to find a reason, an excuse, to have a foothold in the Middle East - and to some extent Zionism provided a convenient excuse for them to say 'we wanted to be there'". Their main concerns were that the French would gain more power in the Levant.

Prof Avi Shlaim speaks of the origins of Zionism

The declaration went through a series of modifications over several months of intense debate between British officials and the Zionist Federation.

On July 13, 1917, the draft centred on the "establishment of an integral Palestine as a Jewish state and as a national home for the Jewish people". 

Another draft also referred to the Jews as "the Jewish Race".

I did not like the boy at first. He was not the one I expected. But I knew that this was a great event
Dr Weizmann

On October 31, 1917, a crucial meeting took place at the War Cabinet, discussing the final wording of the declaration to make it favourable to the Zionist ideal and to meet Britain's interests.

Zionist leader Dr Weizmann was waiting like an expectant father outside the meeting room when Sir Mark Sykes emerged, calling "Dr Weizmann, it's a boy!"

Professor Shlaim argues that the Balfour Declaration was a classic European colonial document formulated with total disregard to the Palestinians - as if they didn't exist - and assumed they would just have to make way for the Jews to establish their homeland.

Shlaim continued: "The Zionists were very clear from the beginning that only Palestine would be the place for the Jewish state; Zionists were wedded to [the idea of having]  their state in Palestine because that was the location of Biblical kingdom of David and Solomon."

Baroness Jenny Tonge is an independent member of Britain's House of Lords. "It is quite extraordinary how English people 100 years ago viewed Palestinians - it did not register there were Palestinian people living there in Palestine," she told The New Arab. "They referred to them as they did not exist - they were just a few people wandering around with their tenants."

Dr Ian Black, the former Guardian Middle East editor, said the phrase "existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine" - who constituted 90 percent of the population - goes to the very heart of the problem presented both then and now by the Balfour Declaration.

He continued: "If you look at the language of the declaration what it shows you is the mindset of the British government which was in charge of 'the greatest empire'; it was used to doing what it wanted, where it wanted, and that included defining people's identity."

But not everyone agrees. Labour peer Lord Leslie Turnberg thinks the British government should not apologise - but rather, as the prime minister said, "we should feel pride in establishing a democratic state".

Britain only "views [the declaration] with favour", he said, adding that, despite appearances, the Balfour Declaration was not a move by a single power - Britain would never have gone ahead with the declaration if it did not have the support of its allies; the French, the Italians and the Americans.

"The legal basis of the state of Israel was formed when the League of Nations in 1923 incorporated the declaration to international law, and [it was] later accepted by the United Nations in 1947," he said.

What was wrong with the Balfour Declaration is best illustrated in The Question of Palestine by Professor Edward Said, who wrote at length about the driving force behind the declaration. 

He said it was an obvious example of the blueprint of imperialism, "(a) by a European power, (b) about a non-European territory, (c) in flat disregard of both the presence and the wishes of the native majority resident in the territory, and (d) it took the form of a promise about this same territory to another foreign group, so that this foreign group might, quite literally, make this territory a national home for the Jewish people".

Suzan Quitaz is a researcher specialising in political Islam, counter terrorism and policing, politics and society in Israel, political Zionism and anti-Semitism.