The Balfour Declaration: 100 years on from history's most catastrophic fudge

Arthur Balfour's declaration remains his most infamous political act

Arthur Balfour remains an infamous figure in the politics of the Middle East

Thursday, October 19, 2017

As we near the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour declaration, historian Bernard Regan recounts the story of this disastrous policy.

On November 2, 1917 the Conservative Party Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, on behalf of the British Cabinet, sent a letter to Lord Rothschild for transmission to the Zionist Federation containing the following statement.

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.

Written at the height of the First World War it was a declaration of imperial intent and the prelude to the 30-year British occupation of Palestine. It had been approved a few days earlier on October 31 by a War Cabinet packed with individuals who were steeped in the imperial tradition. Amongst them was the future Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Smuts, together with Sir Edward Carson, the militant opponent of Irish independence.

The declaration was opposed both by prominent Jews in Britain and by Palestinians. The only Jewish member of the Cabinet, Sir Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, argued against the idea because he believed that a “national home for the Jewish people” would legitimise the spread of anti-Semitism already rampant in parts of Eastern Europe where violent pogroms had occurred.

Mr C G Montefiore, President of the Anglo-Jewish Association, criticised the assertion that “anti-Semitism was eternal, and that it was hopeless to expect its removal”. Mr L L Cohen, Chairman of the Jewish Board of Guardians, argued that since a Jewish home in Palestine would only be able to take a fraction of world Jewry it would not resolve the problem of anti-Semitism.

Arab objections to the Zionist project of creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine pre-dated the Declaration. In 1911 two Palestinians representing Jerusalem in the Ottoman Parliament, Ruhi al Khalidi and Sa’id al-Husseini, expressed opposition to the ideas of Zionism which were widely known in the Arab world. In the first decade of the 20th century, Palestinian newspapers carried articles expressing anxieties about the threats of Zionism to take over their lands. Syndicated articles in the Arab press were read aloud in cafes and were widely discussed.

Three factors drove British Near East policy in World War One: the maintenance of the Empire, especially India and their east African colonies; a desire to control the Suez Canal in order to ensure their first objective; and finally a wish to establish a base in the Near East from which to secure their access to oil.

Despite the fact the Muslim and Christian Arab members of the Palestinian population constituted more than 86% of the population, Balfour referred to them in the Declaration as the “non-Jewish communities”. Furthermore whilst the statement speaks of the “civil and religious” rights of the “non-Jewish communities” it omits any reference to political rights such as the right to self-determination. This did not go unnoticed and was taken up by the Palestinian delegation in a letter to the League of Nations on September 2, 1921. 

In July 1915 the British began discussions with Sharif Hussein, the Emir of Mecca, to form an Anglo-Arab anti-Ottoman alliance. The Arab demands were formulated in 1915 in the Damascus Protocol – a document seldom referred to by historians but its terms were communicated to the British. Hussein believed that the alliance would result in the independence of the whole of the Arab world from the north of Syria to the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, with the Mediterranean Sea as its western edge.  

However in March 1916 negotiations conducted for the British by Sir Mark Sykes and for the French by Francois George-Picot resulted in an agreement that, after the war, the French retain control over Lebanon and Syria – the British over Mesopotamia (Iraq), Jordan and Palestine. Hussein knew nothing of the Anglo-French deal which cut across Arab aspirations until much later.

Although there was a failed attempt to hold a congress in 1913, the First Palestinian Congress was held in January 1919, just 13 months after the occupation. The Congress made the Palestinians' desire for self-determination clear from the outset. A delegation was nominated to represent the Palestinian people at the Paris Peace Conference, but the British prevented them leaving Palestine. The British banned the Second congress. When the Third Palestinian Congress of December 1920 agreed to send a deputation to Cairo to meet the Colonial Secretary, Sir Winston Churchill, he refused to meet them there. When he did meet them months later in Jerusalem, Churchill played a critical role in trying to sell the Declaration to the Palestinians on the basis that what was being proposed was “a national home” and not “the national home”. The Palestinians themselves were not fooled by his casuistry and were quick to voice their opposition.

From the outset the Palestinians organised mass demonstrations, general strikes and action protesting against the refusal of the British to establish political structures which would acknowledge their majority status in the country. Young and old, men and women, began to be mobilised against discriminatory policies which left many Palestinians landless and unemployed.

Increasing numbers became involved in what was an anti-imperialist struggle which erupted in the 1936-1939 period into armed conflict with the British. The defeat of that struggle weakened the capacity of the Palestinian people to resist the onslaught of 1948. The 1948 Nakba (“Catastrophe”) was a direct consequence of British policy. Balfour laid the seeds but it remains clear that the Palestinian people have not given up on their quest for self-determination.


Bernard Regan is a visiting research fellow at St Mary’s University. His book 'The Balfour Declaration: Empire, the Mandate and resistance in Palestine. 1917 -1936' will be released by Verso on 2nd November 2017.